Summer Reading

flickr/Spencer E. Holtaway

I’ve been so busy lately that I’ve really missed keeping up with the terrific blogs and books in the field that represent a nonprofit communications education all by themselves. Don’t let yourself make the same mistake. Here are two books I recently received complimentary copies of that I made time to read and am very happy I did. Both of them are heavy with gold nuggets.

Charlene Li’s Open Leadership–How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead, isn’t necessary aimed at communications directors, but it’s got some very pertinent insights about how information flows through an organization and why, and how social technologies can open up management structures to leadership and collaboration at all levels.

She covers a lot of ground (I do wish more nonprofit EDs would read this kind of book). I just want to mention one section near the beginning where she’s explaining the ten elements of openness. She first differentiates between information sharing and decision-making, which, sadly, is a very wide, fuzzy line at many organizations. How many meetings have you attended that should have been decision-making meetings but no one defined them that way so no decisions got made? So, be clear what the purpose of your meetings are, in the process making sure that a meeting is the actually the best vehicle for getting the outcomes you’re after.

But Li goes further, breaking down information sharing into six interesting categories that every communications professional should recognize and think about: explaining, updating, conversing, open mic, crowdsourcing, and platforms. Each has a different purpose, which she explains, and can be best carried out through different vehicles and technologies.

For instance, does anyone really need to physically meet anymore to share updates? Yet, most staff meetings I attend are devoted to just that. There are lots of great–many free–online tools to enable better inter-organizational communication and spur greater engagement and cooperation (she mentions some in the book). And they’re far more efficient at sharing updates than meetings or emails.

What struck me after reading the book is how relatively little time nonprofit leaders take to think through internal communication compared to external communication. The excuse I often hear is that there’s no time. But it seems to me that’s exactly why nonprofits should be investing in learning to use social technologies to gain efficiency and–even more importantly–open up wider participation in the organization’s decisions and activities.

And now for a book that you know I already like–Kivi Leroux Miller’s The Nonprofit Marketing Guide. I just reread parts of it last weekend and it’s jam-packed with valuable advice. Again, I’m going to pick out one thing that resonated with me as I reread it–the need to craft communications messages around benefits not features.

This truly is a “marketing” approach, and nonprofits would be well served by adopting it. Like Kivi says, think of the specific fears, needs, and wants of each of your key audiences. Then contemplate how your organization alleviates those fears, and meets those wants and needs. Make those the substance of your messages. Your audiences need to know what’s in it for them, and just summarizing your sterling qualities and inspirational activities isn’t going to do that. Tell them how you are going to make their lives easier and better. (Isn’t that what we all want?)

So, get your hands on these books if you can. They are well worth the time!

CC credit: Spencer E. Holtaway


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Working Effectively with Consultants: Tips for Nonprofits

flickr/oooh-oooh

flickr/oooh-oooh

Having now sat on both sides of the nonprofit desk—hiring consultants and being hired as a consultant—I’ve learned something about creating productive relationships between nonprofits and freelancers. So, I thought I’d share a few  tips.

Know what skills you want

Be explicit about what kind of skills and experience you need for your project. If you’re looking for a writer—what kind of writer? Someone who specializes in interviews and profiles? Someone who writes direct mail? Someone who writes opinion pieces and executive speeches? Once you know the kind of writing you’re after, you’ll be able to ask the right questions to winnow out the best person for the job. All writing is not created equal. For instance, someone who can write a brilliant annual report may produce lousy video scripts. Likewise, what kind of designer are you after? Do you want traditional design, avant garde design, whimsical design, dramatic design? Pick designers based on how well they do that particular kind of design, judging by their portfolios. The same principle holds true for other creative talent, like photographers and graphic artists. If you’re looking for a strategist to help you plan, try to make sure they’ve worked with nonprofits before. Once you know what you want from a consultant, be crystal clear in setting up those expectations for the people you interview or hire. Be specific about deliverables, timetables, and quality requirements.

Know (and share) the parameters of your project

As a consultant, the clients I love most are those who have already figured out what the audiences, goal, deadline, and budget for a specific project are. (Unless the project is strategic planning, the process that helps  figure those things out for all communications.) One way to force yourself to do this is to write an RFP—even if you’re not going to circulate it. It’s great discipline to have to define a project clearly. I’m happy to respond to RFP’s, but I see many RFP’s that are too vague to respond to meaningfully. As a person who’s hired dozens of consultants, my best results came from trusting them enough to share the project budget up front. Don’t make them play pin the tail on the budget. Rather than just asking them to give me an estimate out of the blue, help them understand the financial limitations nonprofits face and give them a full picture of the entire project, not just their piece. The better informed they are, the better they understand their role and the more accurate their estimate.

Know the field of freelancers

Look around before you interview consultants for a project. Ask trusted colleagues at other organizations which freelancers they use and highly recommend. Keep a current file of names. Google the names of consultants and check them out on LinkedIn—especially for background and recommendations. Look at their websites or blogs and check out past work portfolios and client lists. (Be alert for other nonprofits in those lists; that’s a good sign.) Try to gauge how closely they match the skill set you’ll need, and how much experience they have. Then, pick a couple of top candidates and bring them in for a “get to know you” interview. Ask them to bring in more work samples. Focus on their knowledge level, attention to detail, follow-through, and sense of humor. You’re going to be working with this person fairly closely; hire someone you feel comfortable with and have confidence in.

Be wary of pro bono offers

I’ve both accepted and rejected pro bono offers during my career. (Ah, the tales I could tell. ) What those experiences taught me is to be wary. Yes, some altruistic communications agencies and consultants genuinely want to contribute to the success of nonprofits. They take their pro bono work very seriously, do it well, and I applaud them. (I had the pleasure of working with one of these agencies in Minneapolis.) Others are less reliable. Often, they can’t deliver on their promise. They end up giving the work to the least senior members of their staff and sacrificing nonprofit  deadlines to meet for-profit deadlines. If you’re offered pro bono work, take the time to explore the offer in-depth. Call their past pro bono nonprofit clients and ask about the experience of working with this person or agency, and the quality of the product. And, if you do accept such an offer, get the specific agreement in writing if you can. Pro bono may look like a magical gift when it comes knocking, but looks can deceive. Just be careful…and realistic.

Give them what they need

Now that you’ve hired someone, you need to become their reliable partner. Projects may require the expertise of an external consultant, but they nearly always require the deep subject knowledge of an internal staff member. Even very independent freelancers are going to have to bring you into the project at different junctures to give them information, make suggestions, or review and approve. If they’ve given you a production timeline (they should), it’s important for both of you to live up to the deadlines. Delays in getting consultants what they need can make you miss your deadline. Make yourself and others on staff available to them as required. They should let you know in advance when and who is going to need to be involved.

Be honest about problems (and praise)

You do no favors to freelancers by delaying criticisms of their work. If there are problems, tell them immediately. Be specific, not only about what’s wrong, but what they’d need to do to make it right. After that, if the work still isn’t up to snuff and you’re losing confidence they can do the job, you may have to let them go and hire someone else. What you don’t want to do is make that big move when your deadline is near. You need time to start over and still meet deadlines. On the other hand, if a freelancer is exactly hitting the mark and you’re thrilled with the work—be generous with your praise.

If you have any other questions about how to work effectively with communications or creative consultants, please add a comment and I’ll try to answer it.

CC photo credit: oooh-oooh

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Free tool of the week: VoiceThread for nonprofits

flickr/ //amy//

flickr/ //amy//

When I first found out about VoiceThread a while back, it struck me as something that foundations and nonprofits could make good use of. It’s a cool way to capture people’s engagement with a topic and image—to weave the threads of their voices into the story being  told.

A VoiceThread is a multimedia slideshow of photos, video, or documents that allows people to easily leave comments and join the conversation. Visually, it’s a slideshow screen surrounded by a mosaic of little avatars of all the people who comment on the image. When you click on the avatar you hear them or see what they’ve written or drawn. People can comment in five simple ways: by telephone, by computer microphone, by web cam, by writing text, or by drawing.

Once you’ve created the central slideshow story—you can invite people to view it and comment on it. Thus the conversation grows.

Wondering how you might use this free tool?

  • How about getting your donors to add their voices to a story about a common cause they all support, telling why they support it?
  • How about showcasing your grantees’ work by asking them to add their comments to a VoiceThread story you create about an issue they’re working on?
  • How about showing how real living human beings are affected by the work you do? Ask them to add comments to a VoiceThread about how one of your programs has helped them.
  • Honoring someone special? Create a VoiceThread testimonial to them including all the voice of people whose lives they’ve touched
  • Trying to build a social movement? Here’s a very visual way to start—tell your VoiceThread story and ask supporters to add their supportive comments. Watch the little avatars multiply!

These ideas should help you get started thinking about ways you might incorporate VoiceThread into your website, social media platforms, emails to help achieve strategic communication goals.  It’s very easy to share—embeddable, emailable, etc.

Now, for a little introduction from the Voicethreads folks. And here’s a great step-by-step how-to slideshow, and an example of how educators are using VoiceThread to carry out conversations with students. It’s a very versatile tool…as you’ll see as you browse through the collection of existing VoiceThreads; everything from podcasting tutorials to art exhibitions to children’s voices about what’s happening in Darfur.

As usual, I played around with this free tool—just enough to create a very simple 1-slide central story about the issue of homeless teens. When you get to the page, just click on the lone avatar for the ABCD Foundation to hear the story. (I pretended I was a foundation interested in highlighting the work of its grantees working on that issue.) You’re going to have to IMAGINE other little avatars surrounding it—each from a grantee talking about the impact of their work with homeless teens. (It would be terrific to have some of those voices be the teens themselves.)

There are a few different pricing levels beyond what you can get for free (3 min. maximums on recordings, max. of 50 comments, etc.). But, even the Pro account, which gives you the most creative freedom is only $60 per year.

I see a lot of potential of this tool for the nonprofit sector–and not just for educators. Nothing is more fascinating to us than other people–what they think, what they say and do, what they support. VoiceThread is a unique way to combine your organization’s voice with the voices of your supporters or beneficiaries. It makes for richer, more inclusive, more credible storytelling. Plus—it’s pretty darn easy to use! Try it.

CC photo credit: //amy//

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Collaborators, get ready to ride the Wave

I’m taking a bit of a vacation this week, but I wanted to follow up my last post on collaboration tools with this video from Google about the Wave–rumored to be out this fall. It’s a fairly long video because there’s a lot to preview, but once you see what Wave is going to be capable of—all those other wonderful collaboration tools may be unnecessary. Really, take the time to watch it. It’s pretty mind-boggling…in a good way.

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Free tool of the week: Online collaboration tools

flickr/pascal.charest

flickr/pascal.charest

(Another little break in my parade of online storytelling and presentation tools.)

Since collaboration is such a hot topic these days, I thought it might be useful to do an overview post about the online tools that make it easier and less expensive than ever. Many of these tools are free, or very low cost. (Even with cool tools, collaboration can still be challenging. That’s a whole other post to come.)

Whether you’re interested in working with a group of people outside of your organization or interested in creating a more collaborative internal environment, here’s a great collaborative map from Robin Good showing the best tools available for different kinds of collaboration. (Zoom in for the links to each web site.)

To help you choose the right collaboration tool, the Idealware blog offers quick comparisons of some the major options, including a nifty little chart. And here’s a list of 27  free must-have online collaboration tools from crazeegeekchick.

Techsoup offers tips about eight free software products to help manage far-flung teams, and this post from Wild Apricot’s blog explains how nonprofit boards and staffs can use free Google docs and spreadsheets to work more collaboratively on strategic planning.

Go forth and co-create!

And I’d love it if you could share information about any of YOUR favorite collaboration tools!

CC photo credit: pascal.charest

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