“We Already Have Full-Time Jobs” & Other Lame Things Board Members Say

Next Stage Consulting hits the road this week with two presentations on the same topic – Managing Up: Understanding Board Profiles. I’ll be in Columbia, South Carolina on Thursday 5/14 to present to the AFP Central Carolinas Chapter, and on Friday 5/15 presenting to the AFP Greater Augusta Chapter in Georgia.

Ever heard a nonprofit board member say something like:

“I’d ask him to help but he’s already so busy with work and family…”

“I really don’t know that many people…”

“I’m just not comfortable approaching my customers for financial support…”

Encouraging volunteer board members to engage in development activities is rarely an easy task. Boards are comprised of many different types of volunteers, all motivated differently and with a diversity of resources available to them.

In this session, I will be discussing ways to change the “one size fits all” board fundraising strategies to be more segmented, looking at five classic board member profiles and ways to encourage involvement in donor development activities. This session will include practical suggestions for motivating board members that they can take back to their offices.

It’s a slightly irreverent session for sure that I hope will elicit some laughs as well as thoughtful contemplation. I hope you can make it, and if you have interest in the content, let me know!

Crowdfunding Backlash: Reading Rainbow

So, did you hear LeVar Burton raised a whole bunch of money on Kickstarter last week to relaunch Reading Rainbow?

The original goal was to raise $1 million in just over a month, with donations used to expand the Reading Rainbow app Burton has already developed (he bought the rights in 2009) into a web-based destination. In less than a day, the project reached its initial goal amount. The campaign has raised more than $3.2 million and climbing.

If you’re famous and can leverage nostalgia, crowdfunding can be very lucrative, but not without some criticism. The Veronica Mars Kickstarter Campaign raised $5.7 million for a movie based on the television show, and Zach Braff built upon affinity for his first film with a $3.1 million campaign to finance his new film. Both efforts were roundly denounced in the media, with Kickstarter’s founders forced to go on record with their reasoning.

Which brings us to Reading Rainbow. Despite a tremendous outpouring of support from donors and largely positive media notices, there was this from The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey:

Crowdfunding is theoretically supposed to bolster charities, start-ups, independent artists, small-business owners  and other projects that actually need the financial support of the masses to succeed. It’s not supposed to be co-opted by companies with profit motives and private investors of their own…”

As someone who has dedicated his life to helping nonprofits, a part of me understands this criticism. But I’ve come to accept that the world is changing, that technology has created a way to connect people with projects they want to see happen, and they aren’t digging up 990s on Guidestar to make their decisions. More than 72,000 people have supported the Reading Rainbow project, and despite sour grapes from the traditional press, folks are wearing their support like a badge of honor on social media.

Rather than see this as a challenge to the charitable sector, I suggest nonprofits study it and look to replicate it themselves. So what are the ingredients to a really good Kickstarter campaign?

  • Name Recognition: Millions have been generated for Reading Rainbow because many remember it as children.  If your nonprofit doesn’t evoke similar nostalgia or recognition, try securing a spokesperson who does. Bringing a recognizable face to your crowdfunding project helps it get early traction and shares on social media.
  • Marketing: A common mistake is to launch a crowdfunding campaign too early, assuming the site itself will market your campaign. In reality, a crowdfunding campaign is just like any other fundraising campaign – it needs a solid marketing plan to support it. Social and traditional media coupled with person-to-person outreach lights the spark of awareness that helps get the campaign off the ground, and can give it a boost if it lags.
  • Personal Requests: The dream of every fundraiser is that their message will hit a tipping point, and the dollars will start pouring in from people who are completely new to the organization. But the reality is that a base of support is needed first, and that is most likely to come from friends of friends. Your organization’s stakeholders have to be willing to leverage their networks to get that first 10-25% of support. 
  • Rewards: Those who support a crowdfunded campaign are typically different than your annual fund donors. They are more likely to skew younger, are impulsive in their investment, and are definitely wooed by perks. LeVar Burton offered donors of $10,000 or more the opportunity to wear his famous Star Trek visor (so far no takers), but that benefit has been reported by nearly every reporter who has covered the story. What can your organization offer that might get you some ink?

In the future, we are likely to support artists, writers, directors, musicians and yes, corporations by voting with our credit cards at the R&D stage, mitigating the risk of new ventures. For now, the morality police are keeping the space clear for the little guys – don’t let this opportunity pass you by!

“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)