Navigating These Uncertain Times

3461601180_b29d215979_wIt’s an understatement to say the world is going through a difficult time. I hope everyone is doing okay and staying healthy. Even though we’re practicing social distance, among other things, it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious during these uncertain times.

I had planned a post on donor newsletters, which seems trite given what’s going on. You and your nonprofit organization have a lot to worry about. Maybe you’re scrambling to figure out how everyone can effectively work from home. Maybe it’s hard to provide vital services to your clients. Maybe you’re going have to postpone or cancel upcoming events.

While we’re trying to take measures to stay healthy, the COVID-19 outbreak will most likely devastate the economy. Here in the Boston area and through the state, restaurants and businesses are closing and gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited. Theatres and museums are closed, and I know of several organizations that have to cut back on services. One organization had to cancel a huge walkathon that raises over $2 million.

During economic downturns, the need to provide vital nonprofit services increases. We don’t know how much the economy will suffer but expect that it will.

You may not be thinking that much about your donor communication at this time, but you should be. Here are a few suggestions to help you navigate these uncertain times.

Reach out to your donors

Please don’t cut back on your donor communication right now.  Maybe you can’t send a print newsletter if everyone is working from home, but you can still communicate with your donors.

Check in with your donors. See how they’re doing and thank them for their support. Don’t ignore what’s going on. Let them know you understand this is a difficult time.

I hope you have a good CRM/database that everyone can access remotely so you can easily send messages. You should also think about calling donors who you know don’t use electronic communication.

Be honest

I tend not to like the term transparency, but if there’s ever a time to be transparent, it’s now. Be upfront with your donors about how this will affect your work. Are you cutting back on services? How will that affect the people/community you serve?

The need for donations

You may need to ask for additional donations, and that’s perfectly understandable. You’re probably familiar with the concept – ask, thank, update, repeat. In this case, I recommend thanking and updating first and then asking.

Again, be upfront and honest about what you need. This is not a situation where someone mismanaged funds or didn’t plan accordingly. A few months ago, most of us were unaware something like this could happen.

Make an appeal that’s specific and easy to understand. As with most fundraising appeals, you’ll need to send it out more than once. Email is probably your best bet right now, but you can also use social media. This video gives some great suggestions. 

How to write an Emergency E-Appeal if your organization is being affected by the Coronavirus

Your donors are going through a lot and giving to your organization may be the last thing they’re thinking about. Some donors will be perfectly willing to give an additional donation and others won’t. These donors may be cautious with their finances for a while.

You could encourage donors to give monthly. This would be easier on their finances and provide you with a consistent stream of revenue.

Encourage Monthly Giving During Uncertain Times

Donors stop giving for a variety of reasons. You can’t control their financial situation, but you can control your donor communication. Do the best you can right now, and be sure to pour on the gratitude to anyone who gives an extra donation or upgrades to monthly giving.

Going forward

This is an unprecedented situation that emphasizes the importance of planning ahead. I know it’s hard for small nonprofits with limited resources, but here a few ways to be prepared in the future.

Invest in good infrastructure, most importantly a good data management system.

Have a reserve fund. No matter how small your budget is, you want to have some money set aside in times like these. 

Provide a caring, compassionate work environment that allows people to take care of themselves as needed.

I’ll keep sharing information that’s relevant as we work through this. Here a few links that may be helpful. Take care!

Essential Advice and Resources for Nonprofits – COVID-19 / Coronavirus | Recession | Remote Work

Tips for Communicating with Donors During Uncertain Times


Get Organized This Summer- Make Your Messages Clear and Consistent

Image by Thiago Esser via Flickr

Over the course of the summer, I am offering tips to help you get organized during what may be a slower time, and prepare for a busy fall.  

All nonprofit organizations need a clear set of consistent messages to use in their fundraising and marketing materials, but many do not have these.  According to a recent survey by Nancy Schwartz from Getting, only 24% of respondents said their messages connect with their target audiences. It makes you wonder how much time nonprofits invest in messaging. Marketing Consultant Chuck English wonders the same thing. Nonprofits don’t care about marketing
Create a message platform
Does your organization need a message makeover?  Putting together a set of clear, consistent messages, also known as a message platform, may take some time up front, but it will be time well spent.  Now whenever you create a fundraising letter or content for your website, you can draw material from this set of messages.  Having a consistent set of messages is essential when you have more than one person writing for your organization and as new staff or volunteers join you.  All your materials need continuity and a single voice.

The links below will help you create a message platform. Everyone in your organization – staff, board, volunteers –  is a message ambassador, and needs to be involved.  Although, that doesn’t mean they should be involved in every step of the process.

You may want to get some initial input from the staff and board.  Ask everyone a few key questions, such as:

  • What do we do?
  • Who do we serve?
  • Why are we important?
  • How are we unique?
  • What impact do we make?

If their answers are all across the board, then you have a lot of work to do.
A small group – marketing staff and board members with marketing experience – should put together the message platform and then introduce it to everyone else.  You may not be able to finish this in the summer due to people’s vacation schedules, but at least you can get started.

The 4 Cornerstones of an Engaging Message Platform

Create a style guide
Continuing on the theme of consistency, I strongly recommend putting together a style guide.  A style guide can cover both elements of your written material (editorial) and the look of your materials (design). You can put your parts of your message platform in here, too, once you complete it.
It shouldn’t take you a lot of time to put together a style guide and it doesn’t need to be long document.  However, it will save you a lot of time in the end.  It’s a huge help if you don’t know whether or not to use a serial comma, or what fonts you should use in your materials.  Again, this is important if you have more than one person writing for your organization, or if you use volunteers who aren’t there full-time.   

Overall, it ensures that your materials will have a consistent message and look.
Take some time this summer to make sure that your messages and materials are clear and consistent.

Do You Have Good Stories To Tell?

Photo by UNE Photos via Flickr
If you are making a difference in someone’s life or in the community, you have good stories to tell. The best stories are ones about the people you serve and not about your organization. You can tell your stories in writing, in a video, and in pictures.

Written Stories
When writing a story use classic storytelling devices. Give it a beginning, middle, and end.  Good stories also include conflict or a struggle.

If you are writing about people, use names to make it personal. You can change someone’s name to protect the person’s privacy if needed.   

You need to grab someone’s attention right away. Your stories should also capture emotion. In the words of Maya Angelou – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Keep your stories short and limit the use of statistics. You can follow up your story with a statistic, if you want to. Try something like this:

Every Wednesday Sarah wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to catch the #45 bus to try to get to the front of the line at the community food bank by the time it opens. Mornings are hectic and she also needs to get her kids ready for school.

If Sarah misses the bus, the next one doesn’t come for another hour. If she arrives at the food bank too late, she finds the shelves contain slim pickings. Sarah is just one of the X number of town residents who rely on the food bank.
Include stories in your fundraising and marketing materials. You could open your fundraising appeal with a story like the one above and then lead into the ask.  Put stories on your website. This is often a place where newcomers visit, and a story is a great way to introduce your organization.  Include a client story/profile in your newsletter. I used to work for a mentoring organization and we would a feature a different mentor/mentee match each month.

Work with your program staff to find these great stories. They can refer you to people to interview and help get any necessary permissions.

Here are some more tips on creating stories.

You can take some of your written stories and transfer them to video. Showing footage with a voiceover is the most compelling. You could film Sarah’s journey and condense it to a few minutes.  Record action footage of the people you serve, such as kids participating in an afterschool program or tutoring sessions.

You can interview clients and have them tell their story. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Not everyone is a future TV star.  Find compelling subjects who are good on camera to ensure that you have an interesting video. 

If you are going to produce a video, make sure it’s good quality. Find an experienced person to shoot and produce it. If cost is an issue, you may be able to find someone to a produce a video at no cost.

Most importantly, keep it short. Videos on your website or social media should last just a few minutes. You can create longer videos to use at fundraising or recruiting events, but stick to 10 minutes or less.

Video Resources 

Photographs can tell a story in an instant. People may not take time to read a story or watch a video, but they shouldn’t be able to miss an engaging photo. 

Every year or two take a set of photos and use them on your website, annual reports, fundraising letters, newsletters, and social media.  It’s okay if you use some of the same ones.  It helps with your brand identity. 

Choose compelling pictures of the people you serve. When using action shots, make sure you can see peoples’ faces and not the backs of their heads. Give some thought to the layout, too. Don’t make it random. 

And make sure they are good quality. Invest in a good camera and photographer. You can often find professional photographers willing to work pro bono, if cost is an issue. 

Here are some tips of what to do and what to avoid.
More information on creating good photographs,
Again, if you are making a difference, you should have good stories to tell.  Share your stories!

How do you tell your stories?

How To Get Everyone In Your Organization To Be Consistent In Messaging

If you got your staff or board together and asked them to write a few sentences about what your organization does, would you get a variety of different answers? You would if you don’t have a consistent set of messages to use.

Creating a message platform

Your first step is to create a message platform, which consists of a tagline,positioning statement, talking points, and an elevator pitch.  Before you start, ask yourself:

What do you want to achieve?

Who is your target audience?  You may need to cater different messages to different audiences.

What is important to them?

As you create your positioning statement and talking points, ask:

Who are you?

What you do?

How do you do it?

Why is it important?

What makes your organization unique?

What impact are you making on the people you serve and in the community?

Your messages should be clear and include a call to action. They should be conversational, so avoid using jargon. Most people respond better to a human interest story than to a lot of statistics.

If you have five different people writing for your organization, your messages shouldn’t look like they were written by five different people. Come up with a single voice and personality.

As far as I’m concerned, Nancy Schwartz is the nonprofit messaging guru. This link from her website Getting Attention will explain the process in more detail and give you examples. The 4 Cornerstones of an Engaging Message Platform

Using your key messages
Now that you have come up with a set of consistent messages, use them across channels  –  print, e-mail, website, and social media.

Instruct everyone in your organization
Go over your key messages with your staff, board, and other volunteers. As new people join your organization, include messaging in their orientation.

Put your key messages in your organization’s style guide. If you don’t have a style guide, I strongly recommend creating one. It’s a great tool to help you stay consistent, not only in messaging, but in writing style and design. Create a Style Guide for Your Organization

Get your board on board
It’s especially important to make sure that your board knows your message platform. Ideally, you want your board to be representing you the community. They might be meeting with a prospective funder or with the local chamber of commerce. But since board members are not part of the day to operations, they are not as exposed to your key messages. They need to be.

Everyone in your organization, no matter what they do, should be able to communicate your key messages, whether it’s part of their job or if they are having a casual conversation with a friend.

Stick with it 
You need to choose messages that you are going to use for awhile. You can revisit your messaging periodically to see if it’s still relevant. For example, if you emphasize that your organization provides services to children under 12, and you just started serving teens, your messages should reflect that.  

Don’t worry if you get bored with your messages. Your audience is getting information from a bunch of different sources besides you.  Sometimes people need to see your message six to eight times before it sinks in.

If you think carefully about the messages you come up with, they should resonate with your audience for awhile.

Elevator pitch role play exercises
A great way to make sure everyone in your organization is consistent in their messaging is to do an elevator pitch role play exercise with your staff and board. An elevator pitch is a 30 second description of what your organization does. Elevator Pitches and Consistency in Messaging 

Divide into small groups of three or four.
  • Scenario one – You are at a conference and it’s five minutes until the keynote address. The person next to you asks you where you work. How do you respond? 
  • Scenario two – Your organization is holding a fundraising event. You are talking to an attendee who asks you to tell her/him more about what you do. How do you respond? 
Come up with your own exercises and keep practicing!

Take some time to come up with a consistent set of messages and make sure everyone in your organization is using them.
Photo by  Matt Hampel via Flickr

Elevator Pitches and Consistency in Messaging

If you got your staff or board together and asked them to write a few sentences about what your organization does, it’s likely you might get a variety of different answers.

It’s very important that all your staff, board, and volunteers know what your organization does and that they are consistent with their messaging. 

This is something that should be covered in an orientation (you should have an orientation for your board members and volunteers, too) and revisited periodically.

A 30 second pitch about your organization is often know as an elevator pitch.

If your organization doesn’t have a written elevator pitch, you need to create one as soon as possible and make it available to all staff, board members, and volunteers.  Creating one as a group can be beneficial.

General Information About Elevator Pitches
  • Elevator pitches should be short and conversational.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Keep the following in mind – who are we, what do we do, how do we do it, and why is it important?
  • Don’t recite your mission statement when giving your elevator pitch.
  • Don’t use jargon.
  • Let your audience know the impact and importance of what you do.
Putting Together Your Elevator Pitch
  • What makes your organization unique? Come up with some key words and talking points.
  • Make sure everyone is consistent in their messaging.
  • Remember to revisit your pitch periodically (maybe once a year) to make sure it’s still relevant.
Using Your Elevator Pitch
  • Engage with the person/people you are talking to and tie what you do with their interests.
  • Find a way to tell a story.
  • If appropriate, initiate a call to action. Give the person your business card and ask them to call you for more information or let them know how they can donate or volunteer.
  • Remember that you are always an ambassador for your organization and how you represent yourself reflects upon the organization.
  • Keep practicing!
Photo by robinsonsmay