Avoid the Tactical Syndrome Help for the 23 of Nonprofit Communicators Who Don't Track ResultsWhat do you get when you cross a set of diffuse nonprofit communications tactics with a potentially-interested base? Nothing, nada; save a bit of irritation or boredom.

That’s what evaluation expert Edith Asibey calls "the tactical syndrome — broad or undefined goals leading to that laundry list of communications tactics," a deadly illness you want to avoid like the plague. Strategy is the only antidote — front end planning (including planning the evaluation approach) followed by evaluation on an ongoing basis.

But breathe a big sigh of relief. I’m not going to pound you for not evaluating your marketing work (although for goodness sake, evaluation is the other half of planning and, without both halves in play you are driving blind). Instead, I’m going to point you to a great new resource that will make it far easier to evaluate the impact of your communications. And, as you know, hardcore ROI is a critical weapon in your fight to build (or at least maintain) your nonprofit marketing budget and focus.

Asibey previewed her new evaluation guide last month at the Communications Network conference. Here’s what Edith had to say about the tool, and her underlying approach to making evaluation more possible and useful for nonprofit orgs. The tool will:

  • Be easy to use, practical and interactive, designed to help practitioners integrate evaluation into their strategic communication plans, as well as identify milestones of progress and success (rather than just post facto evaluation, which doesn’t do much for your current campaign, although it might help next time).
  • Enable course correction before more investment is misdirected, by highlighting progress benchmarks on an ongoing basis.
  • Build on proven practices currently in place (the tool is designed around foundation communications, but there’s a lot there relevant to nonprofit communications agendas). Asibey and team found most communications tracking to be “one-offs, and focused on tactics; few groups are looking at overall communication strategies and thinking of evaluation in a holistic way.”

I’m waiting with baited breath, and will let you know when the tool is released. But for now, start to shore up your planning process to include tracking on the far end. That’s the only way to ensure your nonprofit marketing investment is doing its best for your org.

P.S. Learn how to craft a compelling story for your org in 8 words or less. Download the free Nonprofit Tagline Report for must-dos, don’t dos, case studies and 1,000+ nonprofit tagline examples!

Nancy Schwartz in Comnet08, Nonprofit Communications, Planning and Evaluation, Recommended Resources | 0 comments

Ding, Dong, the Annual Report is Dead. Or Is ItI want to share with you what grantmakers are thinking about annual reports, as revealed in an emotion-packed (who knew?) session at the Communications Network Conference.

Not that foundations are in your shoes. After all, they don’t need to raise money or account to donors. But they are smart communicators and they do support organizations like yours, so their perspective should be taken to heart. Here goes:

  • Many annual reports are shaped to internal perspectives, a total waste of time and budget. Focus on impact and value, not activities.
  • Most grantmakers are moving away from the print annual report, and using online platforms to create more useful, more potent and more interactive looks at their work and impact. Some offer print on demand. Financials are always made available in print and online.
  • "The one-year perspective of the typical annual report is of limited value in looking at long-term social and systemic change." Wish I knew who said that but it struck me, hard. It’s trying to get a sense of the big picture when all you’re looking at is one tiny corner.
  • The question to ask is, "If we were starting today, would we do it this way?"

So here’s what your org needs to think through:

  • What do you have to report out annually (in some format) to satisfy key audiences, including the IRS? Clear financials, with clear explanations a donor can understand, are a must.
  • How can you most effectively share the impact of your work with your existing supporters? Don’t just create the old print annual report by rote.
    • While you’re at it, expand your goals to include engaging new donors and thanking those that have helped. Anything else?
  • If an annual report is part of that picture, what channels can you use to create one that brings your work to life, rather than packaging it in a deadly way? Of course you have to know your audiences well (and where they are, online or not) to make the right decision here.
  • Content wise, think about what is of greatest interest to those who support you, not the day-to-day or back-end stuff that’s really not too interesting to anyone.
    • Think stories–photos, profiles, testimonials–which speak more powerfully than any description you’ll write. Then connect the dots for your readers, piecing the stories together into your org’s story. Make it a best seller.
  • Is annually the right production cycle, or is there a way to add reflections and connections to ongoing program updates?
    • Radical idea here: Launch a blog for periodic updates that are then linked together, with connective commentary at year end.

What are you doing differently with your annual report this year? Share your story by clicking Comments below.

Nancy Schwartz in Annual Reports, Comnet08, Nonprofit Communications, Strategy | 0 comments

3 Foundation Web Experts Share Tips & Tales for Funders & NonprofitsNothing better than learning from the best in the trade, as I had a chance to do at the Communications Network conference session on Web sites.

I loved what Mitch Hurst (in disguise at top left), new media team leader at the Mott Foundation, had to say about the way Mott re-designed its site architecture to reflect how users think about and seek their content, rather than how Mott has structured its own programming.

Yahoo! Looking out, rather than in, when speaking with external audiences is the only way to go. But far too few nonprofit orgs do so.

Hurst shared his experience of "killing the silos:" Making the shift from a 2006 site that delivered content by Mott-defined program areas through working foundation-wide to ID 12 key issues addressed by those programs (but nearer how the rest of the world thinks about those arenas), and making those issues the paths into the current Mott Foundation site (see the Focus menu at top right of the home page.

Not surprisingly, building the team to involve staff foundation wide as communicators (a real cultural change) was a critical success factor. Mitch, you’re stealing my rap (AKA, everyone’s a communicator)!

More here on great lessons from the Commonwealth and Wallace Funds.

P.S. Learn how to craft a compelling story for your org in 8 words or less. Download the free Nonprofit Tagline Report for must-dos, don’t dos, case studies and 1,000+ nonprofit tagline examples!

Nancy Schwartz in Case Studies, Comnet08, High-Impact Websites, Web 2.0 | 1 comment

Foundations Tiptoe into Web 20, But Not Looking to Nonprofits as Partners or Guides YetThe Communications Network’s report on foundations entering the world of Web 2.0 was a focal point of the Network’s recent conference, with David Brotherton and Cynthia Scheiderer sharing their findings us all.

From where I sit (guiding grantmakers and nonprofit organizations to more effective marketing), the most valuable nugget was from Mitch Hurst, Team Leader–New Media, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, who was interviewed for the report: As long as foundations stay out of this space, their influence will be on the wane. We are missing opportunities to get our perspective included…And our voice is not being heard in some of the more substantive online spaces.

You’ve got it, Mitch. The way of the world is conversation and collaboration, and that goes for all communications, not just Web 2.0. If foundations stay out instead of contributing their perspectives and expertise, that’s a loss all around.

The report emphasizes the importance of Mitch’s point, urging foundations to make more use of Web 2.0 technologies in order to more effectively engage the public in their work and to have greater programmatic impact.

Nonprofits are in a different place, with tighter resources and, by necessity, less engagement in shaping the sector. For orgs like yours, communications strategy comes first. When you’ve pinpointed goals and IDd the folks you want to be talking with, that’s when you select the right Web 2.0 tools IF your audiences are there online.

Even if your base isn’t there yet, there’s plenty of reason to experiment with these tools in a minor way. You’ll need to be using these tools sometime soon anyway. More broadly, continual learning is a prerequisite of organizational and personal nourishment.

Here’s what else you need to know from the session/report:

  • Foundations are focused on exploring social media tools for their own use (less so for their grantees), but seem to be seeking goals that aren’t so realistic.
    • Right now, realistic first-stage benefits of putting Web 2.0 to work are learning and building relationships. That’s it.
  • They fear losing control of their message, as do the majority of nonprofit organizations.
    • Truth is, they don’t control their message now.
  • Grantmaker interest in Web 2.0 isn’t extending that broadly (yet?) to:
    • Funding nonprofit experimentation with these tools
    • Following what nonprofits — grantees or otherwise — are learning via their own Web 2.0 experimentation.
    • Exceptions include The Overbrook Foundation where staff noticed some grantees using Web 2.0 effectively while others were struggling to do so, and responded with skill/experience sharing ops.
  • There’s a gap that can be closed here. Consider this a shout out to folks on "both

    • Funders have more resources, and the interest, but perhaps not the cultural comfort or organizational agility to experiment with Web 2.0 tools.
    • Nonprofits are more likely to have the agility to move quickly and/or the culture that fosters experimentation (even if it starts as a stealth agenda), but are low on resources.
    • This is a great opportunity bring us all together in the
      social media journey.

BTW, The Knight Foundation is doing some really interesting experimenting with Web 2.0 with its Garage, a mash-up (using multiple social media tools) to foster mentoring (with previous winners), brainstorming, collaboration and, ultimately, the right applicants for its $5 million News Challenge grants. Here’s an overview from Garage-ster mistress of ceremonies Kristen Taylor (aka Knight Foundation online community manager).

Thanks to David and Cynthia for sharing such good work.

P.S. Here’s how to craft the shortest and most compelling story about your org. Download the free Nonprofit Tagline Report for must-dos, don’t dos, case studies and 1,000+ nonprofit tagline examples!

Nancy Schwartz in Comnet08, Nonprofit Communications, Social Media, Web 2.0 | 2 comments

Let's Start at the Very Beginning -- Storyteller Extraordinaire Ira Glass Leads the Way for NonprofitsChapter 1 begins with learning how to tell a good yarn from America’s favorite storyteller, This American Life host Ira Glass.

Storytelling is such the rage, and most nonprofits do it in some form. But I hear so many stories that don’t move me an iota. Ira explained what it takes to weave a tale that’ll fully engage your listeners, and stay in their minds and hearts:
A Good Story

  • Builds momentum, slowly but surely. Listeners will hang tight when you build suspense, sequencing one event or step after another. We’re all hungering for surprise (the media too).
  • Features multiple characters. Use different voices (with all their intonations, accents, and other specs) to highlight interplay among characters; otherwise you’re doing a monologue — much less interesting than multiple points of view.
  • Casts the right storyteller. Whose perspective will shape the most compelling tale?
  • Is specific. The details — like the minutia that make up your life — make it real. Like it or not, that’s what 90% of our daily life is made of.
  • Connects pieces and voices in an overall theme. Make sure to step away here and there to frame events in a context that ties them together. That’s your theme.
  • Uses music to build suspense. For greatest impact, stop the music for a few seconds of silence before your revelation. But make sure the music doesn’t overwhelm the teller’s voice or distract from the story.

Take a look at these two takes on Ira’s how stortelling how tos, from the Knight Foundation’s Marc Fest and Rebecca Arno, VP of Communications with The Denver Foundation.

What can you add to the list?

P.S. Learn how to craft the shortest and most compelling story for your org. Download the free Nonprofit Tagline Report for must-dos, don’t dos, case studies and 1,000+ nonprofit tagline examples!

Nancy Schwartz in Branding and Messages, Comnet08, storytelling, Strategy | 4 comments

Flying Out to Communications Network Conference Today -- Will Report Out on What You Need to KnowI’m winging my way to Chicago this morning, to participate in the annual Communications Network conference.  I’m a long-time member of this group of communicators who staff and consult with grantmaking foundations, but haven’t made it to the conference for several years. Can’t wait to catch up with folks face to face.

Beyond the relationships — which is what I value most about conferences — I’m thrilled to have the chance to hear king-of-storytelling Ira Glass, host of American Public Radio’s This American Life, discuss his trade. You’ll get the key takeaways on storytelling success, plus those on these key nonprofit marketing topics (from the invaluable point of view of those who fund your nonprofit) and more:

  • How Web 2.0 is Changing Foundation Communications: Can’t wait to grab the foundation perspective and case studies on social media+, especially since I’ve been doing a lot of speaking on the topic lately and know you’re craving models and inspiration.
  • Which Comes First: Building Your Website or Understanding Your Audience? How to structure and market your website — and then measure results — to ensure it delivers for your foundation: You know the answer to this one, but I’m always striving to add new and better strategies to the list.
  • Is the Annual Report Nearing Extinction? A perennial burning question.

Any questions you want me to bring to this group? Email me, and I’ll do my best.

P.S. The Network has done a fantastic job of engaging conference participants in advance, with a conference blog featuring many guest bloggers from session presenters to the home-town-members of the host committee.

This is a great way to build excitement prior to a meeting or event, and continue it afterwards. Another useful model is the advocacy conference blog of the National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund’s. Keeps the conversation and interest going year round!

Nancy Schwartz in Comnet08, Nonprofit Communications, Philanthropy, Professional Development | 1 comment

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