Category Archives: Marketing

Is Public Speaking Part of Your Job at a Nonprofit?

radio_mikeAmong the many skills required of nonprofit executive directors, development directors, and board members, public speaking is one that doesn’t receive much discussion.

It is, however, a skill that people in the above roles may have to call on for various reasons: to give a welcoming or fundraising speech at a gala dinner or other event, to address a group of decision-makers at a foundation, to represent your nonprofit at a community fair or other public event, to speak with a radio or television reporter on air, and so on.

So, does public speaking make you nervous? (Or, I should ask, do you suffer from “glossophobia?”) Around three quarters of Americans reportedly do.

If you’re among them, you’ll find no lack of advice on dealing with the topic — everything from breathing exercises to picturing your audience in their underwear. For a simple, straightforward message, however, check out marketing guru Seth Godin’s blog today, titled, “Speaking in public: two errors that lead to fear.”

Godin doesn’t single out nonprofits, but his points couldn’t be more relevant to them. When you focus on the cause, not yourself, and “realize that you have a chance to be generous in this moment, to teach and to lead,” your fears will recede into the background.

So, Should Donors Check Charities’ Financial Percentages or Not?

brainReading the recent New York Times “Giving” section, I wasn’t sure whether I was watching change in the making or an example of cognitive dissonance. The subject in question was how much weight donors should give a charity’s financial percentages — that supposedly key ratio of expenses spent on programs and services versus overhead (admin and fundraising) — when deciding whether the charity is effectively carrying out its mission.

On the one hand, David Wallis devotes an entire article to Dan Pallotta, founder of the Charity Defense Council, and his argument that nonprofit organizations “worry too much about keeping overhead low and pay too little to attract the most talented executives.” Pallotta describes the dramatic turn of events when “the Better Business Bureau, Charity Navigator and Guidestar issued a joint news release called The Overhead Myth. It’s an aggressive campaign to really backtrack on this history of teaching the general public to ask about overhead. And now they are saying, ‘Charities don’t need low overhead; they need high performance.'”

On the other hand, the title of this article is, “Gadfly Urges a Corporate Model for Charity,” and Wallis takes pains to point out that Pallotta is a controversial figure with some major failures in his fundraising past.

And then there was an article called, “How to Choose a Charity Wisely,” by John Wasik. It lists the various organizations that evaluate charities (mostly using the standard financial ratios), quotes a Charity Navigator spokesperson saying, “a good benchmark for a worthwhile charity is having at least 75 percent of income spent on programs, or the nonprofit’s mission,” and in the section on “Getting Granular,” advises that charities whose accounting practices include “lumping in fund-raising or solicitation with the charity’s program expenses” are “muddy[ing] the waters” when it comes to “gauging how much is really being spent on the charity’s mission.”

Oh, but the article also warns that: “Like GuideStar and Charity Navigator, the [BBB Wise Giving Alliance] cautions against paying too much attention to the percentage spent on nonprogram expenses, also known as the ‘overhead ratio.’”

Okay, so are we supposed to pay attention to these percentages or not? According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of cognitive dissonance is “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.” I think we’re seeing some of that here.

A few years from now, perhaps everyone will laugh at how attached we once were to those magical fundraising versus overhead percentages. In the meantime, for the sake of clearheadedness, it might help if everyone took a closer look at the assumption that you can divide program expenses and overhead expenses in the first place. Where’s the bright line when a development director meets with a major donor, gets that person excited about the organization’s mission, and invites him or her to participate in the organization’s work more deeply? Or when the Executive Director goes out to speak at a public event, increasing awareness of the issue the organization is concerned with?

The people and tasks that are commonly called “overhead” are, in many cases, integral to the nonprofit’s mission. This isn’t “muddying the waters,” it’s practical reality.

Best Email Subject Lines From Nonprofits

pirate msgLast week’s pirate-themed email from Oceana has got me keeping a watchful eye on other nonprofits’ email subject lines, to see which can best capture readers’ attention without the use of pirate lingo. (It’s thematic only one day out of the year, after all. Arrr.)

I had to open a recent email titled, “It’s time to take care of the bottom‏,” from Shotgun Players (a Berkeley-based theater company). I thought the wording was some sort of faux pas, oops thing, but no, they’re raising money for seat cushions and a new toilet.  So, give them credit for humor, taking a chance, and curbing my “delete without reading” impulse.

“Your tax dollars at work — killing wildlife‏,” from the NRDC, was also one I had to click on. The heavy sarcasm caught my eye, not to mention that it raised a question to which I needed to know the answer. (In case you are similarly curious, the first line of the email explained, “A little-known government agency called Wildlife Services is killing thousands of wild animals every year — and you and I are picking up the tab.”)

“Big Tobacco: Get your butts out of our Bay‏,” from Save the Bay, wasn’t bad either.

From Greenpeace, the heading, “BREAKING: Russia holding Greenpeace activists at gunpoint in the Arctic‏” was one I certainly couldn’t ignore. If your nonprofit has news like that, post it while it’s fresh and you can speak in the present tense!

So let’s see, humor, sarcasm, humor, and urgency. There’s a pattern here, at least regarding what I respond to. As to what I don’t? Well, I still don’t know what’s in the email entitled “This will make you furious.” Yes, it raises a question (“What could be worse than what I’ve already heard?”) but frankly, there’s already plenty that makes me furious. I don’t want to add to the list.

Fundraising Kudos to Oceana, for Riffing Off “Talk Like a Pirate” Day

treasure chestOne of the first items to land in my email inbox this morning had the subject line, “Avast! Was your seafood caught by pirates?‏” As Oceana went on to explain (and anyone who’s on Facebook already knew), today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

The email went on to say that, “It’s all in good fun, but how can we celebrate when there are real pirates out there scooping up our fish?”

Oceana is dealing with an issue that’s ongoing — but it managed to use a topical, and even humorous hook to get readers to think about it in a new way. That’s an ongoing, even daily challenge for any organization trying to use email or social media to get its message out. Let’s hope their strategy brings in lots of pieces of eight.

What Fundraisers Can Learn From Ben Franklin

benBen Franklin is quoted as having said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” This quote is often tossed around by telemarketers, teaching one another the not-so-gentle are of pushing a customer just far enough toward closing the deal . . . but not so far that the customer hangs up in a panic.

Your average fundraiser does not, of course, go to telemarketer school. (Many telemarketers, in fact, seemed to have skipped the lesson mentioned above, but that’s another story.)

The thing of it is, I sometimes wonder whether fundraisers would be better off studying telemarketing tactics. By doing so, they could also understand when to back off, and why prospective donors — who are also consumers — are prone to feeling railroaded.

Why is this on my mind? Because some overeager fundraisers recently showed up at my front door, and despite the fact that I was literally holding cell phone to my ear and talking to my parents, they WOULD NOT LEAVE until they’d delivered their entire, long spiel. (They probably thought I was lying about being on the phone. I wasn’t.)

If anything, selling a product leaves more room to convince someone against their will than “selling” a cause does. We all buy lots of things we don’t really need, sometimes just to try something new. But when it comes to supporting a charitable effort, studies have shown that even those who donate to charity tend to choose a limited universe of causes to give to, based on very personal reasons. (See my book, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits — just out in its 4th edition — for more on that.)

So, there are some people out there — goodhearted, charitable people — who will not support your cause no matter how hard you try. Or maybe they’ll give a few bucks, but ignore all follow-up appeals, and resolve never to pick up the phone or open their door again.

Ben Franklin might have been interested to hear the results of a recent study of fundraising techniques, which found that telling targets that they were free to refuse the request actually increased the likelihood that they would donate. People felt “less threatened” by the whole interaction. (Will we be hearing such messages from telemarketers soon?)

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.



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.”

Fundraising Events Bring in Fun-Lovers: But Donors?

The Guardian (U.K.) recently brought together a group of experts to give their top tips for holding a fundraising event, in “Best bits: making events-based fundraising work.” All of the advice is worth a look, but what intrigued me was how many experts focused on the issue of connecting the event and its participants to the ongoing work of the nonprofit.

By way of background, many nonprofit fundraising events have no thematic consistency with the nonprofit’s mission or activities. Scanning the headlines these days will give you a pretty quick indicator of this. Aside from the Cicero, New York family that’s holding a dog-washing event to raise money for their child’s service dog, most of the stories you’ll find are about events like a Relay for Life marathon to support cancer research, a dog walk and fun run to support the Salvation Army, and a bowling tournament for a children’s foundation.

I’m not saying these are inconsistent or antithetical to the nonprofit’s mission — just that they’re as likely to attract people wishing to take on a personal challenge or have fun with friends as people with any long-term desire to support the nonprofit in question.

Here’s what the Guardian’s slate of experts had to say about this issue:

  • “Focus on participants: . . . It’s really important to listen to them, thank them and provide them with the tools to get more involved with the charity.” – Hywel Mills, partnership manager, Movember.
  • “[When] charities bring in a new audience and add them to their main supporter database[,] [t]he events supporters then receive what feels like irrelevant and disengaging messages because they didn’t get involved due to the cause. Targeted and transition communications are essential for retention.” – Al Bell – freelance consultant, Directory of Social Change (DSC).
  • “We recently conducted a study on a mass-participation run (80,000 runners) and found that the challenge of the event was more important than the fundraising for participants. Charities should find a way to keep their brand and cause central . . . .” – Simon Lockyer – marketing director, Blackbaud.
  • “We have given out free DVDs with a few short films at appropriate events as they are good way of getting our charity’s message across.” – Claire McHenry – events team manager, Help for Heroes.

It’s definitely a tough balance to get right. You’re focused on making sure the event goes smoothly and on schedule, and that people are enjoying themselves. Going to an extreme like, say, sitting everyone down for a half-hour video about your nonprofit is not going to work. But in my experience, too many nonprofits head toward the other extreme. Aside from knowing the nonprofit’s name, participants may leave knowing nothing about what the group does, what it needs, and what their participation and donation did to help. Don’t let that happen at your next event.

Your Volunteers Write Newsletter Content: Who Owns It?

If your nonprofit publishes a newsletter, magazine, or even a blog, getting volunteer writers can be a great way to both reduce your workload and foster community involvement. But once the piece is written and published, who owns it? For example, if a for-profit magazine wanted to reprint the article, to whom would it pay the licensing fee — your group, or the original writer?

If you don’t know the answer to this, you can bet your volunteers don’t, either — which is why it’s worth figuring out this issue in advance and drafting a short agreement for your volunteers. Luckily, Nolo’s own Rich Stim, an expert on intellectual property matters, gives you the details in his blog post called “Who Owns What I Write for Nonprofit?”

Fundraisers: Go Easy on Selling the Sweet Stuff!

Despite the girl selling cakes on the cover, readers of my book The Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising know that I think the time has come to cut the sugar and other junk that so many nonprofits have come to rely on in selling goods for cash. The mixed message — we’re trying to help society, but we’re going to close our eyes to the health implications of what we’re purveying — is just too strong.

It’s not that I’m anti-treat. (Ask anyone who knows me!) But rarity is part of what makes something a treat, and sweets and other junk food are anything but rare in people’s lives these days, including those of children. That message rang out loud and clear with the publication of a study finding that, despite years of outcry and supposed efforts to curb the problem, junk food remains ubiquitous at the nation’s elementary schools. (See “Junk Foods Widely Available At Elementary Schools, Study Shows,” by Lindsay Tanner.) School lunches are nothing to brag about nutritionally, and then the kids can head straight to the vending machines for sugary, fatty, or salty chips, cookies, and so on.

Any fundraiser considering selling cookies at school, or even asking kids to sell them on behalf of a group, should consider that context. Fortunately, healthier alternatives are available, such as granola, low-salt pretzels, or home-baked items using whole grains and recipes adapted to reduce the common baddies. (In fact, now that I look again, the girl on my book cover is selling un-frosted cakes. Good job, cover girl!)