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Author Archive » Bev Freeman, Contributor, AMA Boston

Don’t retrench. Self-assess.

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Build an organization ready for a unified trip into the future. Prepare the hearts and minds of the junior staff to senior level managers during this terrible economic time. I wanted to share one of few bright lights in the economic darkness in today’s “Inside Higher Education.”

It is tempting to freeze hires and cut budgets, but now may not be the time. Adjustments are surely needed. We can learn now from the crisis of higher education endowments and from Bard’s president Leon Botstein as reported at Inside Higher Ed.

Name the programs that should prevail and grow them.  Everyone and everything cannot be treated equally. We can all take a lesson from the endowment debacles of most large universities and the announced plans to cut programs equally across the board.  Think about it: Given the sprawling nature of the large college or university, there may have been no other decision to take. Higher ed is not in the habit of differential treatment of valid programs and less-effective research centers or teaching programs. (Community colleges may operate differently, when current income is by necessity closely tied to program expansion or contraction.)

Set expectations. A college president who has always thought differently, Bard’s Leon Botstein is focused on the current endowment crisis. Importantly, he has already set an expectation within Bard about change and growth, although I expect this dynamic approach has earned detractors as well as supporters. I think Botstein’s wisdom pertains to nonprofits in the present moment. Just substitute “income” for the word endowment in the following:

Institutions should be going through programs, eliminating some, but building others — and spending their endowments to make institutions (themselves) more creative. Operating on the assumption that endowment growth or losses matter “ is a tragedy (says Botstein) that makes everyone risk averse.”

There are three “take away” messages here:

(1) Endowments gave false confidence during good times and promote growth for growth’s sake. As Botstein says, highly publicizing decline on endowment by wealthy institutions may backfire form them. Everyone knows despite the decline the institutions are still wealthy and can afford to be thoughtful about what next.

(2) It’s not possible to produce a responsive and creative leadership group mid-stream. Nonprofit leadership needs to start now to create a culture over time in which everyone buys in to effective strategies for change. Again, this may be a significant cultural change for your and your nonprofit.

(3) Today’s news of broad cuts is a cautionary tale about restricted funds and growth for growth’s sake. In the first case, take the example of creating a program to suit a particular donor) that may be related to mission but taken out of the context of the entire organization’s goals and revenue projections. 

Next steps? How does this translate to nonprofits small or large? Start now to:

-Make it safe for people to look at programs that aren’t working.

-Create ways re-deploy program directors and mid-level managers in shaping new priorities so people are more willing to shed old jobs or outdated roles.

-As the CEO or communications senior leader, be public and consistent in the ways you will encourage growth, self-assessment and change, and the best possible work within your organization.

On the marketing front - John Deveney (Deveney Communications) advises that during times like this, nonprofits can’t afford to miss the target: You must know your audience and carefully pick and implement the social media that will help you meet your goals. Shel Holtz interviewed John recently after he received PR News Nonprofit Award for his work on behalf of New Orleans.

Having done quite a bit of pro bono work on the Gulf Coast myself, I know that the recession visited the Gulf Coast at least three years ago. It takes optimism and creativity to pick ways to promote the city when so much mythology still circulates about its ability to “come back” Could there be a harder PR challenge?

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Bev Freeman is a communications consultant to nonprofits and higher ed based in Boston, specializing in planning and implementation of communications strategies to support fund raising and visibility efforts. Her clients have included Harvard School of Public Health, The Harvard Humantarian Aid Initiative, MIT, Tufts, Oxfam America, Screening for Mental Health, and leadership organizations on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (post-Katrina) where she has done visibility work, federal-state relations to keep federal sources of funds flowing to the area, and fund-raising for summer camps and mental health services. Prior to consulting, from 1991-1999 she was public affairs director at the Harvard School of Public Health and also special projects coordinator for Harvard’s provost. She was director of a national infertility counseling nonprofit, RESOLVE, Inc. for 8 years and also has experience in state-level social services.

The crisis continues – Funding the “gap” and redeploying

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

 Especially if you are a small nonprofit ($ ½ million or less) or you have barely 3 FTEs to run your organization, you are feeling horribly right now. If your budget hovers around $1 million -$3 million, you probably feel like a small nonprofit, no matter how the Dow Jones is doing today.

Get organized to push ahead - Hopefully your fund sources have been diverse so you’re not suffering from the downfall of Merrill Lynch. In the crisis is opportunity, as a wise person said several millennia ago.

This is when having a good database of emails for your constituents - especially donor prospects or civic-minded leaders in your community - comes in handy. If you don’t have one now, create it. Put people to work on this. Name-address-phone-affiliation-email and a column for “notes.”

Email push  - Most people will be generous even in this terrible time. People want to do something positive and feel good about some gesture toward others they’ve made. A well-written email push to prospects could yield $25 to $100 each. If this audience is mainly middle class ($250,000 and above), you may be successful beyond your dreams.

Example: In your pitch, please tell them about the gap you’re experience, how the money would be used, how much money is needed and when you need it by. Assure them they will get an immediate receipt and thank-you and that their help during this time will help your organization continue to operate reliably (supplying services to your constituency groups).

Ask the recipient to kindly forward to three friends or colleagues. Provide a “back-end” (as mentioned last time) to accept credit card purchases online. Be clear about where checks can be sent and, again, your deadline. Include a form to complete if the person wants more information or wants an occasional or periodic update. Evan Shapiro, Meerkat Technology, in Massachusetts, has an excellent tried-and-true back-end for nonprofits, especially theaters and other types of arts organizations.

A premium? Offer a prize for giving that makes the recipient of your request laugh - perhaps a coupon for $20 for take-out for two from your local favorite chicken-dinner place. Offer this for donations @$50 or above. You’re going to make money anyway.  The plus about the premium is it signals the seriousness of your intent, and gets people’s attention.

Redeploy? - Even if you have 3 FTEs (or fewer) you have to be smart and strategic about how you prioritize and focus your daily activity.

Example: If you have been doing a newsletter in-house - consider getting pro bono help from the outside (e.g., a graphic designer) for a shortened newsletter, but punchier and with a simple, clean look. Pour whatever talent you have in to creative fund raising. Give morale boosting small potluck dinners for your program directors, coordinators and caseworkers. Hang together. Be specific about what you can do together to keep your nonprofit viable and lay groundwork for a healthier future.

BasecampTM - This tool will help you through a time of workforce assessment. You may have staffed a lot of board committees or task forces. You’re agonizing over how to keep these going. Basecamp is a platform that organizes conversations, sharing of documents and even writing together. There is a brand-new live chat function; Basecamp is always adding and improving.

The basic fee is $24/month. I have found this level sufficient for most of my purposes to date. It’s intuitive and fun. Feel free to write me with questions about how it can be applied or how it works. Basecamp (run by 37signals) has very good short tutorials and is intuitive to use if you pause for a few minutes to think (and don’t rush yourself).
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Economic Crisis Is a Social Media Opportunity for Smart Nonprofits

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Hi to all. I’m sending you this quick post during this time of extreme economic crisis in our country and around the world as a possible result of greed on Wall Street.

Sad economic state of affairs - I don’t mind saying this to you because on behalf of nonprofits everywhere, doing the hard work of keeping people together, this next year or more will be very difficult. See this special report by the Philanthropy Journal. Read this article with a grain of salt in the palm of your hand.

Keep learning - I find that the traditional national associations of nonprofits or even grant makers are a little behind the curve where communications strategy is concerned. By this I mean, many senior folks are not tuned in to social media. Everyone says they don’t have time to learn how to use the media. This is a silly excuse. I am sorry to sound tough on people whose leadership has resulted in the wonderful array of 501 (c) 3s in the U.S. that competently serve the disenfranchised. But during the next year, not a single CEO or communicator can afford not to think about how to use social media. Also, join the Center of Nonprofit Excellence in Charlottesville. I have not yet seen a more nimble web presence able to provide info and wisdom to nonprofits. 

Debating the value of social media vs. use of traditional media - see my letter to the editor in The New York Times Magazine, Sept, 21.  It is a comment on an article published two weeks prior in the New York Times Magazine, Sept. 7 (Clive Thompson, “Digitally Close To You”).  All of you should/could read and benefit from this.

Just Do It - All is not lost. I am not encouraging you to fold up your nonprofit tents and go home. Quite the contrary: keep in mind that social media can boost your fund-raising, help reach an audience or audiences you haven’t even touched yet, and give you hope for the future. Also look for upcoming information about a new media conference sponsored by the Society for New Communications Research on November 14 in Cambridge, Mass.

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The Nonprofit build-up—More important than the event itself

Monday, September 15th, 2008

Hi all. I want to refer back to a point made in my previous post (Nonprofits-Begin to learn about the social media) about the “build-up” required when implementing a strategic marketing plan for your nonprofit. This post will explain how to get started when thinking about a build-up.

Myths: When using social media, e.g., blog, creating an excellent Web site, doing an email blast to notify people about an upcoming event, most communicators have the mistaken impression that one email blast is sufficient. Or, if you build a Web site, they will come. Or, if we just make the blog long and meaningful, it will draw an audience.

Build-up is more important than the event itself: These beliefs are understandable if your experience with social media is limited to using email and producing print publications and posters. Let’s say you want to raise crucially needed funds by staging an event. The build-up is actually more important than the event itself. This phase of creating excitement about your organization presents huge opportunities to:

(1) Clarify the mission of your organization
(2) Communicate energy and commitment, and
(3) Get people prepared to read, absorb and use the crucially important request or announcement you are planning to distribute in the future.

Build-up components: The build-up phase includes two aspects. (Plan ahead because it will take some time.)

 (1) Creation of substantive, irresistibly engaging information

Develop brief and well-written content about your nonprofit’s work. (Borrow generously from previous writing.) For example, post on your Web site a lively, engaging article profiling a young person for whom you identified services. (Look at MercyCorps for an excellent example of emotionally moving profiles spotlighted on the home page.

Or, develop a bibliography of relevant, informative articles or an index of occasions when your nonprofit organization has been in the news. Create a brief photo gallery of gorgeous images of your kids, your families, your staff at work, or of your facilities.

(2) Development of a strategic approach. Here are the rudiments:

- With every communication (electronic or print), encourage the recipient to forward the information to interested colleagues and friends.
- Give the recipient the option to opt-out with each email blast.
- Use brief, punchy text-only messages – include no images. Avoid using a Constant Contact™ newsletter platform unless you have a graphic artist and IT specialist who can devote a lot of upfront time to this.
- When ready, prepare a communication to your current database of constituents advising that you will be emailing important information to them occasionally.
- Think about how often you can refresh your engaging information for your audience, e.g., perhaps a new, uniquely important communication every 4-6 weeks.

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Nonprofits—Begin to learn about the social media

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

In this post, I want to repeat what I mentioned in my first post: Set aside time every week to learn more about the social media. Nonprofit communicators have a unique opportunity to employ any of an array of social media tools – these are low-cost (often downloadable for free) and very often effective. Here are some suggestions:

Combat your biases: Shel Holtz, marketer par excellence and observer of social media, warns in a recent podcast about communicators who have a “visceral” reaction to social media and therefore don’t explore it. The emotional reaction is palpable: it often has something to do with feeling “old”, perhaps out-of-step and feeling self-conscious about it.

New resource: Every Dot Connects is a group originating in Austin, which has opened a store online (via Facebook) to help you with social media:  Every Dot Connects.

FIR produced by Shel Holtz – Go to the latest podcast and see what you can learn about social media applications: FIR.

Pass “Go:” When you identify a tool or platform that might have an application to your campaign, you can pass go after you do some thinking and planning. Example: If you work with the fundraising unit (or person) at your nonprofit:

(1) Define your audiences and their preferences,
(2) Identify all the media to be used and sketch out some deadlines, and
(3) Set your financial goal. Be sure to include a build-up in your marketing plan.

Example: Think about how to “reel in” your audiences, i.e., inspire interest and potential loyalty. Entice donor prospects with not only new information but also real-time, breathtaking reports about the issues you represent. You have to build your audience’s loyalty step-by-step, decide how you’ll identify the point at which you can make your “ask.” Think hard about how to ask, what medium to use, and what sort of repetition will work for you. If anyone has examples of the “step by step” to increasing loyalty to your nonprofit, please share.

Nonprofit Marketing – Using a Plan, Considering Social Media

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Hello nonprofit marketers. This short article will review the benefits of a plan, encourage you to engage in planning and help you understand where social media may fit in. See the rudiments of nonprofit marketing in my earlier post Nonprofit Marketing Really?.

A red flag goes up for me when a CEO puts off the idea of communications planning. Or she says, “This (being strategic) is my communications manager’s responsibility.”  Communications planning is by its very nature an organization-wide, integrated enterprise, concerned with constituencies inside as well as outside our agency.

A marketing plan is not a “ho-hum” one-time event. It is a dynamic way to track your progress toward defined outcomes (quantifiable or qualitative) and keep you from tumbling off your seat when additional demands on your time occur. For once, it is a way to be proactive – not reactive as most communications managers find themselves.

Nonprofits fail to realize there are economies to be realized in a strategic multi-layered plan. They sometimes don’t realize they can leverage existing materials to support different marketing needs. Planning helps you identify these opportunities.

Example of using what you’ve got: A national mental health organization was funded for some years by one large federal grant, a risky prospect for a nonprofit. As the grant was about to end, the urgent need to generate new and diverse sources of income put the senior staff in crisis mode.

Staff had initiated a few webinars as a customer relations-education effort. In a strategic planning meeting, their attention turned to webinars as a marketing tool for cultivating other audiences such as clinicians and educators. Staff realized there was a strong match between the professional development needs of busy care providers and the expertise of the organization.

Thus, recruiting and enrolling eager clinicians in webinars (at a minimal cost to participants) provided the basis for generating a council of allies, who could in turn champion the training kits published by the nonprofit for use in a wide variety of settings. These allies can also serve as informal ambassadors for the agency’s mission. Later, social media can be employed, in conjunction with the webinars, to bring together people with similar questions or concerns, consolidating their relationship to each other and to the organization.

Recognition of these potential, interlocking opportunities and the leveraged use of available tools and resources requires strategic thinking. A plan puts boundaries around your strategic thinking and gives you a road map.  Here are a few ways to take steps toward developing your marketing plan.

Become a trusted channel – Like any for-profit, your agency will gain from a disciplined marketing effort. A recent webinar offered by Forrester Research and Umbria refers to being a “trusted channel,” meaning this: Make your organization a trusted communication channel for your audiences. If you gain their trust, you can better guide their thinking and even their actions.

Optimize by using the Internet and social media - In your agency, a marketing or communications budget per se may not exist. You can optimize your scarce resources by using social media. This is a Web 2.0 world – the huge variety of social media (Facebook, Basecamp, iTunes, blogging, etc.) that are advancing communications across the world – and rapidly transforming business, politics, medicine, public health and all the human services. Many of these platforms are free or low-cost. Here are a few key things to think about and execute.

• Know thy audience. Conduct a brief survey or a few focus groups to clarify and confirm your constituencies’ needs and, importantly, how they receive and use information.

• Second, create an informative Web site and have a strategy to tell people about it. Include ways to bring your customer closer (something interactive such as a sign-up for an e-newsletter). Resolve to measure traffic and think hard about ways to increase it.

• Third, reconsider your direct mail. If you are as well resourced as The Nature Conservancy or the Mayo Clinic, print mailings may make sense. Perhaps you are so local (or Internet is unavailable in your area) so that distributing regular mail is a sensible approach.

The humanitarian effort profiled in my first post is now using Basecamp to work collaborative in working groups on new ideas (deliverables) for the next summit meeting.. Discussion, co-writing, communications is all organized by Basecamp. This means no matter where one is – or what time zone – it’s possible to look in on the activity and provide input.

Social media – yes! Skeptical about Web 2.0? Over half of adults are buying services online and a much higher percentage of young people use social media on a daily basis.

And for you skeptics – There is growing evidence that Web-based communications launches a pervasive word-of-mouth, ultimately encouraging the transmission of information in the old-fashioned way – face-to-face. 

How does this happen? When you get an open invitation to a local fundraising event, you might forward this to a dozen or more friends and colleagues. This quickly builds interest in the event or the cause. Recipients can click on the agency’s Web address for more information. This sort of “fast-forwarding” can produce new inquiries for a nonprofit. It can lay a foundation for a conference call to discussions issues in greater depth, or an important breakfast meeting with new donor-prospects.

If your agency’s funding doesn’t grow on trees, consider reducing your direct mail and print budget. You will save trees, and more importantly, probably be more effective. Revert to online communication. Try a brief, focused electronic newsletter, archived and indexed on your Web site. Minimize the graphic art so that it downloads easily, especially by someone without a color printer. Consider offering the option of a text-only file

Think before you leap - The Web may be wonderful for some, but a small nonprofit may solely focus on a strong relationship with the local news media because newspaper coverage generates just the type of inquiries it seeks. On the other hand, for those of us ready to reap the benefits of a lively Web presence, avoid the pressures to blog or to incorporate any other social media unless these tools are imbedded in a well-thought out communications strategy. Compelling narratives about your services or  advocacy effort will stimulate people to sign up for more information. See www.imcworldwide.org as a good example of this.

So, put your toe in the water - You are not behind the curve – yet. It’s safe to say that we in the nonprofit sector are still sorting out the best social media tools to use. Facebook master Chris Hughes said, keep it real and keep it local, mirroring the offline world. Think of the Internet as simply the connective tissue.  Internet aside, on-going your agency’s meaningful one-to-one relationships with clients, the quality of care and your nonprofits distinctiveness and relevance will determine if your organization stays on top.

A final thought - If you push marketing to the bottom of the priority list, you will always feel like you’re not doing enough or that you’re constantly playing “catch up.”  If you have this nagging feeling, your communications manager or your board’s media committee may not be the culprit—the absence of careful planning is.

Consider the biggest hurdle to marketing success in the nonprofit sector: organization-wide commitment to setting strategic goals, developing a marketing strategy to support those goals, and identifying the funds to support the marketing effort. Jump this hurdle and you are well on your way to reporting to your board that your goals have been met.

Nonprofit Marketing….Really?

Monday, July 21st, 2008

Is there such a thing as nonprofit marketing? Of course there is!

In this first post, I hope to interest you new ways to think about nonprofit marketing that will help you achieve your programmatic goals and provide an opportunity for dialogue. Marketing is alive and well in the nonprofit sector. It is used to:

• Enroll people in a significant program or initiative
• Increase awareness about an agency’s mission, its services, or the response to a crisis in your community, and/or
• Raise the visibility of an organization as a basis for successful fundraising or “buy-in” (acceptance) by your constituencies.

Using one marketing tool – a conference – can set the stage and create momentum for other objectives.

Using a meeting to accomplish several objectives - An interfaculty initiative associated with Harvard – and required to raise its own funds – planned a small invitation-only international conference on improving coordination of humanitarian efforts in the field. The conference was designed to accomplish several things at once.

• Draw in several different important audiences
• Increase knowledge and excitement about the efficacy nd challenges of humanitarian aid efforts during disaster and war
• Assemble a broad spectrum of potential funders, i.e., corporate, individual, nongovernmental organizations (NGO).

For all these audiences, the meeting agenda supplied information about critical issues in the field that need both intellectual and financial support, making the case to CEOs of NGOs, for example, that their support is essential for advancing the field. Finally, the meeting provided a forum for the initiation of a humanitarian aid future leaders program. Its intent is to bring younger, talented field workers into these discussions and into new relationships with senior leaders as mentors.

A marketing plan may be narrowly defined or multi-layered and integrated. (More on integration in a later post.)

Focusing on local visibility to ensure enrollment – A child welfare agency in central Massachusetts offers residential programs, outpatient services, family stabilization programs and foster care. The children served by this nonprofit organization are referred by the state’s child welfare services agency. The organization’s business model relies upon payment per services provided, so success requires a continuing stream of appropriate referrals.

Thus, the leadership of the organization decided on a relatively narrow marketing effort to enhance reputation and keep the programs at capacity. The marketing plan currently has three main thrusts: focus groups to assess service quality; a persuasive campaign video available on its Web site; and constant relationship building with local leaders via special events, breakfast meetings, facility tours, etc.

Creating the time to learn more – Joanne Edgar, a consultant and former head of strategic communications at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, writes about reasons to communicate. Her “Using Strategic Communications to Support Families” published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is an excellent brief guide to planning. The reasons to communicate will be familiar to those of you who have devoted your lives to social change: to get attention,to create a buzz, to inform, to inspire, to build trust, to organize, to change public perception, to disseminate information, and many more.

And to get your creative juices going, dedicate a half hour several times each week to review some of the current nonprofit marketing literature; there is so much available online. Think of yourself as an emerging expert – ultimately, you will have to pick the sensible approach or set of tools that works for your agency. Painfully, many of us have learned that a large or small communications effort scattered over disparate audiences, without integration into a solid plan, can waste time and money.

Find a marketer who has a blog whose perspective you respect: I like Shel Holtz’s blog:  Consult organizations like the Society for New Communications Research; its portal is rich with information and opportunities. One of the great things about learning about social media is that examples suggested by experts like Shel are always embedded in a real live context. So you can know and feel immediately how it might be useful to your agency – or file it away in your memory bank for future use.

In the nonprofit world of the Northeast, where I live, marketing is an accepted concept. But how many times have we heard a nonprofit CEO express frustration that a valuable program does not have sufficient enrollment?

Ironically, some nonprofits fail to engage in or implement a viable marketing plan due to a worry that there isn’t enough staff or money to handle the response. So some of the best nonprofit work continues to be a well-kept secret, just the opposite of what we really need or want.

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The views and opinions on this blog are solely those of the contributors and do NOT necessarily reflect the official opinions of the Boston Chapter of the American Marketing Association.