Out of the Trenches
If you love thinking about how social media and technology can be used to raise money, increase visibility and create social change (is there an app for that?), there's no better place to be than the annual NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference, which took place this year in April in Atlanta. Once I got done ogling all of the new iPads and finished searching for places to plug in my laptop, I actually had real conversations with a few breathing humans. Look, ma! No plugs!
The NTC is dominated by a young, wired crowd — so it's a good place to find out what's new on the digital horizon for nonprofits. This year, there was chatter about Foursquare, a social geo-tagging tool, and lots of ongoing debate about the ROI on Facebook, Twitter and other social tools for nonprofits.
But the more significant conversations I heard took place around the topic of how to manage and prioritize. Jeff Patrick of Common Knowledge summed it up beautifully: He asked a group, "How many of you have Google Analytics on your website?" and all hands in the room shot up. Then, "How many of you review your analytics regularly and use that data to make changes and adjustments?" and only a few people raised their hands.
A few years ago, it was unthinkable that a small shop could conduct its own multivariate tests on its own website (e.g., testing different ask strings or donate button designs). These days, it's easy and free with Google Website Optimizer. Until recently, no one bothered to listen to chatter on Facebook or Twitter about an organization or its work because the chatter wasn't significant. Now Facebook has more than 400 million active users — impossible to ignore.
A section in my book, "Brand raising: How Nonprofits Increase Visibility and Raise Money through Smart Communications" (Jossey-Bass, 2010), is devoted to a basic marketing principle I call taking the long view. The long view means getting out of the trenches to see what's coming: Identify new fundraising tools and techniques, and plan for them, monitor what peer organizations and competitors are up to, and keep up with trade publications like this one, for instance. It's the view from high up — and it allows you to plan for what's coming before it sneaks up and bites you.
Organizations in which leadership makes time for the long view are better equipped to plan and budget for change. It's hard to take a few hours out of each week to explore online, read trade publications or participate in a webinar when you're struggling to make a deadline, update the website copy or put together materials for a donor. But taking the long view helps you avoid working reactively. It becomes easier to set objectives, plan, delegate and prioritize when you're more clear about where you're heading.
After all, it's a particularly crazy time we communicators are living in: We have all these cool, free/cheap technologies that let us do things that would have been impossible or unaffordable years ago, and yet we have even less time to allocate to them, as staff gets stretched thin due to budget cuts and recession-era staffing.
Some nonprofit communicators spend all of their time mired in the day-to-day details and lose sight of the bigger picture, missing huge opportunities along the way. Others spend so much time planning and moving projects forward they never really get their hands dirty with details that might really benefit their organizations, like testing or segmentation.
A better way to work
Perhaps the way to tackle this dilemma is to create structures that force you to move through all layers of your work at appropriate intervals. For instance, what if you tried to spend:
● three hours a week devoted to taking the long view (watching and learning from other nonprofits, monitoring best practices, reading up);
● 10 hours a week devoted to the treetops (budgeting, planning, conducting research, organizing and managing based on where you want to head); and
● 27 hours a week in the trenches (writing, designing, dealing with vendors, testing, coding, social media production, etc.)?
Because we all know you work a 40-hour week, right? (Cough, cough.)
Most people get stuck in the trenches and find it hard to get their heads out of the details to look around. But starting with the bigger picture — or at least visiting it periodically — might be a real game-changer. You'll be better equipped to respond to "what if" questions, build buy-in for change when you see it coming and understand how your situation compares with others more realistically.
Let me know what you think. If it works for you, please join me in conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #brandraising; I'm @BigDuckSarah. FS
Sarah Durham is president of Big Duck, a New York City-based branding, marketing and fundraising firm for nonprofits. She serves on the boards of the National Brain Tumor Society and the New York Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).