Archive for September, 2014

A volunteer movement that genuinely impacts the bottom line

Volunteerism has changed dramatically over the years and Colleen Kelly took notice. She observed a disconnect between organizations’ desires for volunteers and talented volunteers who wanted to give their time.

Volunteers are no longer satisfied with rote tasks such as stuffing envelopes. They are looking for meaningful experiences in exchange for their expertise. Equally important, organizations need smarter ways to meet their missions without always turning to the budget. Nonprofits have the potential to both match human resource needs with volunteer talent while efficiently serving their causes.

Stepping up in this way requires a philosophical and tactical commitment from the top down—it requires a movement. Coauthors Colleen Kelly and Lynda Gerty are talking about a major organizational change that involves bold creativity and visionary leadership in their new book The Abundant Not-For-Profit: How Talent (Not Money) Will Transform Your Organization.

Abundant nonprofits:

dispel common myths about volunteers’ potential to contribute meaningfully.

begin with the CEO and board to embrace the abundance philosophy.

focus on human capital to deliver their missions.

transform the way they do business by applying a “people lens” to their leadership.

train salaried employees to lead and communicate with knowledge philanthropists in varying roles such as planners, advisors and facilitators.

enlist and support knowledge philanthropists with training, policies, expectations and key performance indicators.

lead salaried and volunteer talent alongside one another as one collective team.

If you build it, we promise they will come

A tall order for organizational change calls for a big commitment. So the authors make a promise: “If you build it, the talented people will come. And when they do, they will bring incredible joy to your work. They will exponentially increase your organization’s resources. They will generate ideas and suggest approaches you’ve never considered. Your organization—and our sector—will be transformed.”

Walking the talk

The authors tested their own model. In 1999, Volunteer Vancouver employed 14 full-time employees and a handful of part-time facilitators on a stable budget of approximately $500,000. Its 50 volunteers were restricted to stuffing envelopes or interviewing potential volunteers. Twelve years later, after changing its name to Vantage Point, the organization runs 100 percent of its programs by involving a new kind of volunteer, “knowledge philanthropists,” who performs everywhere in the organization: in governance, management and operations. They are planners, advisors, managers and facilitators. Vantage Point now pays half the number of staff at a higher rate. In 2012, Vantage Point had eight employees and 201 knowledge philanthropists in 265 unique roles.

The Abundance Movement: An interview about roles, challenges and surprises

In our CausePlanet interview, we asked Kelly and Gerty about who knowledge philanthropists are, what challenges surfaced when transitioning to a state of abundance and what surprises they encountered when testing the abundance model.

CausePlanet: Thank you for introducing the abundance movement. Can you describe the knowledge philanthropist? What is the profile? Retired, actively employed, between work or all of the above?

Colleen Kelly and Lynda Gerty: All of the above! The term knowledge philanthropist includes people with diverse backgrounds, life experiences and motivations. Some are retired, or approaching retirement, and motivated to stay engaged and share the knowledge they’ve gained over a lifetime of work. Others have recently moved to the area and want to put down roots and make connections. Some are incredibly busy–at the height of their careers and raising small children–and are seeking time-limited, high-impact opportunities to make a difference. Still others are exploring a career transition and looking to flex new skills, learn and develop their portfolio of work. What all these people have in common is a desire to make a meaningful difference by contributing what they know.

CausePlanet: What challenges do most organizations encounter when setting a course to become an abundant nonprofit and how do they overcome them?

Colleen Kelly and Lynda Gerty: Great question! The biggest challenge in our experience is organizations putting themselves in a starvation cycle by not investing the most they can into volunteers because they believe they don’t perform at a high level, are not accountable, and have a high likelihood of leaving. In fact, it is our low investment and limited belief in volunteers that makes all of this become a reality.

What we have learned is that the more we invest in volunteers, the higher they perform; the less likely they are to leave; and the more worthwhile it is to spend time recruiting, supporting and developing them. Investing means creating a robust recruitment process to ensure the right skills and cultural fit (and saying “no” when the fit isn’t there), providing sufficient orientation and knowledge transfer for volunteers to perform their role effectively, delegating clearly and providing ongoing feedback so volunteers know they are on the right track, and seeking opportunities to develop star performers so they can take on more significant roles.

The reality is that people will contribute to our organizations in equal measure to what we contribute to them. When organizations understand that, they begin to consider their volunteer practices to be as important as their salaried employee practices and reap great benefits as a result.

CausePlanet: When you first tested the abundance model in-house, what were some of the surprises you encountered when managing salaried and volunteer staff side by side?

Colleen Kelly and Lynda Gerty: The biggest surprise was how difficult it was for salaried employees to comprehend volunteers could play a different role than the roles they had always expected traditional volunteers would play. At Vantage Point, it took five or six years of effort before there were salaried employees in our organization who actually could “chunk up” their own job descriptions and begin to engage incredibly talented people to take some of those “chunks” and run with them.

When we investigated to understand what made the first salaried employee actually internalize this idea and implement it, her answer was, “You told me that was the way I was to do my job, and I did it. I love to work this way!” Others learned from her and eventually it became the norm. That process took us almost a decade. We hope The Abundant Not-for-Profit can save other organizations time and allow them to adopt this model much more quickly.

Good to Great author Jim Collins says, “The right people can often attract money, but money by itself can never attract the right people. Money is a commodity; talent is not. Time and talent can often compensate for lack of money, but money cannot ever compensate for lack of the right people.” This quotation is a fitting depiction of Vantage Point’s path to abundance.

The Abundant Not-For-Profit contains a thorough examination of the philosophy necessary to begin the transformation toward abundance and the process involved in getting there. If you lead an organization that is looking for new alternatives to meet your mission without increasing the bottom line, consider taking a closer look at the abundance movement.

See also:

Community: The Structure of Belonging

Wisdom of Crowds

Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message

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Strategic planning: Is your board focusing on five external forces?

Strategic planning often gets a bad rap. And it’s easy to see why. Usually, we have a board retreat or take the staff off site and hold a big meeting. Much is said and brainstorming is vigorous, but little is written down and less is quantified. We return to the office on Monday, with few decisions made. The retreat or meeting didn’t help your organization change anything.

In order to be successful, organizations, teams and individuals must plan and set a defined course for change. How does planning focus energy, change outcomes and result in greater job satisfaction for the board and staff? In the end, the insights gained during planning should influence the hundreds or thousands of individual actions that take place in an organization on a daily basis. Sounds good, but how do you do this, and what does it look like in daily application?

A case study

Let’s assume you are the CEO of a large nonprofit with international operations scattered across the globe. Your staff and volunteers work with people who have enormous health, education and economic needs in some of the most challenging places on the planet. Information cascades into your organization daily—from the Web, news reports, donor feedback and field reports. Last year, you, your staff and your board worked hard on a five-year strategic plan. What difference is that plan making today on how you face challenges?

An effective planning process begins with rigorous advance preparation. The quality of the end product is directly correlated with the development of comprehensive external and internal scans. An external or internal scan represents a quick check by a planning team of trends in key areas of the environment.  All organizations risk losing touch with those key trends, internally or externally, that signal major changes ahead for the organization. These environmental scans create a context for the dialogue during the planning process. The process focuses the board’s attention on strategic thinking and the forces that are shaping the organization’s future. Which of the rapidly changing forces in this organization’s environment will have the most significant impact on the organizations results in the future? The outcomes of the strategic thinking dialogue are then used to define the organization’s strategic direction, goals, objectives and, ultimately, action plans and budgets. The key is to identify the right questions for the next business cycle of the organization.

The board of this nonprofit focused on the strengths, limitations, opportunities and threats in the external environment. Five forces of change were identified that warranted the board’s attention, not just during the planning retreat, but in ongoing discussions during board and committee meetings for years to come.

The five forces are:

Demographic upheavals
Rising expectations
Explosion of new technologies
New forms of organizing work

Based on the deliberations of the board and staff during the retreat, the specific strategic drivers and key questions for this organization to address over the next five years were identified as:

The world is flat. How does globalization impact the structure of our organization? What new competitive forces will impact our ability to attract the talent and people we need in the regions we serve? How could we organize our work differently and employ technology more effectively to serve targeted populations? How do we, as a board and staff, stay informed and proactive in rapidly changing environments?
Security of operations. Security has the single greatest impact on effectiveness of global operations. There is no service to targeted populations if operations are removed or restricted. Security is an issue for the safety of an organization’s people, capital resources, equipment, programs and technology. How do we enhance our efforts to monitor and adapt quickly to changing security issues? Can our organization be more nimble?
Competition for support. Trends indicate that government support in all forms will be reduced for non-governmental organizations and all other nonprofit organizations in current and future years. This will result in greater competition for remaining government funds. How can this organization compete most successfully to sustain the largest percentage of government support possible, while simultaneously diversifying private support from individuals, corporations and foundations? What are the expectations of our existing and new donors?

The progression from a broad external scan to forces of change to key strategic drivers clarified for board and staff where they should be focusing their attention. Rivers of information are now sorted by how they impact the nonprofit’s structure, staffing, security and fundraising. There were many other worthy issues to focus on, but these priorities emerged as the key ones for this organization over the next five years. The CEO identified opportunities for board and staff to monitor these issues on an ongoing basis, in order to make decisions and take actions to positively impact the result this nonprofit strives to achieve.

Internal environmental scans focus on the core components that are essential to every organization. Regardless of its structure, stage of organizational development or field of activity, every organization consists of five essential components—without which it cannot come into being, sustain its existence or grow.

These five components and their definitions are:

Market. Anyone who uses, or has the potential to use or fund the programs, products and/or services created, distributed or funded by this organization.
Program. The content and methodology an organization creates and distributes through products and services to define audiences.
Organization. The network of structures and systems through which an organization creates and distributes programs, products and services to its market.
People. The human resources available to an organization to create and deliver programs, products and services to its market.
Capital. The non-human resources available to an organization to create and deliver programs, products and services to its market.

Growth comes when an organization energizes one or two of these components. Sustained capacity building depends on an organization’s effort to balance the development of every component. Organizational stress is a signal that the development of one or more components is lagging behind the development of the most energized component. Alignment among and between components can propel an organization to the next stage of its organizational lifestyle (i.e. from start up to growth mode), or a lack of alignment can stymie an organization’s development for years. This analysis of internal capacity must be measured against the challenges this organization will face to achieve success, however success is defined.

Based on an internal scan of this nonprofit, the following key opportunities were identified:

Cultivate new donors while retaining existing donors to raise net contributions and diversify funding sources.
Build development/fundraising/outreach/communications functions and systems to cultivate lasting relationships with funders and collaborators, while raising more money to support the mission.
Coach, develop and grow capacities and skills of the executive management team to build the capacity to deliver on its mission and support the work of the organization.
Clarify goals and quantify objectives for vice presidents to further develop their skills as self-directed managers.

The board and staff identified many ways that this organization could improve performance on the five components. The four opportunities sited above are the ones that are central to the growth and development of this organization during the current business cycle.

The three drivers resulting from the external scan and the four drivers resulting from the internal scan formed the basis of a Statement of Strategic Direction, which captured the seven priorities for this organization over the next five years. There were other worthy priorities, but these seven were critical to the organization’s future growth, development and ongoing success.

The staff took the next step and crafted five-year goals, supported by quantified objectives. The board reviewed and approved these goals and objectives. The staff writes annual detailed action plans to support the outcomes defined in the objectives. The action plan development dovetails with the creation of an annual budget.  The systems are in place to support the desired outcomes.

The key issues are clear: Every board of directors’ meeting must include time for discussions about security, competition for support, growing the capacity of staff, or how the systems support the desired outcomes in donor relations. The board has a greater awareness of and growing knowledge of the most important strategic issues. The staff feels empowered to sort the incredible amounts of information that bombard them daily and use the most relevant information to address the core issues for their organization. Most importantly, the CEO, in conjunction with the board and staff, fosters the ability of the staff, volunteers and key stakeholders to see what truly exists today and, perhaps more importantly, fosters the capacity to see what will exist tomorrow.

See also:

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

Nonprofit Strategic Positioning

Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability

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Is your membership dropping? Explore the reasons.

No matter how successful or strained the economy is, prospects always scrutinize the value of membership and what you’re offering. What’s more, you aren’t always targeting a single decision maker: More group billing models leave you with the task of marketing to multiple individual interests and meeting the employer’s goals. Managing a successful membership-based organization today is a multifaceted undertaking.

After you’ve tackled the complexities of finding the right prospects, valuing your benefits, and selling them, you must personalize the experience and solidify renewal behavior in the first 90 days. With the onset of the Internet, many benefits that associations could depend on offering exclusively are now available online, such as networking, training and industry information.

Membership organizations must do a better job of communicating the unique offerings they have and differentiating themselves from peer organizations and the Internet.

The Art of Membership is a thorough look at attracting, recruiting and retaining members. Author Sheri Jacobs has filled her book with helpful case stories and examples from associations, nonprofits and companies. She includes how-to guides, checklists and worksheets that break down her concepts from goal to strategy to tactics, resulting in a comprehensive guide to membership.

We asked Sheri Jacobs to tell us what inspired her to write The Art of Membership and her answer contained some interesting thoughts on what causes an organization to lose members.

Sheri JacobsOver the years, I have frequently heard association executives ask the question: What causes an organization to experience a drop in membership? Some would cite a global recession that began in September 2008 and continued well into 2012. Although the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research states the recession started in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, many continue to blame current economic woes for a decline in membership.

In spite of the recession, however, the demand for information and education remains quite strong, regardless of the industry. Although individuals may have tighter budgets, my research has shown they still need to stay up-to-date to maintain their licensure or job.

What have changed are the criteria they use to make “purchasing” decisions (decision to join, renew, register or buy). Pricing, ease of access and other factors detailed in this book all have a significant impact on the decision to buy.

Another reason cited for a decline in membership is the commonly held belief that the 79.8 million people who fall into the category of Gen Y (individuals born between 1977 and 1995) are not joiners. Organizations, however, cannot ignore the importance of attracting and building a sense of affiliation with an entire generation–and the future pipeline for the organization. Many organizations today face a greying of their membership. Understanding and implementing the “Membership Rules” presented in the book will help organizations make the small and big changes needed to build an inclusive and diverse membership base.

CausePlanetWhat are the current trends you feel are affecting membership directors today? How have these trends impacted their ability to deliver relevant services?

Sheri JacobsThere are four trends that are impacting membership organizations today.

1. How people spend money: In 2013, 80 percent of U.S. consumers looked for a “good deal” compared to just 69% in 2012, and price was the most important purchase driver for every income level. The issue isn’t that people cannot afford to pay membership dues, but they are questioning their usage of the benefits and the relevant value. It is similar to what is happening in the publishing world with the decrease in magazine and newspaper subscriptions. After months of magazines piling up on your table with no time to read them, you may not renew your subscription when you receive the invoice. You may still enjoy the publication and feel it provides high quality or entertaining information but if you don’t have time to read it, it doesn’t make sense to renew the subscription.

2. The social influence of others has a tremendous impact on how we make decisions. Today, people turn to TripAdvisor when choosing a hotel or a destination that is unfamiliar. They read the reviews on Amazon before purchasing a book or other item. The same is true for joining associations and taking advantage of the benefits. The influence of friends, peers and colleagues is strong and will help sway the decision to join, register, volunteer or become engaged at any level…

Join us for our next installment of membership trends impacting acquisition and retention when we share more of our interview with Jacobs.

See also:

Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message

To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others




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Why employees leave: Retention strategies for nonprofits

I recently heard a story about an employee who received a very enthusiastic call from a headhunter trying to recruit him for a job. The employee said he wasn’t looking to leave the organization, to which the headhunter replied, “You are on my list of employees to be downsized, so you will be leaving the organization.”

I hear stories like this on a regular basis. Many employers badly betray the loyalty of good employees, yet developing employee loyalty and holding onto good employees will be crucial for all employers in the next ten years. The number of people born between 1960 and 1980 who are in the workforce is half the size of those born between 1940 and 1960, as well as of those born between 1980 and 2000. This shift from having enough employees to too few will hit nonprofits especially hard, as they struggle to compete against the private sector that can pay more for the best employees.

The good news is that retaining employees isn’t expensive or complex. And, in the nonprofit sector, most employees work to support the vision and mission of the organization, not for extrinsic rewards. The main reason employees leave an organization is bad relationships. Employees will stay when the quality of their supervision is good, and they will leave when they feel mistreated by their immediate supervisor. Symptoms of a poor supervisor include high turnover in the supervisor’s area, complaints of mistreatment to Human Resources, or more absenteeism in that supervisor’s area. Supervisors are often promoted because they were good at their last job, not necessarily because they make good managers. If a supervisor isn’t strong, find other work for that person that takes advantage of his or her skills. Or, spend time developing the supervisor’s management skills.

Employees in all sectors report higher retention rates when their employer values and rewards them for who they are rather than for what they do. Employers can show that they value who an employee is by providing training, opportunity for advancement, work/life flexibility, feedback and communication. Does your organization set individual goals with employees and then provide the support and training needed to meet those goals? Once the employee begins to achieve those goals, is there opportunity for advancement? This can mean a promotion as well as the opportunity to take on other, more meaningful work—which is often rated as a high motivational factor for employees. These practices are neither revolutionary or expensive, but they are proven to hold onto employees. Here are a few suggestions for developing some of them:


Organizations can’t communicate too often. Employees want to feel that they are “in the loop.” An employee should never hear about a layoff from a headhunter or the local media. Instead, use whatever internal mechanisms you have—email, voice mail, the employee newsletter, bulletin boards and meetings—to tell employees what is happening. This doesn’t mean you divulge information that is sensitive. Determine what you can tell—and then tell, tell, tell.


Employees crave positive feedback, and most don’t get much. Studies report that for every four items of “corrective feedback” employees get, they only receive one pat on the back. While employees deserve to know when they are missing the mark, one rule of thumb is to turn those numbers around and praise an employee four times for every one piece of corrective feedback. You will be amazed at what a difference in morale this creates.


Be as flexible as you can. Can you have employees work a flex schedule, where some employees report to work early and others stay later? Can you have some employees work at home one day a week, or can you pay for one extra holiday a year? Employees report higher retention rates at organizations where employers help them balance their work and personal lives.

Quality relationships

Employees also report that the quality of their co-worker relationship is an important consideration for staying with an employer. There is often a correlation between high productivity and cohesive work groups. Make sure you have a well-established problem resolution process. If you see a work group floundering, consider using an internal or external facilitator to help the group move beyond what is keeping them stuck.

Retaining employees reduces turnover costs and allows you to hold on to the talent that makes your organization unique. Retention strategies don’t need to be expensive; they just need to be implemented and supported.

See also:

Winning with a Culture of Recognition

Nine Minutes on Monday: The Quick and Easy Way to Go from Manager to Leader

Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity

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Be more persuasive with three “buoyancy” principles

Bestselling author Dan Pink has dedicated his latest book to the study of how we move people in To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. You might ask why we’re recommending a book about sales to those of you in the social sector.

The answer?

Pink builds his argument for a “broad rethinking of sales as we know it.” You’ll see in his first-ever analysis of people’s activity at work: “We’re devoting upward of 40 percent of our time on the job to moving others. And we consider it critical to our professional success.”

He further shares that one in nine people are in traditional sales while the other eight are in “non-sales selling.” In other words, most of us are in the business of persuading, convincing and influencing others. When you put sales in Pink’s terms, we’re all in the business of moving others—especially those of us in the nonprofit sector.

Are you old school or new school?

In our first post about Pink’s book, we mentioned the broad variety of strategies at play in the nonprofit sector when executives are in the midst of convincing, persuading or influencing their boards, staffs and constituents. Some may be using old school techniques, and perhaps others draw on intuition. No matter what the convenient tactic at hand, a strong case can be made for formalizing our approach to moving others and understanding what motivates. It is, after all, the (nonprofit) business we’re in.

How do successful persuaders keep persuading?

Nonprofit leaders constantly find themselves asking how to move a donor to give, how to move a board member to lead, how to move the staff to act. Understanding today’s truths about Pink’s sales ideas such as Attunement, Clarity and Buoyancy is especially relevant due to the sector’s increased presence of competition and general misunderstanding of sales.

Three truths of moving others

We discussed Attunement in our first installment about Pink’s three truths for nonprofit leaders who want to move others. In today’s post, we’ll address a second truth called Buoyancy. Remember, these are qualities of successful people who move others. In the face of resistance or objections, nonprofit leaders who exhibit Attunement and Buoyancy are far more accomplished at convincing and influencing others. Here are three underpinnings of Buoyancy:

Buoyancy through interrogative self-talk

In sales as in fundraising, the rejections and constant effort can get you down. Pink asserts Buoyancy, the “B” in the new “ABC” of sales, must be part of your strategy here. Before a sale, interrogative self-talk is more helpful than positive self-talk. Instead of just telling yourself you can do it, the author encourages you to ask the question, “Can I sell this?” This question allows you to go through your plan, discover holes and realize where you are good specifically. This interrogation goes deeper to prepare you mentally for a negotiation.

Buoyancy through positive thinking

During a negotiation, he recommends a three to one positivity ratio. For every three positive thoughts, you will also think one negative one. Positive thinking, according to social science research by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, broadens your options and makes you more creative. Negative emotions usually decrease your vision and possibilities. Fredrickson and Hall discovered this three to one ratio to be ideal because you are not bogged down by negative thoughts but you are also realistic and think enough negative thoughts to improve your performance.

Buoyancy through explanatory style

During the ask, too, it is imperative to actually believe in your product. After a sale or lack thereof, your explanatory style is important. Pink draws on Martin Seligman’s research on “learned helplessness” here. If you can use optimism to see failures or negative occurrences as temporary vs. permanent, specific vs. pervasive, and external vs. personal, you will be more able to recover from setbacks.

Try these exercises to increase your buoyancy with fundraising, leading and persuading

Dan Pink includes exercises in his book to practice interrogative self-talk (forming questions), monitor your positivity ratio, tweak your explanatory style, enumerate and embrace your rejections in order to improve and motivate yourself, write rejection letters to yourself to prepare yourself for the worst consequence and think through your strategies, and allow yourself to go negative every so often in order to improve.

If you’re in the business of raising money, persuading others or leading your team, consider Pink’s three truths about moving others: Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity. All three qualities are consistent themes in the author’s extensive research. As nonprofit leaders, we have an exhaustive list of persuading to-do’s. Dan Pink has identified what characterizes the most successful movers. Try on some of his Buoyancy strategies and get moving.

See also:

Seeing Through the Eyes of A Donor

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

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Six ways to package your story so it qualifies as news

If you don’t have anything to hide, why should you worry about media relations? I get asked this question on at least a weekly basis. People figure that if they’re not breaking the law or having a sordid affair with a married politician, they really shouldn’t have to spend time thinking about dealing with the media. They also think that because they know all about how wonderful their organization is, everyone does too.


And they’re wrong on both counts.


All of my clients are hardworking, publicly-minded people who work in progressive nonprofits. That’s the only kind of client my firm takes. So when I suggest to them that it is important to learn about what makes the media tick and how to use that knowledge to their advantage, people always look at me like I wandered into the wrong meeting. They are laboring under the belief that because they are the good guys, they will look like the good guys if the media ever comes to call.


Big mistake. For several reasons.


Misconceptions about media and coverage


First, they have a misconception of what the term “media relations” or “public relations” means. To many people, these terms conjure up visions of slick, chain-smoking corporate types lying through their teeth. In reality, the number one rule of media relations is never, ever, lie. Not even about the tiniest thing.


Second, most people who are dedicating their lives to improving their communities tend to be under the impression that most reasonable people can see what they see–the poor need food, kids need education and families need access to health care. What they forget is that they are standing on the front lines – and there are way too many people out there who travel from their gated communities to their high rise offices and don’t see any of that. Those are people who could potentially become donors, volunteers, and voters in support of their cause – if they only could be reached.


Third, because my clients do their jobs very carefully, knowing that lives and livelihoods are at stake, they often believe that everyone in the media is as careful as they are. And that just isn’t the case. You can blame it on impossible deadlines, corporate profit motive, sloppy reporting or just bad editing, but the fact of the matter is, a news-story is generally written at breakneck speed by an overworked reporter who has little or no background on the issue. It is edited at an even faster pace by an even more overworked editor who has even less knowledge.


How to qualify as news


So, no matter who you are, if you have a desire to inform the public, increase your donor base, change laws or regulations, or just get some well-deserved kudos, it is in your best interest to become savvy in media relations. It is never about lying or twisting facts. It is about is packaging information so that it could qualify as “news,” and then making sure that everything needed for the story is lined up in a way to make it easy, fast and accurate for the reporter.


To know how to “package” your information, you have to know what makes a story “news”. When I taught journalism to college students, every basic journalism textbook laid it out the same way. So I teach my clients exactly what every journalist is taught in their first reporting course. A news story must contain at least one (and hopefully more than one) of the following six elements: conflict, impact, novelty prominence, proximity or timeliness.


Conflict is the strongest basic news element there is. The fact that everything is hunky dory just isn’t news. When something goes wrong, then it becomes interesting. It’s just human nature. Think about the last time you called a friend with some really good gossip. Was it good news? Probably not. Conflict is what makes story-telling go round. And news is story telling. If there’s not conflict in your story, you’re going to have a hard time selling it to the press.


Impact is another strong basic news element. If something happens that’s going to have an impact on the reader, they’ll likely want to know about it. Unfortunately, we’re a country of self-centered people. If it affects them personally, Americans care. If it doesn’t, generally they don’t. We can discuss the morality of this at another time (and believe me, I do) but the fact remains. A majority of readers probably aren’t that interested in a civil war in a far off country. But they DO care if that war is going to affect their coffee prices.


Novelty is easy: If something happens all the time, it’s generally not news. If it is very unusual, then it is. The standard J-school example is this: if dog bites man, that’s not news. If man bites dog, that’s news.


Prominence is the culprit behind all those Brittney Spears stories. We are a celebrity culture, and once someone has made it into the limelight, any tiny tidbit about them is news. But remember, prominence means prominence. Your Executive Director might be a star around the office, but in terms of media, unless they also double as a movie star or a billionaire, they probably don’t count as “prominent.”


Now for the last two: Proximity and Timeliness. Proximity deals with distance. If you’re pitching a story to the local paper, it better be a story that takes place right in town. Statewide papers do carry some national news, but for the most part, they write stories about what happens in the state. Timeliness means something just happened – a court case decided a month ago is not news, one decided today is. Timeliness is the reason reporters and editors work fast and furious. Because to delay means to lose the story.


Those are the six elements of a news story. If you want a media outlet to pick up on your story, it has to have one (or more) of those elements. That means you should package your story to play up one or more elements. Usually the two that work best are conflict and impact. If you can show how what your organization does helps ordinary people who don’t even know you exist – you’ve got a story. If you can show how some issue in your community is causing a clear definable conflict, you’ve got a story. There are all kinds of ways you can work this, but these are the foundational building blocks to pitching the media.


You can also use these elements stop a story from becoming news. If a journalist calls you and wants to talk about an issue you’d rather not be in the paper, then the strategy is to TRUTHFULLY play down the elements in the story. If you can convince a journalist that the story is old (not timely), or that your certainly not concerned about it (no conflict) or that it doesn’t really affect anyone (no impact), you’ve successfully killed a story. That comes in handy too.


At this point, I always have to stop and tell my clients that they shouldn’t despair. Despite how it looks, the human race is not beyond redemption. But talk of “reforming the media” isn’t going to do much good in the short run. If you work at a nonprofit that needs to get its message out there, you’d be better served by working within the parameters then fighting them. Just remember the elements of a news story:









See also:


Social Media–Volume One: Measuring Social Media, Building a Network, Creating Multichannel Campaigns and Mastering Twitter


The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change


This was Part I: The 6 elements of a news story


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Make your content king by accepting these two challenges (audio)

“You never write one thing for one purpose. If I’m asked to create something from scratch … I never say ‘yes’ unless I can see using it in three different ways,” explains Kivi Leroux Miller, author of Content Marketing for Nonprofits: A Communications Map for Engaging Your Community, Becoming a Favorite Cause, and Raising More Money.

While the ever-growing variety of communication channels available to us as nonprofit marketers and fundraisers is inspiring, it’s also completely daunting. With choice comes complexity, not to mention a completely different environment due to technological, generational and marketing shifts.

Kivi Leroux Miller has taken us behind the expert communicator’s curtain to show us exactly how she’s done it over the years for hundreds of nonprofit clients she’s advised and observed. In her book, Leroux Miller illustrates how to:

redefine your audience for today’s current climate,

develop your content marketing plan,

implement a dynamic content strategy, and

leverage online channels through an exploration of their potential pitfalls and opportunities.

Live interview sound bite: Repurposing content

In our most recent live interview with Leroux Miller, we asked her about the importance of repurposing content since she dedicates an entire chapter to this topic. She says, “I am always expanding or reworking things I did earlier. It’s a way of life for creative professionals, including marketers!” Leroux Miller also explains, “When you repurpose content…”

Live interview sound bite: “Six Rs” of great content

Our live chat also covered how to be relevant and creative with your audience. Leroux Miller explained that “Finding your voice or your content personality is the place to start with relevancy. The biggest problem nonprofits have is when they are speaking like a 501c3…” Find out how Leroux Miller finishes this answer and shares “Six Rs” for great content.


Your odds of being relevant greatly increase if your communications can demonstrate at least on one or more of these content goals. Leroux Miller shares an example in her book of a nonprofit that had all six of these characteristics in an email campaign.

Accept the challenge

Consider accepting Kivi Leroux Miller’s two challenges we’ve excerpted from our author interview the next time you work on a communications piece:

1)      Try to repurpose the content you’ve created in three additional ways

2)      Apply one or more of the “Six Rs” in your content for a fundraising or marketing piece.

In the spirit of repurposing content, I’ll finish with one of my favorite quotations in Leroux Miller’s book:

“Your success as a nonprofit depends on your ability to stay in the conversation, week after week, with the members of your community, on their level. Engaging your community requires that you mix and mingle and be seen as one of the community members, rather than as some authority somehow above and removed from everyone else, who decides to speak only on a limited and predetermined schedule.”


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Evaluate the true costs of a merger in three phases

“The benefits of mergers are what motivate organizations to consider this option, but the costs are not always clear at the outset,” explains Thomas McLaughlin, author of Nonprofit Mergers & Alliances and director of consulting services for the Nonprofit Finance Fund.

Unfortunately, many nonprofits struggle to overcome internal nuances that make organizations susceptible to external economic factors. That’s why mergers and alliances have become a popular alternative to consider for many stumbling nonprofits.

Three areas where you can scrutinize potential costs

McLaughlin cautions you to thoroughly evaluate the weighty task of mergers. Fortunately, unlike the corporate world, nonprofits can openly examine the pros and cons without the legal risks of leaking publicly-held company information.

He recommends analyzing the true costs of a nonprofit merger in three phases:

Feasibility determination

Implementation planning


Cost considerations in Phase One, Two and Three

In McLaughlin’s article, “The Cost of a Merger,” he explains anticipated expenses and typical areas of change in each of the three stages.

In Phase One, leaders learn as much as they can about the other organization—especially quantifiable considerations. Costs associated with this phase come from facilitation and research. Nonprofits that attempt to do this in-house or on their own risk spotty results. Outside help is advisable.

Costs during Phase Two are greater but manageable. This phase is still greatly dependent on staff and board time. At this point, consultants who facilitate and support the process are the largest expenditure.

Phase Three, or integration, represents the biggest expense area. You will find expenses and revenue dramatically change during this time.

McLaughlin identifies the most typical areas of the greatest financial change:

Common grants and federal funding (funders can unknowingly undercut mergers by combining two grants into one smaller one)

Government contracts (newly merged organizations may have to re-bid)

Employee compensation (mergers can prompt turnover in management)

Employee benefits (mergers can combine two benefit levels)

Occupancy costs (mergers generally reduce space and sell off surplus)

Information technology (opportunities exist to reduce costs here)

Contractual services (mergers present the chance to re-examine and/or reduce contracts).

Be sure to enlist expertise in forecasting thorough and expertly produced financial scenarios for potential mergers. Use the board and staff collectively to weigh in on all the monetary nuances. Make a commitment to understand every budget line and financial aspect of your own organization and your potential partner. Discuss with your partner how each of you envisions blending costs and efficiencies. Most importantly, consider worst and best case scenarios for integration.

As many reports and articles on this merger topic indicate, nonprofit alliances don’t generally produce immediate savings. Mergers generally cost more in the beginning but promise greater savings in the long run. Mergers are not for the faint of heart—though nonprofits willing to make the leap have far greater long-term potential than they do alone.

See also:

Nonprofit Mergers & Alliances

The Power of Collaborative Solutions

The Zone of Insolvency

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