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


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


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*


Nonprofits have two missions to balance–cause and corporate

twinsBefore I start talking about strategic communications planning in coming weeks, I want to point out a fact that most nonprofits vaguely sense but few clearly articulate.

You have two missions—a cause mission to change society and a corporate mission to sustain your organization. It’s important to keep clear about these two missions, the tension between them, and the communications resources required for both.

Too often, the bulk of nonprofit communications resources are channeled into supporting  corporate mission—raising money. That’s understandable, especially in times of funding scarcity, but it’s also a little short-sighted.

Your cause mission is the raison d’etre for your organization. How well you accomplish it is probably the single most important factor in your long-term fund raising success. If you can’t continuously report impact and progress related to your cause, donors will soon find a nonprofit that can.

Nonprofit communications is not just about marketing your organization to funders, donors, and volunteers. Communications can also powerfully advance your cause mission by helping you shift public opinion, coalesce networks, and build social movements. You’re going to need to think more deeply and creatively about how to do that as you start planning. (For starters, read some of the recent posts on Beth Kanter’s blog about using social media to build social movements.)

You may believe that your cause mission depends on the success of your corporate mission (“we can’t do any programs if we don’t have money”); I believe it’s the other way around (“we won’t raise money if we can’t show program impact”). Realistically, it’s a little of both. Consider that when you’re allocating communications resources next year.


Communications audit: Step three—your digital identity



In the past two weeks I’ve taken you through the major steps in conducting a communications audit, but we’re not quite done. Do keep in mind—this entire audit is set against the backdrop of your current strategic communications plan to help you assess how effectively you’re reaching your goals.

This week I’ll cover the final two steps of an audit—your digital identity and a competition analysis.

As part of your review of the communications you produce (part one of the audit), you’ve already analyzed your current social media platforms, including ROI. Now, you’re going to take a little different approach to how your organization is represented online: piecing together your digital identity.

Your Digital Identity

Whether you know it (or like it), your organization is being talked about and judged all the time. Word-of-mouth can be the most powerful form of communication going today, so you need to know what’s being said and thought about your nonprofit and its work.

The good news is, Web 2.0 has made it much easier and cheaper to track that kind of information. Many of you already have organizational listening strategies that continuously monitor online conversations. That’s important. But for this audit exercise, inspired by Nancy White’s in-depth work with digital identities, you’re going to do online searches while pretending to be these three people:

  • a potential donor
  • a potential employee
  • a member of the media

1) Do a Google search for for your organization, including any possible abbreviations or acronyms. Read every search result-–first from the viewpoint of a donor, second from the viewpoint of a potential employee, and third from the viewpoint of a media representative. For each persona, make note of anything good about your organization that’s highlighted (and where) and more importantly, anything negative or that might raise confusing or troubling questions. Also, generally, make note of opportunities. For instance, if you run across a listing that includes your organization that you didn’t know about, don’t waste any chance you have to submit better profile information.

2) Do this same search exercise for your executive director and board chair. Does your executive director and/or board chair have a Google profile? If not, create one.

3) Do a Google image search for your organization, executive director, and board chair. Know what images are out there possibly representing you.

3) Do searches for your organization, executive director, and board chair on: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, del.icio.us, flickr, and YouTube. Pay attention to what messages your avatars, photos, and videos send to these three personae, as well as what content, links, comments, and rankings convey. Note anything that could be harmful to your nonprofit’s reputation. You don’t control online conversation, but you need to know what’s being said so you can consider what kind of action might be taken to help correct misperceptions or end dissatisfactions. Be prepared—some problems may go deeper than communications to involve aspects of your programs. If there is nothing or very little being said about you on these platforms, you need to think about that, too. Is that a good thing or a bad thing vis a vis your communications plan?

4) Do searches for your organization on popular charity Web sites and directories: what information is being shared? Are you being rated? If so, what are the results? Are you missing from sites where you should be included? Here are a few sites to get you started: CharityNavigator, Guidestar, CharityGuide, InsideGood, GreatNonprofits,and Idealist.

When you’ve finished these inquires, you’ll have a better sense of what potential donors and employees, as well as reporters can (and will) find out about you online. If  you discover significant problems with your current digital identity—especially inaccuracies—address them right away. Also make note of opportunities to better represent your organization online. Those should be woven into your new strategic plan.

Competition Analysis

There’s one more piece to a communication audit that I highly recommend for nonprofits and foundations–a competition (or peer) analysis. Find out how to do one in my post from a few months ago. Be sure to include social media platforms in your review—not just websites and publications.

In coming weeks, I’ll talk about the nuts and bolts of crafting a new strategic communications plan for your organization. But rest assured, if you’ve done the audit—you’re miles ahead in understanding which of your communications need to be changed or discontinued.

CC photo credit: krazydad/jbum


Communications audits: Media Analysis



Last week I provided guidelines for assessing the communications that you control. But that’s only half of the story–especially in today’s conversational Web 2.0 environment.

This week, attention turns to what the media is saying about you, and next week—what the Web is saying about you, and what your peers and competitors are up to.

Media Analysis

You all know your local media outlets, and you should be continuously tracking coverage of your organization and issue in them through Google alerts. But for this exercise, collect all the major coverage you’ve had in the past year—online and in print. (If possible, make this exercise an annual one so you can track trends over time.)

Don’t just read through the coverage, create a spreadsheet and answer the questions below for each story. There are two ways to approach this: 1) start with the media that you most wanted coverage by and work down to the media that covered you that you didn’t aim for, or, 2) start by tracking the coverage generated by your specific media relations efforts/news releases and work down to coverage that you didn’t generate yourselves. Both of those collection methods will yield insights.

For each story:

  • Where did it appear? (name of specific medium plus whether it was print, electronic, or online)
  • What date did it run?
  • Who wrote or produced it? Do you have any kind of relationship with that person?
  • Was it long, medium, or short?
  • Did it feature a photo, or a side bar?
  • Was is positive or negative about your organization or its work?
  • Did it include a quote from your organization? Who was quoted?
  • What was the main message about your organization that came through? (state this message in one simple sentence)
  • Was that the main message you wanted to come through? If not, what was the message you were aiming for?
  • What was the genesis of the story? Your news release, a call to a reporter, etc.
  • Were any parts of your news release repeated in the story?
  • Was the issue framed in the way your organization is framing it? Did media use any of the same language you are using in your frame?
  • Was there any measurable ROI for each of your major media pushes, e.g. attendance spikes at media-promoted events, a sharp increase in website hits from a media article, a rise in donations following a media feature, etc. Always try to track tangible results for your organization during and after a media push.

Glean trends and insights

Now, look over the spreadsheet for insights into how effectively you met your media relations objectives.

  • Are there any reporters writing about your issue, especially on a regular basis, that you haven’t built a relationship with? If so—start a relationship now, when you aren’t pushing a story. These relationships are as much about helping reporters/bloggers as they are about getting a story.
  • What was the biggest source of coverage—your news releases? your phone calls? other kinds of media networking you did? partners’ media relations? etc.  (If the biggest source wasn’t your organization, think about the implications of that.)
  • How does the coverage match with your strategic communication media goals? (e.g., If you’re trying for big hits every quarter—did you achieve that? If you’re trying to up your coverage in one particular media outlet—did you achieve that?)
  • Are there any media “holes” that you need to focus on: media popular with your key audiences that aren’t covering you at all.
  • Did your photos end up being used? (If not, consider why that may be. Are they of high enough quality? Are they compelling and relevant? Do they include human beings, especially faces? Do they tell a story?)
  • What’s the ratio of negative to positive stories? If there were negative stories you think were unfair and inaccurate, try to analyze what happened and consider how you can improve your credibility with those reporters.
  • Is there a recurring negative message or meme out there about your organization or work or issue you need to be aware of and try to correct? Is there a recurring positive message you’d like to reinforce?
  • Are the positive messages that appeared actually the most important messages you would want people to hear about your organization and its work? If not, you need to work on your message platform so you’re repeating the most important positive messages every chance you get.
  • Who is most often interviewed from your organization by the media? Does that person do a great job every time, or could they profit from media training?
  • Is your frame is gaining traction?  Are your language and metaphors being used by the media.
  • Were the correlations between media channels and ROI what you wanted and expected? e.g., did smaller, niche media deliver more than mass media? did online perform better than print? did TV disappoint?
  • Does the media seem more interested in some topics than others? Ask yourself why that might be and how you can use that knowledge.

You may even want to write a little summary of the image of your organization as it’s portrayed in last year’s coverage to clarify what you need to focus on changing. This whole analysis gives you a rich context to start planning the media relations component of your next strategic plan.

If you have additional ideas for things to watch for in a media coverage analysis, please add them below!


Webinars for Nonprofits: Getting Started

flickr/TechSoup for Libraries

flickr/TechSoup for Libraries

By now, most of us have participated in a webinar, but it’s one thing to participate and another to produce one. So, here’s  a quick guide to getting started in webinar production for nonprofits.

In light of current budget blues, traveling to a conference or workshop isn’t always possible anymore for your key audiences. Webinars can help your organization tighten its belt by helping share its knowledge and best practices without incurring travel costs for your staff or participants.

The first big step in deciding whether to do a webinar is completing your strategic communications plan. Your goals and strategies always determine your tactics and channels, not vice versa. So, don’t start by deciding you want to do a webinar and then coming up with an idea of what it might be about.

However, if—as part of your overall plan—you find your organization needs to communicate with a particular, far-flung audience in a fairly in-depth way (for example, to convey information or to explain a process) it might be worth considering a webinar.

Webinars don’t lend themselves to every topic, so keep that in mind. If eye contact or body language is important to your topic, you may want to look at another medium. Likewise, if you need more than an hour and a half to cover the subject, think about a series of shorter webinars or use another tool. Attention spans are challenged by webinars that last more the 90 minutes. Also, for small audiences within a short geographic distance (including internal audiences), face-to-face meetings may build stronger relationships than a webinar. Weigh all the pros and cons before you decide.

Anyone who’s taken a webinar knows they’re not all created equal. Some falter because of technical problems, inadequate planning, or poor presentors. Good webinars may look seamless and easy to do, but they’re the ones that have taken the most time to plan and carry out well.

Here are a few great resources to make sure that—if your nonprofit  chooses to conduct a webinar—it’s a raving success.

  • First, look over these two wonderful articles from TechSoup on how to plan and how to conduct an effective webinar.
  • You’ll also need to understand the range of available tools—here’s a list by Idealware that spells out what capabilities you can have in webinars, and reviews some of the webinar products you can use, including prices (scroll down to the section called Online Seminar Tools).
  • And finally, HubSpot’s 10 best practices for webinars.

You nonprofits and foundations who already have experience  at conducting webinars—please share your experiences and add any advice you have below!

CC photo credit: TechSoup for Libraries