The Downside of Social Media

I have empathy for people who make bad professional decisions and must suffer the consequences of their actions. I just do.

Back in February, the online shame police went into overdrive when it became known that Kelly Blazek, a marketing executive who ran a LinkedIn job bank for professionals in Cleveland in her spare time, wasn’t particularly nice to people who don’t follow the rules.  When a nasty declination e-mail she wrote to a job-seeker went viral, other folks came out of the woodwork with stories of receiving similar missives from her.  Before too long, Cleveland’s IABC “Communicator of the Year” for 2013 was getting national media attention, issuing multiple mea culpas and being forced to return her award.

If you read her e-mails to these job seekers, while a particularly mean streak becomes evident, it is also clear that job seekers can come across as a bit entitled. When Wendie Forman reached out to join the list in pursuit of “project management” positions, Blazek denied her access saying that the job bank “isn’t a fit for your background or the types of jobs you seek,” adding: “Good luck in your search.” Hardly an awful response. But Forman wasn’t satisfied: “I must say I was surprised by the tone of your emails and by your quick denial of my request. I will certainly discuss this with (the colleague) who referred me to you.”

Online communication, whether via e-mail or social media, empowers people to be very different than they would be in live communication. E-mails meant to come across as “professional” sound snippy and overly formal. A Facebook post meant to provide background for one’s point of view instead sounds preachy and elitist. A blog post describing your philosophy of engagement sounds like an attack on your former colleagues. Because online, we’re all six feet tall with “how good it sounds in our heads” driving us forward.

It has taken me a while, including an awful exchange with a colleague years ago when I mistakenly sent her a snarky e-mail intended for someone else, but I’ve come to embrace the following rules for online communication:

  • Bite Your Tongue – It’s simple: if you see a Facebook post that gets you angry, or receive an e-mail that makes you steamed, close the application and walk away. Go get a glass of water, look outside the window for a while, take a few deep breaths and make sure you don’t let emotion guide your words.
  • Put It In A Memo – This one took me a while, but I realize now that a ten page long e-mail is a bad move. If you need to communicate a lot of content, put it in a memo and send as an attachment to a brief e-mail. This comes across as much more thoughtful and planned than a 10,000-word e-mail at 3:30am.
  • Don’t Respond – I typically dislike when business communication goes without a response, which is often used as a delay tactic or as a means to shirk a conversation. But I would much rather someone not respond at all than send something that person might someday regret.

Are these things easier said than done? Of course. But these days, when the holier-than-thou social media mob mentality can ruin your career, it is important you don’t make a misstep just because you had a long day.

Photo Credit: Zoran Zivkovic (123-RF)

Yikes! Falling Behind on Social Media…

Neglecting the organization’s social media when times get busy is one of the classic mistakes made by so many nonprofits – consistent messaging is the goal. And yet here I am, having given that advice before, now a full month behind on my own firm’s blog posts. Shame on me.

“Oh, but I have really good excuses!” Of course I do. Doesn’t everyone? My excuses are that I have been very successful of late in new business development, securing several new clients over the past month. I also went on vacation, hosted guests for a weekend, and generally have been a very busy guy about town.

At this point, the classic Price Is Right “fail sound” should chime, and I should be escorted off the stage. There are no good excuses, only determination to ensure it doesn’t happen again. I’ve blogged previously about the importance of time management as an accountability tool. I’m currently working with a client on setting up a metric-based fund development platform, and I have been reminded of the importance of public accountability.

Over the next few weeks, I look forward to writing about the following subjects:

  • April 21 – The Downside of Social Media – Have you heard about the woman in Cleveland who ran an online job board and was publicly humiliated when a nasty e-mail she wrote a job seeker went viral? I look forward to exploring the darker side of social media in a post focused on ways to ensure you don’t make front page news just because you were having a bad day.
  • April 28 – Cultivating Gatekeepers and Decision-makers – In part two of a five part series, we’ll explore the important role cultivation plays in grant seeking.  This post will be well timed, as I am pleased to serve as Guest for the April 29 #GrantChat Tweetup focused on this very topic. Hope to see you on Twitter at noon EST that day.
  • May 5 – Making BIG Topics Local – A U.N. Science Panel just published a pretty dire report on the state of global climate change, with in-depth recommendations regarding action steps that need to be taken immediately. So, how do nonprofits in your town take a pressing global need like this and make it stick?

There, I just staked myself out and created public accountability. Have a great week everybody!

The Oscars: Storytelling Wins Every Time

by Josh Jacobson
The 86th Academy Awards are this coming Sunday, and my wife and I simply ran out of time.

Each year since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the roster of Best Picture nominees from five to 10 in 2009, we make our best effort to see all of the nominated films before the Oscars broadcast. Since most of these films come out in the November/December time frame, it means regular trips to the movie theater each winter.

Some years we do better than others, depending on what is nominated. This year, of the nine nominated films, we saw seven, missing just two of the indies – Nebraska and Philomena – which we hope to catch as soon as they are released on-demand.

It was a tremendous year for the cinema! Some truly amazing films with incredible performances. And if you’ve kept up with this blog, you know that I tend to find allusions to nonprofit management and messaging strategy in the strangest of places, and the nominated films are no different:

  • Her (Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson)Her

This was likely my favorite nominated film (along with Gravity). It was such an inventive concept, and acted very well by the leads. Her tells the story of a man who develops affection for his female operating system. The film explores themes of loneliness and the social anxiety experienced by those in the throes of heartbreak.

Since the film is set in the future, we are treated to a unique glimpse of a digital world that may await us. For example, the lead character works at a company that composes love letters for couples. Because in the future, we outsource the writing of our love letters to someone who can do it more artfully than we would do it ourselves. And according to the film, it is a poet-customer relationship that may last for many years.

As someone who makes his livelihood from utilizing the written word to encourage action – to make someone feel something enough to make a donation or embark on a new strategy – the idea of outsourcing the creation of poetry that expresses a love between two people is an amazing concept. What a commentary on modern communication!

The world is changing – the advent of the Internet is seeing to that. Consider 5-6 years ago, when people were frightened to use their credit card on the Internet. Now? Most people have overcome that barrier. What other barriers will we break down? To experience something that moves us, which makes us feel something? For nonprofits, messaging and storytelling must go hand-in-hand. It may just be our secret weapon in a hyper-connected world in search of meaning and purpose.

  • Captain Phillips (Starring: Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi)Captain Phillips

Who doesn’t love a good Tom Hanks movie? He is such an everyman, equally capable with comedy and drama. And yet, with Captain Phillips, we get a nuanced performance unlike anything else he had done since Apollo 13. This is Hanks in his all-business mode, and it was truly a gripping performance.

Early in the movie, we are presented with evidence that Hanks’ character is a bit of a stickler for process and procedure, and from the looks his crew give each other, we can guess what they say about him when his back is turned. He chides crew members for not locking doors and securing outside areas, and though they roll their eyes as he requests their immediate action, it turns out to be wildly prescient. Not long into the trip, their ship is boarded by Somali pirates.

If you know the story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, then you knew Hanks’ advice to his crew was just foreshadowing. But hearing it, and seeing their reactions, I couldn’t help but feel for him. It isn’t easy being the taskmaster, to be the one who takes ownership and manages people.

This is particularly true for nonprofit managers, who may find themselves being asked to undertake a near-impossible task with too few resources, too little time, and under-trained (even unmotivated) personnel. As a consultant, I am often seated across from very well-meaning managers who need their staff members to operate independently, to “own their roles,” but find they must micro-manage to ensure quality outcomes. Folks who leave the nonprofit sector are typically just plain exhausted and pine for a better-resourced workplace.

Hanks’ character is shown wearily preparing for the trip, later ordering security precautions and practice drills. I empathized with his prioritization of process, even as it makes him less popular in the eyes of his crew because of it.

  • 12 Years a Slave (Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o)12 Years

Not long into this heartbreaking film, I found myself near tears – a state I would stay in for nearly two hours. My heart was in my throat the entire time, not realizing how rigidly I was grasping my wife’s arm. From the minute Ejiofor’s character finds himself kidnapped until he is once again reunited with his family, I was just devastated.

To call this the best film about the subject of slavery doesn’t do enough to capture its importance – it’s true, it depicts slavery in a more shockingly realistic way than any film I’ve ever seen. But what sets 12 Years a Slave apart is how very intimate it is. We are meant to experience the film through the eyes of Ejiofor, ripped from his family and forced into a nightmarish scenario. You see what he sees, and you feel what he feels.

Nonprofits, particularly human services organizations, take notice – how do you tell your story in such a way that the audience is transported? In making the story more palatable for our audiences, do nonprofits also sanitize the case for support and miss the chance to connect emotionally? I think so, and can point at this film as a prime example of what everyday Americans are capable of experiencing, willingly, with the desire to better understand.

And the winner is? Really anyone who saw these films and the others nominated, as well as many that the Academy did not nominate. Movies can uniquely reflect our current condition as humans, holding up a mirror that allows us to learn and grow. Popcorn anyone?

Three Questions to Consider This Week:

  1. What would the movie of your nonprofit attempt to communicate? How would you position the story arc?
  2. For many nonprofits, video is a relatively new medium. How does your organization embrace video to tell your nonprofit’s compelling story?
  3. If you received an Oscar for your role in making your nonprofit a success, who would you thank in your acceptance speech?

Image Credit: Featured Image (Wikipedia), Movie Posters (itsjustmovies.com)

“They Have a Basketball Court?” – Red Ventures & How Data Can Transform Nonprofits

By Josh Jacobson

Though it has been in business since 2000, I hadn’t heard of Red Ventures until just a few years ago.  And even then, what I knew was somewhat fuzzy.

Most folks talk about the amazing headquarters located in Fort Mill, South Carolina – a striking 150,000 sq. ft. campus complete with a full-length basketball court and its own on-site restaurant, perfect for a beer on Friday company-endorsed happy hours.  People I know who have been there talk about the stunning array of flat screens everywhere you look, with real-time streaming data concerning client activity.

If that sounds a bit like the playground-style offices of tech start-ups of Silicon Valley in the 1990s, you probably aren’t far off.  It is clear Red Ventures has defined its brand and created a work culture with a great deal of intention – to attract talent, project success, and increase client acquisition.  I can only assume this, but it would certainly make sense – Red Ventures is in the business of demand generation and sales conversion.

I say I’m a bit fuzzy about what they do because it is largely a big secret.  The company doesn’t say much about the clients it serves, but the word on the street is that they are involved with many Fortune 500 companies, with a defined focus on home services, energy, media, telecomm and insurance.  If their building is the first thing people mention, their process is typically the second thing, and little is known about it either.  Their website provides a fairly high-level explanation of the typical sales funnel.  But what they do is different. Or so I’ve heard.  “They will go head-to-head with the sales department of a reluctant client prospect and beat their numbers by a multiple factor,” a colleague told me once. “They’ve got it figured out.”

So, what is “it” exactly?  And how can nonprofit organizations learn from what this company does?  While much of it remains a mystery, two differentiating factors are clearly evident:

  • People – The Right People in the Right RolesInterview
    Red Ventures is a growing company – a really growing company.  Earlier this month, they held an interview day with the intent to add 200 additional employees in 2014.  And that’s on top of its nearly 2,000 current employees.  If you go to their website, the front page is basically a giant classified ad with various positions that need to be filled yesterday.

If you’re an employee at Red Ventures, it means you made it through what is called by Business Insider one of the top-20 most difficult interview processes in corporate America.  I’ve heard it said that, despite the need for so many new employees, the company hires a staggeringly low number of the people who interview.  It seems they know what they are looking for, and don’t accept “close enough.”

From the comments on various employment seeking websites like Glassdoor.com, it appears the company is looking for characteristics and traits that don’t show up on someone’s resume.  “Tell me a joke,” a recruiter asked an applicant for a sales position, for example.  Applicants who don’t get invited back note feeling disoriented and perplexed by the experience, and angry that the interview didn’t follow a predictable format.  Perhaps that’s the whole point.

While nonprofits may not be able to offer the salary or perks afforded employees at Red Ventures (though I hear the YMCA has a great basketball court), they can certainly learn from this process.  The company wants people who can think on their feet, who have a task-oriented skill set matched with a capacity for critical thinking.  They are looking for people who will thrive in the workplace environment they have created.  Like everything about Red Ventures, it’s all very intentional.

For under-resourced nonprofits, the need to find dynamic development staff members who can get results is even more critical.  I’ve argued in the past that there are typically two types of development professionals – those who crave getting out of the office and engaging in donor interaction, and those who prefer to develop messaging strategies and computer-based awareness from within their offices.  Few are experts at both.  At Red Ventures, there are entire departments constructed of both types of people.

While they are both important needs for a nonprofit, too often they are traits (left-brain oriented and right-brain oriented) expected to be found in just one person – the Director of Development – who typically has too little time and too many distractions to do any of it effectively.  Now, I’m not saying organizations should go out and hire additional development staff – I mean, they are likely needed, but most nonprofits don’t have the budget to do that.  But what I am saying is that you should have a good idea of the type of person who will be effective given your organization’s culture, and find the right person to match your strategies – not the other way around.

  • Data – At the Heart of Every Decision & StrategySpreadsheets
    When I close my eyes and imagine meetings at Red Ventures, I picture employees with their sleeves rolled up, pouring over spreadsheets and having heated (though still professional) discussions about data analysis.  Because they are passionate and it’s how they are wired. “But what does it mean? And how can we use it?”

In truth, I’m a pretty big data wonk.  Or at least I aspire to be.  Where most people see the increasing loss of privacy as we opt-in to social media and search engine tracking, I admit that I get pretty excited. The idea that we could model preferences and behavior, and apply that understanding on a large scale?  Yea, that’s pretty game changing stuff.

Red Ventures puts it so well on their website, I won’t even try to paraphrase: “Data drives our decisions – and we build tools that give us unique, actionable insights. We scrutinize response, conversion and economics at every level to continuously boost ROI.”

Put a bit less techie, the company seeks to understand a client’s customer base and what motivates it to act, refines sales strategies through real-time analysis, and once the company is satisfied it has a sales systems that works, it models the current customer base and seeks other people with the same characteristics.  But that doesn’t happen just once – it is a system that continues to inform itself with fresh data, modifying tactics as new variables become known.

Re-reading that last paragraph, I get goosebumps.  Why can’t nonprofits do this too?  It’s a question that has led to some really interesting discussion with Chris Meade, CEO of Catapault InfoSolutions, who has thought a lot about the subject.  In fact, much of this post is informed by his ideas.

A primary challenge is simply the lack of data collected by most nonprofits.  A large percentage of donor databases in the Carolinas are tracking just one thing – financial transactions.  So if we want to understand how an individual became a donor, like who referred them initially or what the person read that motivated them to act, many donor databases don’t shed much light on the subject.

That shouldn’t be a surprise.  What nonprofit has a Chief Information Officer or prioritizes data accumulation for both programming and marketing?  Whereas Red Ventures understands the importance data holds for making decisions, nonprofits typically relegate data management to the most junior person on the development team.  That person is rarely invited to the table or present in the meeting, and so that important data goes un-captured.  A centerpiece of my Data Flow presentation is the need to elevate the process to encourage a “culture of data.”

The other big barrier for nonprofits is a financial one – though data is cheaper to purchase than ever before, it is still more expensive than most nonprofits can afford.  And because many nonprofits have a basic misunderstanding of how direct marketing leads to donor dollars, the ROI on any activity is calculated on a one-to-one basis. “We tried direct mail once, but the response rate was poor so we didn’t do it again.”

After retention (a topic for another day), donor acquisition is the most important metric any nonprofit should track.  And to dispel a popular myth, your board of directors is an important part of lead generation, but should not be your only source of prospects. Through donor modeling and message testing, segmented outreach can be very effective at motivating people who don’t know you to become educated, encouraging those who know you to give charitably and driving people who already give to give more.

Did I really just spend 1,500 words saying that successful fundraising comes down to talented people using data to inform strategies that move people to act?  Yep, I sure did.  And while that may seem a fairly obvious thing, so simple it isn’t worth spending so many words to say it, I can promise you it is a fundraising success model too few nonprofits understand or resource effectively.

Three Questions to Consider This Week:

  1. What are three traits you believe are necessary for an employee to be successful at your nonprofit?  How do you interview applicants to determine the right fit?
  2. Left-brained or right-brained – so which one are you? How do you compensate for the “other half” to ensure you cover all the bases?
  3. How does data inform your organization’s fundraising strategies?  If you could collect one additional piece of data about everyone in your database, what would it be? How would you use it?

Image Credits: Featured Image (Red Ventures Website), Interview (123RF – vgstudio), Spreadsheet (123RF – David Hilcher)

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Beatles and Youth Marketing for Nonprofits

by Josh Jacobson
For real fans, February 9 is one of many dates in the history of Beatles that is etched into memory.  As you have no doubt heard at some point this past weekend, it was this day in 1964, fifty years ago, that the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show.  The world would never be the same.

For me, it is one of several dates to celebrate (or mourn) related to my favorite band. There’s January 30, the date of the band’s final live performance in 1969 on the rooftop of the Apple building in London.  Or June 1, the date Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1967 to an unsuspecting world audience.  And of course, December 8, the day John Lennon was murdered in 1980 outside the Dakota building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  That most of these events took place before I was born (I was too young to remember Lennon’s death) is besides the point – as a fan, I have committed them to memory.

StrawberryFieldsOne date that has a direct impact on my life is November 29, the evening in 2001 that George Harrison died.  I know this because it was a Thursday, and I had only just arrived at LaGuardia Airport for a vacation in NYC.  The following day, my friends and I happened upon a memorial for Harrison at Strawberry Fields, a section of Central Park devoted to celebrating Lennon, the other departed Beatle.  We spent three hours there singing and clapping along with more than 200 people as musicians played the entire catalog.  Leaving the area, exhausted and emotionally drained, I declared my love of NYC to the universe and vowed to relocate there as soon as I could.  And four months later, I did.

But back in 1964, when the Beatles arrived in America, no one knew the impact the band would have on generations of music fans, much less one very enthusiastic future consultant to nonprofits. The signs were certainly there – 300 screaming fans met the band at the airport, most of them children and teenagers who had been clued in to what was happening across the Atlantic by savvy radio DJs.  The Ed Sullivan appearance served to add gasoline to a fire that had been growing steadily for almost a year.

That night, 73 million people tuned in to hear the Beatles warble through songs that were all but drowned out by screaming fans in the studio.  It was the largest television event up to that point, constituting an incredible 45% of American households with televisions.

Looking back now, it may be easy to dismiss the achievement.  The show was certainly aided by the absence of competition, in the days when network television was the only option.  Popular music was largely homogeneous in the suburbs – it would be at least another decade before sub-genres like Rap, Alternative and Heavy Metal would fracture popular music, creating niches that informed the culture and style of devotees.

No, in 1964 the world was somewhat simpler, and reaching the lion’s share of teenagers in America was a fairly straight-forward equation.

Youth Marketing: A Missed Opportunity

teenagers“So, how is your nonprofit working to engage the youth market?”

Try asking that question of most nonprofit Executive Directors and watch the blank expressions.  This is an industry that is only just recently waking up to the opportunity of the Millennial generation, and “getting younger” largely means attracting the buy-in of people under 40 years old.

“The youth market? Are you kidding? Who has time for that?”

I’ll tell you who has time for that – any company that understands the importance of the youth’s influence on the spending of family members, and the vital role branding plays during these formative years.  Billions (and billions!) of dollars are spent annually by marketers attempting to influence the youth market, particularly the teen market.   Companies like Microsoft, Coca Cola and Toyota realize that “getting to them early” is critical to building affinity that can last a lifetime.

I find even large, established nonprofit organizations have fairly half-baked teen marketing plans, too often dependent on relationships with school districts.  Because of course, the best way to build brand affinity with teenagers is through school-based activities where participation is required (he said sarcastically).  Even the most well-known participatory organizations like the Boy Scouts tend to lose market share as children age into their teen years.

Marketing to teenagers certainly isn’t easy, but is it a potential blue ocean for nonprofits?  I think so, and consider it one of the myths of fundraising worth exposing.

Myth: Marketing to Youth Yields Poor ROI for NonprofitsBookCover

While unlikely to be a major tent pole strategy for most nonprofits (particularly small shops), a youth marketing plan should be an essential component of any development effort for a number of reasons:

  • Homogenous Population – Quick, what was your high school like?  I bet mine was fairly similar, as most are throughout the country over the past several decades.  Sure, popular culture is more fragmented than it was when the Beatles arrived in 1964, but teenage populations present a fairly clear blueprint – trends are defined by a handful of individuals within a much larger group of peers who seek to emulate their choices.

If only adult populations were so easy to understand! Identifying individuals to serve on your board of directors would be a much easier proposition without political affiliations, socio-economic disparities and career choices clouding the picture.  But not unlike your organization’s young donor society, the key to successful youth marketing is encouraging those who set trends to engage with your brand, and that isn’t going to happen without some groundwork.

  • Gatekeeper Relationships – Brand marketers target the youth for a very good reason – they drive sales.  While they may not have much disposable income themselves, youth are gatekeepers to their parents who buy their children the products they desire (or demand, depending on the teenager).

The pathway for nonprofits has been forged by participatory organizations like Girl Scouts.  Every winter, without fail, I would purchase ten boxes of Girl Scout cookies from the CFO of a past organization where I worked.  I did this because I felt it would somehow help me should I ever request a grant budget at the 11th hour.  Silly, sure, but such social pressure at work drives nonprofit revenue as effectively as any United Way workplace giving campaign.

One organization in Charlotte recently worked with, Hands On Charlotte, has seen a spike in recent years of interest in volunteerism by teenagers who must fulfill a set number of hours of community service in order the graduate.  A parent called them recently looking for opportunities that could be easily squeezed into an already busy social schedule.  She was very willing to pay a fee in order to make it possible for her teenager to accrue those hours – something around which your nonprofit might consider building a revenue strategy.

  • Lifelong Affinity –The things we love as children are likely to stay with us the rest of our lives.  Coca Cola knows that, which is why they seek to win teen preference in the lunch line of high schools across the country.  I am a Beatles fan because I stumbled on my parent’s collection of scratched-up albums when I was 12 or 13, and discovered them as if they were a secret known only to me.

At a party this past weekend at the home of a friend and colleague, I had a great conversation with a gentleman who was raised in the area.  In high school, he volunteered at the Carolina Raptor Center and developed a strong affection for their birds and the organization as a whole.  Now an adult and a banker in Charlotte, he returns with friends and relatives, and because of the lifespan of some raptors, can even visit some of the birds he helped as a teenager.  When the Center engaged that teenager as a boy, it is unlikely that donor cultivation was top of mind, but perhaps it should have been.

Engaging the youth market is a bit like establishing a planned giving strategy – another activity most nonprofits put off.  Nonprofits in need of near-term revenue are unlikely to prioritize teen engagement unless it can impact this year’s bottom line.  And so they miss opportunities to foster those relationships and find themselves forever in the hamster wheel.  But for the savvy nonprofit, it can be a differentiating strategy that has a lasting impact long after the end of the current fiscal year.

Three Questions to Consider this Week:

  1. How, if at all, do you currently engage the youth market? Are there opportunities to leverage latent connectivity to encourage deeper affinity?
  2. How can youth serve as a bridge to their 30-something and 40-something parents for your nonprofit, either as charitable donors or purchasers?  How does social media factor in to that engagement?
  3. How are the children of your staff and board encouraged to engage with your nonprofit?  Are they potential gatekeepers to their peers?

Image Credits: Featured Image (Alan Levine), Harrison Memorial (NYC Gov Parks), Teens (123RF – vlue)

“I Spent the Night in My Car” — Lessons in Crisis Response

by Josh Jacobson
As I sit here writing this, most Carolinians are waking up to bright sunshine and temperatures in the low 50s.  Our dog Miyagi is bouncing off the walls because she knows the mild weather will mean a long walk around the neighborhood.

What a nice change of pace after a January that saw some pretty dicey weather-related challenges.  While many of my former colleagues in the northeast would scoff at such a notion, the issue hasn’t been extreme temperatures (for comparison, it is currently 1 degree in Duluth, Minnesota), but how woefully under-prepared cities in the South are for sub-freezing weather.

Just last week, Atlanta learned the hard way how just a little bit of snow and ice could bring a city to its knees.  A near perfect storm of mistakes and miscalculations followed (pun intended), and for the better part of a week Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal were fixtures of the morning news circuit.  The most compelling stories came from commuters who were stuck on the freeway in their cars overnight, or who abandoned their cars and trudged 5-6 miles in the ice and snow to reach the warmth of civilization.  A public relations disaster, to say the least.

We are never fully prepared for a crisis when it hits, as it rips us out of whatever we were doing and demands our full attention.  But I find nonprofits are particularly susceptible to poor crisis response – I can’t tell you how rare it is to find any sort of crisis communication plan in place, or one that is dusted off occasionally to accommodate new advancements in communication (how does one handle a particularly awful review on Yelp?).

DeficitMost nonprofits are unlikely to experience the sort of negative attention that comes with a debacle like the response to the weather in Atlanta. However, most organizations will experience a different sort of crisis at least occasionally – the dreaded shortfall in the operating budget.  How your organization handles the situation says a lot about your leadership, integrity and management protocols.

When an organization realizes that it is unlikely to hit its revenue goals, or experiences unexpected expenses that threaten operations, donors too often hear about it from a third party or read about it first in the local newspaper.  Why keep your donors in the dark about your financial troubles – embarrassment? Aren’t these the same people you will look to engage to help you out of your current situation?  Before considering your statement to the public via media channels, think first of a strategy for communicating with those individuals, companies and foundations that make a difference to your bottom line, and consider the following communication points:

  • Take the Blame and Explain Why – Your donors support you because they care about your mission.  They are very likely to forgive whatever caused the current crisis – but they want and need to understand how and why it occurred.  While you may have carefully scripted language for the broader public, someone in your organization should step up and accept responsibility to the organization’s most influential stakeholders.  Meet in person or by phone with important donors and past board leaders to explain the current situation simply and with straightforward language.

I was quite impressed with how Cathy Templeton, Executive Director of the Community Arts Project in Cornelius, North Carolina, handled recent front-page coverage of her organization’s financial troubles. “The revenue streams we projected didn’t happen,” she noted, acknowledging that a recent move had a greater impact than anticipated. “We didn’t see ourselves as a start-up because we had been here for 15 years, but it was still more like a start-up than expected…” While other groups may have blamed the economy or other outside factors, she wisely saw good reason to level with the community about how the current crisis came to be. As a donor to their cause, I would want to know how we got to this point were I to contribute again.

  • Detail What You Have Learned – Acknowledging that mistakes were made is only meaningful if you follow that up by explaining how you will avoid making them in the future. Just like any investor, your donors will want to know that history will not repeat itself.  This needs to be more than just a talking point – if this happens again (and again and again), your donor community is unlikely to keep rallying to your cause.

Atlanta remains ill-equipped to deal with such weather emergencies, this despite the fact that the city experienced a similar snow-related crisis just three years ago.  The headlines from early January 2011 were eerily similar to ones from this past week.  Back then, the city responded by increasing the number of snow response equipment, but did not create a plan to avoid congestion on the freeway system.  The creation of such a plan was a central talking point for both Mayor Reed and Governor Deal, though neither seemed willing to take responsibility for this failing.

  • Show Genuine Gratitude – Surprise! Your donors are not obligated to bail your organization out when it finds itself in a financial crisis.  When a donor does decide to help you at your time of need, that individual deserves more than just a form letter detailing tax deductibility.  These individuals are clearly very devoted to your mission, and should be thanked personally for making a special effort.

I’ll never forget an interview I had with a major donor to a past client, who shook his head when I asked if he felt adequately acknowledged by the organization.  It was as if the organization came to expect the gift annually, and when the gift dipped slightly during the downturn, he felt as if he was letting the organization down – this despite more than a decade of significant investment!  Staff can sometimes get so caught up in their fundraising challenges, that they forget what amazing acts of charity such gifts are to a nonprofit’s cause.

Thankfully, nonprofit management is more often smooth sailing than choppy waters, but being prepared for the unexpected is essential.  I’d say more on this subject, but Miyagi really wants to go for that walk!

Three Action Steps for the Week:

  1. Do you have an crisis communication plan? If so, dust it off and consider areas in need of focus. If not, search the Internet for plans from organizations with similar missions.
  2. If a crisis were to hit, who are the top 10 donors you would contact personally? How about five past board members?
  3. If you are concerned with your own financial sustainability this fiscal year, how would you explain why it happened and what you would do differently in the future?

Image Credits: Featured Image (123RF – Robert Crum), Deficit (123RF – Bram Janssens)