Five Tech Tips to Punch Up Your Nonprofit Communications

There’s a disconnect in the nonprofit world. I read countless articles about technology and its powerful applications for the nonprofit sector, but seldom is there coverage of the critical interface between technology and communications strategies. That’s a serious gap.

What’s happened, in my opinion, is that many of us shy away from technology. By leaving tech decisions to the IT department rather than schooling ourselves on these opportunities, we limit the impact of our communications strategies.

My advice to you is to learn what tech tools can strengthen your nonprofit’s communications strategies, and what choices you have. If you have an IT team or consultant, ask them to dig into the details. But get to know the basics yourself. That way you’ll make sure you get the right tool, and you’ll get the most out of it.

I interviewed nonprofit technology expert and author Michael Stein for his take on tech tips to strengthen your web and email communications impact. Michael, who has worked with Children Now, Groundspring and now as an Internet strategist with the, had some great ideas:

1. Gather accurate communication information

Improve the ways in which you gather personal information and email addresses from stakeholders with the following tips:

Tip: Don’t just ask for email addresses when you ask your audiences to subscribe to your e-news. Gather name, street address, zip code, how they heard about you. Take it one step further to do some quick surveying on issues.
Tip: Think more like a business in terms of figuring out the sources of these leads. You want more of them.
Tip: Ask for an email address when your web users request a PDF download.
Benefit: You’ll learn more about how various outreach techniques are working to validate (or not) marketing expenses and impact.

2. Make your communications accessible

Readers have different preferences on every platform. For email newsletters specifically, publish plain text as well as HTML format versions for the following reasons:

Insight: Many of your readers are likely to prefer HTML e-newsletters, so publish in both HTML and plain text versions. The format makes it much easier for readers to act. Studies show that HTML format performs much better in terms of click-throughs, forward to friend, etc. (NOTE: Readers, there is conflicting data on this last point.)
Benefit: Better engagement with audiences, by giving them a choice of format and the opportunity to take action with a click.
Caution: Don’t forego your text version. Many readers still prefer text.

3. Publish content in a timely manner

A great way to disseminate content quickly without compromising thoroughness is by diving into blog publishing:

Definition: A blog (an abbreviation of weblog) is a website that serves as an online journal, updated very frequently with commentary on one or more topics. Blog authors — called bloggers — commonly provide links to related information, with commentary. Because of their low barrier to entry (blogs are easy and cheap to implement), blogs are proliferating in the nonprofit sector.
Insight: The “blogsphere” is becoming huge, with content feeds (RSS readers deliver blog content to interested audiences) growing at a rapid pace. Blogs are a great way to disseminate content in a timely way.
Benefit: Some high-impact ways to put your blog to use for your nonprofit include:

  • Serializing content, such as daily reports from an oceanographer on an expedition or an advocacy campaign hard at work.
  • Building community by providing a venue for multiple voices (staff and/or members, experts or others).
  • Critiquing events or news items in your issue areas, as they occur.
  • Reinforcing content disseminated via other communications vehicles — broadcast, print or online.
  • Providing personal perspectives, which enable your audiences to get to know your nonprofit’s staff members. Emphasize the people in your organization to strengthen relationships with your audiences.

4. Use effective communications tools

Explore using application service providers (ASP) to streamline your online operations:

Insight: There are now automated systems, that you don’t have to maintain (they live in a server, which you access via the web) for operations from website content management and online donation processing to email messaging and online event registration.Consider moving these processes online and off your desktop computer.
Benefit: Easier software interfaces. Faster learning curve. Sometimes your software cost will be higher, but your total cost of operation (since you’ll save hours in set up and maintenance) will be lower.
Example: Take a look at Citysoft, an ASP targeted to nonprofits, associations, educational institutions and other socially-responsible organizations. Citysoft offers a menu of tech tools from email marketing to web content development software, and donor and event management.Depending on the modules you select, your organization can send email newsletters to members and constituents and track the results, create online communities for audience use, provide event registration and much more.

5. Make an online communications strategy

Develop a web search optimization agenda to improve search engine positioning:

Tip: The best way to improve search engine positioning is to get links to your site placed at other web sites where your audiences already are.
Tip: Once you’ve identified key sites you’d like to be linked from (start with a list of the top 20), start calling or e-mailing. A great way to do this is to find an intern or volunteer to beat the bushes. Link placement isn’t skilled work (after you identify the key sites) but it is extremely labor intensive.
Benefit: Improved positioning in search engine results.

Michael, thanks for your clear and practical ideas on how Getting Attention readers can put tech tools to work to strengthen their communications impact.

Communicating on Difficult Issues (Case Study)

Question: As a small domestic violence service agency in rural Pennsylvania, we face a real communications challenge. Whenever we publicize our existence or events or what have you, our communications are seen as bad news, i.e. that there is domestic violence in our county. How do we make sure the public is aware of this important issue and of the help that is available without “turning off”? The general public often holds erroneous beliefs about the cause, prevalence, etc. of domestic violence.

– Cheryl Miller
Training Coordinator/Legal Advocate
Clarion County, PA

Dear Cheryl,

You’re facing a classic communications dilemma – talking about an issue that makes people uncomfortable. Many audiences don’t want to hear it and respond with the “it has nothing to do with me, so I don’t want to know about it” mind-set. So how do you communicate in a way that ensures your audiences really listen to what you’re saying, and respond in the way you wish?

Keep in mind that, in most cases, the underlying foundation of difficult issues is the soft, or the human, issues – attitudes, opinions, self-image, values, beliefs, and feelings about how the world is organized and people’s place in it. This context is difficult enough to tackle in a one-to-one, face-to-face conversation, much less through broader communications strategies.

However, Cheryl, you’ve already identified the challenge (an important first step), and there are definitely some concrete steps you can take to build public awareness of the issue and ensure that county residents know that SAFE is there to help.

Clearly define your communications goals

The first step is to precisely define your communications goals so that you focus your communications work in the right direction. Here’s what I think your goals are likely to be:

  • Raise awareness that SAFE is there to help victims of domestic violence.
  • Educate the public about domestic violence so that people are able to identify their situation as victims or abusers.
  • Motivate behavioral change among abusers and abuse victims.
  • Change policy to improve protection for and support of victims of domestic violence.

In order to achieve these goals, SAFE must:

  • Create and/or retain a positive reputation in the community so that the legal and social welfare systems, county government, education and religious institutions, donors, and others view SAFE as an ally, rather than an adversary.

Pinpoint your audience

Next, look closely at your audiences and see just who composes that “general public.” For many nonprofits, the general public remains a vast, undefined secondary audience. For an organization like yours, focused on a problem so often hidden, the general public is a primary audience. Having volunteered in domestic violence shelters, I know that it’s impossible to predict who may need your help. So you need to get the word out there quite broadly.

In addition, in order to meet your communications goals, I’d suggest targeting the following audiences, who can serve as intermediaries:

  • Caregivers: Social service agencies, the medical community;
  • Clergy and teachers: School and religious institution staff;
  • Legal: Police, the judiciary;
  • Children’s and family-oriented organizations: Church groups, Girl and Boy Scouts;
  • Community organizations: Library, civic clubs;
  • Press.

Also, for realization of your policy goals, you’ll want to reach legislators at all levels.

Hone your communications messages

When you’re talking with audiences who don’t recognize that your issue IS an issue, or those who actively recoil from it, it’s critical to put yourself in their shoes and get to know their point of view. That’s the only way you’ll create messages that they’ll relate to, emotionally and rationally.

Start by creating a profile of your target audiences, including their attitudes, beliefs, habits, and interests. If you can, attach the profiles to people you really know, to reinforce your understanding.

Next, create a set of core messages that concisely convey what you do, what its importance is, and what you want your audiences to do about it – in a way that your audiences will hear. I don’t know enough about your community to know everything that’s important to citizens there, but I know that linking your work to the following benefits will have a positive impact:

  • Healthy and happy families;
  • Reduced drain and expense on social service agencies and the judicial system;
  • Overall stronger community.

These are benefits everyone has to appreciate, Cheryl, and you can probably list many more generated by your work. These benefits should be at the core of your messages and communications.

Let your intermediaries promote your communications

Now that you have your messages, honed to reach the audiences you need to reach, how do you get the word out?

Cheryl, we don’t have room for a complete strategy here. But let me suggest the following approach, in addition to your existing communications program:

Because you’re working with difficult and sensitive issues, and are striving to build a positive reputation for SAFE, it makes sense to enlist intermediaries (whom you train) such as those listed above, to get the word out. These intermediaries, from physicians to the clergy and Girl Scout leaders, already have relationships with your audiences, are trusted, and are likely to be heard far better than direct communication or education from SAFE.

Nothing is better than conversations on difficult issues because conversations can adapt to attitudes that emerge. Printed materials don’t offer that flexibility but ensure that you are getting your messages out, broadly, in the way in which you feel most comfortable.

I’d suggest running training sessions for your intermediaries to ensure that they are clear on what domestic violence is, how to know if someone you know is being abused, and what the services are that SAFE and other organizations provide to those in trouble.

These folks are the best “distributors” of your messages and printed materials. Of course you have to ensure that your intermediaries carry your messages out to your audiences, rather than their own. In addition, I’d ask these intermediaries to talk about domestic violence and SAFE in their own communications, such as newsletters.

And of course, Cheryl, you should continue to produce your own public education materials and do some direct communications yourselves via mail, email, your web site, postering, and other vehicles.

You’ll find former victims and abusers to be powerful spokespeople. Again, when SAFE steps backstage, letting others talk about the work it does and the issue of domestic violence, you’ll be “un-demonized.” This approach offers the opportunity to situate domestic violence services as a means of strengthening the community.

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Is Cause Marketing Right for Your Nonprofit?

You know that cause marketing is a partnership between a for-profit and a nonprofit. Each partner has something to offer the other.

Cause marketing is certainly a potentially significant strategy in your overall nonprofit marketing plan. And some of you have a cause marketing program in place already. But for those of you who don’t (and that’s most nonprofits), how do you know when cause marketing is right for your nonprofit? And if it is, how do you bring the program to life?

These questions are more weighty than ever in light of the controversies surrounding the Komen-KFC deal (guidelines for productive partnerships here) and the more recent Nature Conservancy (and other major environmental organizations)-BP deal.

I interviewed expert cause marketer Joe Waters, Director, Cause & Event Marketing at Boston Medical Center, to answer these questions and more. There’s no better resource on cause marketing than Joe’s blog, Selfish Giving. Joe features case studies (with specifics), trends and news from the field – it’s a must read for all cause marketers, and those still considering jumping in.

Cause marketing basics

Nancy: How do you define cause marketing? There are so many definitions out there. Many nonprofit marketers are confused.

Cause marketing is a win-win partnership between a nonprofit and a for-profit for mutual profit, usually involving point-of-sale and/or percentage-of-sale programs. The “profit” for the nonprofit is visibility and/or money. For the for-profit, it’s an enhanced image and sales.

Nancy: How did cause marketing evolve as a major strategy for corporate support of nonprofit issues and causes?

Joe: American Express’ campaign for the Statue of Liberty in the early 80’s was the first major cause marketing effort. Since then, companies have slowly caught on to the value of moving beyond straight philanthropy. Frankly, many have had no choice because of the disappearing bottom-line that once made “charity” possible. Cause marketing allows companies to serve two masters: Consumers that expect them to give back, and investors who demand growth. It’s called cause marketing, but a more accurate name is “Cause Sales”.

Benefits of cause marketing

Nancy: What kinds of nonprofits are likely to benefit from cause marketing, and to solicit interest of corporate sponsors?

Joe: A company will sometimes partner with a small, unknown charity simply because it’s a worthy cause, but most look for charities that are well-known and respected by consumers. There’s a double benefit here because they’re supporting a worthy cause AND a reputable organization. Companies also favor charities with a large supporter base and, increasingly, marketing know-how.

For instance, the studio that released Charlotte’s Web partnered with Heifer International, an Arkansas-based nonprofit that provides livestock to poor farmers, because of a natural farm animal connection. What sealed the partnership was Heifer’s 160,000 person mailing list and ability to conduct grassroots marketing from a nationwide network of offices. The studio could have partnered with any organization that worked with livestock, but Heifer delivered advantages they could take to the bank.

Nancy: Who usually benefits most, the charity or the corporation?

Joe: People always seem to think it’s the company, but I disagree. For most companies, cause marketing is just one of the ways they’re building reputation and driving sales.

Their marketing mix is like a dish with 100 ingredients: If you leave one out, no one will miss it. But with fewer ways and dollars to promote themselves, nonprofits stand to gain a lot from cause marketing, especially if they land the right partner.

Take the partnership between Starbucks and Boston-based Jumpstart, focused on early literacy skills. Since 2006, Starbucks has raised money and given Jumpstart great visibility via its website and stores, especially in the northeast. Thanks to Starbucks, Jumpstart now enjoys national awareness. But what has Starbucks gained from this one partnership? Can we really say that Starbucks would be any less successful if they hadn’t partnered with Jumpstart? Nope.

Cause marketing tips and best practices

Nancy: What are a few “best practices” case studies?

Joe: Well, I think the Starbucks/Jumpstart partnership is a very strong one. It demonstrates just how much one company can impact a nonprofit. And Starbucks has benefited over time from its cause marketing partnerships with Jumpstart and others to forge a credible brand that has probably helped its business.

I also really like the point-of-sale cause marketing program A. C. Moore and Easter Seals recently completed. Even though it was a national program, it has some good lessons for local cause marketers like me (and probably most Getting Attention readers).

The breakdown of the program was simple. At A. C. Moore’s 136 stores cashiers asked customers to donate a dollar to Easter Seal’s Act for Autism campaign and together they raised over $141,000.

Great results, but here’s what makes this cause marketing effort noteworthy…A special in-store event. During the point-of-sale campaign, A. C. Moore invited customers to a Make & Take crafting event in stores that involved a jigsaw puzzle (for autism awareness). What a great combination of crafting and cause! I was thinking how great it would be if we did an in-store pumpkin decorating event at iParty stores during their October point-of-sale program for us.

: How should a nonprofit dive into cause marketing for the first time?

Joe: There are many steps, but the first is to honestly assess what you have to offer a corporate partner. Does your organization’s mission resonate with a company’s customers? Do you have an event that will provide great visibility for your partner? Do you have a relationship with a sports star or celebrity to feature in a joint advertising campaign? Do you have an extensive network of volunteers or local offices to help market a company’s products or services?

With my organization, Boston Medical Center, we started with strong relationships with just two Massachusetts-based companies, iParty and Ocean State Job Lots, which had been consistent supporters of the organization for many years. Since then we’ve inked over 50 cause partnerships with Mass-based companies.

Nancy: Whom on the nonprofit staff should be involved? Is this a marketing or development responsibility?

It’s both. But what’s more important is that everyone understands the value of cause marketing to the organization. If leadership and staff members aren’t committed, it really doesn’t matter what department you work for or how talented you are. It won’t work.

: OK, let’s assume that there’s a nonprofit that doesn’t fit your criteria for cause marketing success? What other kinds of corporate support are available?

I would tell them to stop worrying about cause marketing and just focus on opportunity. If you have something of value that you think companies will want, you don’t have to stay between the lines of cause marketing.

A friend of mine works for a Boston organization with lots of foot traffic. She does traditional cause marketing, but she closed her best deal when she convinced a company to sell their products in her main entrance area. That one deal raises her organization several hundred thousand dollars annually. Is it cause marketing? No. Is their money green? You bet it is.

Final thoughts on cause marketing

Readers, I’d appreciate hearing your experiences with cause marketing so we can share them with the Getting Attention community.

  • For those of you still on the fence, what are the barriers keeping your organization out of cause marketing partnerships?
  • For those of you whose organizations are recent entrants, what motivated the decision to develop such partnerships and how are they going?
  • And for those of you who are long-time cause marketers, what is different (and more challenging) in today’s cause marketing arena?

Six Steps to Finding the Right Web Site Development Firm for Your Nonprofit

Choosing the right Web site development firm can be a difficult decision – especially in today’s changing world, where there are many firms promising to meet or exceed your nonprofit’s goals through Web site design and programming.

Take these six steps to identify the firm that will be the right long-term partner for your organization:

Create a site development RFP

The more detail you provide up front on scope (content, functionality, look and feel), the more accurate the site development proposals will be. And you need a sense of these specs to begin your search for the right developer.

Establish baseline criteria for web site development firm selection

Firms you consider should:

  • Develop in open source environment – open source offers more flexibility at a lower cost (the software is free but needs to be customized) than propriety platforms
  • Have three or more years in business as a firm, or working together (for partner organization teams) on Web site development
  • Use a Content Management System (templates that you plug content into) to build its sites, rather than flat files
  • Listen well so they “get it,” before investing resources down the wrong path
  • Be client-centric
  • Be value priced (e.g. provide significant value for their fees)
  • Not serve clients whose mission or work conflicts with that of your organization.

Know the 5 categories of web development firms

  1. Web developers (technologists), with a strong understanding of strategic communications
  2. Web developers with a technology slant, little understanding of communications context in which sites will be used; implementers not strategists NOTE: There are sub-sets of categories 1 & 2, e.g. firms that are open source leaders.
  3. Full-service strategic communications firms that offer Web site development as one of many services (always more expensive and frequently less skilled tech wise)
  4. Graphic design firms that also develop Web sites (or do so with a partner technology firm)
  5. Technology firms that plan and implement organizational IT strategies, including Web sites

In most cases, unless a client organization is already working with a full-service communications agency, I recommend developer type #1. These firms are focused on developing public sites, extranets and intranets, and understand the communications context in which the site will live.

As a result, they offer the greatest depth and range of experience in the field and are up-to-date on the latest innovations in terms of programming, software, user interface design and functionality.

Research your web development firm options

Don’t just go with the firm that “everyone is using.” Those may indeed be the folks you end up working with, but don’t forget due diligence. Remember that you want your organization’s relationship with its Web development firm to be a long-term one; the medium requires successive iterations and it’s easiest and most cost-efficient to continue working with the firms that builds the next iteration of your site, if at all possible.

So ask around for recommended firms that fit the criteria above, are Web developers with a good understanding of strategic communications, and develop sites comparable to yours in scope and budget.

Contact colleagues within your organization and communications colleagues at peer organizations. Contact the site editors at nonprofit sites you have identified as strong models for your organization’s next site. I’ve found that nonprofits are eager to share contacts of firms who have provided good service and a stellar product. They’re paying it forward.

Once you have your list of the top five or ten, take a look at these firms’ Web sites. A strong caveat though – I find many firms don’t update their sites with best recent work on a timely basis. It’s a classic story of the shoemaker’s children. So don’t cross a firm off your list until you take the next step.

Interview your top picks

A two-part interview – first email followed by a phone call to firms that seem to be a good fit – is the quickest way to narrow down your list.

Here’s what you want to ask in your initial email:

  • We’re looking for a site development firm that meets these criteria (see above).
  • If there’s a strong match, we’ll want to talk more.

Here’s what you want to discuss in your follow-up call:

  • Very briefly outline your site’s development timeframe, scope and budget
  • Ask about:
    • Average budget range of site development projects (You’re seeking a firm that works in the same budget range – if it’s higher, they may not give your organization enough attention; if it’s lower, they may not bring the desired experience to your project)
    • Expertise in integrating other online tools (social media, email, databases)
    • Client mix – you want the development firm to show some interest and experience in working with nonprofit organizations or foundations
    • Related sites (in scope or topic) developed in the last couple of years (You’ll want to review these sites to assess if the firm has dealt with similar challenges to those faced by your organization)
    • What differentiates the firm from the many others out there
    • Do they have a defined process that will ensure that your project will be completed on time and on budget
    • Services offered.

Distribute your RFP and select the right web site development firm

Once you have these answers listed above, and review the sites mentioned by each firm, you’ll have a good sense of the firms you’ll want to bid on your RFP.

Send it out to no more than three firms (writing these proposals is a huge endeavor; analyzing them is too). You’ve already done the front work to ensure that the proposals submitted will be serious contenders. If you must, send it out to four firms.

While the firms are crafting their proposal, recruit a proposal review team (if you don’t have a site advisory committee in place). Firm selection is a major decision; and you want respected colleagues to weigh in.

When you receive the proposals, make sure you ask about any content you don’t understand. Remember though, you want your site development firm to be able to communicate in plain English. Too much “tech-ese” may indicate that it’ll be difficult for you and your non-techy colleagues to communicate effectively with the Web development folks.

Begin by evaluating each proposal individually. Evaluate not just what’s included in each proposal, but the proposal tone and comprehensiveness. Weigh in on each firm’s potential as a long-term partner.

Once that’s complete, compare the proposals. How do they fare in terms of presentation? How do their processes appear in terms of project management? Do they present scalability and/or upgrade paths for your project, that go beyond the needs of the goals outlined for the next site?

Before you make a decision, arrange an in-person meeting (if possible) with the finalist firm. Personal connection is a pre-requisite for a healthy working relationship.

If an in-person meeting isn’t possible, schedule a conference call (with your Web advisory team), ideally with Web cams in place on both sides.

Once you finalize your decision, contact the firms that you won’t be working with, thanking each for its proposal and sharing the reasons (in general terms) why your organization has selected the winning firm. Lastly, contact the Web development firm you’ll be hiring, and let them know the good news.

Six simple steps taken; hundreds of calamities avoided. You’re off and running towards a powerful new Web site.


Seven Steps to Compelling Testimonials for Nonprofit Organizations

Read Part One of this article series here.

You know that there’s no message more valuable than testimonials from partners, donors, members, volunteers and program participants on their experiences with your organization. Testimonials rationalize a prospect’s decision to support your organization as they back up your claims and vouch for the value of your work. As a result, these unbiased words carry more credibility than anything your organization’s staff has to say.

Questions to ask for compelling testimonials

It’s challenging to get the right testimonials from your network. But you can count on getting strong material when you ask this series of questions (via phone or an online survey) as soon as possible after an individual’s interaction with your organization.  This approach is vastly more effective than an “open mike” call for testimonials strategy.

You can ask the questions at an organization or program-specific level, depending on the messaging you’re working on. Beware that asking broad questions generates broad responses that tend to be weak testimonials.

Here are the questions to ask:

  1. Why did you [join/give/volunteer with/participate in] our organization? This question establishes the interaction as “customer-feedback” rather than a request. A request for a testimonial is imbalanced, frequently creating a measure of tension and sometimes a resistance to responding. Customer feedback is an equal conversation; a two-way street.
  2. Please list the three things you like most about your [membership/support/volunteer work/program] and why you like them? Implying ownership (“your membership”) personalizes the survey. Positioning this question as a positive (“like most”) increases the likelihood of generating a positive response. Requesting a report back on three distinct features (for example, a program’s relevance, workshop format and take-home materials) makes the respondent think hard and specifically on her response. As a result, the end product is likely to be more useful to your organization.
  3. What do you see as the most valuable aspect of your [participation/advocacy/giving to us/membership/volunteering]? By asking your base to pinpoint benefits, you’ll learn which ones are most important (to them and to prospects).
  4. Please tell us about any specific success that your involvement with our organization helped you achieve, and how. By asking for personal experiences, you’re likely to hear stories that map directly to the challenges faced by the rest of your network. Stories make information easy to relate to, and much more interesting.
  5. How has your involvement with our [organization/program] benefited you or your community in terms of increasing quality of life or satisfaction? This is one of my favorite questions, leading the respondent right to the answer you’re looking for. It will motivate her to tell you how your organization or program has changed her life.
  6. Is there anything about your [volunteer work/program/membership/donor communications] that you would like to see changed? This question emphasizes how much you care about feedback and gives you insight into problems that need to be addressed.
  7. May we use your comments in our communications, with attribution? Remember that an anonymous testimonial has far less weight that one attributed to an individual cited by name, title and organization. If you can feature her photo, all the better. That increases believability hugely! But you do need to ask her permission on all fronts.If you’re conducting this interview via phone, send an email follow up to solicit a dated release.

How to polish nonprofit testimonials for ultimate impact

Once you have a few testimonials in hand, move on to editing. Editing is expected, as long as you don’t change the intention of the testimonial in doing so.

Here are the critical steps to take:

  • Use only the strongest testimonials you have. It’s far better to have a few really good testimonials than several mediocre ones. Make sure the testimonials cover a range of benefits. Different things are important to different people. Your prospects are going to decide to get involved for different reasons. You want to cover all the main ones.
  • Focus on a single benefit in each testimonial. Load too many in and you’ll deplete the strength of the message.
  • A length of two to three sentences works best. However, testimonials can run longer if you’re telling a story.
  • Positive messaging works best. Do edit out negative elements, such as slams on other organizations. And don’t use testimonials that have an overall negative tone. They won’t help your organization.
  • Conversational is the way to go. You’re bound to generate some great raw material by asking these questions. But make sure you don’t overdo polishing what you get. Testimonials should be conversational in tone, just as you initially heard them. If you rewrite them formally, they’ll lose their impact.
  • Send the edited version with attribution to the source for approval, showing them exactly how it’s going to look with the attribution included. Save the confirmation email you receive in return. In about 20% of cases, you’ll be gifted with a revised testimonial that’s even more glowing than the original.

What makes a compelling testimonial?

Start by identifying what doesn’t work. Weak or negative testimonials are worse than no testimonials at all. Here are a few examples that add little messaging value:

“Imagine standing and just looking at a stainless steel 1936 Ford.  It is great right?  Now imagine working on it!  EVEN BETTER!”
–Crawford Auto Aviation Museum Volunteer

So what? This testimonial provides little insight to the reader.

“I very much appreciate all of your time and insight.” (On a nonprofit news service)
—Anonymous, California, USA

Why is that effort and insight of value? And who is speaking? If I don’t know the speaker’s role and organization, there’s no way I can assess whether her take is relevant to me.

Nonprofit testimonials that work

Here are four examples of testimonials that work, and explanations of why they do so.

“The best part of camp is, without a doubt, the kids – their smiles, laughter, and maturity. I volunteer to help the kids, yet I always leave camp with a renewed sense of hope and life, which comes from the kids, and what they do for their fellow campers, the volunteers, and me. In my opinion, Camp Hope is the toughest vacation you’ll ever love.”
—Catherine Brown, volunteer

Catherine’s articulation of all she gets from giving her time and effort is moving and motivational.

“They are very consistent in their pick-ups. It’s very easy to arrange and I know that the things I donate will not be wasted and any money raised goes to a good cause.”
—Nora C., Bridgewater, MA

Nora C. donated goods to the Big Brother Big Sister Foundation and shares the practical features (reliable pick up, easy to arrange) and more spiritual benefit (any money raised goes to a good cause) that will motivate her to do so again.

“I credit meeting many of my career goals this year to my mentor.  As a result of my mentor’s invaluable coaching, I have been able to map out my job experience and determine my areas of concern, update my job application form and develop my interviewing skills.”
—Carolyn Ellenes

The specifics here make this testimonial a powerful one. Ms. Ellenes shares her experience in a way that highlights specific benefits (analyzing her career path and honing related skills) and value (meeting many of her career goals) of the mentoring program. We understand who she is and how program participation has made a difference in her life, making it easy for us to evaluate the relevance of this testimonial.

Finally, take a look at the Center for Media Democracy’s video compilation of testimonials from members and community producers. It’s three minutes of warm, fun, informational, and memorable marketing, that doesn’t seem like marketing at all.

Craft a compelling testimonial headline

It’s hard to overestimate the power of a headline. Remember that today’s readers skim at a fast clip. Headlines can stop them in their tracks.

Effective headlines frame a testimonial to capture attention, making content easier to absorb and increasing the potential for audiences to digest your full message. Feature a bolded headline for every testimonial (and include it when you seek permission to use the quote). Your headline should highlight the value of the testimonial, as it does in the three headline/testimonial pairings below.

Toughest Vacation You’ll Ever Love
“The best part of camp is, without a doubt, the kids – their smiles, laughter, and maturity. I volunteer to help the kids, yet I always leave camp with a renewed sense of hope and life, which comes from the kids, and what they do for their fellow campers, the volunteers, and me. In my opinion, Camp Hope is the toughest vacation you’ll ever love.”
—Catherine Brown, volunteer

Easy to Arrange, Reliable Pick Up
“They are very consistent in their pick ups. It’s very easy to arrange and I know that the things I donate will not be wasted and any money raised goes to a good cause.”
—Nora C., Bridgewater, MA

Invaluable Coaching Moved My Career Forward
“I credit meeting many of my career goals this year to my mentor.  As a result of my mentor’s invaluable coaching, I have been able to map out my job experience and determine my areas of concern, update my job application form and develop my interviewing skills.”
—Carolyn Ellenes

How is your organization developing or using testimonials?

Please leave your strategies for soliciting and using testimonials as comments below. I’ll be sure to share them with the other nonprofit communicators in the Getting Attention community.

A Volunteer Communications Strategy: 13 Steps to Driving Recruitment, Engagement and Leadership (Case Study)

When it comes to recruiting and motivating volunteers to ever higher and more effective levels of engagement, no organization has its work more cut out for it than New York Cares.

As New York City’s leading volunteer organization, New York Cares runs volunteer programs for 1,000 New York City nonprofits, city agencies, and public schools, enabling more than 50,000 volunteers annually to contribute their time, expertise, and energy to a wide array of organizations that address critical social needs citywide.

In order to ensure that its massive and complex operation runs smoothly, the staff at New York Cares has spent considerable time developing and refining their volunteer recruitment strategies, whose lynchpin, not surprisingly, is communication.

I’ve spent some time talking with the folks at New York Cares recently, and as you’ll see below, their strategies can be put to work to boost your organization’s volunteer recruitment, engagement and retention rates, no matter the size of your organization.

The challenges facing volunteer communications

In the recent past, New York Cares realized it faced three challenges that limited its ability to grow the base of volunteers serving its nonprofit partners.

1) They needed to raise “activation rates” of attendees who came to learn about New York Cares volunteer opportunities. Only 45% were immediately signing up for an assignment after their informational orientation.

2) They needed to increase the levels of volunteer engagement. The great thing about New York Cares is that it’s a one-stop shop for want-to-be volunteers to learn about opportunities to help a broad range of nonprofits, and register for a project that has a commitment level of as little as just a few hours.

But New York Cares needed and wanted volunteers to come back again and again for more of the meaningful volunteer assignments they offered. “We needed to increase the average number of projects volunteers completed in order to grow the services we provide to nonprofit partners,” says Colleen Farrell, senior director of marketing and communications at New York Cares.

Farrell notes that New York Cares also needs a volunteer team leader for every project they start.

3) They needed to create new leaders. “We wanted and needed a higher percent of our volunteer base to step into leadership roles. Taking a leadership role is the ultimate form of engagement and is critical to our expansion,” says Farrell.

What follows is a group of key principles for volunteer communication strategies I’ve gleaned from my observations of New York Cares’ work. I want to thank executive director, Gary Bagley, as well as Colleen Farrell, for volunteering their time and insights on how they’ve achieved their success. Where credit is due for brilliant insights and ideas, it is theirs alone; for anything less, I take responsibility.

New York Cares’ volunteer communication strategy

1) Understand that all volunteers aren’t the same. Every group of volunteers incorporates various segments, each with distinct wants, needs and interests.

2) Get to know each segment well—very, very well. And keep in touch on an ongoing basis.

3) Use targeted interactive communications. They’re the best way to move volunteers from one level of engagement to the next.

New York Cares segmented its audiences and developed communications plans for each. “We focused in on volunteers, segmenting them by commitment level, and developed a new framework for our engagement with them over the course of their involvement: the Volunteer Engagement Scale (VES),” says Farrell.

The VES enables New York Cares to pinpoint the best way to motivate volunteer movement from episodic to more engaged participation. This targeted, personalized approach is now the cornerstone of all volunteer communications.

4) Plan communication activities for each segment based on what you know. Planning enables you to focus on what’s important in the long term, rather than be distracted by what just hit your inbox.

5) Speak directly to the “wants” of each segment.

6) Roll out more frequent, targeted communications to build engagement and motivate volunteers to act.

New York Cares developed its Volunteer Lifecycle communications program—aligned with the VES—to provide key information at each stage and encourage deeper relevant engagement, such as more frequent volunteering. The plan specifies how to communicate to recruit volunteers and cultivate them from their first experiences to long-term engagement. For example, only volunteers who have demonstrated a significant commitment to New York Cares are engaged with leadership development messaging.

The plan also defines triggers for outreach including thank you emails, calls to volunteer leaders and special letters and awards for volunteers who reach key milestones in their volunteer lifecycle.

Here are some of the ingredients that make this plan work:

  • Online communications are the backbone of New York Cares’ outreach, a focus that enables it to manage and deliver targeted communications at a moderate cost.
  • Messaging focuses on volunteer impact and outcomes (vs. outputs, such as number of meals served, volunteer hours etc.).
  • Increased use of storytelling, imagery and more emotional language does more to engage New York Cares volunteers.

Chart—Volunteer Lifecycle Communications Program

7) Make the ask—Converting interest in volunteering, just as in fundraising, swings on it.

8) Focus on your volunteer orientation program to ensure you’re maximizing your communication activities in this critical engagement activity.

New York Cares took a three-pronged approach to increase its “activation rate.” Bagley and team:

  • Revamped the orientation process from start to finish. One striking change was that orientation leaders aimed to have most participants signed up for a project before they left the room.
  • Streamlined communications with volunteers.
  • Ensured that communications were clear and consistent, and that follow-up support was in place.

9) Put the 80-20 rule to work for your volunteer program.

New York Cares focuses on the 20% of volunteers who are most highly engaged to motivate them to become even more involved, and leverages them to more effectively engage less-connected volunteers.

10) Train colleagues, volunteer leadership and board members as messengers to expand the reach of your volunteer communications.

New York Cares increased the number of staff members focused on volunteer leadership development and training. The staff also strengthened its relationships with current team leaders via increased communication, and with prospective team leaders through personal and direct asks. For example, the staff is focusing now on getting team leaders more involved by inviting them to serve as organizational ambassadors.

11) Remember that your audience’s perspective, wants, needs and interests change over time.

12) Establish an active volunteer feedback loop. It’s the only way to know what’s relevant, what’s working and what’s not, and how to do it better.

13) Track outreach—responses to specific emails, changes in messaging or channels—to supplement the feedback loop. Your findings will highlight what is effective so you can do more of it.

Here’s how New York Cares’ tracks its communications impact on increasing engagement and retention:

  • Its in-house technology infrastructure enables New York Cares to track and measure volunteer engagement in real time. Farrell aligns communications metrics with the VES and tweaks continually.

It’s unlikely your organization has this kind of resource in-house, but online communications platforms, from e-newsletters to Facebook, provide insight into what is working for your review.

  • This real-time tracking “enables New York Cares to make real-time adjustments to both communications and program delivery,” says Farrell. “For example, we added more orientations and projects to the schedule last year to accommodate the influx of new people wanting to volunteer.

Tracking is supplemented by New York Cares’ volunteer feedback loop. The staff keeps in close touch with its volunteers’ satisfaction level and wants via monthly online polling, periodic surveys and focus groups. In addition, its volunteer advisory council provides input on an ongoing basis.

Create your own volunteer communications strategy

These 13 steps are making a huge difference for New York Cares. Any or all of them will do the same for your organization.

Don’t be put off by New York Cares’ size and sophistication. You can put these strategies (or some of them) to work for your organization, no matter its size. Select one or two steps to start with, and add more over time. Now get to work!

In this post, you’ll learn some strategies for creating an effective nonprofit website.

3 Strategies for Creating An Effective Nonprofit Website

Nowadays, having a website for your nonprofit is non-negotiable. You need your own internet outpost, a place where both committed supporters and curious website visitors can go to learn about your mission and contribute to your cause. 

Luckily, designing a nonprofit website is easier than you may think. Whether you’re working with a designer or taking a DIY route with a user-friendly website builder, there are hundreds of tools at your fingertips that can help you establish a distinct look and identity for your nonprofit online.

But to make your website a truly effective tool for your community of supporters, you’ll need to make sure you’re doing more than just making your site look good. Your site will need substance, too—educational information and useful resources that make it possible for your supporters to take action and help you move your mission forward. 

Read more

How to Create Enough Good Content
(Case Study)

Guest blogger Holly Ross has spent seven+ years at the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), working with community members to identify technology trends that are reshaping the nonprofit sector. Brett Meyer, NTEN Communications Director, co-authored this post.

As nonprofits have flocked to the e-newsletter as an inexpensive and timely way to communicate with stakeholders, the number of newsletter tips has also proliferated. While subject lines, “from” addresses, and your template design are all important, they aren’t the biggest challenge to putting out a quality newsletter.  The most difficult part is creating good content, content your subscribers want to read.

For many organizations, simply getting an e-newsletter out regularly, with enough  content — let alone enough good content — is a win. That was certainly true for NTEN a few years ago. But since then, we’ve developed loftier goals for our e-news NTEN Connect, transforming it from a chore we had to cross off the monthly to-do list to a blockbuster driver of traffic to our blog. And we managed to reinforce our values and culture while doing so. Here’s how:

The chore of creating good content

NTEN is a small organization. With just a handful of staff members, we felt the pain of the e-news challenge intensely.

Writing enough good, timely content to fill a monthly newsletter was simply not an option for our overburdened staff. Instead, in 2007, we started stocking it with articles written by members of our community.

While we selected the topics and the authors for each issue, producing the newsletter itself became a matter of curation rather than creation. This shift also aligned nicely with one of our core values: providing a platform for our community’s views. And we took one step further to publish our newsletter stories on our blog (on our website). Readers of the newsletter received a teaser for the article – usually the first paragraph or two – and a link to read the entire article on our site.

We very quickly saw a jump in the website metrics we track. Traffic started to rise and we got lots of compliments on the new format. At that point, we knew we had something good on our hands, but knew we could do even better.

The content creation experiment

We shook up our e-news format again in November 2008. Rather than hand-picking topics and authors, we invited the community to write about anything they wanted. Submissions flowed in, including quite a few we couldn’t use. While we put out an interesting issue, it didn’t drive traffic quite the way we had hoped it would.

Then we added a twist to the experiment in Fall 2009. We had always used the newsletter to “break” stories, publishing all of the new articles at once on our website, on the day we sent out the newsletter. This time, we posted the articles on our website as they were submitted, letting the authors know that the most successful posts — those that generated the greatest usage as measured by page views, time spent on the site, and comments — would be included in the November newsletter.

By this time, of course, social media had burst upon the scene. Being that the NTEN community is generally pretty tech savvy, we saw them using blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to share news, likes and their own accomplishments. So we tapped the power and reach of the community for the newsletter, leveraging our authors’ social networks to drive traffic to our site and increase newsletter subscriptions.

Our incentive strategy worked! That November, we saw an 80% increase in blog traffic over November 2008. We watched our authors using their social networks to highlight their accomplishment – “Look! I have an article on the NTEN site!” – driving traffic our way. That single month was a huge factor in our 22% increase in blog traffic in 2009.

Unfortunately, blog traffic in every other month (when we curated newsletter content) flatlined.

We continued experimenting with the e-news throughout 2010 to boost site traffic, redesigning the template and removing less-popular features. Nothing helped us reach the boost that the social network November 2009 edition created.

The leap into a new content strategy

So, in September 2010, we moved to our Community Guided Content model. We still ask authors to write about specific topics, but we post new articles to our website almost daily, then use the stats to determine what goes into the actual newsletter. Since this shift, blog traffic is up 37% year-over-year  and shows a fairly steady month-to-month growth rate. Plus time spent on web pages on page is up – a modest but welcome increase of three seconds.

This new strategy means we’re driving a lot of traffic to overall: We’re up 24% year-over-year in 2011. The blog/newsletter strategy drives most of that, as you can see from the increase in blog traffic as a percentage of total site traffic for the last few years:

2008: 17%
2009: 19%
2010: 22%
2011: 25%

Most importantly,  publishing more and more diverse content on the blog gives us a sense of what the NTEN community is most interested in. Then, when we compose NTEN Connect each month, instead of guessing what we should send out to our 30,000 subscribers, we can look at our blog and social media analytics data to learn what our blog readers have already found most engaging.

Looking to the future

We now have a successful newsletter strategy in place — one that aligns our values and goals, and has significantly expanded our visibility and prominence in the sector. This year alone, our newsletter subscriber base has increased 50%.

Next, we’re hoping to match newsletter content even more closely with our audiences’ wants and interests. We’ve begun experimenting more with segmentation: instead of sending out one issue to our full list, we deliver seven different versions based on job function, e.g. Executive Directors receive different content than IT staff members.

Going forward, we’ll be able to tailor newsletter content based on the articles our readers have interacted with over time. Already, we’ve seen the potential for this level of segmentation by including dynamic content based on our subscribers’ membership status and activity levels. And we expect to continue refining our content strategy on an ongoing basis to ensure it meets the needs of the NTEN community. That’s what makes a successful e-newsletter!

What are your strategies for creating content that’s valued by your audiences and advances your organization’s mission — for your e-news, blog, or other channels — when it’s just one of many must-do tasks?

Your Annual Report’s Opening Message:
6 Ways to Motivate Readers

Thanks to guest blogger, Kimberlee Roth, one of our team’s valued writers. Kim has written for the Chicago Tribune and The Chronicle of Philanthropy among other publications, and provides writing and editing services to universities, health systems and other nonprofits.

I harbor no ill will toward opening messages. In fact, I believe they can be an important component of a nonprofit’s annual report. When done well–well being the operative word–they provide context for the rest of the publication. They personalize it and make it more immediate, and they help point readers to key information and calls to action.

That said, most opening messages, those “letters from the executive director,” make me want to get out my figurative red pen and edit away (at best) or, at worst, put the publication down or close my browser window. Of course you want your annual report’s welcome to excite readers and motivate them to read from cover to cover. Here’s how:

1. Keep your opening message short

I can’t emphasize this enough. Short is a few succinct paragraphs, a half page, 200-300 words. Short is not asking your graphic designer to “make it fit,” leaving audiences to squint at six-point font. Assume your reader is scanning. Make it easy to read. Use subheadings and bullet points. Hit the high points and move on.

If this sounds impossible–if you feel like it’s your one chance to say everything to everyone–then it might be a good time to revisit your communications plan. That feeling, and the resulting letter that goes on forever, could be a clue that you’re not regularly and consistently talking with all your constituents the rest of the year.

2. Open your annual report with a simple salutation

“Dear Friends”–or something similar–is great. You don’t need to spell out each audience, unless you want to waste several lines of valuable real estate (your letter is brief, remember?).

3. Keep the tone conversational

Keep it professional and formal, yes, but not stilted or distant. Somewhere between, “Hey, what’s up?” and “Dear Sir or Madam.”

Don’t be afraid to let some personality shine through either. Conveying the director’s sincere excitement about a particular accomplishment, his or her sense of humor, or a personal note or observation–these all make your opening message and, as a result, the whole report more engaging.

4. Show awareness of the year’s challenges

I once edited a “letter from the director” for a client who had a fantastic year. Unfortunately, though, colleagues at similar organizations did not fare so well. Talking about all the great things that happened without acknowledging others’ challenges during the long, hard recession felt wrong. It was nearly a missed opportunity to show camaraderie and gratitude. Phrases such as “In spite of difficult economic times, we were fortunate to … ” can go a long way.

5. Report candidly and transparently

Not a good idea to say how great the year was if it wasn’t. You can highlight the good while still being honest about areas you know need addressing. Your donors and other supporters want to know that you’re working to improve and that their time and/or money isn’t being wasted.

6. End with a positive note and call to action

Hint at a few things you’re excited about for the coming year, keep your ending hopeful but not artificial, and invite readers to do something–join you on social media sites, sign up for your newsletter, make a donation before the year ends, volunteer at an event, respond to a survey. Instead of making them drowsy, get them engaged–not only in reading your annual report but supporting your cause.

What techniques do you use to engage readers with your annual report’s opening letter?

3-Step Communications to Re-engage Volunteers

We are delighted to have Colleen Farrell, Senior Director, Marketing and Communications at New York Cares, join us as a recurring guest blogger.

New York Cares is New York City’s leading volunteer organization and runs volunteer programs for 1,000  nonprofits, city agencies and public schools, enabling more than 50,000 volunteers annually to contribute their time, expertise and energy to a wide array of organizations that address critical social needs citywide.

Every fall I feel like a kid going back to school. I don’t have to worry about pop quizzes these days, but there’s a big shift as we transition from the slower summer months into our busiest time of year.  New York Cares’ inventory of volunteer projects increases dramatically -– doubling between August and November.  Volunteer interest also ramps back up after summer, with a spike around Thanksgiving.

Our communication and management challenge is to quickly re-engage volunteers after the summer, and ensure we mobilize the right number of people at the right time as projects expand. Here are three things we consider:

1. Allow volunteers to act now.

We calculate the volunteers we need each month, then create a communications plan synced with our project roll-out schedule.  For example, we scale back new volunteer orientations during the summer.  In late July, we begin asking volunteers to become project leaders for fall (which is critical for starting new projects).  From August onward, email, social media, and orientation schedules accelerate to bring in more volunteers.

There have been times where volunteer demand has outstripped our capacity –- it’s disappointing for volunteers, and something we work hard to avoid.  The volunteers you turn away may never come back.

2. Engage existing volunteers.

The adage, it’s more efficient to get business from existing customers than win new ones, applies to volunteers, too.

We track and analyze volunteers’ histories through our database.  This helps us forecast how many of last year’s volunteers are likely to return (about 50%) and how many new people we need to recruit to fill our available opportunities.  We target communications accordingly.

3. Build a monthly messaging plan.

We create an editorial calendar aligned with our programs, and try to unify messaging across channels.  We pick a lead theme each month or season  – in the fall, we’re all about education.  Messaging is simple and action oriented.  We provide context about the current volunteer needs, paint a picture of the impact they can make, and provide clear direction on how to get involved.

Some of our most experienced volunteers will be too swamped to re-engage: that’s reality. But we stay in touch, and try to offer other, less time intensive ways to help – fundraising, donating, and friendraising, for example.

What are your Fall strategies for re-engaging volunteers and other supporters?