Hey, Nonprofit: Are You Talking to Me?

armyI just received an email from a nonprofit with the subject line, “We Need a Tiny Fraction of You to Donate.” Exactly which fraction of me are they after? My pinky? My appendix?

All kidding aside, this awkward construction, using the plural “you,” is all too common among writers at nonprofits and elsewhere. The writers unconsciously picture themselves as addressing a crowd.

They forget that, by the time the email reaches my inbox, it’s just me. I’m expecting a personal touch — a direct appeal for funds based on a supposedly one-to-one relationship between the nonprofit and me.

But with a subject line like the one above, I quickly notice that the nonprofit is not really talking to me at all. It’s talking to a whole bunch of people. In that case, all I have to do is step aside and let the others make the donations, right?

We’re not talking complex grammar here. All anyone has to do to avoid this problem is to look twice at every use of the word “you” in addressing prospective donors. Make it singular, as if talking to just one person.

Then, don’t forget to carry this usage throughout the email or other missive — another common place where writers go wrong, as illustrated by another email that just landed in my inbox. It had such a promising, personal-sounding subject line: “My work with you.”

The writer proceeded to blow it within the first two lines: “Ilona, I’m writing to let each of you know about an important change at [our nonprofit.]” Each of me? Oh dear, I didn’t know my multiple personalities were that obvious.

Got Milestones to Celebrate?

childrenThe East Bay Children’s Book Project recently announced to its email followers that, “We are getting ready to celebrate an amazing milestone. We will give away our millionth book sometime this year.” In recognition, the group is sponsoring a contest to guess the exact time they give away that millionth book, collecting one million pennies, and otherwise inviting publicity.

Let’s think about that milestone for a minute. It’s impressive, and it’s legitimate. But unlike, say, an organization’s tenth anniversary or the graduation of its first class, “millionth book” is not a milestone that stares you right in the face. This group basically had to decide to measure, mark, and announce it. And kudos to them for their nonprofit marketing savvy.

Milestones are an excellent way for nonprofits to engage with their members and supporters on topics that don’t scream desperation. Even if a group doesn’t build an event around them, they can be fodder for email campaigns and social media. And some milestones will, in fact, be worthy of a special event. Let this be inspiration for you to think about what milestones your group is reaching, beyond the obvious ones, and make the most of them.

For free tips on how to hold a special event, and how to engage with supporters via social media, see the Nonprofit Fundraising section of Nolo’s website.

 

 

Setbacks and Emergencies? Turn to Crowdfunding

One of the issues that established nonprofits sometimes have in taking advantage of crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, Fundraise.comRazoo, or indiegogo is that most of their projects are ongoing. They lack the time-delimited, snazzy, “Hey, with your help, look what we can achieve!” allure of, say, an artist who’s trying to raise money for a film, or even a small group trying to raise enough to buy its first piece of equipment.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t be creative in thinking up bite-size portions of your work or projects that your social networks might support, as described in, “Using Crowdfunding to Raise Money for Your Nonprofit.” But there’s one type of occasion in which hardly any creativity is required: when your group has suffered some sort of setback, or has an identifiable, emergency need for a quick cash infusion.

dachsundThe Berkeley East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS)’s recent Razoo campaign to replace its stolen van provides a perfect example. This isn’t a case of a nonprofit that just ran out of money and thought Razoo could plug the leaks — the organization had a perfectly lovely, working van, which it regularly used to drive to local municipal shelters and reduce their animal populations by picking up dogs and cats for adoption via BEBHS.

That van was stolen, thus leaving the agency unable to implement a key part of its operations. The $25,000 needed to replace it is no small change for a small nonprofit already in the middle of a capital campaign to rebuild its fire-damaged structure — but a sum that could realistically be raised by enough contributions from concerned supporters. As of today, they’ve brought in $8,525 . . . not there yet, but a good start.

That Fingerpainting Wasn’t Worth a Penny Over $49,000!

stjohnFrom the tabloids to the blogosphere to MSN to NPR, there’s hardly a news source that doesn’t  find this story irresistable. The elements alone are the stuff of sitcom, even before we get to the action.

Exhibit A is a wealthy Manhattan couple, Michelle and Jon Heinemann, whe are all too easy to poke fun at if only for the fact that they named their children Hudson Cornelius and Hyacinth Cornelia.

Exhibit B is the “posh” (that adjective came from the British press) kindergarten that little Hudson Cornelius attends, the Cathedral School of St. John the Divine, with tuition rates of $39,000 a year.

Exhibit C is a fingerpainting that Michelle, an artist, helped the divine little schoolchildren create for the school’s fundraising auction. She intended to place the winning bid on it herself, for $3,000, and apparently arranged this with the school before she went on vacation.

Now, for the action: The school apparently decided that its power over the absent Michelle’s bidding didn’t stop at $3,000. So when a first-grade teacher named “Ms. Bryant” threw herself into the bidding with great enthusiasm — or, according to the Heinemanns, with a wink and a nod from the school — it countered with proxy bids for the Heinemanns until the bidding topped out at $50,000. (Collective gasp.)

The Heinemanns may not want to spend $50,000 on a fingerpainting, but they may be about to spend that amount on lawyers. They’re suing the school for $415,000, a figure they derived from the costs of placing young master H.C. in another school. You can  read the details about that in the various tabloids. Let’s talk now about why the school’s actions were — if we’re to believe the basic gist of what happened — just plain dumb, and a reminder to every nonprofit not to get into the same type of trouble.

First off, if the school was really told that its bidding-proxy power stopped at $3,000, then failure to honor that is a major breach of trust. And even if that memo got lost somewhere, bidding a fingerpainting up to $50,000 just doesn’t pass the smell test, no matter how wealthy the bidders.

But let’s say it all seemed okay to the school in the heat of the moment, and no one rethought it until what must have been a rather awkward phone conversation with the Heinemanns. (“Uh, good news! You outbid the competition for the fingerpainting!”)

The school had a couple of perfectly viable options here. First, it could have offered the fingerpainting to the second highest bidder (“What, Ms. Bryant? You don’t want the fingerpainting for $49,000 after all?”). Okay, maybe the third-highest bidder. Oh, that was probably the Heinemanns. Come to think of it, the better option would probably have been to ask the Heinemann’s to pay the $3,000 that they thought they’d agreed to. And by the way, making them happy would have increased the chances of higher donations down the line.

The priceless lesson that the school hopefully learned here is that a nonprofit that gets into activities like auctions is acting somewhat like a business — and business customers expect to be treated with great deference, not as the walking checkbooks that nonprofit donors sometimes complain of being treated like. For more useful tips on how to run a fundraising auction, see The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising (Nolo).

“There Was Nothing to Bid on at the Silent Auction!”

This is not what you want to hear someone say about your nonprofit’s silent auction.

But it’s exactly what a friend of mine said recently, upon returning from a fundraising event. She didn’t literally mean, of course, that the silent auction featured rows of empty tables. But for her purposes, it might as well have. There was nothing she wanted. And she’s usually the type to eagerly enter lots of bids, as well as sign up for every raffle that comes her way.

I asked for specifics on what went wrong. They included:

  • “Too many local goods. I don’t live in that city, and don’t want to drive an hour just to redeem a restaurant or haircut gift certificate.”
  • “Too many crafts made by the same person. They were weird little animal sculptures.”
  • “I don’t know, too many things that just seemed a little tacky, or weren’t to my taste.”

It sounds like this nonprofit did some things right, and some things wrong in planning its silent auction.

dollFor instance, there’s nothing wrong with approaching local vendors for donations of auction items, particularly if most of your attendees will come from nearby. The local merchants will often say yes to a donation of goods or a gift certificate, partly because they’ll get advertising and goodwill among their natural clientele. But clearly not everyone attending an event will be a local, so it’s worth making sure to branch out or go to some merchants with a presence in other cities.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with soliciting crafts, most likely from an enthusiastic member. But if they’re not surefire sellers, make sure not to overwhelm the tables with them. People might wonder whether the craftsperson was having trouble selling them, too.

As for the “tacky” comment, it sounds possible that some merchants were also unloading items that weren’t selling anyway. This doesn’t mean you have to turn up your nose at offerings that might, after all, suit someone in your audience — you just need to balance these out with items that will suit a broad range of people.

At a silent auction that I recently attended, one of the items that got the most buzz was a Trader Joe’s gift certificate for $25. The bidding started at $15 and ended at a mere $26. Not exactly a big-ticket item, but that was $26 of pure profit for the nonprofit — and it added something to the table that everyone, male or female, bargain or luxury hunter, found interesting and worth returning to check on. People who come to the table to look at one item are bound to give one more look at the other ones there . . . .

For more information on holding a successful auction, see the articles on the “Nonprofit Fundraising” page of Nolo’s website.

Wanna Hear Insults? Listen to What People Have to Say About Bad Event Emcees

shakespearemedlers-sThe world used to be a lot more creative about issuing negative criticism. Shakespeare, for example, came up with lines like, “He is white-livered and red-faced” (Henry V) and “You are not worth another word, else I’d call you knave” (All’s Well That Ends Well).

Nevertheless, some pretty biting stuff can be found in the realm of audience reactions to a bad emcee at an event. It’s almost visceral – perhaps because one is trapped in a room (or in a TV-land audience), waiting for the real action or to hear from the people you care about, only to have precious time wasted by some joker who should never have been handed the microphone – but is now in total control.

Of Seth MacFarlane as the 2013 Oscars host, for example, New Yorker writer Richard Brody said, “he seemed as if he were doing an ‘S.N.L.’ parody of an Oscar host, delivering lines that resembled Oscar-host gags that exaggerate the worst emcee stereotypes (mainly, regressive, Archie-Bunker-ish attitudes) and faking the outward tone of chipper salesmanship while never conveying authentic joie de shtick.”

Or, from the gaming world, there’s this commentary from Michael McWhertor about Jamie Kennedy’s hosting of the E3 2007 Activision press conference: “Jamie would seemingly not appreciate being reminded that his phoned in, barely comprehensible emceeing gig, in which he was heckled by the crowd and out-joked by at least one video game developer, was actually a trainwreck.”

Or, in case you all missed the Miss North Carolina messageboard, some poor pageant emcee seems to have been univerally reviled, inspiring such audience comments as, “Anyways this guy is a terrible and I mean terrible emcee. He doesn’t understand timing at all. He’s some meathead, football loving, brainless person that needs to be replaced immediately.”  To which someone added, “The main thing I see is that he isn’t prepared. Did he get the script yesterday? When you have to read a question like ‘What’s the typical day of a Miss NC’ to Arlie from a notecard, you have a problem . . . .”

So, whether it’s the Oscars or the Miss North Carolina pageant, finding a good event emcee can clearly be difficult. Meanwhile, countless nonprofits are trying to do just that, for their next fundraising event. To help you avoid the slings and arrows of a disgruntled crowd, we offer the following new article on Nolo’s website: “Choosing an Emcee for a Fundraising Event: Do’s and Don’ts.”

It’s Actually Okay If Your Nonprofit Doesn’t Hold a Golf Fundraiser

golfTo hear all the ads and emails, you’d think that any nonprofit that hasn’t started planning its spring golf tournament — right now, this instant — is putting a permanent divot into its fundraising budget. Doesn’t it make you feel a little nervous, hearing about how other groups are raising money in ways that yours hasn’t even contemplated?

Relax, take a deep breath, and remember the fundraisers’ mantra: Your fundraising plan should be based on your nonprofit’s assets and capacities. If you don’t have a fundraising plan, now might be a good time to get going on one. But chasing after ideas like golf tournaments is only going to postpone that process, probably without much of a budgetary boost in the meantime.

There’s a reason I’m picking on golf tournaments, too. I’ve never met a fundraising method more famous for insinuating itself into a nonprofit’s activities — usually because one founder or board member happens to love golf — and then occupying oodles of staff and volunteer time, despite the fact that the number of participants hasn’t grown much and it has absolutely no thematic tie-in with the nonprofit’s work or the interests of most of its members.

For help with identifying your nonprofit’s core assets and developing a fundraising plan that best utilizes those, see “Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work” (Nolo).

Suicide Prevention Orgs: Have You Weighed in on the VICE Magazine Suicide-Fashion Spread?

VirginiaWoolfAny nonprofit communications expert will tell you that part of an organization’s communications strategy should be to not only post its own news, but get engaged and comment on the stories and issues being circulated by others — even if they’re outside the nonprofit world.

That can seem difficult for busy nonprofits whose entire communications model has, up until recently, been devoted to carefully crafted mailings, newsletters, and so forth. And then there’s that nagging question: Do such opportunities for engagement really exist, or is everyone just recirculating each others’ news?

This week, a story spreading virally on Facebook offers a prime example of where nonprofits could, by following the social media world and getting engaged, not only establish their relevance, but play a useful role in a debate.

The magazine known as VICE posted a fashion spread depicting well-dressed, well-coiffed famous female authors in the moments before they committed suicide, or attempted to. They include Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Iris Chang, Charlotte Perkins, Sylvia Plath, Sanmao, and Elise Cowen. It was called “Last Words,” but as pointed out by Tanwi Nandini in Fashionista, “These writers are completely stripped of their words.”

The reaction from the press (such as The Atlantic and Salon) and Facebook commenters has been mostly horror at Vice’s poor taste and commercial cynicism, with occasional voices wondering why we’re drawn to these images. But I haven’t seen much at all from the nonprofit world, which could certainly deepen the discussion with facts and comments on issues like the effect of suicide (and glorified depictions of it!) on family and friends, the state of despair (as opposed to fashion consciousness) that drives people to suicide, and of course the bizarre marketing mash-up of women, sex, and death.

But if you’re still crafting your well-considered response: The magazine has already taken this spread down, and the public’s attention will soon, no doubt, move on to the next outrage.

Why Your Nonprofit’s Next Fundraising Auction Should Set Earnings Records

boxesCorporate giving is up, according to the 2012 Giving in Numbers report from the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy.

It’s up across the board, to the tune of 42% or $4.48 billion between 2007 and 2012. That’s good when you want straight cash. But it’s even better when you want a non-cash contribution from a business, such as  a gift basket, hotel stay, case of wine, or other tempting item for your next charity auction.

Non-cash corporate contributions accounted for 69% of the 2012 corporate giving totals, up from 57% in 2007. We seem to be at a curious point in the U.S.’s economic recovery: Business profits are up just enough that owners feel comfortable increasing their donations to charity — but with sales on the sluggish side, they’re still ending up with excess inventory, which can go toward a nonprofit in need.

Of course, need alone isn’t enough to convince a business to hand over its goods. The savvy nonprofit will make professional requests that stress the attractive manner in which potential auction items will be displayed as well as how the corporate donor will be recognized.

For more on how to hold a great auction, see the article, “Twelve Steps to Preparing a Successful Fundraising Auction.” And while we’re talking about auctions, make sure your nonprofit isn’t making the common mistake of giving bidders an exaggerated idea of how high a tax deduction they’ll receive, as discussed in, “Is Your Nonprofit Overpromising Tax Deductions?

What “Fundraising” Means Depends on the Type of Organization

CAKEThe dictionary defines fundraising as simply, “the act or process of raising funds.” But what that literally means depends on what sort of organization you’re working with. In particular, fundraising techniques, cycles, and cardinal rules look very different depending on whether you’re with:

  • a small or volunteer-led effort such as a start-up nonprofit or a school, church or temple, or community group, or
  • a nonprofit that’s big or established enough to have at least one development staffperson (or perhaps an executive director committed to fundraising efforts).

What’s different about the fundraising experiences of these two types of groups? Here are some of the biggest variations:

  • Volunteer-led efforts may lack continuity. Particularly in schools, where the population of parents changes every year, it can be difficult to plan beyond the next 12 months. While a few people may stay on, other key participants may drop out, and vital information about previous activities or donors may be lost. The constituency may change, as well, making it difficult to develop and maintain relationships with donors. Larger more established groups, by contrast, can and should develop an annual fundraising plan and foster long-term relationships with donors.
  • Volunteer-led efforts rely on what volunteers are willing to do. That sounds obvious, but if you look at how it plays out, the significance is huge: Most volunteers hate asking people for money directly. They may eventually learn that it’s not so bad, but on the whole, this tendency leads to a huge proportion of volunteer-led fundraising activities that are special events (bake sales, pancake breakfasts, auctions, fairs, carnivals, benefits, and so on). Special events are the least efficient way to fundraise, as the larger more established groups have mostly learned (sometimes the hard way). But for certain types of groups, special events not going to go away anytime soon.
  • Volunteer-led or smaller groups may have a constituency with a direct, personal interest in the cause. It can certainly be easier to get people involved when they are the literal beneficiaries of the group — the parents of kids in school or on a sports team, the patrons of a local library, the members of a house of worship, and so on. Not everyone will feel a sense of responsibility or be able to follow through, but many will “get it” that if they don’t take part in fundraising activities, the service will go away. This can be good for fundraising via methods that involve large numbers of people, such as a walk-a-thon or auction.
  • Smaller or less established nonprofits may face greater challenges obtaining grant funding. Foundations and corporations like to see that a group has a track record of using funding wisely, and that’s hard to show if you, uh, don’t. Then again, a nonprofit that’s new may at least be able to show prospective funders that it’s doing something exciting and different, instead of just trying to continue last year’s program.
  • Smaller or less-established groups may lack infrastructure, resources, and storage space. They’re often going without a donor database, a dedicated office space, a place to put the goodies for their next auction, and so on. Individuals often end up borrowing their own homes or even office space for the cause.
  • Larger groups must raise larger amounts just to cover the basics. With various commitments such as rent, salaries, and other operating costs, a larger organization may find that a big part of its fundraising efforts serve just to keep the lights on. They have a harder time being nimble in responding to change.

No doubt this list could go on. In the meantime, you can learn more about each of these two different fundraising universes by reading one of the two books offered by Nolo: The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising; Raise Money for Your School, Team, Library or Community Group; or, for the larger, more established groups, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits; Real-World Strategies That Work.