CNN ran a story today about how well organized pirates on the high seas have become. As you’ve probably read or heard, pirate attacks are becoming a frequent hazard for sailors –particularly in areas such as off the coast of Somalia, with its highly unstable—some would say non-existent—government.  While pirates may appear to be rag-tag bunches of young men in small boats, it turns out they have significant organizations behind them.  Ones with strategic business plans.  And tactical structures like advisory boards and directors of logistics.  They don’t spend their money on fancy boats, but they do outfit their teams with the latest technologies, including GPS.  These are deployed systematically, through grass-roots teams on well-equipped small boats, which often foil larger ships with more sailors.

The management approach of pirates got me thinking about what grassroots organizations could learn from pirates.   The best know you don’t have to have the fancy ship, but you do have to have a plan for outmaneuvering those with more money and personnel.  For starters, having a business plan is essential. Not just for the organization, but also for each program, and even each outreach component.  So, for example, to deploy a new YouTube video to members, it’s critical to have a strategy, and then identify a tactical team, a logistics plan, and means of harnessing technologies–not just the medium for the message, but the tools to get eyeballs there and turn those viewers into positive outcomes for your organization.

So one of my New Year’s plans is to remind myself—and my clients—to think more like pirates. But for a much better cause.

Today Bill©2010 B. DeLouise and Melinda Gates announced a $50M gift to the Smithsonian to leverage its programs for school children not able to come to the nation’s capital.  The funds will help to finance projects developed by Smithsonian researchers on a competitive basis, with a goal of creating a Smithsonian-led education community, according to The Washington Post.

In a tough economy, leveraging existing work is critical for nonprofits and for-profits alike.  At Children’s National Medical Center, a challenge gift of $25 Million from Diana and Stephen Goldberg allowed the hospital to bring in more than $55 Million in additional gifts.  On a smaller but equally hi-impact scale, this September, cycling blogger Elden Nelson was able to raise more than $135,000 in less than 10 days for LIVESTRONG and World Bicycle Relief by leveraging the connections he had built through his blog, Twitter and Friends Asking Friends.

According to The Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy report just out,  many companies reduced their philanthropy from 2008 to 2009—59% of those surveyed. But 36% increased their total giving, and many leveraged tools such as in-kind gifts and combined efforts with other corporations to do it. As a result, aggregate giving was higher in 2009 than in 2008 by 7%.

As we approach the end of the calendar year, and you consider your charitable giving, who can you collaborate with to make a bigger impact? How can you leverage work already being done and take it into new communities? And how can you mine your social media tools to extend your reach?

According to Neilsen Research, the percentage of online time Americans are spending with email has dropped 28% from June 2009 to June of this year. Overall time spent on social networks and blogs has increased 43%.  Yet email clearly isn’t dead.  In fact from what I see, its volume is growing exponentially. I’ve noticed an interesting trend among my clients lately–many prefer to be texted about certain projects, presumably because their email boxes are full and they might miss the information.

But as we change our relationship to email and social media, how should organizations respond?  What can you do to use these tools wisely to position your brand and create a good experience for your customers.

Email is still a great way to reach large numbers of customers, prospects, donors or volunteers. Successful email campaigns can drive traffic to your social networking sites, where more personalized interactions can take place.

Make sure everyone in your organization has an email signature that includes your Facebook, Twitter and YouTube locations. It’s common for people in the communications department to have this, but often others in the organization do not and it’s a major missed opportunity.

Use in-person interactions to promote your social media presence. So, for example, your hold phone message could include “please join us on Facebook,” and your receptionist could say the same thing as she says goodbye to someone who’s been visiting in your office.

In your next e-Newsletter, include links with additional information can be accessed through your social media sites.

Encourage feedback to new content or campaigns–people love to comment!  Create a feedback mechanism so that you can then let your customers/donors/volunteers know what the response was.

Contests are great for driving eyeballs to websites and social media sites.

Include polls in your blog posts and tweet them.  Polls tend to get circulated and re-tweeted.

The most important takeaway from the Neilsen’s August research data is not that email is declining and social media is on the rise. It’s that this amalgam of communications tools is evolving. For those of us in the business of creating and promoting brands–both personal and corporate–we’ll need to keep evolving too.

It is widely expected that the new census data will show 1 in 6 people living in the United States is hispanic. The Arizona immigration law case has only presented one view of this fast-growing population. Here’s another.

22 of the top 50 hispanic advertisers increased their media budgets last year, despite the disasterous recession.  12.6% of Google users and 11.4% of Facebook users are hispanic.  Hispanics are also the nation’s second-largest consumers of goods and services.  Their median age is “young and generally living in large, traditional, married-with children families” according to a recent analysis by Advertising Age.  As the boomer generation ages, this coming-of-age hispanic generation will lead the way in consuming goods and services.  But thanks to the rise of the internet, Skype, and relatively inexpensive global travel–at least as opposed to what was experienced by past immigrant generations–this population remains connected to countries and cultures of origin, even while they are becoming more Americanized.  So reaching them must recognize and respect these connections.

Are corporations and nonprofits effectively reaching prospective customers and donors who are hispanic?

Some large companies and nonprofits have been proactive about advertising and multi-lingual outreach.  Recognizing that 2.5 million Hispanic Americans suffer from diabetes or insulin resistance syndrome that is considered “pre-diabetes,” last year the American Diabetes Association launched an oral care program aimed at this market with corporate partner Colgate-Palmolive, which also happens to be among the top 50 advertisers to this market segment. But other groups are sluggish, relying on diversity initiatives that are geared primarily towards women and African-Americans, and often target prospective employees more than prospective customers.

Part of the key to reaching hispanics is, as with any group, connecting to prospects through the communications tools they themselves use.

According to a new Pew Research study, when it comes to socializing and communicating with friends, young Latinos (ages 16 to 25) make extensive use of mobile technology. Half say they text message (50%) their friends daily, and 45% say they talk daily with friends on a cell phone.  Only 10% use email.  Recognizing this trend, Nestle recently launched an iPhone app that promotes use of Carnation Evaporated Milk by pulling recipes and content from its MiCochina Latina site.

Whatever happens in Arizona, the American population is changing and people selling everything from nonprofit causes to consumer products must adapt to reach the growing hispanic market.

In a story this weekend on the Catholic Church’s mishandling of its communications about sexual misconduct by priests, the Vatican was quoted in The Washington Post as saying it is NOT a multi-national enterprise (according to Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.)  This may come as a major surprise to anyone who knows of the church’s vast financial holdings, tens of thousands of employees across all continents, and extensive lay organizations that act as an extension of the Church in the world (the Vatican’s own website lists more than 120).

So what’s the deal?

Many nonprofit organizations—whether church-based or secular—don’t think of themselves as “enterprises.” That seems too business-like. But the reality is that nonprofits today must use business processes and tools to remain successful and relevant. The profit goal may be replaced with a “doing good in the world” goal, but nonprofits still need to care about their “customers” (donors, lay leaders, members, people served) and their ability to reach them (both through programs and through communications about this work).  Taken together, this is Brand.  And everyone needs a brand strategy.  Even the Pope.

A core part of any brand strategy is a clear articulation of mission.

When the Rev. Lombardi said in his Post interview “the normal situation of the Church and the Vatican is to help the people to understand the teachings of the Church and the documents of the pope” he was probably trying to articulate the Vatican’s mission. But he didn’t make it sound particularly compelling or personal. It actually sounded a bit, um, multi-national enterprise-like! 

Every brand has an essence, and that should be articulated in a clear, compelling message about mission that everyone who speaks for the organization can use. Targeted sub-messages can then be tailored for various specific audiences.

 How do you tailor brand messages?

Creating messages starts with a process of input. When you are constructing a brand plan, you first need some data. You need to know how you are viewed by your internal people (staff, board members) and by your external audiences (donors and prospects, people or organizations you serve, the public, opinion leaders in your field, etc.). This data can be acquired through web-based survey tools, but it’s always advisable to include in-person interviews or even focus-groups to augment your data.  You may discover everyone understands your brand perfectly. Or you may find out there are some aspects of your brand that are more clear than others. This will inform your strategy.

 What about the competition?

Yes. Like any organization, you are competing for attention, for commitment and for dollars.  When you know how your competition is positioned, you can be more strategic in how to position your own brand.  You don’t have to be totally reactive, but you can be pro-active in developing some of your messages to counter theirs.

We’re successful, do we really need a brand plan?

Well, this was clearly the Vatican’s thinking. But in my view, to be effective, every organization should operate under a brand plan just as you operate under a strategic plan.  This includes drilling down into a tactical communications, timelines, and to-do lists. But everything comes back to knowing your brand essence and conveying it effectively to the people who can help—or hurt—your cause. When you plan effectively, you won’t be caught without the best words to say who you are, what you do, and why it matters.

I’ve asked some colleagues to contribute to this page.  Here’s Melissa Houghton, Executive Director of the Washington D.C. Chapter of Women in Film & Video (WIFV) on how younger members and staff have increased the impact of this professional membership association.  If you are interested in guest blogging, please feel free to email me at amy[at]amydelouise[dot]com.

WIFV is blessed with many members who are early adopters of all types of technology. Social media platforms have been no exception. But when it came to WIFV moving from its members-only listserv into a social media platform, so we could reach beyond our members, we didn’t jump in with both feet.

What held us back? What keeps us moving forward?

Sometimes, the same thing.  WIFV has about 1000 members, many of them filmmakers using the latest non-linear computer-based editing tools and digital cameras.   The organization has a vibrant listserv for members that makes it easy for them to get technology questions answered, fill positions, get references and learn what films are screening.

On the one hand, why do anything more?

Our goal is to provide services for members and the listserv is where we’ve encouraged them to go for information. At the same time, they expect WIFV to be available to them wherever they are and they are on social media.  And they want others within and across industries to know more about us. When some members set up Facebook and Linked In profiles for the organization, and we only found out after the fact, we realized we had to become pro-active about our brand in this new space.

Who could help us?

Thank goddess for interns and student members! They are fearless with social media and were able to watch the sites for a while to learn who was using them, and what were the most active discussions. Our younger members’ experiences in the office with program development also helped them understand what types of postings would generate the most interest and keep the sites active with valuable and engaging content. They’ve also been tireless about getting involved with our committees and bringing their enthusiasm and know-how to the members who had more reservations about how WIFV would use social media.

It has been a learning experience for us all.

Our older members are beginning to engage through SM and build the same personal connections they’ve always used to produce and distribute powerful films, just in new ways. The young professionals in our midst realize that there is a business as well as personal need to share content and resources and keep pushing us forward.  They don’t let us slack off with postings and make sure we re-tweet, write on walls, and link with others. And hey, here I am, blogging!

The following is not intended as legal or tax advice. If your organization is embarking upon lobbying activity, you should consult a tax attorney, accounting firm, and other legal resources.

The question of whether to lobby—and whether it’s even possible for a nonprofit—comes up again and again.  It’s true that the IRS has been more aggressive in questioning exempt status for organizations who are active politically–for example, the IRS’s NAACP case, which was eventually dropped.  But the question really is…

Can your nonprofit succeed in its mission without engaging in the policies that affect the very people or places you were created to help?

Today’s Washington Post story about the Chesapeake Bay evokes that question as it assesses whether the Chesapeake Bay Foundation can clean up the bay while still refraining from being politically active. It’s a good question and one which nonprofits of all sizes should ask themselves.

Many nonprofits don’t even engage in the most basic policy activism because they fear for their tax exempt status. But legally, all nonprofits can engage in some non-partisan policy activities.

So which 501-c’s can lobby?

There are actually 28 different “501-c” designations by the IRS. Wow. We won’t be covering the bulk of these today. But most organizations fall under 501(c)3, (c)4 or (c ) 6.

Organizations with 501 (c) 3 status—public charities and foundations—can participate in lobbying as long as it is not a “substantial” part of their activities. More on this in a second.

A 501(c) 6 designation is usually reserved for trade associations and professional associations (known in IRS lingo as “business leagues.”) These entities are allowed to have lobbying as a primary activity, as long as they notify members how much of their dues go to such activities.

The 501(c)(4) exemption goes to civic leagues and other organizations operated exclusively for the promotion of “social welfare,” which the IRS defines as “civic betterment and social improvements.” This includes local associations of employees of a particular organization or neighborhood. These organizations have an unlimited ability to lobby for legislation and the ability to participate in political campaigns and elections.  But the catch is that the organization must benefit society as a whole, not just its members.

So, if we’re a 501-c-3, why should we lobby?

The question really is, why not? Aren’t you part of a neighborhood? A broader community? A region? A state? A nation? Don’t the rules and regulations and actions of the key policy players affect you and the people you serve? I won’t deny it, 501-c-3’s have it the hardest time with lobbying because the definition of “substantial” is so squishy. But if you are focusing most of your staffing, budget and attention on your primary mission, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about (see disclaimer above, please!).

On the other hand, if you’re not politically engaged, you might have a lot to worry about–including the very substance of your work.

If you are a school, for example, then local and national education policies, land use policies, and rulings related to local traffic and roadways may all affect your institution and others like it.  Staying engaged and being a voice as these policies are made or revised is vital not just to your institution, but to the broader community (in which other, more practiced voices might be louder). This is playing itself out on a very local level in my neighborhood, where a new land development project could reconfigure a major roadway and an independent school could lose its left-turn lane, and therefore access for most of its families. The school has become actively engaged as local leaders try to finalize the roadway plan. The key is that the lobbying activities do not promote a particular candidate or party, but rather a broader issue.  Even universities, which often hire government relations staff, do not lose their exempt status for their engagement in public policy.

As a nonprofit, you may feel you have enough challenges already and want to play it safe on lobbying. But if your issue is saving your school, or saving the entire Chesapeake watershed, then not raising your voice might kill you. Literally.

For more resources on nonprofit status and lobbying, see Boardsource, Independent Sector’s excellent guidelines and the IRS’s own “Stay Exempt” resource, among others.

Does your nonprofit lobby? On what issues? Or do you strongly feel it shouldn’t? Please share your views!

Nonprofits have competitors in the marketplace, just like anyone else.
Environmental groups compete in a highly cluttered landscape of urgent causes.   Independent schools compete against other independent schools, but also against public magnet schools and charter schools.  American social justice organizations working internationally “compete” with local NGOs and other equally committed nonprofits. These are just a few examples.

Nonprofits usually recognize they have competitors, but they also think of them as peers.  So they are sometimes late to take action when a peer is taking market share.

What can nonprofits—including  government agencies and programs—do to compete better? Here are some steps you can take right away.

Step 1: Recognize Your Competition. Really drill down into who/what is competing with your organization, your cause or your message. This includes things as mundane as local soccer tournaments on the same night as your auction to more high-level issues like competing with an older organization with a stronger brand presence in the market. Or, a common problem for older organizations: competing with an out-dated version of yourself!

Step 2: Analyze Them. Most companies in the for-profit world know exactly what their competition is doing at any given time. I understand that the reason the Hershey chocolate tour is totally produced for the visitor these days is that the folks from the M&M Mars factory not far away used to take the old tour through the real factory to check on any new techniques or products.  Get copies of your competitors’ outreach materials and see how they stack up against yours. What do you like or not like? What makes them stand out?

Step 3: Analyze Yourself. What’s Your UCV?  “Unique Selling Proposition” is the term used in the for-profit world, so I like to use “Unique Community Value” for the nonprofit world.  What value do you bring to the community like no-one else? What does your work accomplish? What would happen if you weren’t there to help?

Step 4: Differentiate Your Brand. What messages convey your brand value and UCV? What stories can you tell that set you apart? What visuals can help support the emotional sell of your brand?

Step 5: Use Metrics. How will you measure your success in your market space? How will you know if you are decreasing or increasing in market share? Email surveys, behind-the-scenes research, and focus groups can all help in this area, in addition to your usual web hits, Google Alerts and email open response metrics.

Step 6: Rinse and Repeat. You need to keep up this cycle to be sure no competitor takes a bite out of your space (or to assess how you are doing in taking a bite out of theirs!).

Balt. Bldg.1 - IMG_0407 sIn the “jobless recovery,” it’s important to be strategic about spending on your brand. Here are five ways you can support your product, service or nonprofit mission without spending a dime.  (Alright, in total fairness, time is involved and we all know that’s valuable.)

1. Deploy Your Leaders. Boards of directors, partners, the executive team–they should know all the in’s and out’s of your brand and be the spokes on the wheel of your brand promotion. But sometimes they are not deployed in an intentional way with marketing your brand in mind. Make a conscious effort to (re)educate your board and leadership team on your “elevator pitch” and “brand promise”–what unique value you provide–at their next meeting. Ask folks to give their elevator pitch to the group, to help them hone their own description of your brand essence.

2. Engage Every Employee. Your leadership team, marketing or development staff may all be cognizant of your key brand messages. But what about your interns, the people at the loading dock and your new receptionist? Everyone communicates your brand–to customers, to donors, to other employees. Make sure you take the time to engage everyone. One great experience can make all the difference. So can a bad one.

3. Let Others Speak for You. Referrals are the best sales. Ask your best customers, donors, community volunteers, etc. to help you promote your brand. Ask them to Tweet about your latest accomplishments, mention it on their company blog, or be willing to wear a nametag that says “So and So, [Your Charity Name] Volunteer” at their next business event. In the advertising world, everything is measured in the volume of “impressions” your ads get. But also every human impression counts.

4. Cross-Promote. Whether you are a for-profit or a charity, find organizations that don’t compete directly with you but who offer complimentary products/services.  Then create a monthly program for cross-promotions. For example, if you’re a florist, have your link featured on the page of an event organizer and vice versa.  If you’re a charity with a national walk or run coming up, cross-promote with an athletic shoe or apparel company.  And don’t forget to cross-promote yourself: be sure that every communications tool you use–email, e-newsletters, blogs, websites, business cards–promotes every other venue through which you communicate, so customers can reach you in whatever way they like best.

5. Increase Brand Clarity. Brand audits can be very expensive and time-consuming projects, but here’s a mini-audit you can assign to a couple of folks for a considerable impact. Have them review your letterhead, website, print pieces, blogs, Facebook pages, etc. and tell you whether your logo, name, tag line and mission statement appear consistently. Look at color, size, fonts and wording. You’d be surprised how many times these communications tools are inconsistently branded, thus diluting your impact.  You don’t have to reprint everything all at once, but be aware so that the next time cards go to the printers, for example, they can be in sync with your website.

Of course, there’s no free lunch.

If your brand is struggling because your mission is fuzzy, your leadership isn’t strategic, or your staffing is weak, then no amount of free branding solutions will help.  But in tough times, these simple tools can also go a long way while we all wait for recovery.

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!