Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dumb advice on social media

Monday, June 27, 2011

Non-profit doesn't mean no money

There's a myth out there that non-profits have no money. They slave away doing the public good like a character in a Dickens novel with a hungry stomach and threadbare clothes, but with a smile in their heart and a song on their lips. Sounds almost romantic. However, it just isn't true.

If non-profits were in fact so poor we wouldn't have so many of them. There's 45,000 in Ontario alone. While many are high profile charities like a big university or hospital most are in fact middling sized and financed. They somehow make a living without any money. So what gives?

I believe that non-profits don't suffer from a lack of  money. They instead suffer from inconsistent funding. In some years they do in fact have no money, but in other years they do. Compared to the for-profit sector the financing of non-profits is a roller coaster ride. And that's why it appears that all non-profits are always poor. At one time or another, almost all of them are.

That's the key to understanding the many challenges the sector faces. Non-profits have infrastructure problems with IT. They take a "feast or famine" approach to marketing (see the 2010 Non-Profit Marketing Year-in-Review). They have skills shortages. They often lack strategic vision. Can all of these be explained by inconsistent funding? It makes sense to me.

The answer then is clear. The sector needs long-term funding. If that is impossible, it needs to stop using the same "expansion and contraction" budgeting that for-profits use. A retailer can hire and then fire without as many long-term negative impacts as a non-profit. The retailer doesn't have to ask people for money or to volunteer.

So, the next time someone tells you that non-profits have no money tell them they are wrong.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Dead Link Society

One of my pet peeves are dead links and/or ancient material on non-profit websites. Case in point is the hospital foundation I used to work for before they downsized me (I'm too embarrassed to mention their name). There are parts of their website that haven't changed since the day I left -- a year-and-a-half ago.  My favourite is the page that has the multimedia presentation I made about the construction of the local pediatric unit. The unit was completed and opened months ago, but nobody bothered to go back and update the material.

Then there's the Ontario hospital I know that built a website about their capital redevelopment. Things changed, time passed, the hospital's main website was upgraded and the redevelopment site was left to sit on its own. It was unlinked from the main site so people couldn't get there anymore -- but it wasn't taken down. You can still find it easily through a Google search. It still has the latest redevelopment information from 2008!

And there's a charity I know that has a "Listen to the campaign" button on their home page. It was a link to their previous radio ads. They took down the radio spots nearly a year ago, but they forgot to take down the button. It still sits there telling people to "Listen to the campaign", but when they click on it, it goes to a nice white empty page.

Having dead or out of date links like this is very, very bad. The message it sends about an organization is "lights on, but nobody is at home". At best, it makes the non-profit look sloppy and careless. At worse, it makes people question whether they should believe anything that that organization says.

Perhaps the worse thing is that it indicates that an organization like this doesn't really puts stakeholders first. Instead of trying to give stakeholders what they want, it gives them what the organization thinks it can get away with to make the stakeholders happy.

And none of this has to happen. Finding dead links and updating content is easy. It just takes effort.

The lesson is know your website. Keep it current. Remember to actually remove things when they are complete...don't leave them for search engines to find. Put someone in charge of your website and have them manage it. Give them the training and the time they need to do the job.

Send me your dead link or out of date material stories and I'll post them here on my blog. Then we'll all have a good laugh.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Who "Owns" your non-profit brand? Guess what, it's not you.

One of the most difficult lessons in branding is about perspective. It's easy to think that branding is all about your non-profit. You commission the brand. You invest the time. You apply the precious resources you have. You nourish and grow the brand. It's your baby, and people can be forgiven for being territorial about it.

And there's a whole school of thought that tries assign value to your brand -- brand equity. They use pretty charts and clever formulas to show that your brand has a real monetary value. So, it's not only your baby, it's also the bedrock of your finances.

But the truth of the matter is that your non-profit doesn't actually own its own brand.

That's right, you don't own it.

Think about it. What is your brand? It's not just a logo (although there's a significant number of rather foolish people who think it is). It is your identity. It is the face you wear. What you think about that face, that identity doesn't really matter. You brand exists to help you navigate the outside world, not for your own private pleasure. So, it is not what you think about your brand that really counts, it is what the outside world thinks. In other words, the value of your brand exists in the mind of the people who perceive it and act upon it. At the end of the day, if your stakeholders think a logo of a dead fish and a tag line in Klingon represent you, than that is your true brand equity. One could argue that all the branding in the world can't change the fact that it is up to stakeholders to decide who you are and assign value you to you accordingly. You can move them, convince them, cajole them to change their minds about your identity, but the power to make that change lies with them, not you.

So, who owns your brand? Your stakeholder audiences, that's who.

And that brings us back to perspective. You need to approach your non-profit brand from the perspective of your customer, and not your own organizational thought process. Ask what your brand is going to do for them, not just what its going to do for you. They're the true owner, the boss.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

How much is too much communication

One of the things I see all the time is a reluctance to communicate too often. For example, one client told me not to send an email on Easter because it would be too intrusive, even though the email was a celebration of Easter and the start of Spring. Were they right? Surely any email asking for money is intrusive, but look at the flip side. The campaign we were running was less than two months in length. We had only emailed our target audiences twice. It has been more than 10 days since we communicated with them and it was almost near the end of the campaign. In short, this was a perfect opportunity. In this case, an opportunity lost.

Another more common example is the complaint that non-profits usually receive when someone gets too many emails. The other day, I was with a non-profit leader who commented on the fact that she had received a complaint from a person who received one too many direct mail letters from them. Were they right? Again, getting too much junk mail is a turn off. However, the non-profit in question only sent out letters twice a year, and then only to a few hundred people. Their direct mail wasn't exactly an avalanche of communication.

Where do you draw the line? The research clearly shows that the more you send --whether it be direct mail, email, phone calls -- the more you will make in donations. Volume is a factor in making money. True, there is an added risk of turning off people with too much communication, but I think this is usually over blown, and can be easily dealt with.

Many complaints about too much communications come from people who actually don't want any communications. These are the people who are bombarded by other charities. Sometimes they are email novices who can't handle even the simplest overload of spam. Either way they are in the minority. I think most complaints actually are due not to the volume of communication but because of the often stupid way they are sent. The classic example is when one part of a charity sends out a mailer at exactly the same time as another part. This can easily happen when you have a direct mail team, an events team and a communications team all operating independently from one another. Better scheduling would be able to handle this easily. Technology can help too. If you're sending email or doing Facebook make sure people know how to "opt" out. This can usually be done with a click of a button. And when people do complain, be ready for it. Expect people to call or email and be ready with an answer about why they get so much mail or email. Listen to them, and if necessary exempt them from your communications. But don't stop all communications because one or two people complain. That's throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

How much is too much? There's no magic answer. Instead of thinking about each individual communication think of the big picture. What overall goals do you want from your communication? Then match the volume of communications to meet the goals.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Communications is too important to be left to the communicators

I had a discussion the other day with a non-profit about their Board. It seems that the Board doesn't think that communications, or fundraising, is their role. They have staff who do that. It raised a rather large question. Who's job is it to communicate in a non-profit?

No-brainer for many people. If you have communications staff, let them do it. These people see communications through a lens of "control". They see communications as an exercise in risk avoidance. And so all communication must be pumped through specific channels, such as the news release or the newsletter. But that's it.

That narrow view accounts for many of the reasons why non-profits fail at communications. Yes, this approach delivers control, but it also delivers little in the way of engagement, both inside or outside the organization. Donors, stakeholders and the public see this for what it is -- a grudging attempt to talk to them. With this kind of attitude its no wonder that many non-profits have low profiles and poor community relations.

The place where this fails is when the non-profit tries to fundraise or faces a crisis. Having a communications flack or a CEO talk alone about a key issue ignores the reality that non-profits are communities of people. And whether it is controlled or not, people inside the organization as well as outside will talk about the news of the day. Stifling them won't stop them from talking.

The answer is that it is everyone's responsibility to communicate in a non-profit. Instead of having a designated communicator why not give your people the tools to make all of them communicators? They're going to speak out one way or another, why not help them do it right. Give them the information, the background, the timeline. Encourage them to talk to others, don't shut them up.

That Board I talked about needs to realize that they need to be communicators just as much as their communications coordinator does. They need to understand that if they don't communicate on behalf of the organization, no one will.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Awards announced for best annual reporting in Ontario charity sector

Voluntary Sector Reporting Awards also releases best practices guide for charities

Donors, funders and boards are all looking for more transparency and good governance. Now, Ontario charities can give them that and more by entering their Annual Report in the Voluntary Sector Reporting Awards (VSRA). The VSRAs, created by the CA-Queen's Centre for Governance in partnership with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario and sponsored by PwC, annually recognize the Ontario’s best non-profit Annual Reports.

The VSRAs are open to registered charities that produce annual reports in Ontario. Organizations compete in three categories based on revenue size – up to $1 million, from $1 million to $10 million, and more than $10 million – as well as a separate category for national and international not-for-profits with head offices in Ontario.

Last year’s winners in the four categories were:
  • National or international NPO headquartered in Ontario: World Vision Canada
  • Total revenues over $10 million (tie): Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario & United Way Toronto
  • Total revenues over $1 million but below $10 million: Kingston Literacy & Skills
  • Total Revenues of under $1 million: Sarnia Lambton “Rebound” - A Program for Youth

The winners in each category will receive $5,000. Charities that are organizations whose principal activities are run by or for municipalities, universities, hospitals or school boards are not eligible.

Entry is simple and free. Winners in each category will receive a $5,000 prize. Everyone who enters get free information about best practices. Nominations close July 31st. More information is available online at

Best Practices in Charity Annual Reporting

Now, charities everywhere can learn how to turn their Annual Report into a powerful engagement tool for free. The Voluntary Sector Reporting Awards have published a new guide to annual reporting called Best Practices in Charity Annual Reporting. The report is free at the VSRA website --

Get more information:

CA-Queen's Centre for Governance

Queen's School of Business

Phone: 613-533-3254