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?

Nonprofits that Keep Their Word Deliver Great Experiences for Supporters, Finds Researcher Scott Deming

Ever had a nonprofit customer experience (as a donor, volunteer or whatever) that left you with a smile on your face? On the other hand, have you ever had an encounter with an organization that left you gnashing your teeth and griping about the event for weeks on end to anyone who’d listen? If you’re like most people, you can answer both questions (especially the second one!) with a resounding yes. But did you ever stop to wonder precisely what its was that went so right or, in the second case, so terribly wrong?

Scott Deming, author of The Brand Who Cried Wolf: Deliver on Your Company’s Promise and Create Customers for Life has the surprisingly simple answer: Great customer experiences happen when organizations keep their word. Most critical, pronounces Deming, is that what you say your organization stands for (brand) means next to nothing compared to what your stakeholders experience. That experience is your real brand or, as my mother used to say, actions speak louder than words.

Identifying positive and negative experiences

What’s interesting is that Deming profiles organizations he deems brilliant branders (orgs like Ben & Jerry’s and Saturn who consistently provide an ultimate customer experience) and wolf criers (who claim they do but actually don’t). And guess what nonprofit leads the wolf criers list….none other than the infamous Red Cross.

I find Deming’s perspective a particularly meaningful way to look at the organizations that have really let us down. Others I can name include the United Way and Smithsonian. These are organizations supporters and other audiences trusted to do the right thing; but they didn’t. And they lost our trust and support.

The Red Cross is a glaring example of how trust can be instantaneously eroded. In the hours after terrorists attacked the United States on 9/11, record-breaking pledges poured in from around the world. The Red Cross set up The Liberty Fund as a direct response to the attacks and collected more than $564 million. However, by November 2001, CNN and other news agencies reported that only $154 million of that had been distributed. Dr. Bernadine Healy, who was the outgoing Red Cross president at the time, argued in defense of the charitable organization’s decision to set aside more than half of the money raised for future needs, including possible terrorist attacks. This news angered many donors. They felt like their money was not reaching the intended recipients. Bad customer experience.

In other words, though donors were not critical of the charity having money for future disasters, the real question was whether the important agency misled donors into thinking donations were going immediately to 9/11 relief,” explains Deming. “I don’t think anyone really believes the Red Cross deceived people for some selfish, greedy end. But in a moment when individuals’ feelings were of raw helplessness and despair, and the only way they had to connect with and help others was through monetary donations, the Red Cross failed to keep its brand trust.”

Tips for positive supporter experiences

Here are a couple of Deming’s most useful suggestions for staying on track to deliver the right kind of experience for your supporters:

  • Be careful what you promise. If you aren’t, and don’t come through, you’ve probably ruined a beautiful relationship. So when you tell prospects how their donations will be used, make sure that allocation is correct? If you can’t get internal operations right, how could they ever count on your organization to make good use of their monies?
  • Get the perspective you need. To really know how things are going at your organization, you’ll have to step out of your own shoes and take a walk in those of your supporters and staff. Make sure you have open channels of communications flowing with each group, 24/7.  “When your perspective widens, so does your concern about what’s important. The benefits you receive from changing your perspective will far exceed those reaped from a narrower, more traditional focus, ” says Deming.
  • Use this insight to separate your organization from the pack. So many nonprofits are squeamish about looking at the world in which they work realistically, and accepting the fact that they are in direct competition with many other orgs for donors, volunteers, program participants and more. You have to find what you can do to differentiate your organization from all the others that offer the same services or products. You have to find what you can do to differentiate your organization from all the others that offer the same services or products.

Your most powerful differentiator must be the level of service, the unique experience you offer each of your stakeholders at their moment of engagement with your organization. When you work hard to engender their loyalty, honestly, they’ll go out of their way to stay involved with your  organization.

Make your organization events more effective with these tools.

Two Don’t-Miss Tools for More Effective Organization Events

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit industry has seen a shift to more virtual and hybrid events alongside fully online fundraisers. In a time when we’ve become accustomed to virtual interaction, face-to-face gatherings can be more impactful than ever.

Building relationships and community online is crucial for spreading your organization’s reach and expanding your membership. But the value of face-to-face engagement can’t be replaced. In-person gatherings often bring a movement or a campaign to the next level, further engaging your members.

Here are two tools we’ve discovered that will help you take your organization’s events to the next level.

1. Event Management Software

Event management platforms are one of the more crucial components of planning your event. Whether you’re planning, hosting, or evaluating the success of an event, you’ll need event management software to help you along the way.

Fonteva’s Salesforce event management software guide walks through how to utilize association management software for your next event:

  • Create guest lists. Choose who to invite and create separate lists for attendees based on tracks of the event you want them to attend.
  • Track registration. Keep track of registrants during your planning process to ensure your venue and sessions can properly accommodate your members and attendees. This can also help you determine how much you need to continue promoting your event leading up to the date.
  • Create event sessions and guest seating. Divide attendees into groups, create seating charts, and set table numbers to further organize your event data.
  • Ensure simple payment processing. Process registration, eCommerce purchases, and donations all through your event management software. Be sure that your processor is PCI compliant to ensure data security.
  • Generate custom reports. Evaluate your event’s success by running revenue and registration reports on the data collected. You can also analyze which aspects of your event worked the best.
  • Send follow-up communications. Reach out to your attendees following the event to highlight the success of the day, thanking them for their time and participation. You can also inquire with attendees for feedback to improve future events.

When you choose the right event management solution for your organization, you’ll be able to customize the features to help you plan a range of activities from conferences to networking events to virtual panels to fundraisers.

With event management software you can increase the ROI for your event while creating a memorable experience for your members and attendees. Because event management software also stores member data, you can save attendee contact preferences, financial information, and other important information for later use. This data can be used to plan future events.

2. Graphic Design Services

Graphic design should be a part of all of your marketing materials. Skillful visual aesthetics can enhance your brand identity when standardized logos, graphics, and color schemes are implemented across all your marketing materials.

Graphic design requires experience and time. It can be expensive to troubleshoot if you are unsure of what you’re doing. Seasoned graphic design companies and professionals can work with you to provide assets for your organization to enhance your event space, color promotional materials, and engage more registrants.

According to Nonprofit’s Source guide to nonprofit graphic design, here are five types of design that a graphic designer can help you implement into your event marketing strategy:

  • Event Branding. Designers can create an event logo and color scheme that pair well with your organization’s main brand. They may use secondary colors from your main brand to enhance overall awareness and differentiate your event as a new campaign.
  • Event Website. Website designers can create microsites or webpages for your event. Their expertise in page navigation can help create webpages for registrants to easily find schedules, event details, and payment options.
  • Digital Design. Craft digital design materials like infographics, videos, social media graphics, virtual flyers, or email newsletters to promote your event. Digital materials will enable you to widely share information about your event, increase brand awareness, and gain more registrants.
  • Print Materials. Hire designers to create brochures and maps, branded merchandise, and thank you cards for your event. Send attendees home with branded merchandise to help them remember their experience and your organization.
  • Environmental Event Design. To beautify your event, designers can create branded banners, donor/sponsor walls, giving kiosks, and art installations. Designers can transform your event space into a theme or create materials to promote your mission or sponsors.

Events won‘t be nearly as successful if there is no promotion or thought put into the experience. By utilizing the skill of professional graphic design services, your organization can bolster attendee registration and improve the quality of your event.

And don’t waste your time creating one or two graphics that don’t look exactly right. Find an experienced graphic design provider that can work with you to create a set of marketing materials and event decor that fit your vision and the organization’s brand.

Organizing events is time consuming and can take months of planning. Look for scalable plans when searching for event management software and graphic design providers so they leave room for your organization’s growth. Now that you know how to maximize your potential with event management software and graphic design services, you can start planning your next event.

How to Create a Nonprofit Style Guide: 7 Steps to Greater Consistency and Impact

Here’s a problem nonprofit communicators like you share with me time and time again: Due to the ubiquitous nature of information and promotion, we’re all bombarded by content—every waking minute.

In the face of this flood, inconsistencies in your organization’s content—both editorial and graphic—make it difficult for your audiences to digest, at a glance, that these varied communications are all coming from your organization. Let’s take a closer look at how your nonprofit communications can achieve consistency.

The solution: Consistency in nonprofit communications

Consistency – cross-channel and over time – is the key to your audiences absorbing your messages, and for them to be able to “whisper down the lane” – repeating those messages to friends and family. Keep in mind that this consistency must stay flexible, to be adapted when the channel, audience or other factor is radically different from the norm.

No other form of communication is as powerful as this natural network which exponentially extends your organization’s reach. And a style guide helps you make it happen.

Create a style guide to maintain consistency

An easy way to ensure clear and consistent communications is to create an editorial and visual identity style guide, made available organization-wide as an ever-accessible PDF.

Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to getting the word out. The standards featured in your style guide will make it easy for them to do so, reducing time spent, errors made and endless frustration.

A style guide also makes it unnecessary for you and your colleagues to re-invent the wheel each time, saving you a great deal of effort while increasing your marketing impact.

Plan Your Organization’s Style Guide

Here is a step-by-step approach to putting together, or updating, your style guide.

  1. Review your communications by spreading a full range of them out in front of you, including pages printed out from your website, e-news, blog, Facebook page and online fundraising campaigns, as well as print materials.
  2. Jot down standards that work best for the editorial and graphic guidelines outlined below. Traditionally, style guides covered punctuation, spelling and other editorial guidelines. I suggest you expand this concept to include visual guidelines as well so you and your colleagues have a single point of reference to shape communications.
  3. Craft a usage policy, outlining who (partners, volunteers) can and should use your organization’s graphic identity elements and how.
  4. Get input on your draft from colleagues and external audiences if possible. These conversations are a key way to get insights from the folks who matter most (your audiences) and buy-in from your colleagues who you want to use the guide.
  5. Make it as brief as possible—ideally a max of 6 pages—so people can quickly find what they need.
  6. Feature the contact info for the Consistency Czar—the person on your team in charge of the style guide—so that your colleagues can easily ask questions. You’ll revise the style guide to include responses to frequently-asked questions, and revise existing content more clearly when you hear that colleagues don’t understand it.
  7. Launch it with a training session for your colleagues—See below.

Establish consistent guidelines

Editorial guidelines

The primary purpose of editorial guidelines is to address topics specific to your organization that are not adequately covered in the standard published style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Style book.

In addition, your style guide summarizes your organization’s approach to the most-frequently-raised questions of style, topics that are dealt with in greater detail in these manuals, in order to offer a quick, but more comprehensive, reference tool.

Questions of style, unlike many questions of grammar, usually do not have a right or wrong answer. Instead, establishing a preferred style is helpful so that your consistent presentation can be maintained throughout an array of materials that may be produced by many different individuals.

Having a set of predetermined guidelines will also save those individuals the time and energy required to develop their own guidelines.

Guidelines should include:

  • Your organization’s name (spelling, abbreviations or acronyms that work)
  • Names of your programs and services
  • Your address, phone number, emails, website and social channels (should you begin writing your url with “http://” or simply with “www”)
  • Your tagline
  • Your positioning statement: The two or three sentences that establish your position in the philanthropic world and how it should be included, as a whole, in most communications
  • Talking points for staff and board members: Key messages that briefly cover the who, what, when, where, and how of your group, and how they should be incorporated in most communications
  • Person, tone and voice
  • Word style preferences (preferred spelling and capitalization, e.g. web site vs. website, grant making vs. grantmaking)
  • Words not to use
  • The title of the published grammar style guide that your group uses: Share the title of the guide that your writers need to follow when deciding whether to insert that final comma or not, or selecting the right preposition to follow the word parallel (to or with). Most importantly, buy print or online copies for all who need to use it!

Review these top two published grammar style guides, talk to colleagues, and select one if you haven’t already (partner links):

Graphic guidelines

Since the power of a strong visual identity can only be realized through consistent application, these standards are crucial for colleagues throughout your nonprofit to follow.

Elements should include:

  • Organizational and program logos: Sizing; colors; position on the page; what elements should be included when logo is used
  • Color Palette: Official colors and details on how those colors are to be used
  • Typeface (e.g. all newsletter headlines are in Times New Roman, Bold, 14 pt.).
  • Layouts, templates
  • Web, e-news and other online templates
  • Photo and image library.

Putting Your Style Guide to Work

Your next step is to distribute the guide and ensure that staff and consultants are clear on its content and how to use it.

An in-person training session is often an effective way to introduce the guide, answer any questions and ensure that your colleagues view it as an aid (fewer open issues, decisions, delays) to them, rather than a dictum imposed upon them.

Remember to refresh your guide on an ongoing basis as questions come up and preferences are determined.

Examples of nonprofit style guides

You’ll see that these examples range from a one-pager, which might be enough for your organization, to Rutgers’ multi-page guide. The more complex your organization, programs and audiences, the more depth (and, unfortunately, length) you’ll need in your style guide.

Consider contacting your communications colleagues at these organizations to learn more about the development or implementation of these guides:

Does your organization have an editorial and/or visual standards guide? If so, please share the link and/or how the guide has helped (or not) here.