3 cool, creative, free communications tools for nonprofits


It’s been too long since I’ve posted about free online tools, and there are some recent ones that deserve your attention. Depending on your audiences and communications strategies—these might make interesting new communications channels for you.

Your own live, interactive TV show

Want to stream an event live? Consider Ustream, which lets anyone with an Internet connection and a camera engage an audience of unlimited size in an immediate, interactive way. Ustream has been used to broadcast everything from high school sporting events to Hollywood movie premieres to Charity:Water’s well-digging, and people are finding new uses for it every day. You can create a channel for your organization, just like YouTube. You can also record your event for future uses. Here’s a quickie how-to overview and a recent blog post with tips from a nonprofit that’s used it. This is a great, free way to increase the reach of your special events.

Your own radio program

You may already listen to the nonprofit marketing and fund raising advice of Kivi LeRoux Miller or Marc Pitman on Blogtalkradio, but have you considered how this free internet radio platform could contribute to your nonprofit’s communication goals? All you need are a phone and computer and you can create your own online radio show, and share it everywhere–Facebook, itunes, Twitter, and more. What a terrific storytelling medium for sharing your work or interviewing the beneficiaries of it. If you’re not up to live video streaming yet, you may want to use this audio tool at events to increase audience reach. Or use it to broadcast discussions about nonprofit issues. (Here’s an example of that from Rosetta Thurman, talking about social justice and philanthropy.) Your supporters can listen where and when it’s convenient for them.

Your own animated slideshows

Last year I blogged about the promise of Animoto, Glogster, and Yodio as free ways to add more zip to your photos. I’ll add one more–Kizoa. I think Kizoa is more fun-loving than the other two, and may not work as well for more serious topics. You have a lot of choices among transitions, special effects, text, animation, and music–so the challenge here is to remember that “less is more.”  It would be very easy to incorporate so many gizmos that viewers are distracted from your message. But this could be a creative, engaging way to issue event invitations or say thanks to your supporters, among other things. Being light-hearted and humorous can be an advantage sometimes, just make sure you use it appropriately. You can share these slideshows through email or Facebook.

Multichannel communication is the name of the game these days, and don’t forget to effectively cross-promote! Connect your channels, align your communications, and invite participation in the form of comments, tweets, updates, posts, etc.

Any other newish free tools out there you’d like to add to this list? I’d love to hear about them.

Creative Commons photo credit: marcmo


Nonprofits and Foundations: Don’t Forget the Infographics

flickr/*raj*I’ve read many articles and posts over the past few years about the nonprofit sector’s inability to manage and share information effectively. (Gee, I’ve even written a couple.) Most of these articles suggest how nonprofits can share information more meaningfully than through reports, and how they can tell stories that convey information in a more powerful, memorable way.

Let me add another important tool to this remedial mix—infographics.

Wikipedia defines them as visual devices intended to communicate complex information quickly and clearly. We’ve all seen examples of them—subway maps, traffic signs, scientific diagrams, and even children’s books. Here’s a good blog post introduction to infographics from InstantShift.

I’ve been intrigued with this field of expertise for a couple of decades, but the sheer volume of information out there now and the leaps made in communications technology have forced an enviable bloom in the field over the past couple of years. (Look at all the examples that pop up when you search in Google images or the flickr infographics pool!)

Right now, infographics are being used most effectively by newspapers and magazines interested in easy-to-understand explanations of complex concepts and relationships. But, some foundations and nonprofits have started to understand the value of this tool to visually simplify information that’s difficult to convey in text. Check out the infographics page on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation site.

Foundations especially have struggled for years to find ways of making their knowledge bases more accessible and understandable…and actionable! Infographics—because they are so quickly understood—can really help build momentum for action.

Let’s look at a few examples of good infographics, so you get the drift. Here are 50 excellent designs compiled by blogger Francesco Mugnai. Check out his other inspirational infographics lists under “related posts” on his blog. Note the flexibility of this medium, able to capture information as disparate as what’s inside Bob Dylan’s brain to the population demographics of the US or global giving patterns for the Haiti disaster (shown on  Information is Beautiful).

In addition to what’s linked above, other online resources offer stunning examples and regular commentary about infographics to spur your imagination.





My advice? The next time you encounter difficulty explaining information to your key audiences—don’t forget the beauty of infographics.

CC photo credit: *raj*


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


Sharing your knowledge base: Meet the user’s needs, think beyond PDFs



A few weeks ago a reader asked me to blog about effective ways that nonprofits and foundations can share their knowledge bases.

This is a subject close to my heart. There’s a lot of talk in foundations and nonprofits about disseminating information, but for the most part their online resources are still PDF lists—ugh.

No matter how beautifully designed your publications are, PDFs aren’t particularly user friendly—especially when there are so many free or low-cost ways to share knowledge online that better serve your audiences.

PDFs may be easiest for you—but we’re in the age of consumer orientation. Giving your online users what they want, enjoy, and expect is the key to their loyalty. (By the way, one of their online expectations these days is a little bit of entertainment.)

End your dependence on written research reports. They still have a role, but they should be just one piece of a more diverse knowledge base. Rather than assuming a written report is the best way to convey information—imagine the alternatives. They will require different kinds of resources than publications, and possibly more staff time, at least in the beginning. But the technical costs are usually quite low. And I’m betting your impact will be much greater. (Remember—you have to measure that.)

First be clear about what you want the outcome of the knowledge-sharing to be. It’s not just a matter of pushing out information to the public. You need specific goals about who needs the information and how you’d like them to use it, what actions you want them to take to bring about what changes. Those objectives will help you decide on an effective communication channel.

And don’t be afraid of a learning curve. Just because you’ve never produced a podcast or created a blog or twittered before doesn’t mean that it’s beyond you. Today’s nonprofits have to be agile, and that means trying new things. But, for your first experience with some of these technologies like videos and maps, you may want hire an expert to guide you through the process at least once.

If you do continue to use PDFs—at least draw out the golden nuggets for your readers. Rather than scholarly executive summaries or abstracts, create little “Five Big Take-Away” summaries for skimmers who want the gist not the tome. Not everyone has time to read 15 or even 5 pages.

So, what are some interesting ways you can engage people with your knowledge base, and maybe even invite two-way interaction?

Events: There’s big difference in impact between sending someone a report and inviting them to an event where the report is going to serve as a springboard for action. Often, translating knowledge into practice is your real goal, and face-to-face communication can be an effective way of getting there. Help people understand how they can USE your information to improve their organizations and advance a cause. Think of your report as an organizing tool. Maybe you follow up by developing an online community.

Webinars: This is a great way to stage “an event” that markets your knowledge without the travel inconvenience and cost for attendees and presenters. You can convey a lot of information in the fun, easy format of a free, hour-long, interactive webinar. Then, recyle it on your Web site to reach even more people. One great example is the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Today’s Topics in Health interactive Webcast series, which invites people to submit questions prior to each episode.

Podcasts: The Chronicle of Philanthropy could have produced articles about the topics on their Social Good podcasts, but how much more engaging to hear nonprofits and experts talk about best practices in social media. This highly mobile medium offers welcome flexibility to your busy audiences; they can listen while they workout.

Videos: Videos are short, pretty inexpensive, great at storytelling, and wildly popular online. You can share briefings and interviews, offer instruction, and feature best practices among many other uses. One good example is the Benton Foundation’s video series on best practices in community media. And take a look at the data-sharing video in this blog post: “When data can take your breath away.”

Slide shows: There are some very effective slide shows out there, some with sound. Here’s a good audio slide show from Chicago’s New Communities Web site, and others from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Maybe rather than asking researchers to write long papers, ask them to work with a creative consultant to create slide shows that convey the highlights of their findings. (Put them up on SlideShare if you do.) These slide shows can find their way into your own events and webinars, and can also be used by your supporters.

Maps: Since Google Earth and Google Map were introduced, maps have become one of the most exciting ways to visualize and layer information. The map-building options out there are amazing, and many of them are free. Here’s an example of 10 mind-blowing maps that convey a lot of information.

Photo stories: Many research projects include stories of individuals and groups that have benefited from some action. Tease out those stories, write them as if you were a journalist, and include some compelling photos. Never underestimate the power of good photographs to tell a story; here’s a simple recent example about the recession.

Blogs: If you have deep enough expertise on a particular topic and a continuing stream of new information, consider a blog to share your learnings. A good example is the MacArthur Foundation’s blog on digital learning—one of their major research fields—or the Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog.

Toolkits: Toolkits are a great idea—especially if you’re trying to share best practices and how-tos. But too many online toolkits end up a collection of PDFs. Think more creatively. Use podcasts, videos, photos, discussion forums, blogrolls, online communities, and social bookmarking as well as publications. Here’s an innovative free toolkit on creating social issue games that uses graphics, video, a multimedia resource list, and a highlights window to layer information and make it all  interesting, interactive, and fun.

Visualization: Lest you run out of ideas about how to visualize data and information, this periodic table of visualization methods is a great place to visit. Scoot your cursor over any item and an example pops up. In fact, the table itself is an example of creative visualization. Take a look at how the Kaiser Family Foundation visualizes research data on its Fast Facts Slide spotlight on its homepage, or how the Heritage Foundation uses charts.

Comments/Ratings: Yes, take the risk of “thumbs down.” Add comment and ratings features to your resources. (My previous post shows you where to download these free features for your site or blog.) Use them as research tools to discover which of your learning resources were most useful to your audiences and which weren’t.

Twitter: Don’t scoff! Twitter is a terrific tool to share research highlights. In the past, many communications practitioners broke up the major findings of a big report and released them individually to get more coverage and make the report more digestible for the media. Use Twitter the same way—if you’ve got a finding that’s newsworthy, tweet it and provide a link to the source. Tweet a stream of these findings over a week and track your Web hits.

Consider that each of the above channels has certain strengths. If you’re trying to organize a coalition to put best practices into use, an event or webinar might be a good first step. If you’re trying to wake people up to a startling fact so they make different choices, maybe you need to use data visualization or maps. If you’re trying to move people emotionally to raise funds, think about the power of video and photo stories. Try to match the channel to your objectives. But please. . .think beyond PDFs!

CC photo credit: jessamyn


Don’t forget to download a free copy of my eBook on best practices in nonprofits website design!

DOWNLOAD HERE: Best Practices: Nonprofit Web Site Design

Nonprofit e-reports: Writing for time-challenged readers

flickr/i hate spelling

flickr/i hate spelling


One important role of foundations and nonprofits is to share knowledge. Often, they do this by publishing reports. . . most of which end up on shelves.

Typically, nonprofit reports are long, strewn with data and jargon, and produced without much thought about the reader. Often, the task is simply to get information out into the public domain.

It doesn’t matter whether reports are printed or online as PDFs—their traditional linear structure doesn’t work well online. (For proof, study Jakob Nielsen’s research about online readers.) Many reports almost defy readers to find the needles of information they’re after in a haystack of pages. Let’s face it, few people will (or need to) read the entirety of any report. Executive summaries don’t quite do the trick either.

Why do people even look at reports? Because they have questions and think they might get answers. In fact, most of our research is based on particular questions, so why not structure reports that way? (Socrates just entered the room.)

Here’s an inspirational example—the free ebook Tribes: Q & A that’s a companion to Seth Godin’s print book Tribes. It’s a PDF, yes—but instead of a table of contents it has a table of questions—each linked to an answer in the body of the book. The entire book is a flow of questions and answers that readers can enter at any point. There is no linear beginning and end—they can jump to the bottom of the list then jump back to the top. They aren’t forced to eat a 27-course meal to get to the dessert. Notice how scannable the answers are: the basic answer is in the first line, paragraphs are only 3-4 sentences long, and bulleted lists organize ideas.

To use a report format like this, you need to think about information in a different way when you’re writing. Think about the questions the report answers and the questions your readers might be seeking to answer. Think about the relationships among those questions. Think about what you really need to include to answer those questions—and what you don’t. Online, cutting copy by as much as 40% can actually help readers grasp your information quicker and better.

Using a format like this forces you to get to the point, which can require more time in the beginning. But, what a payoff for time-challenged readers who can quickly scan, dive, and get the information they were after. Sure, along the way they may explore other questions—but it will be a choice not a requirement.

CC photo credit: i hate spelling