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I Hate Website Contact Forms: A Dent in Your Brand

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I know, I’ve really avoided launching any blog posts with the words “I hate.”  But GF3, s.c.2this one really gets me, for some reason. In our brave new age of social media, increased transparency, and communications efficiency, those little forms that you get when you click “Contact Us” really bug me.

I recently went on a nonprofit website to find someone in the communications department I’d met at a party. I thought I’d do a simple click and send her a quick note. Instead, I got The Form of Doom.  This is a great nonprofit, doing great work, helping needy children all over the world. And I was stopped in my tracks. Suddenly their brand didn’t seem as good. I know, it’s not fair, but it didn’t.  Suddenly they seemed possibly elitist, or at least not friendly and not reachable.  If I were a donor, would I be thinking “hey, maybe there’s another nonprofit I can contact more easily”?  I don’t know, but I might.

Contact Us forms are the last vestige of Web .5 in a Web 2.0 world.  Originally, they were designed to “capture user information” and help protect executives new to email.  But now, they just seem like speed bumps—annoying and messing up my car.  It’s not like people can’t find you these days. I located the nonprofit communications executive I’d met through Linked In, where we happily connected, conversed and exchanged email addresses. But that was, like, six steps from how I should have found her with a simple link on her organization’s website.

Brands are affected by many customer experiences.  We build up our expectations of a brand, and then we expect all interactions with the brand to deliver on the “brand promise.”  When a communications transaction between entity and user does not meet the brand promise expectations, we are at a fork in the road and we may choose another brand instead.  Websites are no longer sign posts.  They are interactive communications tools with your current or prospective donors, customers or volunteers.  Check around and see if yours is welcoming them to your brand on every page, or if you still have a few of the old barriers around.

Know any other Brand Barriers or have a different view of Contact forms? Please share them!

Can Twitter Help Offset the Negative Brand Impact of Downsized Marketing?

In the last two weeks I’ve spoken with one VP of marketing whose job was completely eliminated at a major national nonprofit, and one marketing director at a mid-sized for-profit who confessed she had no time to do long-term strategic work since she was really functioning as communications director, and without any support staff.

Who hasn’t felt the pinch on long-term strategic thinking when short-term tactical communications work needs to get done? And why should we care?

I think we should care because organizations are likely to find that while they net some short-term savings with cuts to personnel and marketing budgets, their brand may take a bigger hit than they think in the long-term.  If all you’re doing is getting out your weekly customer e-newsletters and press releases, you may actually be suffering from internal bleeding without knowing it.  With tactics focused on short-term “get the word out” communications, organizations can be missing out on three key marketing strategies: attracting new customers/donors, retaining existing ones, and constantly establishing your brand as the best in class.

So, how to maintain a brand focus without all the people and budget to help?

Consider what some of the biggest firms are now doing: using Twitter as a tool to provide customer service.  USA Today reported this week that companies like Comcast, Pepsico and Whole Foods are using Twitter to provide customer service more quickly and successfully than 800 numbers and websites once did.  Pepsico went so far as to change its top customer service employee’s title to “Global Director of Digital and Social Media.”

Title changes aside, how can mid-sized for-profits and nonprofits use this technology to do more than put out 140-character press releases?

  1. If you are a school or university, consider tweeting to keep in touch with alumni on issues they care about.  But also tweet parents about important news–changes to the soccer game schedule, deadlines for scholarship apps, etc.  Letting them opt-in will make them feel they aren’t going to miss important news.
  2. If you are in the business of social change, keep donors up to date on the impact of their funding.
  3. If you are a government agency, keep stakeholders apprised of policy issues and where they stand, and any new information you have posted elsewhere about it to save them time fishing for it.
  4. If you are a for-profit, keep customers apprised of issues and information that could negatively or positively affect their business outcomes, so you can demonstrate your depth of knowledge in your field and your value.
  5. If you are a thought leader in your area of expertise, consider sharing what you know, what you are reading, and people worth watching. (For some reason, nonprofit leaders are particularly late adopters of this technology, and yet they have the most to benefit from one another and the least staff resources to pull in the information in other ways.)

Nothing replaces people and budget, but it looks like Twitter can offer some interesting opportunities to maintain a good brand presence in this downturn.

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 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.

Addressing Brand Threats

The salmonella-in-peanuts debacle reminds us that brands built over a lifetime can be ruined in an instant—even for actions and outcomes for which those brands are not responsible. Sales of direct-to-consumer peanut butter—which does not contain the tainted Peanut Corporation of America nuts—are down 25%. Big names like Kelloggs (Keebler, Famous Amos), JM Smucker (Jif) and ConAgra Foods (Peter Pan) are reeling. Thousands of smaller companies have filed for bankruptcy. The lawn fertilizer giant Scotts even filed a law suit for damage to its bottom line and its good name against a supplier who failed to admit to Scotts that it had sold tainted peanut meal, used in the company’s wild bird seed. (The Washington Post, Sunday March 1st). Peanut farmers, who had nothing to do with the infected processing plant, said they are experiencing staggering losses and will plant 30% fewer crops this year (NPR, 2/10). The very brand of the peanut itself has been damaged.
One of the lessons to learn from this brand catastrophe is that if what’s known as the “brand promise” is broken, even if not by your organization, you may be punished anyway. Nonprofits learned this the hard way after the United Way and Red Cross accounting issues arose, and Congress, the IRS and donors large and small began asserting themselves with concerns about financial oversight at other 501(c)3’s.

So, how to deal with such brand threats?

Of course, you must actively push out the great stories of your organization and what it does in the world. Web-delivered success anecdotes, You-tube videos, and Facebook updates are all part of this package, and most nonprofits are already actively managing and updating this content in order to “tell their story” every day. But often overlooked is another component of brand management: defending your story, and your good name, from becoming tarnished by forces both internal and external.

Two excellent antidotes to brand threats are 1) good governance, and 2) good listening. In today’s climate of more rigorous oversight, small organizations must create better clarity, benchmarks and rules for how they run themselves. Larger ventures have a different challenge: peeling back the layers of programs, administration and large boards so that constituents–donors, staff, volunteers—can understand what you do and how you do it. Maintaining a high level of transparency and using governance best practices are part of the antidote for brand problems.

Engaging Critics

Intertwined with good governance must be a regular process for good listening. That means listening to those who are actively “marketing” against you. Maybe it’s an individual who was unhappy with an outcome at your hospital. Perhaps it’s a small but vocal group who disagrees with your organization’s position on a policy issue. Or someone who posts an anti-your-organization social networking page (case in point: the uproar over the new “Avatar” TV series’ lack of Asians in its lead cast, led by a Facebook group with more than 2,200 members as of today and causing the studio to recast at least one lead role.) Whatever the source—and this is critical–you need to be engaged with critics of your brand. Even when you think/know they are wrong. Even when it’s just one person. Because, in the world of 24 hour news cycles and the blogosphere, one person can be a very powerful voice.

Listening Gets Results

And if you listen, you will often find at the heart of the complaint a real issue you need to address—something that is showing a tear, if not a break, in your brand promise. Fixing it gives you the opportunity to improve your services and outcomes before a problem reaches crisis proportions. And then, be sure to tell everyone about those improvements. Rinse, repeat!

Why Brand? The Case for “Selling” Nonprofits

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Nonprofits often resist marketing. Marketing and sales smack of for-profit activities. In the best of cases, marketing dollars are viewed as an expenditure that reduces money for core mission projects. Worst case, branding, marketing and brand management are considered downright inappropriate.

But whether you know it or not, you are already selling your mission. The question is to whom, how, and how effectively?

In today’s highly competitive marketplace of ideas, your non-profit organization has very little emotional space in which to differentiate itself from the pack. When a nonprofit calls or sends us mail, or when a friend discusses volunteering, we look at this request not just against a backdrop of all our nonprofit investments but also against the other competing interests in our lives—our son’s Little League team, our work picnic, the birthday party we are hosting next weekend.

Here’s where a strong brand comes into play.

When a household already contributes to a church and a Little League Team and a PTA, they may feel that their nonprofit “basket” is full. To make an impression on this family, a nonprofit has to make a bold and memorable case for support. Having a strong brand already in place can help open the door or close the sale. For example, when my local volunteer fire department comes knocking at the door for their annual donation drive, I already understand their brand. They volunteer at our schools to explain fire safety to the children. The firehouse hosts kids’ parties and we’ve all taken the tour and tried to lift the 100-plus pounds of gear each firefighter wears in a fire. And a few years ago, they put out a fire on my street. They have a strong brand and they don’t need to tell me what they do. So the conversation is focused on what level of donation I am able and willing to give for the cause.

Not everyone can have as compelling and easy a case to understand as the local volunteer fire department. But if they don’t, they need to work hard to make it easy for people both inside and outside the organization to “get” what change they make in the world. Then, the trick is that once you’ve invested time and dollars making your brand known, you need to manage your brand so that there’s no slippage. Your “brand promise” has to be delivered as expected every time your organization or its name/logo is used. And that means Every Time, or you may have done lasting damage to your mission by reducing your ability to raise funds and attract talented staff and volunteers. (More on how good governance connects to your brand promise in a future posting).

Do you have a brand success story or brand crisis? Please share (names can be changed to protect organizational anonymity)!

Volunteers and Brand Consistency

The board and other supporters are the voice of your nonprofit brand in the community. Properly trained, these volunteers are your marketing secret weapon. But they need tools to become effective and prepared.
Here are four steps you can take to ensure your volunteers are a positive force for your brand.
1. Teach the Message.Board members, donors and programmatic or “field” volunteers should each have an “elevator pitch” for your organization, so named because it should only take about as long as a trip in an elevator. The pitch includes your mission and vision for the world, who you reach, why you care, and what change you are making in your community.
2.Connect the Message. It is also essential that the pitch include the volunteer’s own personal connection to the cause.They should include a personal story or anecdote of why they care so passionately about your organization and cause.
3. Practice the Message.Even experienced staff, volunteers and board members can get off message. That’s because they are so involved in the day-to-day work of the organization. Provide regular opportunities for everyone to practice their brand message and hone it in a friendly atmosphere. I’ve done trainings where board members practice giving the pitch to one another, and you’d be surprised how even the most experienced among them have a hard time getting the pitch down to something under 90 seconds. One pitfall that leads to too lengthy a description, is board members often try to describe “how” rather than “who.”
4. Live the Message. Once they’ve practiced their pitch, volunteers and board members should be encouraged to introduce the nonprofit to people they know, through family, work and play.These individuals may become future donors, volunteers or board leaders.
With these four steps, you are on your way to ensuring your volunteers extend your brand effectively into the communities you serve.

Nonprofits Boost Brand Impact with Social Media

In a recession, successful branding may seem to be a challenge for nonprofits, but there are also opportunities to improve brand awareness.

Brand defines an emotional connection between the entity providing a good or service and the people it wants to reach. Corporations measure the impact of their brand by market share and profits. For nonprofits, the product is change. Successful nonprofit branding communicates the change the organization makes in the world quickly and easily to a multi-layered audience: people in need, donors, volunteers, staff, public policymakers, and the general public.
In difficult financial times, some for-profits will be able to increase market share because advertising costs go down and/or their competitors go out of business.  Nonprofits can also take advantage of the new fiscal playing field to jockey for better position. One tool they can use is social networking sites. These allow nonprofits to magnify their brand power and increase reach for minimal overhead and out-of-pocket costs. For example, an increasing number of nonprofits are creating Facebook group and fan page sites to increase “market share.” Readers/viewers are not just potential donors, but also current and future volunteers–the lifeblood of nonprofit work. Organizations can use traditional online tools (web, email) to drive existing supporters to these pages.  At the same time, they can encourage their “fans” or “members” on the social networking site to spread the word about the mission they care about.  501(c)3’s can also register as a “cause” in order to raise funds. And they can take content originally created for web, print and video and re-purpose it to find new audiences on these sites. You-Tube offers another opportunity for building brand awareness. Video through this web portal can be a powerful tool to tell how a nonprofit is changing lives.
So while the economic times are creating fundraising challenges, nonprofits can and must take advantage of social networks to spread their unique brand of change.