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.

What Can Other Nonprofits Learn From Community Radio Station Pledge Drives?

radio_mikeI don’t know about you, but where I live, it’s been all fund drive, all the time, from virtually every nonprofit, community radio station in the Bay Area. No matter where you turn the dial, there’s someone reminding listeners about the great service the station provides, the costs to run it, and the great thank-you gifts we’ll get in return for pledging particular amounts.

As someone interested in nonprofit fundraising, I perhaps listen to the pitch sessions of the programs longer than is average. (Or maybe it’s just that I’m usually listening in the kitchen, with hands too wet or slimy to touch the radio.)

Since I happen to know a few radio programmers, however, I also know that I’m not the only one who sometimes listens all the way until the end of a show, even when the last 20 minutes are all fundraising. In fact, my programmer friends say that, in general:

  1. most donations come in the last few minutes of the program, and
  2. overall, most donations come in during the last day of the fund drive.

What’s up with that, and what does it mean for other fundraisers?

I haven’t seen any studied analyses of this phenomenon. It actually seems doubly surprising given that experts who have studied on-air fundraising consistently say that urgency, desperation, statement like “We’ve got to meet this goal!” and “The phone lines are empty!” are a turnoff. (See, for example, John Sutton’s “Listener Focused Fundraising” report.) Positive messages about the listener’s part in supporting excellent media work much better.

So, I’ll have to speculate a bit. Here are my best guesses:

  1. Everyone procrastinates. All fundraisers have learned to expect a last-minute rush of donations in late December. But that’s just one of many possible deadlines during the year. Any time potential donors know there’s a deadline ahead, they may perhaps mentally put the item on their “deal with later” list.
  2. Even the people who say they’re turned off by urgency and desperation may eventually be moved by it. I believe the prevailing fundraising wisdom that it’s best to keep the message positive — but I’m starting to suspect that either there are some people who prefer the “S.O.S.” messages, or that no matter how donors respond to surveys, they actually respond to the cries for help more than anyone recognizes. I’m on an email list for a nonprofit that regularly gets into public debates with donors who say, “Cut it out with the strident distress cries, already,” to which the nonprofit invariably answers, “But it’s the only thing that works!” Are they deluded? Is it just their donors? Impossible to know.
  3. The comparison shopping urge takes over. Almost all radio pledge drives involve thank-you gifts. Some people may simply be waiting to hear what all the gift options are! Of course, they then miss out on opportunities to get limited-offer thank-you gifts.

Assuming I’m not totally off base, the first two items on this list may be worthy of any type of nonprofit’s consideration, radio or not. So, for example, if someone’s newsletter is about to run out, you’d want to give them advance notice, but also make abundantly clear, later on, that THE DEADLINE IS COMING. It’s also worth paying attention to the tone of your messages (which may slip into “distress” mode even without your intending it) and how your donors respond.

As for the third item on the list, it’s a useful reminder that, even in the charitable context, people’s consumer side can take over. Whether at an auction, bake sale, or something else, be sure to remind people early and often that the main purpose is to support a nonprofit, not to pick up a goodie.

Real People Trying Crowdfunding Discover What Nonprofits Already Knew

coinThe field of artists, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, dreamers, freelancers, travel buffs, scientists, and folks in need who are trying out crowdfunding as a way to raise cash is getting a bit, well, crowded. Distinguishing one’s pitch from all the others takes all the creativity and marketing skills that one can muster, as seen in the article “Generation ASK,” by Lauren Smiley, in the May, 2013 issue of San Francisco magazine.

Experienced fundraisers will nod knowingly at the marketing lesson arrived at by one such seeker — Michele Turner, on her way to raising $14,000 to cover basic costs (rent, gas) associated with her time spent in chemo. In order to tap into people’s passions rather than mere guilt, Smiley explains that Turner needed to “sell[] benefactors on the experience of being part of her recovery, not just on alleviating her poverty.”

Sound familiar? In fact, the various crowdfunding sites advise people seeking funds to post updates and thank-yous, “keeping [donors] abreast of every morsel of good news.” As Smiley explains, “All this can be exhausting for someone fighting a serious illness.”  But the good part of this is that “With so many people invested in her recovery, [Turner] can’t shake the feeling that she’s on the hook to heal . . . .”

The parallels aren’t entirely surprising, but notice that, even when the first people who will be viewing the pitch for cash are your own friends and family, sheer neediness and desperation remain a turnoff. Hope sells, as does the chance to be part of the solution.

For more information on nonprofit uses of crowdfunding, see Nolo’s new article, “Using Crowdfunding to Raise Money for Your Nonprofit.”

Charity Scams on IRS “Top 10″ List for 2013

stormAs a nonprofit organization, you really don’t want the word “charity” to become linked in people’s minds with the word “scam.” But that may be the path we’re on, thanks mostly to the scammers themselves, and also to announcements like that issued by the Internal Revenue Service with its “Dirty Dozen Tax Scams for 2013.” According to the IRS, natural disasters are prime time for the emergence of fake charities preying on the public’s urge to help.

The scammers modus operandi typically includes asking people for money via telephone or  email, or setting up a fake website. Some actually claim to be working for the IRS (a move which, if the IRS wasn’t already mad enough, surely would’ve raised its ire). These “phishers” contact victims pretending to offer help with filing loss claims in order to obtain tax refunds — but are really trying to get victims’ personal financial information or Social Security numbers.

Okay, so you’re not a scam organization, but you may have a role to play after a disaster. Even organizations whose primary mission is not disaster relief may be called upon for support.  Animal shelters, for example, have found their services needed to take in lost pets after major hurricanes.

What do you do to distinguish your real group from the bogus ones? Here are some suggestions:

  • Make the most of your good name. If you’ve already got name recognition, make sure to display it loudly, proudly, and in large font on your website and promotional materials. That’s not only to assure people that you’re okay, but so that their eyes will recognize that something is awry when they view a slightly altered name used by a fake organization.
  • After a disaster, communicate with other organizations also offering relief, and promote each other’s work on your website. You’ll gain credibility, and you’ll help isolate the fake groups from the pack.
  • Also on your group’s website, encourage prospective donors to check the IRS’s search feature, Exempt Organizations Select Check, to make sure they’re giving only to legitimate, qualified charities such as yours. (It’s a bit of a clunky search tool, however; giving people your group’s EIN will help make sure they don’t receive pages of results.)
  • Understand, when dealing with prospective donors, that they may be nervous about giving out personal financial information without assurances of who is calling or otherwise contacting them. Make sure your staff and volunteers offer them gentler options than “Your credit card number now, please,” such as asking them to go to your group’s website.

And if you notice a charity scam going on, report it, to:

 

Before a Nonprofit Can Publish Its Stories, It Needs to Gather Them

book pagesIt used to be that two or three inspiring stories about a nonprofit’s work could supply all the material it needed for mail appeals and newsletters — with any luck, for months at a time.

But with the growth of blogging and social media, nonprofits are developing an unrelenting hunger for new, publishable stories about their own work.

Even if it’s for just a quick photo or blurb about recent activities, the communications or development arm of a nonprofit organization needs to hear from the program people and volunteers. The trouble is, many of the latter folks are either too busy to talk or don’t understand the value of passing information along.

The organization Share Our Strength, with its well-known No Kid Hungry campaign, has plenty of stories to tell: for example, about the volunteer who drives around in a non-air-conditioned truck to deliver summer meals to hungry children, or the mother who declared that, thanks to the Cooking Matters class, she could triple the value of her WIC check.

But the organization also realized a few years back that gathering such stories wasn’t going to happen by chance.

I spoke with Jason Wilson, Associate Director of Digital Communications, who explained, “We set out to deliberately create a culture of storytelling within our organization. This involved identifying members of each department or team and making story transmission part of their responsibilities. They are literally asked to set aside time to tell the story of the work that’s happening, and then to connect with the people who are putting this information together for the Web or other materials.

“Once we got this culture built, and staff people began to see their stories presented—perhaps in an email campaign or as online content—they realized the double satisfaction in not only accomplishing something through their day-to-day work, but also through the telling of that story.

“There’s no set schedule for sharing. Either the staff will pass news along, or the people in charge of content may approach them with questions like, “We’re looking for stories about X, what do you have to share?”

“An effort like this really needs to be organization-wide, and involve accountability. For our team members, storytelling is a formal part of their performance goals.”

How Nonprofits Increased Charitable Donations in 2012

Kitts1_025Hopeful news for nonprofits just came out in the Nonprofit Fundraising Study: Covering Charitable Receipts at U.S. and Canadian Nonprofit Organizations in 2012.  According to the study, 58% of the nearly 1,2oo organizations surveyed said their fundraising receipts had gone up in 2012. That’s an improvement over the 53% who saw a rise in 2011 and a paltry 43% in 2010.

The increase was relatively uniform across the four regions of the United States and among different types of organizations (covering issues such as arts, culture, humanities, and religion).

We could attribute the rise to improvements in the economy — but given that this rising tide still didn’t manage to lift 42% of nonprofits, it’s worth taking a closer look at the successful ones. How did they do it?

Most explained their fundraising success in 2012 to such factors as:

  • the addition of new staff (10%)
  • a jump in receipts from bequests (6%), and
  • a successful event (3%).

It’s worth noting that all three of those factors require advance planning and investment, of a sort that’s all too easy to jettison when an organization is underfunded, understaffed, and feeling insecure. Thus it’s not too surprising that larger organizations saw more growth in charitable receipts than smaller ones.

Nevertheless, the overall message is a positive one. In the words of Nancy Raybin, with the Giving USA Foundation, “With a better economy, charities generated results by looking again to the future, not just for meeting day-to-day needs.”

Happy National (Underfunded) Library Week!

books-188x300From April 14 through 20, the U.S. is celebrating books and the role that libraries play in people’s lives. Libraries have become many communities’ go-to place to rent a movie, do homework, search for a job, and more. Of course, many remain shuttered or on a reduced schedule, with libraries across the U.S. having become, in the last few years, victims of city and county budget cuts.

As if librarians didn’t wear enough hats already, these budget difficulties have led many librarians to assume a new role: fundraiser. I talked to a number of them for my book, The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising: Raise Money for Your School, Team, Library, or Community Group. Many were involved in contacting prospective donors, organizing special events, rounding up donations for an auction or raffle, and so on.

Fortunately, librarians are also a multi-talented bunch, and they’ve got a great theme to work with: reading and literature. Book sales, book awards, and author events are staples of the library fundraising world. But the fundraiser that gets my vote for creative adaptation of the theme is the Edible Book Festival, which started in 2000 and has now spread around the globe.

The idea is that people create cakes or other food items that represent famous books and in some cases, themes and characters from those books, which are displayed and then consumed at a public event.

Check out some of the pictures here and here. And if you’d like to learn how to hold your own such festival, check out the “Eat your words: Tips for hosting an Edible Books Festival in ProgrammingLibrarian.org webinar,” to be held Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 2 p.m. CST.

 

Nonprofit Email Response Rates Down, Twitter Followers Up, Up, Up

roller coasterHave you read the 2013 eNonprofit’s Benchmark Study yet? It’s worth a gander, both for encouragement and for a reality check. The findings (based on data from 55 nonprofits) show that social media audience sizes went through the roof in 2012; in particular, nonprofits’ Twitter followers increased by an average 264%. But typical “open” rates of nonprofit emails went down to about 14%, and response rates dropped precipitously, down to .07% for fundraising appeals. Ouch.

The study’s authors (M+R Strategic Services and NTEN) are careful to note that different types of groups had different experiences, with the biggest drop in email response rates among groups doing international and rights-related work. And we might be able to blame the 2012 elections for sucking up a big share of donations. Also, response rates may also look worse than they should because nonprofits are failing to weed out nonresponsive recipients from their lists.

Nevertheless, I doubt that my email inbox is the only one in the world that’s simply flooded with emails from every nonprofit I’ve ever had contact with. (And once you sign a few petitions at the urging of your Facebook friends, you’ll find that the number of “contacts” starts rising fast.) I start looking for excuses to delete an email without opening it. (“Looks boring. Don’t care as much about that issue as others. Typo in the subject line? Fuggedaboutit.”)

What all of this inevitably means is that your nonprofit needs to work extra hard at making your emails stand out from the rest. Also be sure to include newsletters and other advocacy pieces in the mix of emails you send out — these, according to the study, get opened more than straight fundraising appeals.

For more tips on this topic, see Nolo’s article, “Nonprofit Fundraising Emails: How to Make Them Profitable.”