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

Nonprofits: Become a personal “content” shopper for your audiences

shopping bags

flickr/Somewhat Frank

Content curation isn’t new, even though a lot is being written about it these days. Some nonprofits have been curating content on their websites and blogs for quite a while…maybe without exactly calling it that.

Content curation is filtering, selecting, and/or remixing and reorganizing online content, typically to meet the needs and interests of particular audiences.

Why is this practice valuable? Because none of us has time to comb through the web for the bits we’re most interested in. Think of this service as akin becoming a personal shopper for your audiences—someone who finds the stuff they love and pulls it conveniently together for them, saving them hours, frustration…and 500 bags!

Ever since Clay Shirky’s observation about information overload being a problem not of too much information but of filter failure, folks—including the corporate sector—have begun paying more attention to the crucial role of filtering quality content to serve their customers/supporters. Now that about anyone can publish and the web is rife with information of questionable quality/credibility, this filtering role has taken on even more value.

If you look around, content curation is everywhere—from “10 best restaurant” recommendations to magazine features on sustainable gardening tips to blogs that provide the latest tech news for geeks. Remember, this isn’t just collecting, it’s selecting. Good curation is more than aggregation. Your supporters want you to provide them only with the cream of the crop.

It also involves organization. Using the personal shopper metaphor—you have to decide whether your clients prefer to view outfits (where the shoes, tops, bottoms, etc. are put together by you), functional categories (all the shoes, all the tops, etc.), or everything grouped by color. You want to make it as easy for them as possible to understand what parts of your content they’re going to like the most.

If you want to get more intentional about curation, first become your key audience. Think from their perspective about what information they want and need related to your issue or cause. What will help them make the decisions they face in their lives? What will reward them and make life easier? What will amaze and delight them?

Here are a few examples of blog and website curation that hit the mark. They’re audience-centric, selective, and presented in a way that provides enough information about relevance and significance for viewers to decide what links to click. These examples range from simple lists to broader topical contexts.

  • Wild Apricot blog’s monthly list of free webinars well serves their audience of nonprofits interested in technology and social media. Professional development content is very relevant (especially the word FREE). They further help you filter your interests by telling you both the date/times of the events and a bit about the topic, so you can go right to the content that fits your schedule and interests.
  • The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog curates news and information about conservation and climate change, covering everything from migratory birds to coral reefs and rain forests. They include original content, links to interesting online features, news from around the world, and reader comments. But it all centers on conservation , their core work.
  • The National Wildlife Federation’s Be Out There blog helps parents think of creative ways to get kids away from their computers and video games to spend time outdoors. They want young people to build a relationship with the natural world that will benefit both the kids and the planet…and develop potential future donors to NWF!
  • Another great curatorial site is, an online marketplace for Minnesota artists and a clearinghouse for almost anything art related that’s happening in the state—from competitions to concerts to community events. Because the site’s so good at curating content useful to artists, it’s built a large, active following.

My curatorial aim in tweeting is to share the best resources and advice I find in my daily online reading about nonprofits, communications, and social media. The intended audience is nonprofit communications staff, and my goal is to do some of the heavy “sifting” for them. Organizations can use Facebook the same targeted way. You already know that from all the pages you’ve “liked” that provide you with continuous content related to a favorite book, TV program, movie, celebrity, etc. Even advertising is curated on Facebook.

As repositories of important information, nonprofits and foundations can be great content curators. Not only does their knowledge about their causes allow them to spot the best online resources, but they can also curate their own original information.

For example, does your website categorize your information by type—publications, links, news releases, speeches, video? Why not gather your best resources from those categories on specific topics of interest to your audience? (Few viewers come to your site eager to learn about your publications or news releases, they’ve got a subject in mind.) Put it all in one place for them—and that includes links to your social media channels if they contain relevant information. (Don’t forget the share buttons!) Here’s an example from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—a news page on multicultural health issues for journalists who write for Latino and African American readerships.

Another way to curate content is to display it by its popularity. You can do this by tracking clicks or by actually opening up your content to “Like.” It may feel risky, but it will be a great source of intelligence (rather than guesswork) about what kinds of content matter most to your audiences. Lots of retail sites have already begun to display their most Liked wares (e.g., Urban Outfitters). In the nonprofit world, Wild Apricot blog does a great job of this—allowing viewers to vote on which content they like best and then highlighting that content each month.

Chances are you’re already doing some kind of content curation on your website, blog, and social media. I hope this post helps bring sharper focus to that practice. It’s crucial expertise to have as the amount of online information grows every day.

CC photo credit: Somewhat Frank


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


Strategic Communications Planning for Nonprofits—Step Three: Audience research and messages


Now that you know who your key audiences are and what you want them to do—it’s time to take a closer look at what kind of experiences and communications motivate them. Step three in the communications process—what do they need from you?

What kinds of communication can you generate that will involve them in your cause and lead to them taking the desired action? It’s not about broadcasting one-way messages, then sitting back and waiting for results. Trying to manipulate people through messages doesn’t work—we’re all too jaded from advertising.

In the not-to-distant past, most communicators thought of messages like packages. You wrapped the package as beautifully as possible, stuffed it with carefully honed messages, and sent it off to the right people. That’s no longer enough.

Today, look at your communications like seeds. You plant them, hopefully in the right soil at the right time, but that’s only the beginning. If relationships sprout, you need to nurture them over time…paying attention to problems and opportunities that affect them and trying to be of genuine service. That’s how your messages and interactions can grow into actions that benefit your organization and the world.

So, how do you figure out all this stuff about your key audiences: what stories they need to hear about your cause, what kinds of experiences they pursue and value, what their preferences are, what motivates them, and what turns them off?

You do research—either directly with audience members (surveys, interviews, or focus groups) or through online resources (like those listed below) that can help you draw a more generalized picture of your target markets.

The internet is a wonderland of free, DIY audience research tools. It takes some time to unearth what you need, but it’s essential that you understand as much about the people you’re trying to recruit as followers, activists, or donors as you possibly can. This is a step that nonprofits too often skip. My advice–don’t. You might have been able to get away without audience research in the old communications paradigm, but not in the new social media paradigm where authentic relationships rule. To serve people well, you have to first understand them.

Why don’t many nonprofits bother with audience research? It’s easier for staff members to assume their own preferences and beliefs mirror those of their key audiences. Most of the time, that’s not true. Unless the demographics, psychographics, and now sociographics of your staff are identical to your key audiences, you need to do research. You need to find out what they value and support, how they prefer to communicate, what sources they find most credible, and what they think about your organization and cause. You also need to find out where they already are online. (Go where they are, don’t just ask them to find your website–it’s called “in-reach.”)

One useful way to build a better understanding of your major audiences is to create written “personas” for each one, describing them like they are individuals. Here’s a guide from Nancy Schwartz on how to create and use personas in your communications.

And here are some great places to start researching your key audiences online.

  • This lifespan grid from Cultural Studies & Analysis can be a big help in writing personas.
  • Quantcast is a free tool that can help you start to understand the geographic, demographic, and lifestyle profiles of your current website traffic. Just put your website address in the box, and voila—you see who’s already interested in your organization…age, gender, location, affinities, etc.
  • Forrester’s Groundswell Project site offer a free social technographics profile that you build by filling in three pieces of information for each of your audiences: age, country, and gender. You then get a bar graph showing you the percentage of that audience that engages in six levels of interaction with social media technology. Based on 2009 research data, this is a good first step to understanding how receptive your audiences are to social technologies.
  • Another resource for technographics/sociographics is the ongoing series of reports issued by Pew Research Center as part of the Pew Internet and American Life project. You can quickly gain insight into usage of the internet and individual social media tools (like Twitter and Facebook) from Pew’s statistics and infographics.
  • Steve Cebalt’s ebook is more broadly focused on all kinds of communications research that nonprofits with small (or no) budgets can undertake. But I encourage you to look it over—it’s full of good tips, especially if you’re interested in doing your own research, like online surveys, to find out the interests and preferences of your audience directly from its members.
  • Likewise, Free Range Studio’s “Know Thy Audience” whitepaper focuses on surveys and focus groups, but also contains great info on how to decide what questions you need to answer about your audiences.
  • To find out what people are thinking about your organization, track online mentions of your organization’s name, the names of your top executives and flagship projects through google alerts, and in social media through the free tool Social Mention, which includes Twitter and Facebook.
  • Scan my post “10 free ways to get to know your key audiences better” for other ideas, some of which can be built into your routine operations.

Once you feel you have a good understanding of each of your major audiences—you’re in a much better place to think about what kind of communications they’re going to find most motivating. Recall your action goals for each audience. Now brainstorm what kinds of issue frames, stories, and messages would resonate most effectively with each audience—taking into account all you’ve learned about them.

In messaging—often one size does not fit all. For example, if you’re working in the field of community development, political leaders may not need to hear the same story that foundations need to hear. One may resonate more with long-term regional resource conservation and the other with the uplift of neighborhood residents. Likewise, in environmental advocacy, suburban moms may need to hear a slightly different story than rural landowners to help them understand the urgency of land protection. In youth development, parents may need to hear about the consequences of ignoring critical brain architecture development in their teen children, while legislators may need to hear stories that convey lost potential to a state workforce.

One important caveat—don’t segment the message so much that one of your messages contradicts others, or is inappropriate for your other key or general audiences. All your communications should dovetail and reinforce each other, even if they have slightly different emphases.

By the way, although few of you may have the luxury of testing your best guesses about frames, stories, and messages with your target audiences—if an opportunity arises, grab it. It can save you money and time.

As we move to my next post—choosing messengers—you should already have figured out as part of your strategic communications plan:

  1. the concrete changes you want to make in the world,
  2. which audiences can drive those changes most powerfully,
  3. exactly what actions you want your key audiences to take,
  4. what the characteristics of each of those key audiences are, and
  5. what frames, stories, and messages they will be most receptive to.

You are definitely past the hump! The rest is fun…

Here are links to my first two posts in this series, if you missed them.

Step 1: What do you want to happen

Step 2: Key Audiences

CC photo credit: 3fold


DIY stratetgic communications planning for nonprofits: Step 2—Key Audiences

Flickr/Andrea JosephAfter my last strategic planning post, I’ll assume you’ve made a list of the actions you want to happen in the world as a result of your nonprofit’s efforts. That clarity is all-important as you move on to the next step in strategic communications planning—determining your key audiences.

Many nonprofits give this step short shrift, believing it’s obvious to everyone who those audiences are. But I urge you to spend time on this, even if you believe you already know your key audiences. You may know their broad outlines, but do you know their names and addresses?

I’m only partly joking here. Drilling down to name specific people within your key audiences can be very illuminating. For instance, if you’re managing an advocacy campaign with a goal of legislative change–do you really need to reach every legislator? Maybe you only need to build a relationship with a few members of a certain committee. Or if you’re trying to organize moms to rally in support of early childhood education, do you really need (or have the resources to) reach out to every mom in that area? Are there already grassroots leader moms that you can support to do the organizing for you? Sometimes the levers of change require the force of masses, but sometimes they are in the hands of very few people.

But let’s back up a minute here. Going back to the question of who can make it happen, the more specific you were about your objectives in step one, the more specific you’re going to be able to be about your audiences in step two.

For each of your action objectives—what you want to happen—brainstorm a list of types of people who can help achieve that objective. Do you need to reach small business owners in a particular neighborhood? Young Latino adults? Program staff at a foundation? Seniors in high income zip codes? Particular media? Parents with pre-school children? Try to get explicit about the type of people and the geographic area. Focus on capturing the few categories of people who are going to be most powerful in bringing about change. You don’t have to be exhaustive.

By the end of this exercise, you’ll have a list of most important categories of people who can advance your change agenda. But don’t stop there. Take time to prioritize them and get clear about which ones are essential to your mission. While you can’t afford to miss relationship-building opportunities with some audiences, others are more peripheral. If you can’t decide, ask yourself this question: What would happen if I ignored this audience? If the answer has a lot of negative impact on what you want to happen, you should keep that audience on your list. At the same time be realistic about your staff and budget capacity—how many audiences can you communicate with regularly and effectively over the year?

I usually suggest that nonprofits limit their key audiences to three broad categories, with each of those categories segmented in ways that make sense for your communications needs. For instance, one of your key audiences may be Funders (safe guess, eh?)—and within that category you may have subcategories of Past, Current, Prospective. Within each of those subcategories you may want to segment the types of funder–Government, Business, Foundation. Within foundations, you may want to separate out Program Officers, CEOs, and Board Members. You see how it works—you can actually get down to a very targeted collection of people’s names through this process.

Another benefit of this exercise is that it helps you gauge how robust your database is. Are the audiences and names you’ve come up with captured in your database? If not, that requires attention. Getting communication to and from the right people is critical to your effectiveness.

In the next post, we’ll turn to what you know about all these who’s in whoville and what they need to hear and experience to excite them about your cause.

CC Photo credit: Andrea Joseph


A 5-step quide to social media strategy for nonprofits

flickr/luc legay

flickr/luc legay

Many nonprofits have already dipped their toes into social media. They see others doing it and figure they should be doing it too. So they jump on Twitter and create a Facebook page. Or they put event photos on Flickr, or buy a Flipcam to get videos on YouTube. Then what?

Back up.

Grab your strategic communications plan and start over.

But first, understand that social media is not about marketing, it’s about community. Yes, nonprofits can reach influencers and raise money through these channels, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. To succeed with social media, you have to genuinely appreciate the idea of community—offering help and value with no expectation of return. (I’m not saying it’s not great if you do get support in return, just don’t demand it.) These are useful channels for building relationships.

Using social media, nonprofits can:

  • gain insights about audiences and issues
  • spread important ideas and create awareness
  • share resources and opportunities
  • build networks and social movements
  • strengthen trust in your organization

Step one–the match game

Looking over your communications plan (or your organization’s strategic plan)—identify goals that could be supported by using social media in one of the five ways above.

For instance, advocacy groups may want to use social media to build networks and social movements. Foundations may want to use them to spread ideas and create issue awareness, or share research findings. Other nonprofits may want to use them to learn more about the needs and preferences (or complaints) of the clients they serve. Some nonprofits may want to use them to deepen trusting relationships with their donors.

This little match game should highlight areas that hold the most promise for your social media use. Refine and prioritize these into a set of social media objectives (what do you’d like to accomplish).

Step two–grab the earhorn not the megaphone

Before you start investing in social media, listen to what’s already being said about your organization and your issue. Get the “feel” of these media and how people are using them.

Even if you’ve decided social media isn’t a good investment for you, every nonprofit should at least have a listening outpost. Set up Google alerts for your organization’s name, executives, news release titles, and issue keywords. Research which bloggers are writing about your issues through Alltop or Technorati and subscribe to their blog feeds.

Organizing all this through Google Reader makes it easier for a staff member to keep up with relevant online conversations. Listening is not just a one-time exercise; it should become part of your standard day-to-day operations. That means expressly making time for it (1 hour a day) in someone’s schedule. That person should routinely report significant findings not only to executives, but to all staff members. And you should think about developing a way to make sure that anything negative you hear is addressed!

What do you do with what you hear? Check out these 17 ideas from Kivi LeRoux.

Step three—who, what, and where

If you have a strategic communications plan you already know who your key audiences are. If you don’t, use your organizational strategic plan and ask these questions: What changes are we trying to make in the world? Who can make those changes happen? Those groups are your key audiences. Be very clear about what they need to do to make the changes you desire happen—those are the actions you’re aiming to trigger through your communications.

If you don’t feel that your listening outpost captures your key audiences well enough, enhance it so you can find out more about what these particular groups of people think about your organization and its work. You especially want to find out which social media are popular with these folks. Do you need to start tracking Facebook because your audiences are there? Are they Tweeting? What blogs do they follow? Are there other online communities they participate in? What kind of research do you need to do to find out where they are congregating online? It might also be helpful to scout out which social media your peers and competitors are investing in.

Once you know who you’re trying to reach, what you want them to do, and what social media they’re using—you’re more than halfway home. Remember, just developing a deeper relationship with your key audience members can be an “action” goal.

Step four—putting it all in context

There’s a huge universe of social media out there, so don’t get carried away. Stick to your objectives and key audiences. Pick out a couple of social media that offer the most promise of reaching your key audiences, then focus on going deep with those.

Once you’ve chosen them, think about the larger picture. How are these social media tactics going to integrate with your website, email strategy, publications, media relations, and special events? (Don’t forget widgets.) These are all threads in the same cloth and they need to interweave and reinforce each other. (They also need to reflect that there are human beings behind your logo.)  Write down your integration plan, even a starter time line for the next few months.

Get creative about how you repurpose content in all these media so you’re not reinventing the wheel but still providing valuable content in fresh ways.

Step five—the rubber hits the road

Now, the tricky part. Who’s going to be responsible for what? Who’s going to generate the content and when? Who’s going to do the organizational listening? Who’s going to handle IT and legal support if needed? Do you need outside expertise? How are you going to measure ROI? Who’s going to gather that data?

Are you opting for an organizational voice or are you inviting employees to participate as individuals? How will you handle negative online comments about your organization? What are the budget and staff implications? (These media may be free to use, but they require a sustained investment of staff time to be effective.)

Some people put this question as the very first one an organization ought to ask itself in the process of developing a social media strategy. I don’t. I think that once you understand if, how, and why you need social media to advance your agenda, you’ll probably find a way to shift resources to handle the workload. Maybe you can adjust your other communications commitments to free up time. In the beginning, you may need to rob Peter a bit to make room for social media. Your efforts don’t have to be perfect, but they do have to be consistent and professional.

If you want estimates about how much time Tweeting, blogging, managing a Facebook or YouTube page takes—ask one of the nonprofits successfully using these media. From my own experience, listening and Twitter take me about an hour a day, and my blog posts take 1-2 hours each.

Even with a modest investment in social media, you also probably want to create a short user-friendly policy for your organization. Keep this in simple-to-understand language. There’s a good example at the end of this helpful Mashable blog post.

These statements can help trumpet and clarify for your employees the cultural shift that participation in social media represents—toward more transparency and openness, less control of marketing message, trust-building rather than self-promotion, and more authentic, multi-way engagement with partners and potential supporters.

Now, you’re ready to start using social media strategically—more confident that your investment of time and energy will actually advance your mission and goals.