I recently met with the executive director of the second oldest nonprofit in the Washington, DC, area. This faith-based organization has been doing amazing work for more than 125 years. Its mission is to meet the material, educational, and emotional needs of children. This includes everything from making layettes for newborn babies in need, to reading with children who do not have an adult who will read to them, to motivating girls to be all that they can be. All good stuff, and that makes for a very compelling story.
About halfway through the meeting the executive director said to me, “We are the best kept secret in DC.” Wow, her statement surprised me. How can that be true? An established, respected organization that does such important work and people don’t know about it?
Are you keeping your organization’s good work a secret? If people don’t know about your impact, they certainly aren’t going to donate, volunteer, or join you in fulfilling your mission. In our faith communities, we’re taught to do good work and not boast about it. So how do we promote our organizations and not keep them a secret?
Getting the Secret Out
First, you need to devote time, attention and, of course, money to your organization’s infrastructure. Your infrastructure includes your people, your data, your systems and your communications. Gail Perry, author of Fired Up Fundraising, says, “Infrastructure is the fuel that makes everything run.” She goes on to say,“Everyone wants to spend every possible cent on your important program work. And that’s a good thing… [but] If you don’t spend part of that one dollar on your organization’s infrastructure, then you will never really be able to grow. You’ll never be able to expand your work to reach more people. You’ll stay right on the treadmill that you are [on] right now.”
Second, you need to raise your voice above the noise. The noise is all the organizations in your space competing for donor dollars and attention. You need smart communications to do this. Many organizations struggle on how to reach their target audience and how to create the appropriate touch points. A touch point can be a direct mail piece, your website, a postcard, a phone call, an event, or even a video. It’s any thing or any place where you “touch” or reach out to a donor.
Brian Sooy, author of Raise Your Voice, explains how to make touch points more effective, “Words, combined with powerful typography and memorable imagery – evoke meaning, motivate people to action, and become a catalyst that leads to changed thinking… Design inspires.” His book outlines twelve strategic communications principles to guide nonprofits. Several of his principles are intertwined in my recommendations below.
Here are ten to-dos that will improve both your infrastructure and your communications.
1. Focus on mission. You could be losing your story. Go back to basics with your mission and vision. Why did your organization start? Stay focused on that dream. It is easy to get sidetracked over the years with new directions, new programs and all the day-to-day things that need attention. Take a step back and focus your communications and your outreach on one cause and one mission.
2. Strategize, strategize. Always have a plan in place for going on this journey. The plan starts with mission, establishes goals that support that mission, and defines your objectives and tactics to achieve those objectives. Benjamin Franklin is credited for the popular saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” And most important, you need to put your plan in writing. The most successful organizations have written plans. Do it now.
3. Cherish your staff. Your people are your most important asset. Keeping good people is crucial to your success in achieving your mission. High staff turnover is a reality among most nonprofits and causes a hardship. To keep good people and motivate them to give their best performance, you need to provide competitive salaries and, whenever possible, continue professional training. Show appreciation for their hard work. Kind words and sincerity go a long way. Make your whole organization a culture of philanthropy so everyone feels included.
4. Inspire your supporters. I bet your organization has an amazing story. Share the inspiring success stories and touching moments in a way that speaks to your donor’s minds and appeals to your donor’s hearts. Show some enthusiasm and excitement for your issues and cause as you convey your passion on your website and through social media.
5. Demonstrate your passion with professionalism and pizzazz. The look and feel of your touch points say so much about your organization. Are they consistent and creative? A supporter who gets your direct mail solicitation or a visitor who goes to your website needs to understand at a glance what you do. Is your message clear? Content and visual design matter; they make a difference in the bottom line.
6. Pay attention to your database. Having a “clean” contact list is critical, but getting there requires meticulous work. It’s vital to capture data on everyone who interacts with your organization by donating or by attending an event, as well as those you’d like to engage. Invest the time and energy to accurately update all names and addresses in your database. Be sure to keep track of returned mail and assign someone on staff to update new contact info in the system. Cleaning up your database is a detail that frequently gets overlooked or pushed to the back burner, but it could be costing you supporters.
7. Research and use appropriate donor management software. You’ll find a wide range of options out there from hosted online tools with a monthly subscription fee to advanced systems that can cost well above five figures. Don’t assume that a more powerful system will work better for you. A high-end system may be harder for you and your staff to learn and use. What’s more, it will be a waste of your time and money if you purchase advanced features that you don’t need, or aren’t going to use.
8. Respect the value your partners bring. Any printer and fulfillment company can print, collate, address, stuff, sort, and send out your direct mail pieces — but a good one will also make suggestions that will save you even more money. They can be an invaluable member of your team if you work together and include them in making decisions on production and mailing issues.
9. Thank your believers. Graciously thanking your donors and volunteers is paramount to getting them to come back again. Center on the donor and the impact that his or her generosity is bringing to your shared mission. The goal is to keep your donors and turn them into advocates for your organization.
10. Be courageous. Change is hard. You’ve been operating a certain way for years. And maybe it has worked well for years. But sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone and admit that a different approach is needed. Brian Sooy says it well: “Courage may require you to step into the unknown. It may require difficult conversations. It will require that you find a way to overcome whatever fear is preventing you from taking the next step. …It’s not about us. It’s about the cause and those we serve.”
These ten recommendations can act as a springboard for getting your “best kept secret” out. You need to make the commitment to invest in yourself. That means investing in your infrastructure and your communications. Allocate money in next year’s budget for more marketing and communications funds. If budgets are tight, ask a donor to sponsor a specific touch point of communications or underwrite a more effective donor management software program. Educate your board about the importance of funding design and communications so you can create more awareness to attract and engage more donors. This investment in your infrastructure and your communications will be very worthwhile.
Gail Perry says, “Smart organizations understand that they must invest in themselves. They must build up a strong and effective organization if they want to survive, grow and flourish. And there’s no choice. Bottom line: Don’t say you can’t make these investments. Actually you can’t afford not to.”