Thu, April 02 2015
How does a small nonprofit go viral and capture attention on the national stage? I set out to learn the answer from a Network for Good customer that has achieved the biggest exposure opportunity any business, organization, or individual could hope for: a commercial spot during the Super Bowl.
Estella’s Brilliant Bus was featured in Microsoft’s Super Bowl ad this year. And the Super Bowl was just one appearance from the past 18 months: Estella has appeared on Dr. Oz and Oprah and was named a CNN Hero of the Year.
I talked with the organization’s founder and sole staff member, Estella Pyfrom, to understand the story behind the exposure. Going in, I thought I might find a replicable strategy around networking, PR, and elevator pitches, but after talking with Estella, I realized what I should have been expecting all along: It starts with mastering your nonprofit basics.
Find your special sauce.
Estella started with an idea, a bus, and her life savings. As she started researching how to make her organization operational, she found that she wasn’t the only one delivering technology or education to underserved communities—but her delivery mechanism was completely unique. Estella’s Brilliant Bus was the only self-sufficient mobile technology teaching facility in the world! It’s important for your staff, constituents, donors, and volunteers to understand what’s unique about what you do. To be noticed, your work must be noticeable.
Tell your story to others.
At first, Estella was suspicious of the media. Local and national networks approached her several times after people in her community starting talking about Estella’s Brilliant Bus, but she turned them away. It wasn’t until she turned to some resources at a local college that things changed. Estella’s contact at the college told a friend about Estella’s work, who told her husband, who happened to be a producer for CNN. The producer got in touch with Estella right away. With the promise that she could review the story before its broadcast, Estella agreed to some media exposure. After the CNN spot, Estella was booked for more media appearances, and the passion and excitement around Estella’s Brilliant Bus grew. Small nonprofits like Estella’s can be hesitant to relinquish control over something that feels so personal out of fear of judgment or providing misinformation. But when we arm our supporters with the right to tell the story, that’s when “viral” happens.
Be a business.
When I asked Estella about the keys to success, her immediate answer was that planning has made all the difference. The past two to three years have been about refining the model for delivering technology in a mobile facility to children in underprivileged areas. She knows where the bus will drive each day and how many kids they’ll serve, and she has backup engagements if a school or community has a last-minute cancellation. Delivering unique services with flawless execution has ensured that Estella’s Brilliant Bus maintains its positive reputation. The message is clear: Over-deliver your mission’s promise.
Continue to do good work.
Estella never stops moving or gets caught up in her own success. When we discussed how she feels about all the attention, Estella quickly responded, “I haven’t had a chance to be nervous or realize how big this has become. I’m too focused on achieving the vision I have for this business.” Her actions are true to her words: When presented with the 5,000 Points of Light award, she refused to fly cross-country to accept the award and drove her bus instead. Along the way, she stopped in cities to provide services to children. To date, Estella has served more than 61,000 children. She has no plans to slow down until Estella’s Brilliant Bus is a movement that puts a bus in every major U.S. city, and then worldwide. It’s a good reminder that landing big media attention is not the goal—it’s a means to touch more people and expand your reach.
So, the next time your executive director asks you how to land that big media attention, reply:
We need to find what’s unique about our organization and let our work, communication, and story revolve around that concept. Let’s make sure everyone understands why we’re different.
After that, let’s encourage and empower everyone we know to tell our story far and wide.
Let’s focus on every part of our process to deliver programs. Are our programs easy to understand? Where are the risks? Let’s spend time making ourselves a well-organized and program-focused delivery machine. We owe it to our constituents and those telling our story to be the best we can be.
Finally, remember that big media attention isn’t the goal. It’s an opportunity to get more volunteers, donors, and supporters, and the by-product is awareness about our organization.
Thu, February 19 2015
Filed under: Nonprofit leadership •
Surprising, distressing, but all too true! According to findings released in the 2015 Nonprofit Communications Report, one of your greatest challenges to fundraising effectiveness is the difference in priorities and perspectives held by you (a fundraiser) and your key colleagues—your executive director and communications colleagues.
Just take a look at these startling differences in goals and preferred tactics:
- Seventy-two percent of development staff versus only 12% of communications staff feel directly responsible for fundraising goals.
- Forty-four percent of development staff versus 65% of communications staff feel responsible for community engagement goals.
- Development staff (along with communications directors) value YouTube more than EDs do, while EDs value LinkedIn more than you and your communications directors do.
As a consultant who’s been the fly on the wall in so many organizations, I’ve come to see such disconnects as the norm. But in most organizations, the existence of the gap and what the conflicts are—must-knows for organizational success fundraising and beyond—remain hidden and dangerous. Because each of those players (fundraising, communications, and your ED) assumes the others are on the same page and acts accordingly.
If you proceed in planning and implementing your fundraising campaigns based on the assumption that your communications partners and ED share your take, you’re likely to be surprised. When they don’t—and launch messages, campaigns, and/or programs that are different from yours—that’s confusing (if not totally contradictory) for the folks you hope will give or take another action.
Like you—and me—your people hate feeling confused. Confusion is a greedy grabber of time and attention and makes us all feel like something is wrong with us (“Why don’t I get this?”). Ugh. Worst of all, confusion undermines your campaigns.
Instead, dare to be different!
- Make sure you have a clear understanding of key organizational goals and have shaped your fundraising goals (plus campaigns and tactics) to best support them. Document both elements.
- Ask your communications director and ED to share the same.
- Include all three inputs on a simple chart and use it as the focal point of an initial “let’s make sure we’re working together” meeting.
- Ask the others to commit to quarterly reconnects and ongoing chart updates.
- Start to close the gap and motivate more of the actions you want.
Go get rid of your devil! I’m eager to hear where you get with this. Let us know in the comments.
Wed, January 28 2015
Filed under: Nonprofit leadership •
Yesterday Network for Good was honored to host a group of delegates from 10 countries as part of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. The group included the Executive Director of the Icelandic Youth Council, the Program Director for the Russian Red Cross, the Community Manager from the Office of the Mayor of Athens, and a grassroots organizer from Saudi Arabia, among others who work with local governments and community groups to mobilize volunteers and social giving around the world.
As we gathered to talk about leveraging online technology to mobilize volunteers, raise funds, and communicate with supporters, it was clear that the challenges these international organizations face are nearly identical to those of nonprofits here in the United States. Here are a few themes that rose to the top during our time together:
- Diversifying funding sources: Organizations that are highly dependent on government contracts or grants look to shift their funding sources to reduce the vulnerability of relying on one source of funds. In some cases, this shift to individual giving is new territory and these organizations are sorting out how to prioritize individual donors and the resources needed to support a successful strategy. Sound familiar?
- Finding (and retaining) the right donors: The universal challenge, but also a wonderful opportunity to learn from one another. For some international organizations, most individual donors are coming from outside of the country, so connecting with and expanding the donor base can be difficult. This is where new networking tools and storytelling venues will continue to make a big impact.
- Communicating with donors: We all agreed that the key to retaining individual donors is regular and responsive communication. Some organizations are trying to find the right balance of interaction and dedicated time to responding to donors and listening to their feedback.
- Collaboration vs. competition: With many organizations working to solve similar issues, these NGOs identified a need for more collaboration and stronger networks to pool resources, and make a bigger impact. This is a challenge. One way we can all encourage knowledge and resource sharing is to commit to supporting and participating in roundtable discussions and gatherings just like the IVLP sessions.
- Getting the story right: From attracting supporters to inspiring gifts to retaining donors, compelling stories are critical. The delegation discussed the challenges of competing with more “media friendly” stories or causes, and the opportunities to connect the right story with the right audience segment. Organizations are made up of multiple stories, which provides a wonderful chance to line up the perfect story with the right segment of a cause’s community.
Do any of these strike a chord with you? What would you add to the list? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
We offer our gratitude to the Department of State and the IVLP delegates for spending time with our team and sharing their experiences. We wish them well as they continue their tour of the U.S. and look forward to learning more from our nonprofit colleagues around the world.
Mon, September 29 2014
Filed under: Nonprofit leadership •
An organization’s ability to accomplish its mission is only as strong as the organization’s infrastructure. As you fight to make the world a better place, how do you make sure you’re providing a nonprofit workplace that fosters fairness and complies with the necessary rules and regulations? I recently had a chance to catch up with the Aina Gutierrez, author of Walking the Walk: A Values Centered Approach to Building a Strong Non-Profitand Deputy Director of Interfaith Worker Justice. Her new book is an easily digestible, yet comprehensive, practical guide to organizing and improving internal operations and finances.
NFG: What drove you to write this handbook?
Aina Gutierrez: The national nonprofit I work for, Interfaith Worker Justice, has a network of more than 40 affiliates that are small organizations with less than 10 staff. Part of my job in the last twelve years has been to train these groups on the subjects outlined in the book (office administration, fundraising, financial management, board development and human resources).
There were two trends I saw in talking to these groups and other small nonprofits I’ve been involved with. The first is that most small groups struggle with these “back office” issues because there were few training resources and materials for those that juggle multiple roles and don’t have the time (nor passion!) around building systems and procedures. And yet, many of them were really struggling with personnel issues and managing their budgets. It caused many staff and board leaders stress and burnout.
The second is that many of the policies and procedures of small nonprofits don’t seem to reflect the values that the organizations espouse in their programmatic work. A number of staff work for low pay and few benefits. Most small organizations don’t have access to constructive feedback or support. I felt strongly about the need to reflect the organization’s values in the way it operates, and that a written resource might be the best way to do that.
NFG: The book is geared toward small nonprofits with fewer than 10 employees. We work with many organizations who also have volunteer “staff” or staff members who are running their nonprofits on the side? Can you share some advice for those situations?
AG: Sure. It’s pretty amazing, but the smallest nonprofit isn’t that much less complicated to run than a more established organization. Both have boards, raise money, file government forms and have policies.
This can be tricky for groups without paid staff, or with part-time staff. There’s never enough money or time to accomplish everything.
NFG: Can you share some advice for those situations?
AG: So I would recommend that your readers do a quick assessment of each area outlined in the book and highlight parts that seem important to the organization that are missing. The book has chapters on staff, board, office systems and management, government requirements, finance, and fund development. And just start working on it, bit by bit. Include a few tasks in the organization’s workplan, or find a board member or two that are willing to help. There’s a lot of information online and from allied organizations that can be easily adapted and used for small nonprofits. It’s really just being aware of the back office work that needs to be done and doing a little bit at a time.
NFG: There’s an entire section on building and managing your board. We hear from many nonprofits who struggle with this relationship. Why do you think this is often such a difficult piece of the puzzle?
AG: I think any institution made up of passionate people who bring with them varying ideas and perspectives will not be without its share of internal struggles. An organization’s board is no different. Managing the board can be very rewarding, but it can also be frustrating at times.. And, as staff, it can sometimes feel like its not worth the time and energy to build a strong board, so it falls by the wayside.
But, it is worth it. The key is to continue to recruit and develop leaders that care about the organization and have something wonderful to contribute to its success. If someone doesn’t have a skill set or experience to help, or creates a lot of drama, or brings a different agenda to the table, or doesn’t want to do any work – that person shouldn’t be on the board. It can be time consuming to recruit and keep the right people for the job, but a small group of people that really connect and are willing to work can help build the organization in some really incredible ways.
NFG: What are some of the challenges you’ve observed in nonprofits who don’t have strong administrative systems?
AG: Oh goodness, there are so many stories. Every nonprofit I’ve worked with has at least one horrible story that cost a lot of time, energy and usually money to fix. I certainly have made plenty of own mistakes in this area!
The biggest challenge with organizations that don’t have strong systems is that it’s not an efficient way to operate. Pulling together a 300 person mailing shouldn’t be an all day job. But if your database is disorganized, the printer jams the envelopes, and you have to run to the post office to buy stamps, it can take hours. It impacts the important work that the group should be doing. And its super frustrating for the staff!
Having weak systems can also cost a lot of money. I’ve worked with a number of groups that miss government filing deadlines and have to pay late fees. Or groups that order office supplies last minute and pay expensive overnight shipping for a meeting. Or, groups that miss grant deadlines because there are not good tracking systems for applications or reports. These things all cost the organization a lot of money, and there often isn’t money to go around.
NFG: What are the payoffs for getting it right?
AG: One of the biggest rewards of those with good administrative systems is that they are able to engage more people in their work. Organizations that are able to efficiently communicate with their constituents and potential supporters via email or direct mail are more likely to receive more donations and support than those that don’t communicate. Donors that are assured the organization is run well will continue to give and often give more. Board members that are better connected or informed about the work will more likely be better engaged and provide more help.
Having good administrative systems is really the backbone of any strong nonprofit organization. It has a direct impact on its programmatic work and financial viability.
NFG: This book is obviously a great guide for emerging organizations, can established nonprofits learn a trick or two as well? Should these organizations re-assess their processes? How often?
AG: Yes, definitely. I encourage readers of more established groups to first review the policies and practices outlined in the book and make sure they have similar structures in place. Second, take a look at their own policies through a values-centered lens and see if there are areas that don’t reflect the organization’s values. And third, consider if its time to update a few things. For example, my organization recently looked at our healthcare plan to see if we should try the state-based exchange through the Affordable Care Act. It didn’t make sense for us to change right now, but it is likely something that will impact our healthcare benefits in the future. Even long time organizations should try and keep up on policy changes that could benefit small nonprofits.
All organizations should look at the administrative and financial progress made every year. Don’t look at everything, but when the organization is making its annual goals and objectives, it should include some work on internal policies and procedures. Incorporate this work incrementally into the organization’s board and staff and new things will be done every year. Progress is something to feel good about!
Thanks to Aina for her insight and for providing a handy guide to policies and processes that can sometimes feel daunting. For more tips and insight, check out Walking the Walk: A Values Centered Approach to Building a Strong Non-Profit.
Mon, September 15 2014
Filed under: Nonprofit leadership •
(Editor’s note: Today’s post comes from our friends at the National Council of Nonprofits. Jennifer Chandler, Vice President and Director of Network Support & Knowledge Sharing, offers an easy way for your nonprofit to help advocate for charitable giving.)
If you could make two simple phone calls or send two easy letters to advance your nonprofit’s mission, would you do it? If yes, then please read on.
A ray of sunshine is peeking through dark storm clouds that have hovered over nonprofits the last several years. Those storms dropped the Great Recession, increased demands for services, declining donations, and reduced funding from government contracts. That ray of sunshine is finally within reach – but it is flickering. To keep it from disappearing again, we each need to act now, to advance our missions and serve our communities into the future.
What is happening?: The ray of sunshine is the America Gives More Act, which the House of Representatives passed in July with support from across the political spectrum. As we all learned from Schoolhouse Rock, the Senate now needs to pass the bill for it to take the next step to becoming a law. And your Senators need a little push from the nonprofit sector to make it happen.
Every community would be positively affected by the America Gives More Act. It would create benefits for all nonprofits, across all subsectors. Most notably, the legislation would make donations from individuals to nonprofits through April 15 eligible to be counted as deductions on the prior year’s taxes. For nonprofits, this means a potential new rush of donations around tax time, not just at the holiday season.
The work of individual nonprofits would also be strengthened by the America Gives More Act. For food banks and others tackling hunger, it would enhance incentives - and make them permanent – to help drive donations of nutritious food. To promote land conservation efforts, the bill would make the incentives for donating easements to preserve our environment permanent also. And to make giving a bit easier for older Americans, the legislation would allow older individuals to donate directly from their IRAs to any public charity and make this allowance permanent. This permanency will send charitable resources into communities that need them, instead of being used year after year by nonprofits to advocate for the incentives to be renewed by Congress. Lifting our voices now to make them permanent will allow us all to re-dedicate that time to advancing our missions.
Act Immediately: There is only a small window of opportunity left in September before Senators leave D.C. again for the mid-term elections. Once they leave, the window slams shut. Therefore, the charitable nonprofit community needs to speak up now before we lose this unique opportunity.
It’s up to us all to speak up. Join other nonprofit board members, staff members, and volunteers across America by delivering this simple message to your Senators: Don’t leave Washington in September until the Senate passes the America Gives More Act; our communities are counting on you.
- Call your Senators’ local or Washington, DC offices (202-224-3121)
- Text or Tweet your Senators
- Write your Senators (see sample letter)