Help Volunteers Support Your Brand

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Volunteers are the hard currency of nonprofit work. They are the grassroots organizers, the field operatives, the advocates in the community, the donors and board leaders.  And yet they often get the least amount of training and support when it comes to communicating what you do and who you are. At the DC Cares Philanthropy Summit I attended this week, Nicky Goren, Acting CEO for the Corporation for National and Community Service commented (and I paraphrase) that a large donor will be paired with an executive, but a volunteer will be managed by an intern.   We both have nothing against interns, I’m sure, but I agree that we do often under-support volunteers.

Volunteers Need to Know Your “Elevator Pitch”

One of the most important tools you can give a volunteer is a firm understanding of your mission priorities.  This can often be called talking points or an “elevator pitch.” (For details, see my post on brand consistency). You also want to convey the key aspects of your brand values. Hopefully someone who volunteers for you already has some sense of these or they wouldn’t have given of their time, but it’s worth conveying the kind of tone and face you want for the organization.

Miscommunication Undermines Mission

The way information is communicated about your organization, as well as the content of that information, contributes to how your nonprofit brand is perceived.  Years of good work in the community can be eclipsed very quickly by a few misspoken words, or a freelance opinion from a volunteer who doesn’t know the full picture.  Not speaking on an issue can also damage the organization’s reputation.   A situation at The Horace Mann School, and independent school in New York, is a case in point.  The school dismissed an English teacher after he wrote a satirical novel set in a school much like that of his (former) employer.  Some faculty and parents objected strongly to the dismissal.  The teacher sued the school.  The New York Times published a story on the situation, and called the board, the alumni association and the head of school’s office for quotes. All refused.  The story included the following stinging notation: “Horace Mann officials, including Head of School Thomas M. Kelly, declined to comment for this article. Many parents of current students, members of the alumni council and current teachers did not return phone calls requesting interviews about the dispute stirred by Mr. Trees. The school’s motto is ‘Great is the truth and it prevails.’ ”

I use this story to illustrate the fact that “no comment” can have just as negative an impact on your brand as misinformation.  Volunteers and board members should be briefed periodically by the executive or Board Chair on key initiatives, goals and successes, but also failures or challenges.  When volunteers and board members are familiar with your story and how you communicate it, they do a better job of supporting your organization. And by being in regular contact with communications staff, they know who to go to if they have questions when something more critical arises.

Brief Volunteers on Key Messages

Regular communication with board members, donors and volunteers, in good times and difficult ones, is essential to helping them support your brand in the community.  Be sure to give new volunteers a short orientation to be sure they understand your core values, your core mission areas, and your strategic goals for the year.  When board members, volunteers and donors are on the same page, they can help move the mission forward by communicating with stakeholders and engaging new donors and volunteers.  When these same individuals are in the dark, or not well prepared to describe your work, your impact will suffer. (I once overheard a parent involved with an organization pitch it by saying they were having trouble filling spots for their program–probably not the message they wanted in the community!)

In these economic times, volunteers are more essential than ever in helping nonprofits deliver on their mission.  Make sure you have a branding and communications plan that supports them in their work.

If you have a great way of briefing new volunteers, please share it!

Is Social Media Worth My Professional Time?

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AmysLinkedInThis week I’ve had four people ask me this question. Two are lawyers in large, successful practices. One is an executive looking for work. One is a nonprofit professional. All are mid-40’s to early 50’s. My answer is a resounding “yes!” to all of them, with varying reasons why.   If you are already well-versed in social media, feel free to duck out of this post.  But if you or your boss is trying to decide whether it’s worth it, read on.

Some Facts to Consider…

Nielsen recently released these intriguing study results:

1. In February social network usage exceeded Web-based e-mail usage for the first time. Ever.

2. There are 87 percent more online social media users now than in 2003, with 883 percent more time devoted to those sites.

3. In April, Nielson also reported that the number of American users frequenting online video destinations has climbed 339 percent since 2003. Time spent on video sites has shot up almost 2,000 percent over the same period.

4. Unique visitors to Twitter increased 1,382 percent year-over-year, from 475,000 unique visitors in February 2008 to 7 million in February 2009, making it the fastest growing site in the Member Communities category for the month.

5.  And here’s one that might surprise you. The largest age group on Twitter right now is 35-49 year olds. Yep. 41% of Twitter-ers are in this group, representing almost 3 million users.

So …?

This data shows that many of the people you need to connect with aren’t just using social media, they are migrating to it in droves.  And just like you, they only have a limited amount of time, so that means they are using other networking tools less/differently.  For example, we have all heard the reports that many conferences have cancelled this year due to the economy.  But perhaps there’s also less interest in networking in this way when you can have an ongoing conversations with colleagues, fellow activists or customers through Facebook and Twitter? We’re also doing less in print. According to the US Department of Labor wage and salary outlook in the printing and related support activities industry is projected to “decline 22 percent over the 2006-16 period, compared with 11 percent growth projected for the economy as a whole.” This decrease reflects our increased use of computerized documents and sharing information via the internet and social media sources.

I’m Still Unconvinced. My Time is Too Valuable.

In fairness, you’re right. Social media can be a big Time Sucker. So you need a plan to manage that, both personally and organizationally, in much the same way you adjusted your work patterns when email and FedEx came along. And just as those inventions saved time in new ways, you will need to maximize the time you save in these new mediums.  Here are a few tips on incorporating social media into your professional communications strategy.

Five Tools for Getting What You Need From Social Media

1.   First, decide what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you reconnecting with classmates? Trying to reach new customers? Engaging other social activists in your cause? Increasing your visibility as an expert in your field? Promoting your new book or agency report? Trying to find a new job?  Each goal requires a slightly different strategy and time commitment. Having only the goal of finding out what everyone else is talking about is an acceptable starting point, but if you want to prove to yourself/your boss that you’ve gotten ROI, you need a more structured goal.

2.    Decide who you want to converse with. I use the term “converse” because social media is a conversation, not you blasting information to an “audience.” But you need to know who you’re looking for and where they are. For example, women over 55 are the fastest growing demographic on Facebook.  So if that’s who you need to reach, consider spending time there. Facebook is also a good way to cross-promote a book, podcast or blog, so consider it a part of your strategy, not your entire game plan.

3.    Decide what value you can bring to the conversation. Some of the best Twitterers are healthcare organizations, because they have a lot of already well-researched content and their goals are to make us all healthier.  See @childrenshealth and @redcross for good examples. My least favorite Twitterers are those who are too prolific, so that even their good content gets lost in their own clutter. Luckily the trend is moving away from people twittering about every move they make. With the exception of politicians and broadcast anchors.

4.    Figure out how much time you can commit each day/week/month. Start by looking at the time you already spend achieving the same goal through more traditional means. Perhaps you attend several professional networking events a month and four major conferences each year.  Take part of the time you would a lot to those and target the same goal through social media.

5.    Identify useful as well as negative content –that is, for content you value, but also content that might be de-valueing or diluting your brand. Use blog search tools like Technorati to conduct real-time searches for user-generated media (including blogs) by topics of interest to you or use Stumbleupon to both see and offer your own ratings of content you find useful. Remember that some good content tends to pop up in unexpected places, such as federal government blogs.  Here’s a useful one from the Dept. of Energy with tips for energy efficiency .

6.    Consider a Group Blog. If your firm or organization wants to put a toe in the water on blogging, consider identifying 5-20 people who could be regular contributors and rotate the job. Posts can be brief—even as little as a paragraph.  Be sure to post on the same day or days of the week, so that blog search and aggregating tools can find you.

7.    What Can You Bring to You-Tube? If you already have video content (and assuming you can acquire the right permissions), this is a no-brainer. But you may also be giving a workshop that you can have videotaped. Or consider asking your own stakeholders for user-generated content of their own. This works particularly well for nonprofit causes, where real people and real stories are so compelling.

8.    Use social networks to find people who can help you do your job better. Consider incorporating LinkedIn to your organization’s job posting strategy, as well as using it for your own professional networking. Linked In was founded before Facebook, but has taken off more recently due to improvements in its interface, the increased use of its professional forums, and the widgets that can bring additional content to your page (i.e. pull your blog into it, as it does on my page—shameless self-promotion moment here—at http://www.linkedin.com/in/amydelouise . If you are a job-seeker, as so many are in our economy, this is a great tool. Prospective employers can check out your page (which is essentially a resume), download your resume, and see recommendations you’ve received from bosses/clients.  As someone who employes others, I’ve found LinkedIn extremely useful when trying to find a good vendor or consultant for a project. I posted a query to my contacts and within seconds had 6 recommendations with national experience, all of whom I could then look up and contact via LinkedIn.

Okay, Okay, But How Do I Get Started?

Here’s your summer assignment:
Month 1. In the next 30 days, set up a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.  Do at least a basic Google search for your company’s/organization’s/issue’s/expertise’s name. Index some blogs or websites that seem useful, or are saying hateful or incorrect things about your organization/issue. Use Technorati or Stumbleupon accounts to send you blogs on topics of professional interest to you so you don’t have to go search for them.
Month 2. Sign up for Twitter and follow 10 people you admire.  Could you say it better? Can you add value to this conversation? Could this be valuable to you/your organization/your customers, donors, or volunteers? You make the call.
Month 3. Get at least 5 recommendations for yourself on LinkedIn, and more if you are a job-seeker.  Join one Linked In discussion group. Join some Facebook causes that mean something to you.  Comment on one or two blogs related to your area of expertise.
Month 4. Summer’s over! Spend no more than 30 minutes a day checking your most useful blog and Twitter feeds.  Spend 30 minutes per weekend for the next four weekends cranking out a list of potential blog topics you could generate with help from colleagues (so you can decide if this is a go or no-go for a January launch).

If you have some more ideas to contribute, please do!

Raising Money, Talking About Money

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The Chronicle of Philanthropy just reported in its June 4th issue that the value of endowments held by all 229 organizations in its survey declined by a combined $29.1 billion from 2007 to 2008. This will come as no surprise to development directors.  Many organizations don’t want to talk much about the big drops they’ve seen in their endowments, other than to say they are “similar to what the rest of the market has seen.”

My view is that putting our heads in the sand about our financials is a failed approach, and one that will hinder future fundraising.

Why? Because donors understand that market failures are not the failure of the organization. But if they learn that the organization is not flexible to respond to challenges, if they feel it doesn’t communicate the bottom line, and if they don’t see transparency in fiscal governance, then donors may rethink where they are putting their next dollar.

So how do you communicate your finances to donors?

Really all stakeholders should have an understanding of your finances.  You should make at least annual presentations—albeit less detailed than what you show your board—of your inflows and outflows plus your major financial challenges.  This is not just a rehash of the annual report, which is more of a “look-back” document, but rather a clear indication of your strategies for the future.  Incorporated into this presentation should be an explanation of how past financial decisions have affected future mission-driven outcomes.   You should also include the ways in which you change the lives of the people you serve.   In other words, it’s not just a PowerPoint with numbers.

Some institutions find this a shocking idea. But your Form 990 is already out there for the world to see. The question is:  are you backing it up with good fiscal management policies?  Are you communicating the coming challenges as you see them? Are you outlining the staffing, programmatic and expense item changes you are making in response to an increase in need or a decrease in funds, or both? How are you still meeting your mission goals?

When donors, staff, trustees and other stakeholders are included in the budget conversation, they are much less likely to pick on a particular item they hear about through the grapevSigning a Checkine.

In his new book What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis talks about how the internet has become not just a collection of information, but a conversation. In much the same way, the post Sarbanes-Oxley, new Form 990, GAAP accounting rules world of nonprofit fiscal management is also becoming more of a conversation. You can either put your head in the sand and pretend it’s not going on, or you can engage your stakeholders and understand their perspectives as together you create your future financial plan.

Measuring Impact

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As the snursechool year draws to a close, it’s common for many organizations that run on this calendar to assess how they’ve done.   Specifically, board and staff may do self-evaluations, and boards evaluate the executive, the one staff member for whom they are responsible.  But these assessments are just part of the picture of how an organization measures its effectiveness or shortfalls.

How are You Assessing Your Impact?

One of the tools now being used by the nonprofit and public sector worlds, and which has been around in the for-profit sector since its inception, is the concept of ROI, or Return on Investment.

What’s the definition of “Investment”? For nonprofits, foundations and public sector organizations, the investment is a simple equation:  Investment = Volunteer Time + Donor Dollars + Staff Time + Goods or Services Provided.  All of these combined reflect your investment in the communities you serve.

What about “Return”?  Some organizations measure impact by number of people served.  Some calculate the value of the volunteer hours they expend in a community if they had been paid in real dollars.  Some groups measure impact against a set of goals or outcomes determined at the start of a project or year.  But for the independent sector, this is always a tricky equation, because ultimately you are trying to change human lives.  And sometimes that impact can’t be easily measured.  And so you also need to find stories about the communities you have served, the families helped, the habitats rescued.  You need to find a way to merge hard data and benchmarks with a more nuanced picture of your impact and responsiveness to need.

Why Measuring Impact Matters

It’s a daunting task, yet public and nonprofit sector organizations must try.  One reason is that the accounting scandals of the recent past, the Congress’s response with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the country’s current economic crisis and the IRS’s new Form 990 have brought with them an enhanced focus on transparency and accountability.  Donors, volunteers and staff are all looking at these measures, too, to make important decisions about their own investments of time and money.  Now all nonprofits and federal sector agencies must find a way to demonstrate more tangibly how their work affects their outcomes.

Back in 2005, The Panel on the Nonprofit Sector (established by Independent Sector) made recommendations that as a best practice, charitable organizations should design procedures for measuring and evaluating their program accomplishments based on specific goals and objectives. Today the need for measuring outcomes becomes even more urgent.

Looking Towards the Future

Just last month, President Obama signed the landmark Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will enable millions of Americans to serve one to two years in a wide range of nonprofits. With this kind of influx of human capital “investment,” nonprofits will need to think boldly about how to measure the impact they have not only on the communities they serve, but also on the very individuals who are being added to their volunteer ranks.   In other words, they will need a way to track the “multiplier effect” of what these individuals learn inside their organizations but also bring back to other groups and communities when they leave.

How does your organization measure its mission impact or ROI?  Please share your benchmarking and evaluation ideas and stories.

© 2009 Amy DeLouise

Branding on a Budget

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Nautilus-1“We can’t afford branding” is a frequent refrain I hear from smaller nonprofit groups.  In reality, you can’t afford not to brand.

The term branding seems to carry with it the image of an expensive and long-term contract with ad agencies and experts.  Advocacy groups are generally the exception to this rule.  Because they are trying to make bold changes in policy—whether towards the environment, social welfare or healthcare—they have learned that their brand alone can mean the difference between getting or losing a donation, a volunteer, or the attention of a lawmaker.   Greenpeace is an excellent example.  Whether or not you approve of their tactics, their name immediately conveys action on behalf of the environment.  If someone from Greenpeace approaches you about making a contribution, joining a petition, or setting up a meeting, you don’t need a lot of time to learn about what they do.  It is already conveyed by the brand.

Organizations of all sizes can benefit financially from better branding. And it doesn’t always have to cost a lot. Here are three cost-effective branding tools.

1. Email is Free Advertising

I often receive emails from executives at nonprofits without any “signature” that indicates who they are, who they work for, and how to reach them.  This is a missed opportunity for free advertising, which should be employed unilaterally—and uniformly–across the organization.

But e-mail isn’t just an opportunity to give out contact information.  An e-mail signature tag can be updated, creating a free way to notify all your email recipients about current events related to your issue, programs, or membership opportunities.  You can also include web links other than your main site. For example, if you have an upcoming conference, that website can be included. Here’s a simple and free way you can give donors, members and the general public a better sense of the “value” of being part of your cause.

2. Use Podcasts to Cross-Promote

One of the main reasons people become involved in nonprofits, whether as staff members, donors or volunteers, is that they believe in the mission and want to create change.  And one of the keys to creating change is educating ourselves about what needs changing. Millions of people got involved in the green movement because Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” made the case for climate change visually compelling.

Now you can do the same thing with a podcast.

With just an investment in a digital audio recorder, or a small digital camera, and some basic audio recording/mixing software, you can give out some useful information, and cross-promote your organization’s other content–books, websites, conferences, upcoming events.  Here’s an example of an organization that is helping to promote its cause and its members through podcasts

3. Mine Your Own Content

The other terrific resource nonprofits have—and rarely use—to promote mission and brand is their own media libraries.  The cost is essentially free, since you have already paid to acquire these materials, which include graphics, photographs, audio interviews or videotape footage.  The only investment is the time to organize it in such a way that it becomes useful to multiple people for a variety of projects.  The ultimate cost savings is large, since you will avoid re-shooting or re-acquiring images or footage where something from your own “stock” library would work to tell the story.

Just using these three low-cost or free tools can help you gain ground with your brand, which in turn can help you increase fundraising, visibility, memberships or issue awareness.

c 2009 Amy DeLouise

Five Tips: Video Content to Support Your Brand

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth ten thousand.  That’s why You-Tpower snackube, Vimeo and other online video tools have become so useful to small businesses, nonprofit organizations and federal agencies who in the past may have avoided video because of the cost of mass distribution. (The cost of quality production isn’t necessarily cheap, but if you are able to get your video 100,000 views rather than 100, obviously your cost per view goes way down).

So what are video content best practices?

After having produced roughly 400 such projects, here are my Top Five Tips for Creating Successful Video Content:

1.  Know How the Video Fits Into Your Brand Plan. You have a great story—someone touched by your organization, or some important piece of information that needs to be disseminated to the public. Great. But know how it fits into your overall messaging and branding strategy. Will your name or the name of a particular product/service be consistently mentioned? Are you trying to promote recognition for your organization, for a particular project or person? Do you need to build support for an initiative or connect viewers to your larger mission? Will there be other supporting media for this video content? (i.e. direct mail and/or email campaigns to drive traffic?)  Do you need other lives for this content after it is first published (see #4)?

2.  Know Your Target Audience. If your audience is “everyone,” think again.  Develop target sub-demographics and learn what kinds of content appeals to them.   If your story has multiple parts/levels, consider breaking into smaller pieces and placing the content with different headings/links in order to attract the right audience.

3.  Buy the Best You Can Afford. Remember what your mother once told you about buying a dining room set?  “Buy the best you can because you want it to last.”   Many organizations make the mistake of thinking that if something is going to appear on the web or in a podcast, it can be produced on a shoestring because it’s a one-use item.  To the contrary, every penny you spend should be powerful and credible.  The production plan should include multiple ways to use your source material after the initial roll-out.  For example, if you have an interview-driven story, plan the interviews so that other selects can be used elsewhere (and make sure your permissions cover this alternate usage!).  Background footage (“b-roll”) can also be re-purposed.  My personal preference is to shoot high definition, widescreen video because it makes a bigger impact even when compressed for the web, since it degrades less.  But whatever your format, a polished production, professionally produced, will also allow you to “multi-purpose” the end-product more reliably, pulling parts for your website, your intranet, an email campaign, or a large-screen projection at a major donor event.

4.  Make it Short and Sweet. When watching television, people can relax in their favorite comfy chair, and even then the average program contains only 22 minutes of actual content.  On the web, viewed in a tiny box, in a show that likely does not contain professional actors and perhaps offers a glimpse of you speaking or some kind of advocacy message, your time-frame for catching attention drops to minutes.  And when you consider mobile video going to iPhones and the like, we’re talking seconds.  So make every second count. That means using visuals, music, audio, graphics–everything at your disposal–to make a message with impact. (Important note on copyright: make sure the visuals and audio belongs to you, or that you’ve licensed it for mass distribution!)

5.  Measure Impact. Speaking of impact, measure it! So many organizations produce video content without a handle on whether or not it is effective. Plan a way to find out. It could be a short email survey to a random sampling of people who received your web link or signed up for you podcast. It could be an audience survey for a live event. It could be simply aggregating the data already provided to you by You Tube or your podcast distributor.  Analyzing and disseminating this information amongst your leadership and communications team will help you refine your approach the next time.

Branding in a Blackberry World

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Social media and the web of access provided by Web 2.0 have had a profound impact on how organizations function.  And while corporations were early adopters, government agencies and nonprofits have now caught up and are fundamentally changing the way they connect to the people they serve.

But there are pitfalls to instant communications.

As anyone who has sent an email and wished they hadn’t knows, in a Blackberry world, it is all too easy to push something out of our in-box and into someone else’s without taking much time to think about that transaction. We need to remember that we represent a brand–for ourselves, or perhaps as a staff person for a government entity or board volunteer for a nonprofit.  We need to remind ourselves that however trivial it may seem, every piece of information we send communicates something about our brand.

I thought about this recently when I sent an email to the head of an organization with whom I’ve been involved for five years with a concern about a staff policy with respect to its “customers.”  Within seconds, he had forwarded my email to those very staff whose actions concerned me (note to self: mark such emails Confidential).  He later explained that he was busy getting ready for an upcoming conference and didn’t really have time to deal with it himself and wanted to be sure the matter was handled. The takeaway I got from that interaction–rightly or wrongly–was 1) he was overwhelmed by the job;  2) he didn’t value the direct communication of an involved supporter; 3) he wasn’t a great communicator.

We can all be more mindful of how quickly we press that “send” or “forward” button, whether we represent only ourselves or an entire organization.

On the positive side, the instant message world offers new opportunities to promote your mission and brand. Many organizations routinely change the “tag line” for staff emails to include current campaigns, web links, new You Tube videos, twitter feeds, etc.  But there are just as many who miss the opportunity and have staff who send emails with no information at all.

Here are the kinds of communications that are often overlooked, but which your staff (and board) should always consider affects the perception of your brand:

1. Letters to Your Constituents/Community.  Especially those updating people on an important issue (for example, how you are handling swine flu with respect to your upcoming conference)

2. External Emails.  Every staff person should have contact info, tag line, web links, and any other relevant link-of-the week on their emails to keep your constituents up to date.  Anyone with a Blackberry should be careful where they point that thing!

3. Internal/Staff Emails. Be sure it’s clear these are for internal consumption only, but still think about how it would look posted on your website.

4. Staff Blogs. This is becoming a significant issue for hospitals, law firms and universities, since many doctors, legal experts and professors have their own blogs. And while they are independent individuals with opinions, they also must operate within the framework of their institution (not to mention federal laws like HIPPA).

5. You Tube Videos. Be sure you have permission from anyone in your videos and any music or voiceover talent you use in them to be on the Internet (often, organizations create internal videos and the licensing for the music and narrator, as well as the permissions for on-camera appearances have not been cleared for internet use).

6. Facebook Pages. Many organizations are now encouraging staff to post to their FB pages and to show a more personal side. Just think about exactly how personal you really want to be in a work context.

7. Twitter Feeds. Thankfully brief, these should still link back to mission and direct readers to your other brand presences.

Your brand can both benefit from and suffer from our Web 2.0/Blackberry world. Taking the time to think through your electronic brand extensions is now mission-critical.

Building a More Diverse Board

diversity rules!

diversity rules!

It’s hard to find an organization today that’s not focused on, or at least giving lip service to, diversity. But have you ever considered the cost to your organization of not having a diverse board? A recent study of for-profit boards found that diverse boards return a better ROI for investors. [See Board Diversification Strategy: Realizing Competitive Advantage and Shareowner Value]. The same is true for nonprofit boards.  Boards lacking diversity can make poor financial decisions, such as investing the bulk of their endowment with an investment manager  “everyone knows.” Boards lacking diversity can miss big opportunities to reach new communities, or create new partnerships.

So how can you create a more diverse board?

First, let’s define diversity. When I meet with boards on this topic, everyone’s first instinct is to think ethnicity and gender. These are important. But just as vital to decision-making are having people of diverse ages, life experiences, socio-economic backgrounds, even neighborhoods.

1. Range of Ages. The most common lack of diversity I see on boards is related to age. And the most common form of ageism I see is against younger people (which on boards tends to mean under- 35). Yet the views of the 18-35 set, and their facility with the internet and social media tools, makes them especially valuable on boards.

2. Varied Life Experiences. Another area where boards often lack diversity is in life experiences. That’s because so many people are recruited to boards by friends, business associates or college/grad school classmates. So if you have one corporate lawyer on your board, you’re likely to have two or more. That’s not to say anything against lawyers, but there is also diversity among types of legal expertise and it could benefit your board to have more than one kind.

3. Personal Attributes. A third area for boards to focus on when attaining diversity is a mix of personal styles and personality attributes. If you’re board is every color of the rainbow, if every person on it is a forceful leader, you’re going to have trouble filling your committees. By the same token, if everyone is a quiet, behind-the-scenes type of operator, you’ll have trouble finding a chair every year. You need a mix of several personality types to make a board fully functional.

4. Varied Connections. Finally, board diversity requires diverse community connections. One of the most overlooked areas for recruiting board members is among the clergy. Rabbis, priests, and ministers tend to know a lot of people in their communities, as well as other organizations that are making a difference there. That makes them great “connectors” to have on your board, irrespective of whether your organization has a religious mission.

Tapping diverse talents always leads to a stronger board. And a stronger board helps you avoid costly mistakes and deliver on your bottom line: the mission.

c 2009 Amy DeLouise, Amy DeLouise’s Blog

Stress Test Your Nonprofit

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This week, federal regulators plan to release the methods they are using for the “stress test” being applied to banks accepting TARP money. Non-profits should be developing their own stress test to assure soundness to funders, who are both private donors and the American taxpayer (by way of the gift of tax-exempt status).

Why should non-profits conduct a stress test of their own?

Despite signs that America’s economic engine may be coming out of a stall, non-profits have a long way to go before times get good again. There is a higher than ever demand for their services, especially in the social sector, as more and more people lose jobs and health care coverage. Donations continue to drop in many sectors. At the same time, new and existing donors must be assured that the charities they support can withstand more months of hardship.

Five Ways to Stress Test Your Nonprofit

1. Increase Transparency. Good governance is critical to success, but especially during lean times. Confirm that your board decision-making is fully transparent, documented and bench-marked. Especially decisions around executive compensation.

2. Ensure Sustainability. Confirm that your organization has sufficient cash-flow for ongoing operations. Some say have as much as one year’s operating capital on hand. This may not be realistic for smaller charities. Still, you should assess and update your working capital assumptions so that donors know you can deliver.

3. Assess Human Resources. Do you have the right people on the job? Evaluate staff capabilities through regular reviews, but also a build strong professional development program so that you are cultivating talents from within. Bringing along a promising staffer costs much less money than launching a search.

4. Engage the Board. During tough economic times, it’s also important to tap the talents on your board. And that means more than check-writing. Pair experienced board mentors with staff and newer board members. Leverage board connections wisely. Consider them a valuable resource for not only financial contacts, but also great volunteers, future board leaders, and important community connections. And most importantly, focus board members’ limited time on the tasks that will have the most impact for your mission.
5. Focus on Vision. When times are hard, it’s easy to get mired in the day-to-day and lose track of the overall vision of the institution. Whether your goal is a world without hunger, a river that is unpolluted, or a school where children thrive, keeping the vision front and center is critical to delivering results. Set up a regular “vision-checkup” for the organization so that staff and volunteers have a way to connect daily, weekly, monthly, and annually with the vision and know they are making a difference.

These are just a few ways the non-profit sector can ensure it uses donor funds wisely, including those of the American taxpayer.

Promoting Your Brand Value in a Recession

McDonald’s is thriving. It’s global same-store sales rose just over 7% in January, and were up more than 5% in the U.S. Why? Is it simply that people are looking for a cheap meal when times are tough? It’s more complicated than that. People are looking for good value in a recession. And the McDonald’s brand delivers just that: a predictable experience, a reasonable price, a respectable product. McDonald’s has also remained true to its core products, while meeting new customer demands (more chicken, more salads and wraps, apple slices and carrots in the kids meals, lattes and other specialty coffees).

In a recessionary environment, other organizations have much to learn from McDonald’s.

It’s a great time to remind your customers about the value your brand promise delivers. This applies if your customer is purchasing your product or service and also if they are invested in your nonprofit’s outcomes as donors and volunteers.

So what are some things you can do to promote your brand value?

First, emphasize the consistency, quality and value of what you provide. Second, remind people about the niche that you serve and what is unique about your way of meeting that need. Third, make sure your stakeholders know what steps you are taking to reign in expenses and overhead in this economic crisis so they know they are not paying for unnecessary costs.

If you are not able to do those things, it’s a good time to regroup and focus on your core mission.

What does that mean? For both for-profit and non-profit enterprises, it means honing in on your key products and services and pulling back on extras that are not your core competencies. If those are areas where you still want to deliver, it’s a great time to look for partners who can provide that extra value without the added overhead.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy and The Wall Street Journal have both been filled with articles about nonprofits and for-profit companies going out of business. While it’s no fun being those organizations’ leaders or their employees, in the long run this is a good thing. Those groups with a strong brand value, well-defined core mission, and well-served and well-understood “customers” will survive. Others will team up to provide broader offerings without diluting their main focus. Those whose brand value was inflated (Citibank), stretched across too many product lines (AIG), or produced poor products (GM) will be restructured or bankrupt. In the end, those brands with the best value will come out on top. Make sure yours is among them, standing right there with the golden arches.