The CEO bully pulpit: Commentaries in the digital age


I’ve wanted to post for a while about one of my favorite media tactics for nonprofits and foundations. I guess it’s one of my favorites because I’ve been lucky enough to work with some courageous CEOs and executive directors who were willing to use their stature and credibility in the community to move the needle on social issues—everything from renewable energy to the importance of arts for school children.

I call this media tactic the bully pulpit, and you should only use it if you and your board are comfortable taking a public stand on an issue.

As more foundations and nonprofits understand that information is one of their chief assets, their leaders are using online tools like blogs and twitter to share their knowledge and perspectives with a wider audience. One simple sharing tactic is the submission of opinion editorials or commentaries to online media outlets—both mainstream and niche.

Most mainstream media have robust online websites, and nearly all include invitations for people from the community to submit opinion pieces or commentaries for online publication. Think about the media outlets—and don’t forget the specialty media—that are read by the audiences you’re trying to reach.

First, let me remind you that any tactic has to fit within your larger communications strategy. For instance, if you’re trying to change an issue frame on a particular issue, or bring new information and wisdom to light about a public policy, this tactic may be of use to you. If you’re trying to change public policy, this can work too, but be sure to adhere to nonprofit guidelines about advocacy.

Part one: Placing the commentary

This tactic actually has two parts, both equally important. First, you need to write and place the commentary. That involves five steps:

1) Clarify what you want to change (behavior, policy, awareness) as a result of the commentary and who can actually make that change (your key audiences).

2) Thoughtfully pick which media outlets reach those people and look over those outlets’ submission policies.

3) Think about timing (if you’re submitting more than one, do you want a blitz or a stream? Do you want to tie this to an event?).

4) Write a commentary tailored to each media outlet and the audience it attracts, which includes understanding your main talking points and path of persuasion, as well as the commentary guidelines for each outlet. Most op-eds run between 500-800 words.

5) Submit the piece online, including a brief explanation of who you are. (NOTE: Most outlets can take up to three weeks to publish op-eds. They may ask you for a photo.)

For each of the outlets you think are good matches for you key audiences, take time to read through the last few months of  published op-eds—both from  their editorial staff and members of the community—to get a sense of what kinds of issues and approaches each outlet is interested in. (Also, make sure no one has already written what you’re planning to write.)

Then do a topic search of their news for the past two months on the issue you want to write about. Pay special attention to what they’ve published about this issue in the past two weeks—there may be a news hook for your piece in there. For instance, if you want to write about education, it’s important to know that a new educational achievement report just came out last week—you may want to tie your commentary to that article.

Part two: Targeted recycling

Part two kicks in when the commentary is published. It’s great when visitors to the media website happen to read your piece, but don’t rely on serendipity for getting your key audiences to the website. Let them know once it’s been published through a short email with a link included. Don’t look at the email as a way to toot your own horn, think of it as sharing interesting content with potential readers. (Check to see if the media outlet requires link rights. Sometimes, these articles go offline after a couple of weeks unless you have obtained those rights.)

If you want to get even more personal, get reprint permission rights from the media outlet and send it out to key people with a personal note attached. (Be aware, reprint rights can cost money. Be sure to ask if they offer a nonprofit discount.)

More likely than not, this post-publication recycling of the op-ed is going to be the best way to ensure that those people you really want to see it actually do.

You can use online commentaries to create buzz by submitting different pieces to different media on the same topic in a short period–3-4 weeks. Or you can create a steady stream over a few months, or aim at quarterly placements that keep an issue in front of the public.

If you have any other advice for nonprofit leaders who write commentaries—please share it below!

CC photo credit: southtyrolean

The Empty Package–Nonprofits, Social Media, and Content Strategy



I’m delighted to see recent data about the nonprofit sector’s leadership in adopting social media.

I’m also a little worried.

We’re all familiar with the knock-out Facebook pages, Twitter streams, flickr albums, and YouTube channels of large nonprofits who have become models in the use of social media to grow and engage supporters. I love keeping track of what they’re doing…thanks in part to Beth Kanter and others who share these organizations’ experiments and growing wisdom with us.

But I see a slew of other nonprofit social sites that remind me of empty packages. They can be beautifully wrapped sometimes—with great visual branding. But once you get beyond appearance to substance, there’s no meat, no content strategy. They’ve jumped onto the social media bandwagon without much of a plan.

Content freshness is a well known value by now; most organizations try to tweet and update often. And some of the pages look great. My concern is that there’s often so little evidence of a content strategy. Much of the time, it’s impossible from reading the content to know who the intended audience is or what the purpose of the communication is. That’s a bad sign. It tells me they’ve focused on paper and ribbons, and not the gift inside.

For example:


So many Facebook pages regurgitate Twitter streams, and vice versa. (Also true for blogs and FB.) That’s time-efficient for the administrator, but it can be a turn-off for your followers to find the same things in both places. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are different tools with different strengths and uses. Think through your strategy for each of them, because they aren’t interchangeable. Maybe, for your organization, they should even be aimed at different audience segments.

My, me, mine

I run across a dozen Facebook pages a day that are simply a series of updates by the organization about its own news and activities. Even with clever text and good photos, those updates read like a PR newswire. There’s certainly a place for some of your own news on your Facebook page, but this medium is about conversation and community. If someone talks about themselves all the time, it’s not a conversation (in fact, it’s boring). Having 4,000 followers and no comments or posts from anyone else isn’t a genuine community or a successful Facebook page. Engagement is what you’re after.

Willy Loman lives

Too many nonprofits still try to use social media as a selling  instrument. They look at these communication channels as one more place they can tell you how important they are and what kind of impact they have–in hopes you’ll donate or volunteer. That selling approach—even if it’s done well—isn’t appropriate for social media. Use it on your direct mail, maybe even on your website donation page, but not on Facebook and Twitter. Social media require a service mentality, not a sales mentality. You really have to care about helping your followers in some way—making life easier for them, solving their problems, getting them where they want to go, helping them feel good. This is not to say these tools can’t be used at some point to help raise funds, but build your community first—and build it honestly. As one strategy guru said recently about content—“It’s not what you sell. It’s what you stand for.” (You know all those lofty values your organization shares on your website? You should be living them out through your social media.)

Cha-ching cha-ching

Many nonprofit Facebook pages are geared toward fund-raising, with donate widgets everywhere, sometimes in two or three places on the landing page. That might work well for websites, but social media aren’t websites. Lots of Facebook group pages and other pages are exclusively aimed at raising money for short-term crises and projects—I’m not really addressing those. I’m talking about organizational pages that are seeking to get more engaged followers, to build online communities. Maybe you don’t need a “give” message on every single social channel. Shouldn’t there be more places and occasions when you aren’t asking your followers and friends for something, but offering them something? Like the most relevant and significant content?

Nonprofits should heed the movement toward content marketing in the for-profit sector—where companies are starting to understand that telling people how important their brand/product is isn’t as effective as actually being important to them. So, instead of shouting out product benefits, they’re starting to create and curate social media, email, and web content that explicitly meets their customer’s wants and needs. There’s purpose behind every piece of content they put out there. They’re building stronger brand loyalty by letting their customers help drive that content.

I’m not suggesting that nonprofits turn to content marketing—but that they come up with a more disciplined strategy for their social media content. Content is your most powerful reader engagement tool! You can’t afford to randomly slap up photos, updates, videos, and tweets. You can’t just talk about yourself, you have to bring your friends and followers into the conversation. You can’t aim at everybody, you have to know who you’re trying to reach and why. You can’t expect followers to do something for you, at least until you’ve done something for them (and more than once).

Think about the purpose of what you’re tweeting, posting, and updating. This is not to say everything has to be deadly serious or a version of your organization’s key messages–but you should know why you’re sharing a piece of content and what outcomes you’re hoping for from which audiences.

I’m going to close with a great content strategy example.

The nonprofit blogger John Haydon has started a Facebook page that does only one thing—answers people’s questions about Facebook. It doesn’t promote his consulting services—it embodies them. There are no self-promotional ads or come-ons—he simply shares his considerable insights about how to use Facebook by answering questions his friends ask. (He brands himself as The Facebook Guy, which even takes his name out of the equation yet creates a well defined niche.) Even more—the content is personalized. His answers help one person at a time solve real problems.

What’s not to love? John has combined two of the most powerful friend engagement strategies out there—content marketing and personalization. You have seen the future.

My next post will be about the potential of content curation for nonprofits. (No, I don’t believe “Curation is king.” But it can be part of your overall content strategy for websites, blogs, and social media.)

PS: I will also soon wrap up the final installment of the strategic planning for nonprofits series from earlier this year. Thanks for your patience!

CC photo credit/minxlj


Direct mail envelopes–five ideas for nonprofit fundraising

ricky(Another stellar guest post from nonprofit fund raising expert Rick Schwartz!)

My family usually shops for groceries with canvas bags that I pick up at conferences. But every third or fourth week we ask the checkout clerk to use paper bags instead, so we can use them to recycle newspapers, my son’s homework assignments, and about 99.5% of the direct mail we get, unopened.

A good half of my direct mail is from nonprofits and, even in my modestly generous home, nine out of 10 new appeals go unopened into the recycling bag.

I hate to say it, but yours may have been one of them. Too bad. With very little cost, effort, and imagination, you could have gotten me to at least open the envelope. Then who knows what might have happened!

Your first competitor is indifference

So says branding expert Harry Beckwith. A boring envelope signals boring contents. Sadly, experience has proven that true. Just one more lackluster appeal for money. Do you open those letters at your house? Me neither.

Remember, direct mail is a science, not an art. As such, marketers test everything about an envelope:

  • color and quality of paper
  • shape and size of envelope
  • postage stamp or bulk mail indicia (Herschell Gordon Lewis, Direct Mail Copy That Sells, recommends a postage meter)
  • “teaser” (Robert Bly, The Copywriter’s Handbook, says “no teaser” unless it’s really good)
  • typeface (gotten any ‘hand-addressed’ mail yet?)

Truth is, some methods work until consumers catch on to them. Then direct mail marketers have to find something new. Here are five ideas gleaned from real appeals I’ve received that made me at least stop and think. Most of these should fit into reasonable budgets; you just have to print the envelope.

Hey, I get something for free (benefits)

Some effective envelopes appeal to most people’s desire to get some kind of benefit (other than moral) from giving to your organization. You do have stuff to offer: maps of great hiking trails, 10 tips on choosing a doctor, note cards, a down-to-earth explanation of charitable giving. No, you’re not selling your soul to the devil by “selling” your nonprofit.

Words you might find yourself using: “free” and “enclosed”. Robert Bly suggests you include something that can be felt in the envelope. It doesn’t have to be expensive, something like a calendar magnet. (Be aware that some studies show that giveaways like tote bags and stuffed animals lead only to short, superficial relationships.)

What the heck’s in the envelope? (curiosity)

Some envelopes raise questions whose answers you must know, but can only find inside. Two examples from Planned Parenthood include envelope copy that reads: “They’re coming after our organization with everything they’ve got” and “More unintended pregnancies in 6 easy steps.” Another organization touts a curiosity-arousing “ultimate offer” on its envelope.

I’m special (exclusivity)

Making donors feel they are part of an elite group leads directly to the largest gifts (in many cases). Herschell Gordon Lewis says four words work here: “private”, “advance”, “invitation”, and “exclusive”.  Recently, the Smithsonian sent me something announcing on the envelope that I was one of a few select readers in my state to be chosen to complete a survey. (The envelope is pictured above.) Other appeal envelopes I receive come from celebrities or luminaries who sign their names in the return address slot. Another envelope told me” “We’re not for everyone, but then, maybe you’re not everyone.”

Uh, oh! (fear)

It’s sometimes powerful to call attention to a looming threat. Examples include an envelope bearing the message “A gathering storm of anti-Jewish hate” or one warning that “The religious right wants to change the way you live.”

To dream the impossible dream! (a call to arms)

Nonprofits should excel at enthusiastically stating the essential challenge. That’s what makes the boring envelopes above so unforgivable. Tell the prospective supporter what he or she is fighting for. Real-life examples include envelopes with the following printed messages: ” It’s one of the most powerful and dangerous initiation rights imaginable–and every day more than 5,000 girls are at risk” or “94 million American children with no health care; zero has been done to stop global warming; 155,000 US troops stuck in Iraq—49 US senators are behind it all.”

I’m so embarrassed (guilt)
Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving. I know LOTS of nonprofit folks who truly believe that everybody who is not supporting their cause should feel guilty. I almost always find that the nonprofit just hasn’t made its case well. That said, guilt can be used in strange ways. One example is a photo envelope of a mother polar bear and two vulnerable cubs with the headline “Please help.”

A few other ideas
Other effective envelopes I’ve seen:

  • blank except for the recipient’s handwritten address
  • a personal note (in real ink) on the envelope
  • way oversized envelopes

Your turn
There’s very little about envelope ideas above that you can’t tailor and re-create economically for your nonprofit of almost any size. Follow these steps:

  • Know the dramatic selling points of your cause
  • Package the information your nonprofit can share
  • Understand the motivations of your donors
  • Save sample envelopes you love (and hate)
  • Test ideas on your friends and family. Don’t give them more than four seconds to look at the envelope.
  • Devote the time and resources necessary to make the envelope work.

Thanks, Rick!


Own the Room–Some great presentation advice



Lots of us tend to underestimate the potential ROI from a great presentation. If we absolutely have to do one, we default to PowerPoint and spend as little time as possible in development and preparation. Other communications tactics we’re working on are considered much higher priority.

Yet, most of us know that face-to-face communication is the top rung on the ladder when it comes to effectiveness. Mobile is awesome, but human beings still like to communicate in person. Think about that the next time you (reluctantly?) agree to make a presentation. Spend as much time as you need to ensure the desired effect. And, of course, the first step to that end is knowing what that desired effect is—ah yes, back to strategy. Set a goal for your presentation, just like you do with other tactics, so you’ll have some way to recognize whether you’ve succeeded.

I’m going to share some great advice from a new book called Own the Room, written by three experts on business presentations. It’s packed with good sense about strategy and useful how-to’s, but I’m going to focus on one aspect of the book—openings.

The best way to lose your audience in the crucial first 60 seconds of a presentation is to use a traditional, polite but dull opening aimed at everybody (and nobody). You know the kind: “Good morning. I’m Patricia Smith from the blah-blah organization. I’m delighted to be here this morning, and grateful to have this opportunity to talk to you about…..”

Everyone’s already looking at email on their phones or twittering that another lifeless speech has begun. Your opening has to get the audiences’ attention, and interest them enough in what you’re saying so they’ll stay tuned. As the authors point out, our brains are wired to pay attention to novelty and surprise–so use that knowledge. Be unpredictable—skip the tedious introductions and shake things up a little. Engage your listeners from the minute you open your mouth.

Here are three suggestions from the book about how to just that.

Ask a counterintuitive question

People may believe they know the right answer, but you then show them what the real truth is in a way that starts to frame the rest of your talk. The example given in the book is: “China has a history of disregarding copyrights. Of all the products whose copyrights are infringed where do you think the most violations are found?” Most people say movies or CDs. But you point out: “The number one copyright infringement in China involves Prozac.” From this opening you can move into the theme of your talk (trade, legal issues, depression, etc.) knowing you’ve gotten your audiences’ attention through surprise.

Make an attention getting statement

The example given is “Attractive people are more persuasive than average-looking people. How does this affect your business?” Again, from this opening you can segue into ways to level the playing field, aspects of persuasive speaking, etc. But you’ve gotten everyone to start thinking about how they fit into the attractiveness spectrum, and that engages them in your real topic.

Tell a personal story

Use the first few minutes to tell the audience something surprising or novel about yourself. Demonstrate why you’re passionate about your topic through a personal anecdote. Make it riveting, and full of visual details that help them see what you’re describing. People far prefer to hear a story rather than a lecture. Usually, we also find such stories more believable and memorable.

When using each of these techniques, the authors urge that you tailor your presentation to your audience. Generic openings don’t connect with anyone. To do that, you need to provide personal experiences, stories, concepts, or ideas in enough detail to make them interesting and relevant to listeners’ own experiences. Signal immediately that you know your audiences’ needs and expectations.

They also suggest that you reveal your personal values. Become a human being to your listeners, not just a speaker. (If that means revealing a small weakness they can identify with, go ahead.) Give them a window to your thoughts and feelings. If listeners feel like they know you, they are more likely to believe you.

And finally, the book encourages you to present your point of view on the subject. This helps your audience quickly understand your intention, context, and passion. The authors recommend that you picture your listeners with remote controls in their hands. Your job in the first few minutes is to keep them from flipping channels. Examples of a few great (and instructive) openings are included in the book.

Developing and preparing for a presentation—including one for a videoconference or YouTube—is a great opportunity to put all your communications wisdom to work. This book can help, as can many other books, blogs, and websites. Take the time to learn all you can about how to do good presentations. Your audiences will thank you!

CC photo credit: constantly-Jair

Own the Room is by David Booth, Deborah Shames, and Peter Desberg. I received a complimentary copy.


First step in strategic communications planning: Communications audits



If I had one piece of advice to give any foundation or nonprofit communicator in this new financial paradigm of thrift, it would be to develop a strategic communications plan. It may be your biggest conservation tool. If you already have a plan, the second half of the year is a good time to revisit it for fine-tuning or mid-course corrections

Some people quake in their boots at the words “strategic plan.” The trick is doing it step by step, and not rushing to tactics. If you spend 75 % of your time getting strategy right, you’ll only need to spend 25% of your time figuring out tactics—because they grow organically out of your strategy.

For this series of posts, I’m assuming you don’t have money hire a firm or an external consultant to help you with a plan, but you still want to do as much as you can internally to improve the effectiveness of your communications. I’ll try to keep my advice realistic and doable.

This week, I’m going to talk about the first step in the process—communications audits.

If you’re planning on redecorating your house, you don’t just go out one day and buy paint and furniture willy-nilly. You first look around and see what you already have. That helps you develop a vision for what you want, and exposes what needs to be changed.

That’s what communications audits do. You need to know where you are to figure out where you want to go next and how best to get there. Audits assess your current communications practices and products, and highlight areas that need improvement. There are lots of ways of doing them, but I’m paring it down to what I think can help you the most and not overwhelm you. (But it will take an investment of your time. No way around that.)

Make a list

You’re going to be gathering and analyzing all of the communications you currently produce. So, the first thing to do is make a list of them all—from your Facebook page to your annual report, from grantee announcement letters to the voicemail message on your organization’s main telephone line, from the signatures on your emails to donor thank you cards.

Don’t think just in terms of print or written communications—include all your digital communications and social media platforms as well. Even include your signature special events and small group meetings if they’re important communications tactics with external audiences.

What you’re trying to get from this audit is a complete picture of the panorama of communications tactics you’re currently using, and a sense of the cost/effectiveness for each.

Once you have this list, add some details for each item (create a grid):

  • Time frame  (e.g., annual report—March; enewsletters—Jan, April, August, Nov.)
  • Audience/Purpose (who you’re trying to reach and what you want them to do after receiving your communication)
  • Reach (e.g. how many publications are printed and distributed/how many you have left in your storeroom; how many facebook fans you have; how many people receive your email newsletters; how many twitter followers; web visitors, etc.)
  • Cost (real cost, not what you budgeted)
  • Staff time (note whether staff time investment in this communication is intensive, moderate, or small)
  • Any known return on investment/ROI  (through your strategic planning you’re going to get better at measuring this, but put down anything you know right now—total donations through facebook page, results of reader surveys for major publications, how many website downloads, etc. What you’re trying to discover is which communications best lead to people taking the action you wanted them to take.)

Analyze this information in several different ways.

  • Look for duplicate efforts; maybe you can eliminate the tactic with less ROI.
  • Notice where you have no idea about ROI; you’re flying completely blind there. You need to build in evaluation.
  • Notice any correlations between cost, reach, staff time, and ROI–the ideal communication causes the most people to take the action you want them to take and costs the least amount of money and staff time. Are you spending the most staff time and money on communications with the largest reach to key audiences and biggest ROI?
  • Are you inundating any of your audiences? Ignoring any ? Are your communications choreographed to arrive at optimal time intervals with each audience? Are you leading audiences into a deeper relationship with your organization with every communication?
  • Are there important audience actions that aren’t covered in the “purpose” of any of your communications?
  • What’s the balance you’re striking between print, digital, and face to face communications? Are you too heavy into print? Are you slighting face-to-face? Are you spending too much time on social media?

Gather samples

Now, gather as many actual samples of all your printed pieces as possible—including your letterhead and business cards and print-outs of your digital landing pages. Lay them all out on a big table or tape them to a wall. (For clearer insights, arrange them horizontally according to when they occur during the calendar year and vertically according to audience.) Overall, what you’re looking at is your visual identity. Notice how things cohere and reinforce each other (what you’re striving for) or how different they all look (uh-oh).

Some questions to ask while reviewing these items:

  • Is your logo/wordmark/tagline and contact info on every piece? Does your logo/wordmark look identical, except for size, everywhere?
  • Are you using a limited, consistent, easily recognizable palette of colors?
  • Is there some kind of design consistency throughout, even though every piece doesn’t have to be identical? Would someone easily recognize these pieces as all being produced by the same organization?
  • Is there design consistency between our printed and digital communications?
  • What three adjectives do you think people would think of when looking at your current visual identity? (Be honest. If you don’t trust yourself, ask some friendly strangers from the next office to come in and offer opinions.) Are these the three adjectives you want people to think of when they think of your organization?
  • Does everything look professional—even if cheaply produced?
  • Is there a warmth, a “human being” sense to your communications, or are they cold and institutional?

Now study the content of your communications.

  • Are they immediately engaging for the reader? Are there high quality compelling photographs that reinforce main messages? Are headlines meaningful, informative, and attention grabbing? Do you use subheads, captions, drawn quotes, and sidebars to layer information for skimmers? Is the content really interesting to your audiences, or is it just something it was easy for you to pull together?
  • Are you conveying your one or two main strategic messages throughout our communications mix?
  • Look for conflicting messages; if you’re messages contradict each other you’re confusing audiences.
  • Are you providing easy cross-referencing  for audiences to all your channels—Are there links to your latest newsletter and social media pages on your website home page? Is your web address front and center in your printed materials? Are your publications featured on your social media pages, and vice versa?
  • What’s the quality of writing? Is your web writing just like your publication writing? (It shouldn’t be. See my free ebook about best practices in nonprofit website design.) It is it in plain, easy to understand English, or full of complex sentences and jargon? Is your writing too long?
  • Do you include other voices in your writing, or is it always you talking about what you’re doing and why it’s important?

By the end of this part of the audit, you should have a pretty good idea of 1) how your products and practices are either hitting or missing the mark and 2) which ones are the most cost/effective in light of your communications goals and your institution’s strategic plan. Make notes about all the weaknesses, opportunities, and improvements you’ve discovered, and record any ideas and insights. This will all help set the context for your strategic planning.

Next week I’ll cover three other parts of a communications audit—media coverage analysis, digital identity, and competition analysis. In subsequent weeks, I’ll get into the actual planning process.


CC photo credit: joebeone

The best fundraising advice I’ve ever heard!

Language CaptureAbsolutely every nonprofit executive and development or communications director should listen to this 45-minute audio presentation–The Language of Change.

No exceptions.

No excuses.

You need to hear Tom Suddes‘ brilliant advice about framing your fund raising…not just the way you talk and think about it, but the way you do it. He focuses on 20 common words and meanings, all of which need to be replaced by new ones. For 90% of you, this talk will turn your world on its head.

It may be the most important thing you listen to all year.

We owe big thanks to Network for Good for bringing this to us all free!


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.


The power of naming: Clarify and frame your work



A week ago there was a piece in the NYT magazine about Frank Luntz, issue framer for the Republicans. You know him even if you don’t know him. He not only writes fundamental framing memos like his recent “The Language of Health Care,” recommending that Republicans link health care reform to “a Washington takeover” and other ominous forebodings. He’s also the guy who helped name many Republican policies—your know, “energy exploration” instead of “drilling for oil,” the “death tax” instead of “estate tax” or “inheritance tax,” and “electronic intercepts” rather than “eavesdropping,” among others.

I’ve marveled for years at the “opposite speak” employed in these names (e.g. the 2003  “Clear Skies Initiative“,” which weakened the Clean Air Act and required fewer reductions in air pollution). But we all have something to learn from Luntz about naming. No, not the art of opposite speak—but the power of names to shape perception.

He doesn’t just slap long, academic, left-brained names on issues and initiatives. He doesn’t rely on cute names that will amuse but also confuse. Nor does he rely on acronymns. He thinks carefully about how the language used in a name can tell the story and frame the issue. Names can even help define who’s got a stake in the story. (Only the wealthy may incur significant estate or inheritance taxes, but “death taxes” involve us all, right?) That’s a powerful practice when you’re trying to reach a populace awash in information and searching for quick filters to help them figure out what what’s relevant.

Here’s an example of how names can shape thoughts about a social issue. Take the name “domestic violence”—which is genderless (although the vast majority of such violence is against women) and places the problem—and thus the solution—in the privacy of the home. This name implies it’s a problem between two people, nothing to do with the public. Compare that with the name “wife battering”—which is more accurately gender specific and reframes the violence as brutality. With the latter, average citizens can see a prevention role for themselves. Who wants to allow the battering of any human being?

Likewise, compare the past name “day care,” which implied babysitting while parents are at work, and the current name “school readiness.” As a citizen, I may not be that concerned about helping provide babysitting services to working parents, but I might want coming generations succeed in school so they can become productive working members of society.

As I visit foundation and nonprofit Web sites, I see so many bland, generic names or long, academic names or clever but opaque names for their initiatives, projects, and research reports. And don’t even get me started on the acronyms. None of these names get at the story behind the work, frame the issue addressed in the work, or clarify its relevance for people.

Here are a few examples of names used by nonprofits and foundations to describe their important program work that I quickly pulled off the internet today.

The Home Visiting Initiative Program
Making Connections
Leadership for Community Change
Blueprint for Action
Effective Citizenry
Models for Change
Window of Opportunity
Creating Common Ground
Food and Society

Naming decisions deserve more thought, because names help frame a nonprofit’s core work. (They also can help differentiate your work from other nonprofits.) Names are the first filter that your audience uses to figure out whether something is relevant. They will be repeated far more than the rest of your content. Make it easy for people to understand what your work or information is really about and why they should care.

Even if it takes more time and effort to come up with a clear, concise, meaningful name…do it. The sector should use every opportunity to help people grasp the meaning and value of its contributions. More thoughtful naming would be a good start.

NOTE: A few days after I wrote this post, Andy Goodman’s newsletter called for nonprofits to reconsider their organizational names. I couldn’t agree more, but probably would never have been as optimistic as Andy that nonprofits would seriously consider such a big change. I’d just be happy if nonprofits chose better names for their programs, issues, and products. Anyway Andy, bold move and good for you!

CC photo credit: THEfunkyman


Giveology: Does neuromarketing research have anything to teach nonprofits?

buycaptureI just got around to reading Buyology by Martin Lindstrom (one of Time magazine’s most influential people of 2008) and although it’s aimed at peddlers of consumer goods and services, it’s a fascinating (if chilling) read. Mostly because it reveals how our buying decisions are manipulated by marketing techniques that reach us unconsciously—in ways we don’t see or understand.

I’m not talking about anything as straightforward as advertising. Scientists have now done enough research on the human brain to provide marketers with much less obvious ways of triggering a purchase. Armed with results of the largest neuromarketing study ever done—which this book summarizes—they can reach us before the rational part of our brains even kicks in.

I tried to get past my discomfort about the insidious way that marketers are using this new research to build brands and sell more, winnowing out a few insights that might be useful to nonprofits. Giveology, rather than buyology.

The eyes don’t have it (all)

Visual stimulation—while still very powerful—is only one path to getting people’s attention and helping them remember you. And that path is getting less powerful due to the saturation of visual stimuli in our lives. For a long time, marketers have relied on grabbing people by the eyes, but this new research shows that grabbing them by the ears or nose or fingertips is just as effective. More and more brand marketers are abandoning their obsession with logos and engaging in what the author calls “sensory branding.” That means playing to all the senses in order to cut through the clutter of experience and create memorable brands people feel passionate about.

Nonprofits don’t sell products, but we’re still trying to create a unique and rewarding experience for our supporters. Maybe we should try harder to appeal to all the senses in our communications work, not just the eyes. For instance, we could use audio more (podcasts), combine audio with visual more frequently (double whammy, and there’s certainly no shortage of tools out there), or write more vivid sensory descriptions in our copy. Think about how this might apply to special events, direct mail, even fund-raising premiums. Try to provide more than eye-candy.

I remember you wore red

Related to this is the importance of color. Research shows that color can increase brand recognition by up to 80%. When someone makes a subconscious judgment about an environment, a person, or a product within 90 seconds—60-80% of that assessment is based on color alone.

If first impressions depend so heavily on color, it’s probably worth it for nonprofits to more thoroughly explore the colors you’re going to use in your lobby and office spaces as well as in your print and electronic communications. Marlboro (not a role model!) has transformed entire bars into subliminal advertising through the use of red and white, and shapes that echo their packaging—no logo in site. OK, OK—no foundation or nonprofit is going to do that. But if color is this influential, it’s worth thinking about how and where it’s used, especially as part of an organizational identity. Information about the emotional meanings of color is available on the Web. For instance, here’s a primer about the emotional meaning of colors in Web design.

Me wanting what you have

One part of the book is devoted to mirror neurons, a part of the brain that often makes us unconsciously want to have what others have and imitate what they experience…despite ourselves. One example given is how we all thought Croc shoes were ugly when they first came out. But after seeing them on everyone else, lots of us have changed our “minds” about that and bought a pair.

If mirror neurons rule, then maybe the nonprofit sector should do a more compelling job of portraying the  passion of their supporters. Not just staid donor profiles, but fresh first-person storytelling that makes others want to experience the same joy of giving back. Show, don’t tell. Let supporters say it in their own words and their own way. This is where Facebook and other social media could make important contributions. Maybe we need to think of ideas in the same way— more exciting wOOts for practitioners who are succeeding with innovations that nonprofits or foundations would like to bring to scale. Might as well aim those mirror neurons at human behaviors that promote the common good rather than the common goods.

Rituals r us

One research finding was unexpected—that the human brain perceives strong brands in almost the same way it perceives strong religions–with the same passionate loyalty. In a fast-moving, unpreditable world, humans cling to things that make them feel in control. Rituals fulfill that need; they’re familiar and stable. They give us a sense of belonging, and have even been shown to have a positive effect on emotional health. Lindstrom cites examples of consumer brands that have built in rituals that make them stickier than other brands (a lime wedge in the neck of a Corona bottle; the slow pour of a Guinness, etc.)

It’s interesting to think about rituals in terms of the nonprofit sector. Are there ways we can better meet the human need for familiarity, stability, and belonging through our organizational practices and communications products? One area that may hold some potential is donor cultivation and relationship building. Are there other ways to use simple rituals to good effect—staff meetings, board meetings, special events, interactions with beneficiaries of our work?

If all of this seems far-fetched, it may be. But it’s also the future of consumer marketing—based on scientific research. It doesn’t hurt to contemplate ways that neuromarketing research might be used to help strengthen the nonprofit sector.


Guest post: 10 things to consider when designing your annual report

Linda Henneman, ThinkDesign

Linda Henneman, ThinkDesign

Over the years, I’ve been in charge of developing a dozen annual reports for large foundations. For some of them, I was lucky enough to work with ThinkDesign Group. Their award winning work is known for its powerful interplay of text and design. For this guest post on annual reports, it was a no-brainer to turn to Linda Henneman, creative principal at ThinkDesign.

My nonprofit clients are producing annual reports this year, despite the economic downturn. Together, we’re creating pieces that are appropriate for the times. Like them, you too may be faced with a complex story to tell, with only a few pages to tell it on—most likely on a trimmed budget.

While addressing the reality of the economy is important, it need not be all doom and gloom. Instead, your audience needs to know that supporting your organization’s work now is more important than ever. So focus on setting the tone through a reassuring voice and compelling design, and be assured you won’t need to break the bank.

Remember, an annual report is your chance to talk to the people who have been passionate enough to support you financially. So create a solid annual, they’ll appreciate it!

1. How to think about the strategy behind the annual report

  • Yes, it’s a report addressing the past year, but make it even more useful by placing focus on the future.
  • What’s your message? It must be aligned with the needs of your organization, concise, true in good times and in bad, and delivered with confidence. Your message should convey the essence of your organization.
  • You’re talking to your supporters, but it’s also a great opportunity to talk to a new audience. Balance the “choir” audience and the potential new audience. Keep in mind that your supporters may also need help understanding the nuances of what you do.

2. Key leadership needs to be a part of the process

  • This is true from the initial discussion to choosing concepts. This is a piece that is the voice and vision of the leaders. Hearing directly from them is critical in setting the right tone.

3. Bring the designer and writer in early, they’ll help spark the process

  • The writer and designer can get the process started by being the outside voice and getting the focus off of the “internal speak.” Designers are problem solvers by training, and can offer ideas to overcome challenges. A good writer can inform the design and make the whole piece stronger, so get them on board from day one.
  • Provide your design team with the details they need to make your annual report stand out.

4. Start Early

  • Give yourself enough time, between three and four months. Forcing it into a shorter amount of time will only increase cost, errors, and stress. Your annual report concepting process can be a great opportunity to evaluate, revise, and reinforce your organization’s communications strategy.

5. The power of less copy & why writing shorter can be better

  • Using minimal text with powerful images can make a strong statement; quickly. In today’s world, it needs to be quick. People are taking less time to read.

6. A great cover makes you think

  • The cover should make you think. You should feel the urge to open it. And when you do, you get the payoff: your curiosity is satisfied.

7. Don’t neglect the mailing envelope

  • The envelope needs to break through the mail pile. An odd size for a little extra “wow,” or try colored envelopes or add a teaser headline to spark interest.

8. What to look for in photos

  • Photos don’t need to be literal—like people sitting around a table, working. Find more dynamic ways of telling your story.

9. Today’s green printing option

  • Promoting green printing practices sends a powerful message and can motivate others to do the same.
  • Choose a designer knowledgeable in eco-friendly paper and printing vendors. One that can help you make decisions on paper recycled content, vegetable-based inks. Look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, renewable energies, efficiency in printing and press/paper setup.
  • Be sure to add a simple line of text explaining how your piece was printed green, include all applicable “certified-green” logos.

10. Differentiate your report from others without breaking the bank

  • It’s easy: a good concept, with strong messages, compelling visual, and clear, concise copy—and it doesn’t have to cost a lot to print. For instance, The Headwaters Foundation for Justice’s consistent, award winning annual reports are 2-color, use stock photography, and reprint efficiently on a sheet of paper.
  • A good designer can help choose an appropriate printer for your specific project. Paper selection, production and printing techniques can all be ways to cut costs.
  • Mailing cost is another area for potential savings. Consider smaller formats for lower postage costs.
  • Order realistic quantities. It may be cheaper per piece to print more, but if you just throw them away it doesn’t save money or the planet.



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