Monday, December 12, 2011

Happy Holidays...and watch for January

Hi there. I'm taking the rest of the month off to work on a special project. I'm going to try to put together all of my blogging into one new non-profit marketing theory called Sustainable Communications. I've been toying around with it for months and now is the time to make it happen.

Happy holidays...and watch for more on my new theory in January!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Take a walk downtown to understand the marketing challenge you face

I took a walk in downtown Toronto the other day. I was thinking about the marketing challenge that faces all charities and non-profits. It was a just a five minute walk between Union Station and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. By the time I had reached my destination I had my answer.

I was attending the Association of Fundraising Professionals Toronto Congress. My walk was all inside through various buildings and walkways which also lead to the Rogers Centre, a large entertainment complex, and the world-famous CN Tower. It was full of various signs advertising everything from tourist destinations to colleges.

In five minutes I counted how many ads I saw on the wall, on signs, on displays. There were more than 70. Some were large and some were small. But on average, every three seconds or so I was exposed to another message.

And this is what struck me. The world is awash in marketing, in advertising, in messages of all kinds. My five minute walk shows that the main marketing challenge that any organization faces today is being heard. The efforts that organizations make at trying to figure out who they are and how to brand themselves pale in comparison to the problem of how they will be noticed in the stormy sea of marketing messages out there.

Arguably, the route that I walked has in fact one of the highest concentrations of ad messages in one of the most heavily messaged cities in all of Canada. I was literally at the business end of all Canadian marketing. If I had been a few blocks north or a few kilometers east I would not have had the same concentration of advertising. But I argue that that doesn’t matter. What I saw and heard was in fact the future for most cities – wall-to-wall advertising. It may not exist everywhere, but soon it will.

And that brings us right back to the problem of being heard. A message everything three seconds is too fast for most people to process. We are not video cameras that record everything and store it in a computer memory hard drive. In other words, I did not process and store the memory of each message as it went by. When humans are exposed to multiple messages we automatically pick and choose which to take note of and which to ignore. Some we will read, but most we will simply ignore. And even those that get processed to some extent or another may not make it to long-term storage in our brains. We might just as easily process the message and then dump it, retaining no real meaning of it at all.

So, in fact, of the 70 messages most people walking that route saw and heard, most would in fact be wasted. They would not work of and by themselves. It means that advertising only works through high volumes of ads. One ad won’t be effective, but because advertising is now a numbers game, 500 will.

More importantly, it means that competition for the attention of target audiences is reaching a saturation point of sorts. Of all the factors that go into creating and sending a message to your stakeholders the most critical is breaking through – in being heard above the chorus of other messages and of not being “tuned out” by people who are now accustomed to receiving and rejecting literally thousands of messages a day.

There are ways for non-profits to break through but not all of them are easy. They take hard work and critical thinking. You will need a good strategy, not just a nice logo. You will need to be clever about the types of mediums you use, not just pick social media because it’s cool or billboards because they are big and shiny. You will need to push the comfort level of your masters to get a message that’s loud enough to be noticed, not just send a message like everyone else.

All it takes to figure this out is a walk in downtown Toronto.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The case for transparency

Everybody everywhere seems to be talking about transparency. There have been a number of high profile media pieces on charities recently – what they spend, how they spend unwisely and even a few about how some are scams. There have been reports by watchdogs that have questioned why many charities don’t adequately report their financial statements. There have been various legislative moves in Canada and the US to review, publish or even cap the salaries of charity executives.

It’s enough to make any charity put their head down and hide. And many have been doing just that. For years, charities have known that the public and the media wanted more transparency and for years they have done nothing. Now, they have to react.

I’d like to make the case for transparency.

I do this because I know many of my communications colleagues will advocate a “hide and seek” strategy on this issue that will try to avoid full disclosure. I have worked for and with many non-profits and I know that many leaders want to “spin” their annual reports and financial statements to dodge the transparency issue. Too few communicators are pushing back with a plea for full transparency. And, on the face of it, why should they? The way they think, there’s too much to risk and not much to gain. What is the communication case for transparency?

First and foremost, it should be obvious by now that transparency is now the new standard. One can argue that the charity watchdogs, the politicians and the media are all wrong and use hopelessly flawed frameworks to judge our sector, but it does not matter. Wrong or right, the trend is there. There is a growing demand for transparency, one that cannot be denied. And the first paragraph or the first page of the rulebook of communications is to give people what they want. If they want transparency, woe to the charity that doesn’t give it to them.

Second, avoiding this issue only serves to create doubt. And in the communications game, doubt is deadly. If your donors see another, perhaps bigger charity raked over the coals for not being transparent then what will they think? Some of them will start to ask questions about you. They will want to know why your annual report isn’t easily accessible and why people have to ask to get a copy of the financial statements. Your lack of transparency, real or imagined, at a time when other charities are being held to account on this issue makes you look suspicious.

The most important reason to embrace transparency is that doing so can actually differentiate your organization and get you out ahead of this issue instead of hiding in a corner with the blanket over your heading like everyone else. There actually is an advantage here. Adopting total transparency will make you look innovative. You will stand out in the crowd. And your donors and stakeholders will be happy you did so. It is the perfect engagement tool. In a sea of competition – for donations, government funding, media attention and more – transparency could be the one thing that makes your charity the leader.

The comeback on total transparency is that donors may ask pointed questions about your finances, operations or CEO salaries. The anti-transparency folks will say a move like this will only give ammunition to those who want to make trouble. That may be true, but so is this. It is better to fight a communications battle with all the facts on the table than hide behind a curtain. No matter what the issue is, if you appear to be “hiding”, you will have a much tougher battle than if you release it all. In other words, the biggest piece of ammunition you can give your “troublemakers” is to give them a sense that you are hiding something. That’s why every conspiracy theorist seems to be so driven – it is the secrecy of the issue they fight that gives them their real power. Take away the issue of secrecy and your will find it creates fewer problems, not more.

So, have I made my case? I’ll bet many of you say yes. But I also bet that I will keep on seeing many charities ignoring this advice.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why is donating unlike buying a pair of shoes?

This ain't a donation
There’s quite a lot of talk these days about how charities should spend their money. There have been stories in the media about charities that spend more on fundraising than they do on supporting research. There have been stories about the size of charity CEO salaries and how they need to be capped. There have been stories back and forth about what a charity should spend on overhead and whether that is really fair. If we were talking about the retail business none of this would apply. Why is making a donation different than buying a pair of shoes?

On the face of it the two are the same. You spend $30.00 on a set of new shoes. You spend $30.00 on a donation. You use your credit card for both. Both organizations – the shoe retailer and the charity – count them as “sales” (although the charity will use a different description). Both use the same marketing techniques – advertising, website, social media, PR, celebrity endorsement and more. Both often use the same sales techniques – face-to-face sales, online sales, events, etc. So, what’s different?

It all comes down to the purchase. When I buy something from a retailer it is for me. I buy it to use or to give as a gift, but it is mine. When I give something to a charity, I buy something for someone else. There are those who donate because of tax reasons, but most give because they want to help someone in need. Or it can be a cause that is in need or even an animal in need. The person or thing in need is the end beneficiary of the donation, not the charity itself. When I make a donation to a charity that help endangered animals the end beneficiary are the animals and not the charity that does the work to save them. I give the money to the charity but I want it to go to the animals.

When I donate to help an end beneficiary the charity makes me an unwritten promise that they will do the helping on my behalf. I make a donation to the charity to help those animals because they say they will help them. And I believe them, so I give.

So, in one relationship, I see, I buy, I consume. In the other, I see, I give, I get a promise to help someone in need.

Here’s where charities get into so much trouble. What happens if the unwritten promise the charity made isn’t kept to the satisfaction of the donor? As we have seen, by definition, the donor has a stake in the operation of the charity. I give, they help on my behalf. That is something that doesn’t happen in for-profits. I don’t care what the retailer does to get me those shoes after I buy it, unless they are exploiting child labour in a Third World country. Usually, my relationship with the retailer ends once I buy the shoes. But implicit in a donation is a stake in the helping the charity does.

Because of all this, built into the donation is a responsibility that a charity must live up to. Anything that impacts a charity’s ability to do the helping they promised is an issue for a donor. This can be real or imagined. It can be fair or unfair. Since often times the promise in unwritten and not very well explained donors fill in the gaps. They make assumptions about the charity and what it will do. And when those assumptions are challenged, there is a disconnect.

How does this help? It shows that charities need to clearly say how they are going to spend their money at the time of the donation. Many charities often leave this to a later date, such as in an annual report. That does nothing to solve this problem, and in fact could make it worse. Second, it underlines the need for the charity to make reporting about their activities a priority. Many charities are afraid to say too much about what they do and how much it cost in order to avoid possible trouble from donors who don’t like their practices. This simply perpetuates the problem. One charity I know illustrated this by not publishing its annual report this year and instead put up a link to their public tax return at the Government of Canada website. This is after they published annual reports for several previous years. What message do you think that says to their donors?

Don’t treat your donations like shoe purchases. Be clear about why you are raising money, how you will use it and how you spent it. It will avoid a truck load of problems.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Be your own media

You're the media now

Last time, I talked about the problems facing media relations. There’s too many media outlets and not enough listeners, viewers and readers. Worse, there’s a growing divide between young and old on how they consumer media. The younger prefer online, the older still like print and TV.

None of that should be surprising to you.

But here is something that may astonish you.

If the world of local media is in disarray and isn’t giving you the PR/advertising venue that it used to then why don’t you just become your own media.

Yes, I mean you.

Start by realizing that these days anyone can start their own media empire quite easily. An email newsletter, a Facebook page or a Blog is all it takes. Yes, none of those will ever have the same circulation as your local newspaper, but that’s actually a good thing. Your local media have to be everything to everyone and more times than not they take a least common denominator approach to news. The result is that the value of the content is often diluted. You, as the upstart media outlet, have none of these challenges. The benefit of being a small niche media outlet is that you can attract real audiences who seek your content. And finding one of those people is a gold mine. If you can reach one person who believes in your cause that is worth ten people who aren’t.

Next, take a look at your communications channel. If you’re like most organizations likely you will have neglected some of these – they may be old, out of date, their content is dry and their format is less than perfect. No matter. Give them a shake. Take each one and make it content-ready. You need to add news streams to your website. You need to connect your news feed to your social media. You should add an email newsletter to push content out the door. And you need a database that is ready to receive “subscriber” information (such as emails). Plus, buy a real camera that can shoot pictures and short videos. Don’t skimp and buy something more geared to holiday snaps. Get something easy to use, but as near professional as possible. If necessary, add software that automates things like movie-making. Now, you’re ready.

What do all media outlets need? Readers, viewers and watchers, of course. Many of you likely have few of these to start. If you’re lucky, you might have an existing email list or Facebook fan list. No matter. The first thing to do is go out and recruit more readers. Set up a system to connect to your database and find as many people who want to sign-up for your “media channel” as possible. Ask every one of your stakeholders if they’d like to get your email newsletter or sign up for updates at Facebook. They won’t do it out of niceness. You’ll have to give them a reason to sign-up. That’s what you already did in asking questions about what they want and how to give it to them. Figure out what the value is and pitch it to them.

Here’s the hard part. Stop thinking like a pitiful, helpless non-profit organization who is at the mercy of the traditional media. You are now the reporter, the editor and the publisher all in one. Act like one (of three). Begin by asking yourself what kind of content do your stakeholders want. Then ask yourself how to give it to them.

Say you’re in health care. Great. You’re now in the health media business. Find stories in your own organization and push them through your own media system. Add in some freely available related health news stories from the web (such as government health authorities). Say you’re an environmental charity. Great. Now, you’re part of the Green media. Do the same thing. Find your own stories and others available online and combine them into one media product.

Now, add in interactive material. Good media don’t just tell you things, they ask things. So add surveys and polls. Here’s a hint. People love seeing their name and picture in the media. So, run quotes, pictures and even videos. Make your stakeholders superstars.

Finally, don’t be boring. People will only be a part of your media empire if there’s value in it. If you’re boring, too opinionated or annoying they’ll drop you. Spice things up with a contest or two. How about a free lunch with your CEO as a prize? Simple, easy and fun. That’s what’s needed.

Measure everything as you go along. You need to be able to monitor what people do in your media channels. Find out where they go and what they click on. Draw insights and give them more of what you think they want. Every once in a while, stop and evaluate things. Ask for feedback from your loyal readers. Be brave and ask them hard questions and don’t be afraid to hear their hard criticism.

And here’s a trick. Aim for a subscription target. Don’t just start publishing. Push yourself to hit a specific number of subscribers and keep increasing it.

So, you’re the media now. And when the traditional media won’t use your press releases, fail to come to your events or spell your organization’s name wrong, don’t worry. Your media channels will always be there to assist you.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Local media is a moving platform

This is so yesterday
It should be obvious by now that local media is changing. There’s more media than ever. All this is having a surprising impact on local communities, according to How people learn about their local community, a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Internet & American Life Project.

The study found that most Americans use a blend of both new and traditional sources to get information about their local community. The biggest source for local community news and information in the US remains local TV. However, the study found Americans tend to rely on the medium for just a few topics—mainly weather, breaking news, and to a lesser degree, traffic. People rely on other sources for most other local topics. The study also says that younger adults rely on local television less, a fact they say “suggests more vulnerability for the medium in the future.”

There is also bad news for newspapers, which in Canada as well as the US have seem consistent declines in readership. The study found that 69% of American say that if their local newspaper no longer existed, “it would not have a major impact on their ability to keep up with information and news about their community.” Without local newspapers, local news might actually take a nose dive, but that is the perception. The study found that newspapers are a major source of local information. However, most of the topics that people expect to find in a newspaper are also “are ones followed by fewer Americans on a regular basis.”

“In other words, local TV draws a mass audience largely around a few popular subjects; local newspapers attract a smaller cohort of citizens but for a wider range of civically oriented subjects,” the study says.

Not surprisingly, the web comes out as one of the most powerful sources of local information, although the study did not cover certain kinds of websites. Of the American who are online the internet is the “first or second most relied-upon source for 15 of the 16 local topics examined”. The study also found that nearly one in five Americans say they get local information on social networking sites like Facebook at least monthly.

The most surprising finding to me is that nearly half of all respondents said they did not have a favourite local news source. And that is the key to understanding the entire local media system. There is simply more choice and because of that less media loyalty.

All this means something.

First, using advertising or media relations is in fact getting harder. Reaching your stakeholders means using more media sources than ever.

Second, this creates an opportunity for some local non-profits. If stakeholders are seeking local news from a variety of sources, why not create your own news source? In a world where the local media consumption is in chaos non-profits in some cases have more power to influence stakeholders on certain topics than local newspapers, radio and TV stations.

Join me next week when I unveil my "Be Your Own Media" strategy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The 3% Give or Take Benchmark

One of the biggest challenges non-profits have is finding a benchmark for budgeting their marketing and communications activities. None exist. That’s why many non-profits underfund or inconsistently fund their marketing and communications operations.

The 3% Give or Take Budget Benchmark is designed to give non-profits the information they need to benchmark their marketing and communications budget. It is simple, flexible and easy to use. It is admittedly not the most sophisticated of benchmark systems. Some may find it to be simplistic and argue that a more complex approach is needed. That may be true. However, this benchmark has advantages. It is applicable to almost every kind of non-profit, large or small. Being simple and flexible makes it more usable, and that will be welcome news to the many non-profits that have neither the time or the skills to do anything more complicated. And, at the end of the day, The 3% Give or Take Budget Benchmark is one of the only budget systems of its kind available. If it is better than nothing, than that is a step in the right direction because there is nothing else.

This benchmark won’t solve all the challenges of making a non-profit marketing and communications budget but it will give organizations a great place to start. The hard work of making a budget still rests with non-profit organizations themselves. Ultimately, it is our hope that this benchmark will foster more discussion and argument about marketing and communications in the non-profit sector.

The benchmark starts with a percentage. Budgeting can be done many ways, but one of the best methods from the for-profit world is to peg marketing costs at a percentage of sales. This has many advantages. First, it will vary with changes in the organization’s operations – when sales are down, the marketing budget will also drop and vice versa. It effectively makes marketing “affordable”. Second, it ties marketing and communications to the overall effort of the organization. Too many times, non-profit leaders fail to see the direct relationship. This approach will make it clear what marketing and communications does. In many non-profits there are no “sales”. There is operating income from funders and governments or there is fundraising revenue or a mixture of both. To make things simple, the percentage used here should be the non-profit’s total operating budget. However the money is raised, a non-profit’s operating budget is its “sales”.

What percentage should be used? In the for-profit world, this is often a very easy question to answer. The Chief Marketing Officer Council did a survey in 2007. It found that 16% of for-profit companies spent between 5-6% of revenue on marketing and 23% spent over 6%. It also found that businesses introducing new consumer products sometimes spend as much as 20% of sales on marketing. Another study by Go-to-Market Strategies found 30% of companies spent between 3-5% of revenue on marketing, with 45% spending over 6%.

It is tempting to think that the non-profit world’s marketing and communications budgets should mirror the for-profit world. A case can be made that in fact non-profits need to spend more than for-profits on marketing, not less. However, everything points to the fact that the sector would have little appetite for such a radical increase. The best study on this issue is the 2008 study by the American Marketing Association and Lipman Hearne which found that the average non-profit marketing budget was between 2% and 3% of the total operating budget.

For all these reasons, this benchmark uses a percentage of 3% of the operating budget. This benchmark is called 3% Give or Take for a reason. Three per cent is about right. Arguments can be made for spending less or spending more. In fact, we wish it could be significantly more, but that is not where the sector wants to go. In absence of any better data 3% is the best choice and the one that makes the most sense to us based on our experience and that of many of our clients.

So, if a charity had an operating budget of $500,000 its base marketing and communications budget would be $15,000. If it had an operating budget of $5 million, it would be $150,000.

The flexibility of this benchmark comes after the base budget percentages have been set. Here, non-profits can customize their budgets by adding or subtracting percentage points to reflect their situation. For example, if there is a need for more resources, they will add percentage points to the base. Let’s say a charity in a small market has begun to face more local competition for donations. They could add 1% to the base budget to compensate for the competition. Likewise, if the organization has no competition or is facing a drop in competition, it could take 1% away from the budget.

The result of the subtraction and addition will be your final budget benchmark number. For example, if your final equation is 7% and your operating budget is $500,00, then the marketing and communications budget benchmark for the year will be $35,000.

The 3% Give or Take Budget Benchmark has limitations. First and foremost, it works better in small and medium-sized non-profits than in larger, better resourced organizations. This benchmark system is really designed for non-profit leaders who aren’t marketing and communications professionals.


Monday, September 19, 2011

No one knows how to create a non-profit marketing and communications budget

The truth about budgeting for non-profit marketing and communications is that no one knows how to do it. There are plenty of people who say they do. There are also those who claim to have a method. Some of them even say they base their method on some kind of benchmark. Take my advice and take everything those people say and use it as kitty litter. It's worth that much.

I've been looking for a method, approach, benchmark, system or religious experience that would define non-profit marketing and communications budgeting for more than three years and I haven't found one that makes any sense. And, considering the subject, that isn't surprising.

The problem is that no two non-profits are the same. Many do similar work and have similar marketing requirements (such as fundraising support). But there are always key differences. Non-profit local markets are notoriously different from each other. Many organizations are structured very differently. There’s also a wide variety of input and output levels – some charities can raise more money with fewer donors. And finally, the sector is in fact made up of a host of very tiny sub-sectors.

That's not the case in retail, where marketing budgets are virtually a science. Most big chain retailers know exactly what their competitors spend on marketing because that information is available through research companies. Compare that to non-profits. In our sector, there are no organizations that are tracking what we spend and how we spend it on marketing and communications.

And even if such an organization existed, what would they tell us? Likely, they would show that marketing and communications spending across the sector is a dog's breakfast. The 2008 study by the American Marketing Association and Lipman Hearne found that budgets were all over the place. The average they came up with (2-3% of operating budgets) was so crude it was almost useless. Tracking what other non-profits spend in hopes of finding a benchmark will only tell you that you don't want to benchmark against them.

One of the reasons why marketing and communications spending is weaving all over the road like a drunk driver is that many non-profits have been chopping their budgets. Marketing and communications has always been the first thing to go when times get tough and that has created feast or famine approach that means many non-profits have money to spend on things like a new website one year and the next they have nothing.

This is also a problem for another reason -- many non-profit budgets are based on precedence. That is, the budget is formulated based on the budget from the year before. While this does wonders for consistency, it simply locks in the ups and downs in previous budgets. Bad budgets become even worse as time goes on.

There are other problems that cloud the issue even further. Too often, budgets are based on tools, not strategies. An ad costs this, a website costs that, and so on. To be most effective, a marketing and communications budget has to be tied very closely with a strategic framework, and for many non-profits that's missing. So, that's the reason why many budgets look like a grocery list.

And it also explains why the sector has such a hard time trying to achieve the zenith of budgeting -- predicting outcomes instead of just costs. The place where a non-profit really should go is not costing out to the Euro, Loonie or Greenback how much they will spend in stationery this year. No, what they should be figuring out what kind of outcomes their budget will be buying this year. The budget should say how much value your non-profit is going to get from your marketing and communications. This is somewhat common in retail and manufacturing where businesses link marketing directly to the value chain that starts with product creation and ends with the sale. Our sector can't use the same kind of formula because we don't make widgets. We sell ideas that people can believe in or services that give hope. Typical value chain economics don't work. But the idea is still sound. Our budgets do need to predict what their impact will be.

This brings up perhaps the biggest political problem in marketing and communications budgeting -- making the case for funding to the non-profit leadership. The long and the short of it is that too many leaders think that marketing and communications is not a line function. They see it as something secondary. Part of this surely has to come from the budgeting process. If, as I suspect, most budgets don't show the value marketing and communications creates then this situation will never change and these functions will always be one heartbeat away from the chopping block.

A final challenge is change. We’re in the midst of the greatest revolution in marketing and communications in history, but you would never know it by looking at non-profit budgets and plans. In the next decade, we will see massive amounts of change that will make much of our current non-profit marketing and communications offerings redundant. Print materials will fade away. Websites will need to be much more functional and powerful. Everything and everyone will be online. Most donors and supporters will be mobile. There will be more choice than ever and more competition. More than ever, there will be a need to build a marketing and communications system that reaches stakeholders effectively and easily. These changes need to be planned for now and, in some ways, they even need to be budgeted for now. You can’t buy the future, but you can invest in the things that will get you there. And that is what is missing in most non-profit marketing and communications budgets.

So, where do you go from here? Join me next week when I unveil my approach to non-profit marketing and communications budgeting.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Can you ditch Print?

As budget season approaches many non-profit communicators are looking for ways to save money and still deliver value. Every year, they have searched in vain for the magic bullet that will do this cleanly and without pain, and they have been disappointed. This year, something has changed.

We're at a place and time where technology is changing everything. Over the past several years everything and everyone has slowly been moving online. For years we have asked the question about print vs. online. Is print dead? Can it be replaced with online? Up until now, my answer has been no. I've argued that print still had life in the multi-channel world and would continue to do so, even if the future was clearly an online one.

My thinking has changed. I still believe print has a role, but I'm convinced that many non-profits can do what a few years ago would have been unthinkable. They can ditch their print materials. They can replace them with online equivalents. And they can do so in some cases with only a minor loss of distribution and a great deal of savings. Print may not be dead, but the time has come to realize that some non-profit organizations can not effectively operate without it.

This is a hard thing for me to say since I cut my teeth on print communications early in my career. I was a print journalist. I was a creative lead at a print ad agency. I pushed a lot of paper, and it did sterling service for me and my masters.

My change in thinking has come with the realization that the technology that is changing our world is in fact changing us, too. We aren't the same as we used to be just a few years ago. I now have a smart phone that lets me go online from whereever I am. I go online to get my software -- email, data, and others -- rather than use resident software. I am better connected to clients, friends and family through social media than I was ever before. The technology I use has changed, but I have changed. The idea of sending a letter, reading a newspaper or opening a piece of junk mail all seem foreign to me now. I don't watch as much TV. I hardly listen to radio. My banking is online. My entertainment is, too. And it's not just me. Recent research shows that for the first time half all US adults are now using social media. Mail volumes in Canada have been dropping for four years straight.

And the communicator in me has changed, too. I am awash in online measurment that can tell me so much about how effective my communications are. The inability of print communications to do the same shocks me more and more each day.

Does print communications still make sense? For some of us, the answer will always be yes because of the nature of their marketplace. But for many, the answer is no. We've turned a corner. We can now replace our print newsletters with email versions. We can now publish our annual report online. We can send out email invitations instead of print ones. We don't need glossy brochures or fancy sales sheets -- it's all better online.

For many, the main stumbling block will be direct mail. Here, the numbers still show print is the best money-maker. But the seeds of direct mail's doom are being sown in every mailing. With response rates of under ten percent in many mailings, charities are by definition flooding mailboxes with unwanted junk. With mail volumes dropping, that means that most of what now comes in the mail is now direct mail marketing and is seen by most people as junk mail. Email and social media have spoiled us. We have embraced the persmission-based anti-spam laws and internet browsers that let us turn off the tap of unwanted online communications, and yet we must endure junk mail again and again, making us more and more numb to mailings and their content. Every piece of direct mail ultimately is contributing to its downfall. And I sense that will be sooner than we think.

The old arguments for print will likely be made again. Not everyone is online, they will say. Online will deliver far fewer numbers. Both are true, but both are also becoming more meaningless every day. Yes, not everyone will get our email or social media, but the numbers who do not will be in the minority and are shrinking fast. Yes, email newslettter circulation will likely be far less than the optimistic print circulation numbers we have been using, but they will be more accurate and true.

So, I say it is time to be bold in this year's budget and take the plunge. Reduce or even eliminate print communications. You'll likely save money, get better measurement and a stronger, integrated communications program.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Outsourcing Non-Profit Communications?

Every non-profit everywhere is trying to save money. Many of them have tried outsourcing parts of their administrative functions -- IT, HR, finance, training and more -- with varying degrees of success. The question I have is "Can non-profit communications be outsourced?"

Surprisingly, I think the answer can be yes.

The advantages of outsourcing are well known. It can give you expertise, speed and ease or a combination of the three. The disadvantages are also clear. Badly done, it can lead to gaps in overall service delivery, it can be uneven in results (due to control problems) and it can be expensive (if not carefully thought through). So, where does non-profit communications fall on the outsourcing continuum?

Small and medium-sized non-profits already suffer from a skills gap in their communications departments. The expertise that outsourcing could give would be welcome. Often times, these communications positions are in fact shared jobs in many organizations. For example, it's common in some small social service agencies for the CEO's secretary to also do communications. So, by definition, there is also a speed issue -- non-profit communications can be very slow. Finally, non-profit communications usually suffers from being a non-core function which makes it the stand out in the normal flow of work. Consequently, it is often a 'big bother". The ease of outsourcing it looks attractive.

The disadvantages are real, but to some extent they exist already. Control issues are very common already within non-profit communications. For example, many communicators I know already feel disconnected and out of touch to the rest of their non-profit organization. Outsourcing would not be the disconnect it would seem. In many ways it might even improve things. The challenge of getting results would be real, but no more so than the often miserable results in-house departments can deliver.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in communications would be cost. Here, there are several issues. First, the fact is that this kind of outsourcing is rare. There's no market price for this. Figuring out what to pay is tricky. Second, and perhaps more important, is that there are not many vendors who do this. True, there are literally billions of ad agencies, writers and designers, but the services they deliver are not outsourcing, they are flash-in-the-pan, one-shot services. If you outsource, you will need a service provider who can actually manage your communications, not just sell you things.

So, where can you begin? First, set a budget. A good rule of thumb for outsourcing (but by no means the only one) is to set a goal of reducing overall labour costs 30-50 per cent. So, take what you have now in labour, divide by half and see what you end up with. That's your budget.

Second, look for a specialist in non-profit communications who offers full communications management outsourcing. Here, you will need to look far and wide. I started offering this service recently, so I know that there are no real competitors in my neck of the woods. Some ad agencies I know say they do this, but they just don't have the management skills to make it a long-term effort.

Third, you may have to accept trade-offs. For example, I operate in Kingston (a medium-sized city in Ontario). While I offer this service in Toronto, I can only do it through occasional visits and mostly emails/phone calls. In other words, a full-time onsite presence might not be possible. This would make potential crisis situations a bit tricky, but still manageable.

I can tell you that this is a rather innovative way of thinking. I've talked to many people about this and many of them scratch their head over it. Perhaps the timing of this hasn't come yet. But I think it makes sense. Everything that most in-house non-profit communicators can do I can do faster, better and with less fuss. That will save money. And in today's world, that means something.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Connected Non-Profit

We all know that non-profit marketing and communications is changing. Everything is going online. Social media is exploding. There’s more media with fewer audiences. There’s more competition, both direct and indirect. And there’s more choice, giving stakeholders the power to turn us “off” or “on” as they wish. Two of the casualties in this revolution are the techniques that have been a the mainstay of non-profit marketing and communications for decades – advertising and media relations.

Advertising and media relations suffer from the same problem – there’s too many media outlets. For advertising, it means that reaching the same amount of people will require a bigger ad buy over more media outlets. In a sense, it means that to get the same taste you need more butter spread over the same toast. That makes it too expensive. The glut of media also serves to numb us to most ads. They simply bounce off our well-tuned “ad shields” that lets us read a newspaper, magazine or web page without “seeing” the ads on them. For media relations, the story is slightly different. Free publicity used to be a powerful communications channel, but not anymore. Most local media outlets have cut their content to the bone, leaving only national players as true content generators. The result is that the media releases from small-and-medium non-profits go mostly in the wastepaper basket. Even if they do get some traction, they are buried in the back pages because that kind of news doesn’t “sell”. As in advertising, even if you do get a media outlet to pick-up the story the question becomes “who is reading it?”. To get your story on the front page of every media outlet in town takes considerable effort and lots of luck. Results are almost always uneven, and in many cases are actually zero.

The question I have asked myself and others is what can replace these two pillars of most non-profit marketing and communications shops. The answer is simple, and yet so radically different that it leaves many scratching their heads. Advertising and media relations are literally “networks for hire”. When they work, they deliver a connection to many people. If they don’t work, then why doesn’t your non-profit create your own network and deliver your own direct connections? In other words, eliminate the “middleman”.

The place to start is to realize that the barriers to creating your own network of connections are rapidly falling. It used to be that only a newspaper or a TV station could deliver enough people to get your message across. Now, with the rapid advances in online technology, anyone and everyone can create the same thing. You now have the ability to communicate directly with your stakeholders. An email newsletter is a good example. It can deliver more value than a bucket full of media releases to mainstream media outlets because it is direct, it is permission-based (people sign-up for it) and it is infinitely more cheap. True, it will likely reach fewer people, but if you do your homework it will give you the right kind of people – those who believe in your message. One of them is worth a hundred people who don’t know you or who don’t care.

The second technique is to create communications alliances with other organizations to expand your network. Approach another charity in a similar sector. Talk to a social service club. Have tea with a business group. They’re all in the same boat as you. They have trouble reaching their people. If you work together you can share networks. Ask the other charity to do a joint promotion. If you pool your resources, you’ll be able to reach more people with your common message. Ask the social service club to help you send your message to their members. If they believe in the same things as you, they’ll want to share that with their network. Work with them to create a message that works for you and them. Over tea with the business group ask for their help in getting their members involved. Create a promotion aimed at involving business people in your non-profit. Make it work for them. Give them something they need as well as you. You’ll find partnering like this will open up a wide variety of cheap and effective communications channels for you. Plus, it will have the added benefit of giving you a higher profile among community leaders.

With this framework, advertising and media releases can take their proper place as reinforcing tools. Use ads to supplement your growing network. Use media releases to help further your connection with other groups in the community.

Some people will think that this answer is all about social media. It is and it isn’t. Social media is a tool, not a strategy in and of itself. It can be used to connect directly with your stakeholders and to partner with others, but don’t let the hype surrounding social media confuse you. Social media suffers from some of the same problems as advertising – there’s now too much of it. Worse, social media takes time. You can’t create a Facebook page tomorrow and expect to have a million fans. There’s also a scaling problem. Social media tends to work best with large stakeholder groups. If you are a small non-profit in a medium-sized city you won’t get the same result as the national charity that can connect to literally millions of people across the country.

Whether you use social media or something else to deliver these techniques, the most important thing to remember is that you are now in charge of the relationship with stakeholders. Advertising and media releases are not just communications channels, they’re also relationship platforms. The newspaper has a relationship with their readers, the TV station has a relationship with their viewers. Without these ads and media releases you need to step in and fill the gap as the relationship provider. Media outlets know how to give readers what they want. That job now falls to you. It will challenge you because instead of giving them what you want you will now have to think about what the stakeholder wants and how to give it to them.

This solution is designed for small and medium-sized non-profits. It’s low cost and low risk. But make no mistake, it isn’t any easier. One of the seductive things about advertising and media releases is how easy they are to do. This new answer will take more time and more leg work. At the end of the day it will be more sustainable.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The death of advertising

These days are over
I used to be a creative leader at an ad agency. When I worked in non-profits I employed ad agencies and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads. I had ad sales people on speed dial. So, this is a hard thing to say.

Advertising just doesn't work anymore for non-profits.

A long-time ago, it did. That's when advertising was a lot simpler. You bought a newspaper or radio ad, people saw or heard it and they responded by supporting your cause. I still remember placing one or two big ads in the newspaper back in the 90s and having almost everyone I know tell me they saw them. Advertising was that powerful.

Those days are now gone. The media, and consequently, the advertising world, has fratcured. Less people read newspapers, watch TV or listen to radio. More of them are going online to get their news and information. At the same time there's been an explosion in available media. In the City of 150,000 where I live in there are almost a dozen radio stations, two major newspapers, two inhouse newspapers at local institutions, three magazines and two online news services. But a great many people here actually listen to national radio from outside the area and read national newspapers. It all means that individual advertising vehicles reach less people than ever before. It means that to get the same reach as you did a decade ago you have to do a great deal more advertising on more channels. And that costs money. Lots of it. In today's world of advertising you need to go big or go home. The days of doing an ad here or there are over. The days of advertising being cheap are over.

Then there's the problem of the numbing effect that all this advertising is having on us. As an average North American I see on average 3,000 messages a day. There are so many ads coming at me from my TV, mobile phone, email, DVDs, billboards, newspapers and more that I can't actually process them all. I ignore most of them. To break through and get my attention an ad has to be radically different or have such a huge footprint that I can't miss it. And what do both of those options have in common? They're both expensive.

Many people applaud the demise of traditional advertising and point to online advertising as its saviour -- social media, search, mobile. But here, advertising fails again.Yes, these online mediums can give you the ability to be more micro than macro in your advertising, but the same problems remain. There are too many online mediums and too many online ads. Reaching people online will take better ads and more of them. And that costs money.

My non-profit colleagues and clients don't understand all this. They still seek advertising solutions to their communications problems. They still select ad agencies to meet their marketing needs. They spend money that they don't have on slick, flash-in-the-pan ads online or offline that do very little for their long-term health.

Advertising, your days of serving the non-profit world are over.

But what can replace it? See my next blog for the ANSWER.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The commoditization of fundraising

Have you ever looked at a fundraising direct mail letter that comes to your house and say "I've seen this before"? You know that that can't be true. The letter is from an organization you haven't heard from or who hasn't sent you something lately, but you could swear you've seen that exact same letter before. What gives?

The letter looks familiar because depending on the issue, you have seen the same pitch, the same design, the same appeal and the same beneficiary many times over. There are too many charities communicating to too many donors with same same techniques about the same causes. It all looks the same. The result is the commoditization of fundraising.

What is commoditization? It's when a good or service loses differentiation. Most often, this happens because a fundamental change in production. Usually, it involves intellectual capital. Smarter thinking or a wider use of superior techniques results in the ability to make things faster and/or cheaper, and that leads to a flood of the good or service in the marketplace. An example would be generic pharmaceuticals and silicon chips. Both moved from premium margin products to a commodity status. There's plenty of them and they're cheap.

And that's what we're seeing in fundraising, at least in certain categories. There are so many fundraising organizations doing mostly the same thing that the dfferences between them have begun to blur. A good example in Canada, and likely in the US, too, is cancer. There are literally dozens of cancer charities in most large centres. There are the big ones, such as the Canadian Cancer Society, and the specialty ones, such as the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. But there are also hospitals and some universities that raise money fcor cancer research and treatment. And there are small grassroots organizations that raise money for everything from cancer patient groups to individuals with cancer. They all have the same issue. They all have the same goal, more or less. And many of them use the same techniques -- direct mail, major gifts, planned gifts, events, etc. The case can be made that in categories like cancer, fundraising is sold in bulk.

The issue of price is important to commoditization. Usually, prices fall when the market is flooded with products available in bulk. Is that the case here? One could argue that there has been an impact on price if you look at what competition has done to asks. We have seen a movement in fundraising to more gifts at lower amounts. An example would be the explosion in online, email and social media giving. More asks are being made this way, and for significantly less than what major giving or even some direct mail uses.

The net effect of commoditization will be lessening of marketing, both in seek-and-find and in retention. When everything looks the same and reads the same, the value of the communication is lowered. It will take more effort and cost more money to create something that will breakthrough to donors.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Bubble

There's a problem with all this wonderful technology that we have. It's probably the biggest problem that your non-profit marketing faces, and yet, you likely don't know it exists.

We have so many new and exciting things in non-profit marketing. First there was the Internet, then email. Remember multimedia? That came next. More recently, there's been social media -- Facebook, Twittter and all the rest. And now, we have the beginnings of a new mobile wave that will see all of the above and more run through a device in the palm of your stakeholder's hand. Compared to ten or twenty years ago there are literally dozens if not hundreds of more ways to reach your target audiences today. So what's the problem?

Technology works both ways. What serves to open a new communications channel to your stakeholders also serves to isolate them from us. I call this the Bubble.

Just think about it. Built into each wave of technology has been the ability to screen multiple messages and discard the ones stakeholders don't want. Email is a good example. A person can get literally hundreds of emails a day but they will only read just a few. Email trash cans are jammed with unwanted or unloved messages. And we have all become quite good at triaging our email browser quickly, efficiently and without mercy. Email has been a great liberator. It has allowed us to communicate in new and powerful ways. But it also has become harder and harder to reach people with email because email also has the ability to isolate people from messages you want to send.

Email is not alone. Social media is another good example. Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter can deliver hundreds of messages a day, but we all know that most will not get read. Again, the connectedness that these technologies give us also allows us to ignore, downgrade and dump messages just as efficiently as we receive them. The new mobile reality will be more of the same. Yes, new apps and other programs will turn our phones into powerful communications platforms, but they will also allow us to ignore more and more of those messages than ever before.

We think of our stakeholders as being ready, willing and able to receive a message from us. After all, there are so many ways to reach them. But the reality is that reaching their email, Facebook, Twitter and more doesn't mean we have in fact reached them. And that is the Bubble that non-profits face.

So, at the very time we are able to send more messages than ever before fewer are being actually digested.

Where does that leave us? We need to appreciate the Bubble. More than ever, we need to realize that a multi-channel approach is critically important. But more than anything else we need to pay attention to the message. At the end of the day the only thing that can cut through the Bubble is a well-crafted message that your stakeholders really want to hear. It will require us to change. We need to stop taking an organizational-focused approach to our communications and start taking a stakeholder-focused approach. In other words, we need to stop telling stakeholders what we want and start telling them what they want. We need to stop using our voice and start using theirs.

That's the only way to break through the Bubble.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Asleep at the switch

It used to be that everything you needed to control your image was in your hands. People read what you wanted them to read at your website. They saw what you wanted them to see in your internal newsletter. They heard what you had to tell them at your special event. The only real time you had to worry about someone saying something different was in a letter to the editor...and who ever reads those except the person who writes them, the editor who places them and the dozen or so PR flacks who react to them?

Those days are soooo over. Most non-profits now must deal with the fact that their image is not their own anymore. Anyone can go online and say anything about them. And they are.

When was the last time you did a search on your own non-profit? You might be surprised, even shocked what you find. Someone you know, or don't, may be out there saying all sorts of things about you. In the process, they may be stealing all your marketing and communications thunder.

For example, there's a national charity I know. They do good work and have an excellent reputation, but the wikipedia entry on them basically says they're out of business. No one at the charity knew about it until someone mentioned it to them, a very long time after it had been posted.

There's a local health care charity that long ago got rid of it's communications manager as a way to save money. They never bothered to ask him for the codes to their Facebook, Twitter or YouTube accounts, even though he would have been happy to hand them over. The result is that no one at the charity knows how to manage any of these accounts. So, for example, someone can no go online and post the most savage comment about the chariity and the hospitals they raise money for, and there would be no way to stop them. The charity can't remove the comment. They can't complain about being spammed. They're essentially helpless on their social media and will be until the end of time. And the best thing is that they are blissfully ignorant...none of them ever used social media, except the communications manager.

Wake up and smell the roses. The best way to take hold of your image is to actually keep track of it. That's not very hard to do.

Making donors cry won't work

This won't work forever
Here's another blast from the past. I ran this blog a long time ago and it seem to click. Take a look again and see if you find it still has the same BITE!

Maybe you’ve heard this one before. Some ad guru tells you that your fundraising advertising isn’t “emotional” enough. People give because of their emotional ties to your charity, she says. That means you need more “poor African children” content and less of the logical stuff that explains things. More stark pictures of people suffering, less pictures that show what you do. More on the problem, less on the solution.

These people might have a point to some degree, but the long and the short of creating fundraising advertising is that it must be a fine balance between emotion and logic, problem and solution.

The “emotion trumps everything” school of thought ignores the way people actually think. As my consumer marketing hero Gerald Zaltman says donors don’t actually think in a rational, linear way. People’s emotions are closely interwoven with reasoning, he says in his book Home Consumers Think. Although the brain has separate structures for processing emotions and logical reasoning, the two systems communicate with each other and jointly affect our behaviour.

Zaltman also points out the obvious – the understanding of emotions in an ad campaign is often superficial. Real emotions are far more complex. What about those ads on TV showing third world children? We know it has an impact on us seeing these children in poverty, but what is the real emotion in play? Guilt? Brotherhood? Piety? Compassion?

Then there’s the problem of “shock and awe” emotional pictures, like those often used by charities that help kids in third world countries. They initially work, but their value fades. If you see ten pictures of third world starvation by the tenth one your mind has taken over and begun to numb you to its effects. The glut of such images on TV serves to lower their impact overall. It is sad to say, but too much of the reality of the third world actually can serve to turn us off donating to help the kids who live there.

That leads to the issue of whether it is better to show the problem or the solution. This is more tricky. Like the “emotion” argument, an ad that paints a very real problem gets more attention. But here, too, there are challenges. Donors don’t give to problems, they give to solutions. Saying I bought a well so that a third world village can get clean water is more powerful a message than one that says I stopped that bad thing. That’s because donors know that usually the “problem” can’t be solve entirely. There will likely be third world poverty tomorrow and the next day, even if you donate. So, accenting the problem in your ad may actually serve to underline the fact that the problem can’t be solved at all.

The way to structure your fundraising ads is to find a balance. Yes, you do want emotion – in your pictures, in your words, in the testimonials you run. But you need to present the logic of your appeal at the same time. One needs to work closely with the other. Yes, you do need to present a problem, but you also need to tell your donors how the act of giving can provide a solution. And be honest in saying how much of a solution a donation can buy. Perhaps a donation can only help one child, one family or one village. Don’t make it sound that a donation will save the world if it won’t.

And if you want to see a good example try World Vision. While you're there you can make a donation and change the world.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Is Wal-Mart the future of fundraising? Maybe it should be.

Can we be like them?
This is a repeat of a blog I did last year. It was very popular so for my summer vacation I'm re-issuing it. Thanks to those who sent in their comments. Send more!

When I say “Wal-Mart” people have very specific reactions, many not positive. As the world’s largest retailer it has rubbed a number of people the wrong way. For some, it is a temple of the low brow – they would never be caught dead shopping there. For others, it is a palace of low prices. And for still others it is either a testament to American-style consumerism or a Mecca of the Chinese-led global economy.

What’s Wal-Mart got to do with fundraising? Plenty, if you want to find a model of how charities should be run.

What most people don’t appreciate is just how effective and efficient an organization Wal-Mart is. The way they operate is simply beautiful (forgive me, but I am an MBA – such things are beautiful to people like me).

48 years ago, as Canadians shopped at Eatons, Wal-Mart was an unheard of retailer from Rogers, Arkansas. In short order, it revolutionized retailing. Eatons is no more, but Wal-Mart now has 300 stores in Canada and 3,900 in the US. It operates around the world and last year it made $100 billion US in sales – more than the GDP of 100 of the world’s nations.

How did it do that? The long and the short of it is because it had a winning gameplan.

First, it had the perfect operating strategy – it will not be undersold. Its strategy is simple, robust and effective. Everyone who works for Wal-Mart knows what it means and what they have to do to make the strategy work.

Second, it has a plan to dominate the marketplace. Yes, they are aggressive, but it works. They set out to be the leader and they have never looked back.

Third, they do People, Technology and Cost-control better than any of their competitors. They have a strong culture that emphasizes the wisdom and input of local staff – managers lead from the front. They have the best technology set-up of any retailer. But it spends less on technology per sale thanks to its massive scale. They can track almost every item they sell. It sells for less by being aggressive in cutting costs. It starts with tough buying. It continues with higher sales per square foot. It saves more by running 85% of it’s goods through its own warehouse system. It advertises less because of customer loyalty.

Finally, and perhaps most important, they lead change. They are not afraid to take risks, and even fail once in a while. That’s what keeps them on top.

Non-Profits need to be more like Wal-Mart. Most of us don’t have very compelling strategies – we just exist, and most of our strategies simply justify our existence. If we had a clear and compelling approach to our fundraising business we’d be a lot more focussed and likely more successful. Competition is a dirty word in the Non-Profit world, but we know that we all have competitors. If we recognized this reality and actually begun to think like competitors it would make us more efficient. Most Non-Profits are people-poor, technologically backwards and use a cleaver for cost-control rather than a scalpel. If we actually invested in our people, technology and cost control, our businesses would be a lot leaner and more successful.

And now, the biggy. What if Non-Profits actually took risks like Wal-Mart? I don’t know how many times I’ve met people in our business who were averse to change or new ideas. You can’t sugar-coat risk, it is always a gamble. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But by taking risks, like Wal-Mart, we will be better organizations that are closer to our stakeholders and donors.

So, is Wal-Mart the future of fundraising? Why not?

Monday, July 4, 2011

The stock photo model in this picture is really me

This is what I look like, honest
This Blog ran several months ago. Since then, many of you have commented on it, and even asked us to repeat it. So, here it is again.

A picture is supposedly worth a thousand words. If that’s true, than a stock image photo is worth about three. They are “use with caution”.

Let’s face it, Non-Profits don’t have very good pictures of themselves. They usually don’t have a professional photographer walking around snapping stills all day. At best, it’s the lowly communications officer with a camera designed for holiday snaps (purchased because it’s the cheapest, of course). If you’re lucky, they had some photojournalism training when they went to school. If not, there’s always you or one of your managers or secretaries who likes to take pictures of their kids’ soccer games for Facebook. These usually look rather terrible – the lighting is bad, there’s always someone with their eyes half closed so they look slightly evil, the poses are contrived and people generally tend to look like they are underwater. And this is the image that you want to give to the world?

It’s not surprising that many Non-Profits turn to stock photography as a solution. Why do you have to look like yourself when you can have a model do it for you? At least that’s the idea. Stock photos are very deceptive in the fact that they are easily found on the Internet, from a graphics supplier or even in some software you have already, like PowerPoint. You can find almost anything if you look hard enough – babies, sick people, depressed women, rebellious teens, happy couples, older couples and more.

No, this is me!
But stock images can often create more trouble than they’re worth. First and foremost, they aren’t real. You can tell a stock photo from a real photo because everyone looks like a model. Don’t believe me? Just look at the teeth. Yes, the teeth. Most stock photos have people with the whitest teeth. Then, there’s the hair, and, of course, the clothes. There’s something in these things that tells most people they aren’t real. That’s a problem when your Non-Profit wants to be authentic. If you use “fake” photos then what else is “fake” in your communications or fundraising materials?

Second, stock photos aren’t perfect. It’s easy to make a mistake with one. Next time you’re at a stock photo site or even Google image search put in terms like “security guard”. Chances are that the images you get back will be American. A rather large college near me just sent me a catalogue of courses, including one about how to train to be a security guard. The image is obviously American. The man in the picture has a US Sheriff-style brown uniform with a bright star on his chest. In Canada, most security guards wear black and have a mandatory “security guard” patch on their shirt – they don’t usually wear badges. In other words, the people who take this course will never, ever see a guard like this in their entire time in the security industry. What does that say about this college?

Thanks to the Internet the world communicates in images. The way to describe yourself in pictures is now more important than ever. This is a great opportunity for your Non-Profit. Why not take some real pictures of real people in your organization? It will give you the authenticity you want. When you ask for donations you will actually be able to show the person who will benefit from the donation or the person who delivers the service. That’s a powerful tool. It can also give you unexpected benefits. Taking pictures of your stakeholders, volunteers or employees can be a very positive morale-booster.

This could be me...
So, here’s what I recommend. Hire a photographer for a day. Do your homework and scope out what images you want and where. Compress a dozen or more shots into one day’s work. Then re-visit at least annually and do another photo day. Over time you’ll build up your own stock image library. That’s what I did for several organizations. I was so good at it other organizations started asking me how to do it and if they could borrow my stock images!

If that isn’t possible, or your Non-Profit has privacy issues that make it hard to find willing clients to photograph, remember this. Use stock images sparingly, and test to make sure they look “real”.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Non-profit doesn't mean no money

There's a myth out there that non-profits have no money. They slave away doing the public good like a character in a Dickens novel with a hungry stomach and threadbare clothes, but with a smile in their heart and a song on their lips. Sounds almost romantic. However, it just isn't true.

If non-profits were in fact so poor we wouldn't have so many of them. There's 45,000 in Ontario alone. While many are high profile charities like a big university or hospital most are in fact middling sized and financed. They somehow make a living without any money. So what gives?

I believe that non-profits don't suffer from a lack of  money. They instead suffer from inconsistent funding. In some years they do in fact have no money, but in other years they do. Compared to the for-profit sector the financing of non-profits is a roller coaster ride. And that's why it appears that all non-profits are always poor. At one time or another, almost all of them are.

That's the key to understanding the many challenges the sector faces. Non-profits have infrastructure problems with IT. They take a "feast or famine" approach to marketing (see the 2010 Non-Profit Marketing Year-in-Review). They have skills shortages. They often lack strategic vision. Can all of these be explained by inconsistent funding? It makes sense to me.

The answer then is clear. The sector needs long-term funding. If that is impossible, it needs to stop using the same "expansion and contraction" budgeting that for-profits use. A retailer can hire and then fire without as many long-term negative impacts as a non-profit. The retailer doesn't have to ask people for money or to volunteer.

So, the next time someone tells you that non-profits have no money tell them they are wrong.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Dead Link Society

One of my pet peeves are dead links and/or ancient material on non-profit websites. Case in point is the hospital foundation I used to work for before they downsized me (I'm too embarrassed to mention their name). There are parts of their website that haven't changed since the day I left -- a year-and-a-half ago.  My favourite is the page that has the multimedia presentation I made about the construction of the local pediatric unit. The unit was completed and opened months ago, but nobody bothered to go back and update the material.

Then there's the Ontario hospital I know that built a website about their capital redevelopment. Things changed, time passed, the hospital's main website was upgraded and the redevelopment site was left to sit on its own. It was unlinked from the main site so people couldn't get there anymore -- but it wasn't taken down. You can still find it easily through a Google search. It still has the latest redevelopment information from 2008!

And there's a charity I know that has a "Listen to the campaign" button on their home page. It was a link to their previous radio ads. They took down the radio spots nearly a year ago, but they forgot to take down the button. It still sits there telling people to "Listen to the campaign", but when they click on it, it goes to a nice white empty page.

Having dead or out of date links like this is very, very bad. The message it sends about an organization is "lights on, but nobody is at home". At best, it makes the non-profit look sloppy and careless. At worse, it makes people question whether they should believe anything that that organization says.

Perhaps the worse thing is that it indicates that an organization like this doesn't really puts stakeholders first. Instead of trying to give stakeholders what they want, it gives them what the organization thinks it can get away with to make the stakeholders happy.

And none of this has to happen. Finding dead links and updating content is easy. It just takes effort.

The lesson is know your website. Keep it current. Remember to actually remove things when they are complete...don't leave them for search engines to find. Put someone in charge of your website and have them manage it. Give them the training and the time they need to do the job.

Send me your dead link or out of date material stories and I'll post them here on my blog. Then we'll all have a good laugh.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Who "Owns" your non-profit brand? Guess what, it's not you.

One of the most difficult lessons in branding is about perspective. It's easy to think that branding is all about your non-profit. You commission the brand. You invest the time. You apply the precious resources you have. You nourish and grow the brand. It's your baby, and people can be forgiven for being territorial about it.

And there's a whole school of thought that tries assign value to your brand -- brand equity. They use pretty charts and clever formulas to show that your brand has a real monetary value. So, it's not only your baby, it's also the bedrock of your finances.

But the truth of the matter is that your non-profit doesn't actually own its own brand.

That's right, you don't own it.

Think about it. What is your brand? It's not just a logo (although there's a significant number of rather foolish people who think it is). It is your identity. It is the face you wear. What you think about that face, that identity doesn't really matter. You brand exists to help you navigate the outside world, not for your own private pleasure. So, it is not what you think about your brand that really counts, it is what the outside world thinks. In other words, the value of your brand exists in the mind of the people who perceive it and act upon it. At the end of the day, if your stakeholders think a logo of a dead fish and a tag line in Klingon represent you, than that is your true brand equity. One could argue that all the branding in the world can't change the fact that it is up to stakeholders to decide who you are and assign value you to you accordingly. You can move them, convince them, cajole them to change their minds about your identity, but the power to make that change lies with them, not you.

So, who owns your brand? Your stakeholder audiences, that's who.

And that brings us back to perspective. You need to approach your non-profit brand from the perspective of your customer, and not your own organizational thought process. Ask what your brand is going to do for them, not just what its going to do for you. They're the true owner, the boss.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

How much is too much communication

One of the things I see all the time is a reluctance to communicate too often. For example, one client told me not to send an email on Easter because it would be too intrusive, even though the email was a celebration of Easter and the start of Spring. Were they right? Surely any email asking for money is intrusive, but look at the flip side. The campaign we were running was less than two months in length. We had only emailed our target audiences twice. It has been more than 10 days since we communicated with them and it was almost near the end of the campaign. In short, this was a perfect opportunity. In this case, an opportunity lost.

Another more common example is the complaint that non-profits usually receive when someone gets too many emails. The other day, I was with a non-profit leader who commented on the fact that she had received a complaint from a person who received one too many direct mail letters from them. Were they right? Again, getting too much junk mail is a turn off. However, the non-profit in question only sent out letters twice a year, and then only to a few hundred people. Their direct mail wasn't exactly an avalanche of communication.

Where do you draw the line? The research clearly shows that the more you send --whether it be direct mail, email, phone calls -- the more you will make in donations. Volume is a factor in making money. True, there is an added risk of turning off people with too much communication, but I think this is usually over blown, and can be easily dealt with.

Many complaints about too much communications come from people who actually don't want any communications. These are the people who are bombarded by other charities. Sometimes they are email novices who can't handle even the simplest overload of spam. Either way they are in the minority. I think most complaints actually are due not to the volume of communication but because of the often stupid way they are sent. The classic example is when one part of a charity sends out a mailer at exactly the same time as another part. This can easily happen when you have a direct mail team, an events team and a communications team all operating independently from one another. Better scheduling would be able to handle this easily. Technology can help too. If you're sending email or doing Facebook make sure people know how to "opt" out. This can usually be done with a click of a button. And when people do complain, be ready for it. Expect people to call or email and be ready with an answer about why they get so much mail or email. Listen to them, and if necessary exempt them from your communications. But don't stop all communications because one or two people complain. That's throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

How much is too much? There's no magic answer. Instead of thinking about each individual communication think of the big picture. What overall goals do you want from your communication? Then match the volume of communications to meet the goals.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Communications is too important to be left to the communicators

I had a discussion the other day with a non-profit about their Board. It seems that the Board doesn't think that communications, or fundraising, is their role. They have staff who do that. It raised a rather large question. Who's job is it to communicate in a non-profit?

No-brainer for many people. If you have communications staff, let them do it. These people see communications through a lens of "control". They see communications as an exercise in risk avoidance. And so all communication must be pumped through specific channels, such as the news release or the newsletter. But that's it.

That narrow view accounts for many of the reasons why non-profits fail at communications. Yes, this approach delivers control, but it also delivers little in the way of engagement, both inside or outside the organization. Donors, stakeholders and the public see this for what it is -- a grudging attempt to talk to them. With this kind of attitude its no wonder that many non-profits have low profiles and poor community relations.

The place where this fails is when the non-profit tries to fundraise or faces a crisis. Having a communications flack or a CEO talk alone about a key issue ignores the reality that non-profits are communities of people. And whether it is controlled or not, people inside the organization as well as outside will talk about the news of the day. Stifling them won't stop them from talking.

The answer is that it is everyone's responsibility to communicate in a non-profit. Instead of having a designated communicator why not give your people the tools to make all of them communicators? They're going to speak out one way or another, why not help them do it right. Give them the information, the background, the timeline. Encourage them to talk to others, don't shut them up.

That Board I talked about needs to realize that they need to be communicators just as much as their communications coordinator does. They need to understand that if they don't communicate on behalf of the organization, no one will.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Awards announced for best annual reporting in Ontario charity sector

Voluntary Sector Reporting Awards also releases best practices guide for charities

Donors, funders and boards are all looking for more transparency and good governance. Now, Ontario charities can give them that and more by entering their Annual Report in the Voluntary Sector Reporting Awards (VSRA). The VSRAs, created by the CA-Queen's Centre for Governance in partnership with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario and sponsored by PwC, annually recognize the Ontario’s best non-profit Annual Reports.

The VSRAs are open to registered charities that produce annual reports in Ontario. Organizations compete in three categories based on revenue size – up to $1 million, from $1 million to $10 million, and more than $10 million – as well as a separate category for national and international not-for-profits with head offices in Ontario.

Last year’s winners in the four categories were:
  • National or international NPO headquartered in Ontario: World Vision Canada
  • Total revenues over $10 million (tie): Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario & United Way Toronto
  • Total revenues over $1 million but below $10 million: Kingston Literacy & Skills
  • Total Revenues of under $1 million: Sarnia Lambton “Rebound” - A Program for Youth

The winners in each category will receive $5,000. Charities that are organizations whose principal activities are run by or for municipalities, universities, hospitals or school boards are not eligible.

Entry is simple and free. Winners in each category will receive a $5,000 prize. Everyone who enters get free information about best practices. Nominations close July 31st. More information is available online at

Best Practices in Charity Annual Reporting

Now, charities everywhere can learn how to turn their Annual Report into a powerful engagement tool for free. The Voluntary Sector Reporting Awards have published a new guide to annual reporting called Best Practices in Charity Annual Reporting. The report is free at the VSRA website --

Get more information:

CA-Queen's Centre for Governance

Queen's School of Business

Phone: 613-533-3254




Thursday, May 26, 2011

The myth that you are different.

There's a school of thought in not-for-profit branding that says looking inward is all there is. I recently read a new book on one of the high priestesses of this way of thinking. Her approach is simple. Get all of your  stakeholders to fall in love again with your values and mission, whip up a cool logo and a tag line and call it a day.

The advantage of course is that by going back to your roots you re-discover what makes you you. And it has obvious fringe benefit of rallying your stakeholders back to the colours -- the focus on re-living the mission takes their minds off the many troubles the organization faces here and now. The final benefit is that the process is simple...for the branding agency. They can use the same cookie cutter approach one organization after another, and it sells.

But does it work? Yes and no. Anything that brings you back to your roots is beneficial. The trip down memory lane to see what your founding fathers and mothers wanted when they started your organization is powerful. However, it is not enough. This approach creates good brands, but never great ones.

The main problem is that it leaves out the most important and pressing challenge not-for-profits face: competition. Today, the not-for-profit brand must be an external facing brand. The days of having an identity that could look inwards without a care for the outside world are over. Not-for-profits today live or die because of outside forces -- government funding, fundraising, volunteers, regulation and more. And many of the previously internal challenges that they faced, such as recruitment, are fast becoming external ones. Branding, for example, is a major force in recruitment of new staff and volunteers -- a process that these days involves a great deal of competition indeed.

The internal approach tells organizations that by just being themselves again they can succeed in an ever competitive world, and that is a lie. It assumes that each organization is different to begin with, and common sense tells us that is untrue. The vast majority of not-for-profits are very similar to others in their sector, sub-sector or niche. The cancer charity is similar to other cancer charities. The local charity, even though it may fundraise for different things than others in the community, is very similar to other local charities. You can see this very clearly in most mission and value statements. They all sound the same. The idea that not-for-profits are different is a myth. And because of that the internal approach further reinforces that sameness. So, a new brand from the folks who practice this approach could actually serve to make your organization more mediocre.

With not-for-profits facing a chorus of competition how can their lone voice be heard? The answer is to build a brand that takes the competition into account. If your town has a dozen charities, your local charity needs to have a brand that is different from the other charities. If your cancer charity looks and sounds like a dozen other cancer charities, then you need a brand that is unique amongst that group.

This process of being more external than internal is what for-profits, especially retailers, do. They realize the obvious. Competition is fierce and the only way to succeed is to stand out in the crowd. Why doesn't the not-for-profit sector do the same? There are many reasons. One is that they and the branders they hire consistently fail to appreciate the competition they face. Another is that most not-for-profits have very internally-focused communications ideas. They think "internal" and not "external" and that is why they fail.

A good example was a process I was a part of as an observer. The big not-for-profit hired a big branding company who went the "internal" route. They mostly consulted board members and senior staff to create the brand. The idea of testing it against the competition wasn't part of the process. The result was a brand that consisted of a nice logo and a tag line. It didn't move the organization forward. It didn't solve the serious marketing challenges they faced, which, in their case, was that no one knew who they were. They still have a very low national profile.

The lesson in all of this is that not-for-profit brands have to be a balance of internal and external.