Spin Cycle

Spin Cycle crop 800x224You never really know when negative press may hit your organization and switch your communication efforts to the spin cycle. It can easily hit the best organizations; just consider the disparaging developments at organizations like LiveSTRONG, Central Asia Institute, and Susan G. Komen.  Preparing in advance for these speed bumps, can minimize your risk and save you some pretty big headaches.

This issue was recently brought into focus by a friend who posted the following image on Facebook with the comment: "Wow, I had no idea…"

PETA imageI thought it was pretty incredible and a little shocking, so did my friend, who happens to be a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). That's because, while many may consider PETA a bit extreme on some issues, I think everyone agrees they hold the rights of animals first and foremost.  So, my red flag went up on this one and I decided to dig a bit deeper.

The first thing I looked for was a values statement from PETA that might provide some guidance and insight into their organizational foundation. Throughout my search, I learned that PETA has strong and deep-seated position statements that identify their views on just about everything.

"PETA's "Uncompromising Stands on Animal Rights" is an overview of what sets PETA apart. Our positions may be controversial, but they are always true to our driving mission: to stop animal abuse worldwide."

True to form, I found a list of positions on animal rights, including euthanasia:

"Euthanasia is a sad reality caused by people who abandon animals, refuse to sterilize their animals, and patronize pet shops and breeders instead of adopting stray animals or animals from animal shelters." Read the rest of their position here.

So, that pretty much answered my question.  At the ready, PETA had provided a reasoned and pragmatic position on an important and unpleasant issue they have thoughtfully considered and then decidedly presented as their stance on the problem.  Most importantly, their preemptive strike rendered the aforementioned attack pointless and that is exactly the result you want to achieve.

So, let's briefly take a look at some of the important take-a ways on spin; it's a double-edged sword that can work to present a reasonable alternative, but it can also be used to incite and provoke.

 

 

  1. Remember that even the most innocuous statement can get spun in a different direction than intended. We see this every day on the 24 hour news programs, as they digest, regurgitate, and spin every single statement made by politicians and celebrities into something often unrecognizable from the original.
  2. You never know who is going to take a pot-shot at your work. The smart organizations are pro-active in their communications.  They develop comprehensive values statements, stick to them, clearly think through all their positions, and post them front and center.
  3. An active PR campaign with a comprehensive media contingency plan, available at the ready, can save you a great deal of heartburn, especially if they are developed in advance to a potential attack or misunderstanding.
  4. Remember that not everyone's red flag will pop up when they see something that may stray from the truth, popular belief, or reality.

I never found a values statement for PETA, but they probably don't need one, that's because they are true to their values and clear in their vision, which they share widely.  Being true to yourself and confident in your beliefs will take you a long way, just don't let them become your little secret. Make sure you let the rest of the world know.

30,000 Foot Strategies

flight_dispatcher_training-cropAs we are propelled head long into a new year full of uncertainty, but rich with promise, consider these 30,000' strategies to jump-start your 2013…

1. Identify your strengths and align your responsibilities.  In his book, "Let My People Go Surfing," Entrepreneur, climber, and founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard professed this simple truth: "Managers have short-term vision, implement strategic plans, and keep things running as they always have. Leaders take risks, have long-term vision, create the strategic plans, and instigate change."

Most board development resources agree that one of the fundamental responsibilities of a nonprofit board of directors is to set the organization’s mission and overall strategy, and to modify both as needed.  Yet, I often see boards placing their attention on tactical issues (like laboring over a new logo) instead of pursuing broad strategies for a sustainable future.  In order to make the most of 2013, use Chouinard's common sense observation to your advantage.  Get your board to take a step back and focus on the big picture, while you let your staff do their job of handling operations and implementing your strategic plan.

2. Focus on building your "business". Dan Pallotta, the author of  “Uncharitable,” exposed the unfair rules imposed upon charitable organizations, including the biased view of overhead (investment in infrastructure) as something sinful. Rather than simply asking, “How much of donations will go to programs?” you should consider expanding to a broader discussion about investment and capacity building to achieve more meaningful outcomes and greater impact.

Every successful business takes risks, they invest in themselves, and leverage their vision by investing in people, capital equipment, advertising, and product development. Your organization would do well to do more than spend on program, but to consider how to better solve problems for those you serve, re-evaluate your outcome measurement infrastructure, examine how you reach out to a greater audience and who that audience may be, and to invest in your people.

3. Renew & widely promote your "Theory of Change". Your "Theory of Change" is that set of building blocks that when all lined up lead to a long term goal, desired outcome, or community impact. When a donor clearly understands your process, it becomes a critical link that works to convert a donation into an investment in your organization. When donors become investors, they are consigned to your mission and their personal fulfillment leads to greater funding.

Recently reported by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, "More than four out of five donors conduct research before they give. And many of those donors are looking at your organization's website for information about how their money will support your mission."  In a related Chronicle article: "More nonprofits have shown that data collection and analysis can change the way an organization operates and improve its results in fundraising and carrying out its mission…"  Refine your process for greater and greater impact and efficiencies in order to maximize every dollar you earn.

Finally, don't leave the public's understanding of your "Theory of Change" to chance.  Test market how you explain your process, first among insiders, and then to a larger and larger audience.  When people "get-it" and appreciate your theory, it paves the way to a greater recognition of the importance of your work.  This, then becomes the value proposition from which you implement tactical marketing initiatives to grow mission and achieve vision.

All the best in 2013!

Shift Your Focus

Essentially, growth comes in two flavors: bigger, or better.  What ever your goal, you need to invest resources to hit your target.

The idea of investment over expense was recently brought into focus by a blog post from Larry C. Johnson, titled, "Raising Less?—invest more".  It elevated my thinking to realize that where you place your emphasis makes all the difference.  All too often, I hear something along the line of: "we can't afford to spend money on, or we have not budgeted for: ___________".  With this perspective, the emphasis is on expense rather than investment and unfortunately, it is not a very proactive perspective.  As Larry points out in his blog, an investment returns more than its cost.

I learned a long time ago that it is important to plan your work and work your plan. To that I've added: AND, any plan is better than NO plan.  A budget is a planning tool.  So, I'm surprised by how many organizations I've visited of late that have no budget for critical business functions like: marketing, outreach, or fundraising.  If you don't budget for something, you're not planning for it, and if your not planning for it, then it just won't happen. If you want to hit your growth target, it is important to reach out to a greater audience by promoting your exciting plan and many successes. That means investing resources in those areas.

It is important to distinguish that having some amount of money squirreled away in some miscellaneous account, (especially an account that only one person knows about) does not help an organization plan for an activity.  It is important for all stakeholders to be aligned with strategic goals and those goals need to be visible.  Consider adding a line item for marketing, fundraising, or outreach to your budget.

During these difficult times, we all tighten our belts and unfortunately sometimes many important items are cut because they appear extraneous.  While programming leads to community impact, you can't continue to deliver if funding wanes. If you want to grow and hit your targets, a balanced approach includes emphasis on all aspects of your mission, and that's a holistic strategy.

If you make a concerted effort to think holistically and act proactively by shifting your focus towards investment you will dramatically improve your chances of hitting your targets.

Bring the Rain

If you saw my last post, a humorous look at starting a movement, (if not, check out the 3 minute video under "Leadership & the Courage to Follow", it's worth your time) you may be thinking a bit about your leadership style. Perhaps you're shifting towards a better understanding of what makes followers (the critical sauce for success), well… follow!  If so, here is the question that is probably uppermost in your mind: "Is there a formula for how leadership develops a strong following?"

The answer is yes!  You can think about this process as you do with most things you build, step by step, layer by layer.  An overarching fundamental is an understanding that is best expressed by Daniel H. Pink in his book: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, "The secret to high performance and satisfaction – at work, at school, and at home – is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world".  So, here are the basics…

  1. Organizations don't have needs… People Have Needs.  Remember to embrace your followers and recognize their needs, desires, and participation. Keep this in the back of your mind as you build your programs and campaigns and you'll find your recruitment and retention efforts to be much more productive.
  2. There is one leadership fundamental that has inspired organizations for thousands of years and it’s the capacity for all involved to envision a desirable picture of the future. Building Shared Vision, illuminated by Peter Senge in his book "The Fifth Discipline", is a vision that is shared by all stakeholders that creates a rallying point, which fires up the base and gets the sauce to simmering. Shared vision is what we hope to accomplish, it's how we see the world, and it's our raison d'etre.  Shaping your vision is critical.  In order to become followers, individuals need to relate and understand; often at a primal level and for that you need to carefully build your case.
  3. Understand the Need: In order to build an effective case for gathering support, you need to develop a thorough understanding of the problem. This shouldn't be based upon a hunch, or a personal opinion.  It takes research into what the community perceives, what already exists in the environment, and an awareness of best practices.
  4. Once you have this knowledge under your belt, the next step is to: Develop an Exciting Plan, which serves to fill the need, or which solves, or alleviates the problem.  But listen closely, because here is a CRITICAL COMPONENT… Your plan needs to be both easy to understand and exciting, so as to build enthusiasm and to acquire and retain interest.
  5. Share Your Victories: Your constituents need to know, but always keep in mind that different audiences will respond to different messages and they respond best when they are moved by powerful stories of how your work affects the lives of those you serve. Remember that a brand is what people think when they hear your name. Message consistency across many touch points and lots of it are the keys to building an effective, accurate brand. A brand that lives on in the mind of donors and constituents must be developed through years of message layering. Creating campaigns designed to inform, motivate, and educate through many touch points, from web, to collateral, to white papers, which build relationships, is essential to success.

Finally, my father often used to say: "You never know unless you ask."  I never connected the dots until it was brought into focus just yesterday, while listening to an interview with former President, Bill Clinton. Essentially, he said: "People are dying to help; they just need to be asked." Click!

The key is to ask in a way that presents the community need, your vision, and your exciting plan in a way that allows each individual to see themselves as part of the solution.  That means providing a rallying point, which includes a compelling and detailed rationale for how they can participate.  You can't simply just talk about generalities.  While a vision: "World peace", or "ending homelessness" is a fundamental goal post, simply talking about your vision without a road map, will not create excitement, or commitment.

Nurture your community with personal details that help them understand and engage and you will see your followers multiply.

Leadership and the Courage to Follow

Yesterday, just for fun, I Google'd leadership and received a response of 506 million articles. Among these replies, I found a range of topics on leadership; they crossed areas covering a broad spectrum of styles, concepts, models, and characteristics.  There were also articles which covered strategies, tactics, mentoring, and visioning; a lifetime of self-improvement reading material!

I've always considered myself a student of leadership principles and process.  As a business owner, board member, nonprofit executive, and especially as a twelve-year field-active member of a mountain search and rescue team, I've learned a thing or two on the subject.  With any luck, some of it may have actually stuck with me.

By far, my biggest lesson was learned when I read a very simple quote by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lau Tse. Paraphrased, he said: "When the greatest leader's work is done, the people say they did it themselves."

Simple, profound, and true.  While we all strive to be leaders, as leaders, we all know it's not about us, it's about the vision, the movement, the cause.  But more importantly, without followers, there is no movement and sometimes following takes as much, or perhaps more courage than leading.  That's why the following humorous 3 minute video is nearly as profound as what Lau Tse proclaimed over 800 years ago.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hO8MwBZl-Vc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

I hope this serves to remind that while leadership is important, followers are the critical component of getting a movement started, and keeping it growing and persistent.  It takes guts to follow, so nurturing your followers is a fundamental key to leadership.  Viewed from this vantage point, I might catch myself in the camp that finds leadership in and of itself, just a bit over-glorified as well.

Perhaps we should all strive to be better students of following.

Building Bridges

Understand these basics of building strategic partnerships and you'll see your organization blossom. Get off in the weeds and you'll spin your wheels in the ditch.

More often than not, many organizations lack a thorough understanding of what their strategy should be in building collaborative partnerships. They know they need to have them, but they're often unsure of where strength might live.   Strategies for developing good partnerships always revolve around each organization’s goals’, a common interest, and a good relationship.

Therefore, the best partnerships always offer mutual benefit, where all parties bring something to the table and all parties receive a return from their investment.  Arrangements structured in this way create synergy, longevity, and satisfaction.

To facilitate clear goals, the best nonprofit organizations commonly break their partnerships into at least into two categories and understand the difference. The first are complimentary organizations; those whose missions, visions, and values resonate within your area of service.  These types of partnerships are typically collaborations and the kinds of cooperative activities might include any of the following: combined fundraising events, program exchanges, or causal activities like advocacy initiatives, or public benefit activities.

These types of partnerships can work to leverage public relations actions, which can lead to greater awareness, promoting membership, volunteer commitments, or individual donations.  They can also work to promote our second category, corporate partnerships.

For the most part, corporations are all about making money and returning it to their shareholders.  Except for those with a triple bottom line strategy, they are not typically in the business of giving their money away.  Therefore, corporate partnerships are characteristically sponsorships, which work to brand the corporation or business as favorable to a segment of the community to which they wish to promote themselves.  In many ways, there is no limit to where leverage may exist in your community and synergy may be found among any number of companies.

It's always more important to understand the why of building bridges, rather than the how of building bridges.  The key to a successful corporate partnership then, is in finding an angle that will lead to crafting a mutually beneficial campaign.  So, the critical questions to ask and answer are: “what does your organization have to offer a partnership, why would a prospect’s management be interested, and then, who might be interested?

Finally, always remember that each bridge is built on a relationship and if that relationship falters, so will your bridge building.  You never know where each relationship will lead and you should know that sometimes a bridge can appear from out of thin air as a result of an unassuming relationship.

Practice these principles and you'll build a bridge to greater awareness, powerful partnerships, and subsequent sustainability.

Build Your Brand Through Actions!

As a career-long marketing professional, I believe in truth in advertising. That is not to say you can't spin or slant your argument to present a fresh alternative, or provide a different perspective, but you need to back up your claims!

This brings me to the state of customer service, about which I often find myself wondering aloud. Haven't we all found ourselves arguing with many of our service providers?  It seems like the only way to get anywhere is by kicking and screaming and threatening to quit.  Yet, they all claim to have customer service as their number one priority.

We have also of late been inundated with political advertisements; with each candidate pointing out the others flaws, rather than presenting the case of why we should vote for them over their opponent.  In some incidences, they have been downright dishonest, presenting not just half-truths, but what I would characterize as outright lies.

These are not ways to build your ideal brand!

We have all been told that actions speak louder than words, but how often do we market ourselves by words alone?  That's why I promote a holistic approach to your nonprofit marketing activities.  Marketing that takes a holistic approach to promoting your organization is developed by thinking about your organization as a whole, which includes its place in the broader community and society, in the lives of its consumers, and its niche among other service providers.

All your activities should be viewed through the prism of your stakeholders: constituents, consumers, donors, employees, volunteers, and the community at large. Holistic nonprofit marketing takes an active and prominent place at the decision-making table.  It plays an active role in programming; examining and influencing outcomes measurement and community impact, aligning your programs and activities to coincide with your values and your vision. Marketing tactics then glean success from program and work to effectively communicate your accomplishments.

Most importantly, promoting your brand starts from within, so it lives throughout your organization. Top-down commitment and involvement of each person in the organization is fundamental to success. Your brand should become a shared vision.  It needs to live in the hearts and minds of every stakeholder in the organization; it must be embraced and promoted from inside out.

Plant these seeds, nurture them, and watch as your vision becomes reality, and your funding and sustainability grow. Remember, there’s no substitute for simply being remarkable. Work towards excellence in all things you do.  Aspire for greatness and your vision, the brand you imagine will come with ease.

A recent interview with Bob Ottenhoff, CEO of GuideStar produced some pretty folksy, but relevant advice for nonprofits looking to improve their funding position.  His comment was brilliant in its simplicity: "When asking for donations, make sure to answer the following questions:

  1. What do you do?
  2. How do you do it?
  3. How are you doing?

To these, I'd add one more question:  Why do you do this?

It's not always clear why your work is important. "The Need" should be carefully explained, so as to provide a frame of reference to your work and illuminate the uninitiated to the plight of your constituency and the significance of your mission.  Miss this point and you won't grow your audience, or win donors.

Most importantly, by answering these questions, you correctly apply the holistic marketing strategy – Triad of Value:

Triad of Value

  1. UNDERSTAND community need,
  2. DEVELOP & IMPLEMENT effective programming to address the need, and
  3. DEMONSTRATE consumer impact through outcomes measurement.

While this seems brilliant in its simplicity, you would be surprised by how many organizations that miss these important points.  Over the years, I've talked with many program officers who often shake their heads in bewilderment with regard to requests that simply don't add up.  Often it's because they miss these basic elements of building an effective argument for funding.  You need to explain why your programs are important and sing praise to your efficiency and to your success.  This means when possible, to provide numbers that enhance your success stories and that provide relevance to your work.

One last thing, don't forget to extend this messaging to all your collateral materials in order to expand your audience to new individuals.  To ensure your future growth, you need to reach out to a greater and greater audience, you never know when you will encounter a donor sympathetic to your cause.  But, only if they understand and connect emotionally!

Turning the Tables

Thanks to Anna DeBattiste, I read an article with an interesting proposition the other day: "If You Don't Like Your Future, Rewrite Your Past," by Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Harvard Business Review's blog.  Her premise was simple, "Sometimes strategic change just means taking something from the periphery — an anomaly, a demonstration, a small innovation — and redefining it as central."  It reminded me of something I learned a long time ago… periodically your brand needs not so much an overhaul, as some strategic tweaking.

Often the notion of a re-branding effort falls under the heading of a dramatic change like a new name, logo update, or new business venture, but usually all it takes is a fresh viewpoint; a new way of telling your story. Kanter's article used an excellent example of a first rate re-branding effort by IBM.  Facing a lagging economy and tougher competition for computer hardware sales, they went back to the basics.

Early in my business career I learned that you never just sell features such as: faster, lighter, stronger; instead you sell the benefits of your work, how your products and services effect your customer's lives. That's because unless you're selling a race car, faster is not all that important.

For far too long the computer industry was all about twiddling bits: more memory, faster CPU's, higher throughput, all the basic features that combined add up to an end result.  IBM finally got it and they re-branded themselves as a solutions provider, rather than a computer hardware manufacturer, and that propelled them far into the future. They had been selling software with their hardware for years, so they didn't necessarily change their business model, they simply changed their audience's perspective, and as a result projected real value in their message resulting in increased sales.

This premise extends to the nonprofit community, so take a lesson from the big boys…

Your audience needs to get it.  Fundraising, like selling computerized solutions, is about relationships.  Building this deeper commitment only comes about when your audience completely understands and is emotionally engaged in your mission. Sometimes that means turning your program on its ear, sometimes that means a subtle change.

All too often we lose sight of what it really is that we are selling. Relating to your audience is a continuous process. Over time your message can become muted and when you are too close to that message, it may become difficult for you to see that it's off center. By employing the Triad of Value, and thinking about your marketing activities holistically, you increase the odds that your audience will appreciate your vision.

I would challenge you to randomly check any unfamiliar organization's website and ask yourself the following: what do they do, why is it important, and why should I give them any money?  My guess is you will come to the same conclusion that I often come to… I really don't know.  If you are not careful, this can happen to you.  By periodically revisiting your brand, case for funding, and other marketing efforts you can avoid brand burnout and keep your audience and community emotionally engaged.

Cultivating Strategy through Crowdsourcing

I've long been a proponent of adopting best practices and successful strategies from other businesses and organizations.  It's a great way to stimulate your organizational thinking and leverage growth without re-inventing the wheel.

So when, my good friend and sometime collaborator and co-conspirator Rachel Emmer sent me an article recently from the McKinsey Quarterly, "The Social Side of Strategy" it led me to think about its application in the nonprofit world. The article highlights several corporate efforts to enhance strategic planning through crowdsourcing strategies. Crowdsourcing is an effort to create a virtual crowd of people around a particular shared interest in order to leverage their synergy. A fundamental principle in crowdsourcing is it needs to be an open call to a largely undefined group of people (you never know where a good idea will come from) and typically it is delivered through the Internet.

Crowdsourcing is relatively new and remains largely untested, so there is no conclusive data that illustrates how it can be successfully applied, especially in a nonprofit environment. Many benefits and pitfalls remain in the shadows. However, one potential benefit found by the authors, which I find encouraging is: "it helped to build enthusiasm and alignment behind a company’s strategic direction.” That's what really got my brain spinning.

As we all know, two of the best ways to create momentum and commitment is through engagement and inclusion.  These practices create "buy-in" and they are the cornerstones of a shared vision.  However, all too often when working to develop strategic direction, only a few at the top, perhaps only an executive committee, are or become involved in setting this critical direction.

In support of this concept, the article went on to state that a common problem with strategic thinking is: "strategy setting sometimes suffers from insufficient diversity and expertise, with leaders far removed from the implications of their decisions and hampered by experience-based biases." Essentially, many at the top are too often, too close to the problem. Prior experience and the day-to-day details divert our thinking away from the larger picture and a focused vision.

More often than not, in developing our strategic efforts, we forget to seek the advice and counsel of those at ground level, those who are affected by our actions. That’s for many reasons, one of which is that marketing research consumes valuable resources; something most nonprofits find in short supply. Crowdsourcing may offer an inexpensive alternative for your organization to control costs and garner valuable insight regarding need and effectiveness, which in turn may allow you to develop new and ground-breaking strategies.

By employing crowdsourcing techniques, you have the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of issues, problems, success, and solutions from those to whom it matters most.  Crowdsourcing presents a natural next step in the evolution of traditional marketing research and a way for nonprofits to engage and include stakeholders in important decisions and directional efforts.

"So that's the way you like it!"