The Nonprofit Sector’s Most Pressing Issues: The C-Level Exec’s Point of View
[Editor’s note: This part one of a three-part series on a session from the 2010 New York Nonprofit Conference held Aug. 24-25. View part 2 in next week’s edition of the FS Advisor and part 3 in the Sept. 14 edition.]
Fundraisers from all walks of life are encountering many challenges these days, but what do the C-level executives see as the most important issues facing the sector? At the Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation’s 2010 New York Nonprofit Conference, three top nonprofit executives joined moderator Tom Harrison, president and CEO of Russ Reid, to discuss these issues in a two-part session, “Cracking the Shell: Open Dialogue & Discussion With America’s Top Nonprofit C-Level Executives on the Sector’s Most Pressing Issues."
Here is what Angel Aloma, executive director of Food For The Poor; Danny McGregor, chief operating officer at Greenpeace; and Atul Tandon, executive director of the International Network and executive vice president of investor relations at United Way Worldwide, shared during the first part of the session.
Harrison kicked things off by saying that “increasingly, we see nonprofits hire for-profit people for branding, which is a dramatic change from the past.” Harrison said overall this is a good thing because people won’t give to your organization unless they know it’s there. However, he pointed out that sometimes there’s a conflict between the brand people and the fundraising people. “What happens when they clash?” Harrison asked the panel.
“Very important is compromise,” Aloma said. “Data is vital as well. Use the data for your arguments. What works?”
Aloma relayed the story of a controversial image Food For The Poor had in its newsletter. The brand people didn’t want this image of a person looking like she had lost her humanity included. It was a very emotional image. Even Aloma himself didn’t think the organization could show this, but it was a powerful image.
Instead of just killing it, Food For The Poor had a discussion with everyone involved with the newsletter and came to a compromise that it could send this image if the newsletter was filled with facts about what the donations can do to help save people like this. “It turned out to be our highest-grossing newsletter,” Aloma said, emphasizing the importance of compromise.
He said that first and foremost, “you must protect fundraising.” As long as branding doesn’t interfere with the mission, it’s a good thing, but fundraising comes first.
“Donors speak logically but give emotionally,” he added. “If people don’t call and complain, you’re not doing a good job. We tracked our complainers. Donors who complained about certain packages actually gave more to those packages.”
For Greenpeace, branding is a touchy thing — people tend to “either love us or hate us, with really no one in between,” McGregor said. With that in mind, McGregor said the key for Greenpeace is to educate staff on changing the message for different people. For example, the organization is moving away from using the term “nonviolent actions” because “many people hear the word violence and associate it with us.” Greenpeace now focuses on articulating its communications carefully.
As far as things such as the use of color and logos for branding, McGregor said to test everything, see the impact and use the facts to make the final decisions. “Resolve issues in branding through demonstrating what the implication is of each decision,” he said.
Tandon shifted gears a bit, suggesting that when branding is involved, nonprofits ask themselves what the organization’s business strategy is. “What is your enterprise strategy? Who is your donor, and what do you want to strive for?” he asked. “On the brand side it’s all about be, do, say — be aware and make promises of what you’re delivering after you figure out how to deliver it.
“Use strategy as the basis of your argument,” he added. “As far as application is concerned, your brand is not universal. What are our four or five audiences, and how do we communicate differently to each? Your branding and fundraising should be principles-based and outcome-based.”
Harrison added that donors want to understand your work and how it’s relevant to them. But that’s harder than it sounds. “Stop being arrogant and focusing on what’s important to us; focus on what’s important to donors,” Harrison said. “Are you going to give donors what they want, or what you want?”
An audience member chimed in: “Brand is so hard to manage these days because of the cyber world — social media. How do you combat that, combat people you don’t control?”
“We are talking about controlling what we can’t control,” Aloma said. “By the very definition, we cannot control that. Social media has made our work more rewarding, but also infinitely more difficult. Monitor the conversations, but manage what you respond to.”
Aloma then offered these guiding principles:
- You have to be truthful — this is non-negotiable.
- Within each truth, there are some things you can’t do legally — know the rules and laws.
- Speak to each different audience according to its language, but within your brand.
- You always have to think about how you can be flexible within the inflexible truth.
“Social media keeps you on your toes. It’s good to have some friction to learn from, and it helps you innovate,” Aloma said.
McGregor said Greenpeace spends lots of time with volunteers and staff on what the organization is about and gives them broad guidelines about the brand. However, he stressed, “you have to let go of some control. If you aim to be truly innovative, you have to reconcile that.”
Harrison next posed the question of how you respond and what is needed from the staff when the board of directors says fundraisers are wasting too much money on snail mail because the world is going digital.
“Understand truly what the value of each channel is, and explain why you invest in it,” McGregor said. He also proposed asking yourself how you can generate more income. “Have a finance committee going through what makes money, how it makes money, what the lifetime value is, metrics, ROI, where to invest,” he added. Then use that detailed data to explain why direct mail — or any other channel for that matter — is a good investment. Let the numbers do the talking.
“Get data information on a regular basis proactively,” Harrison agreed.
Tandon added these suggestions:
- Show me the numbers.
- Are we optimizing expenditures?
- Are we maximizing ROI on total investment? The best way to do that is to diversify channels.
- Staff must know the data like the back of their hand.
“I find that if you know those answers, the questions of why you are doing things hardly come up,” Tandon said.
Check back next week for part 2.