Seinfeld, Lemonade Stands and Lessons for Your Online Experience
When I heard about Jerry Seinfeld’s roadside lemonade fundraiser run-in with the East Hampton Town Police Department, I was excited. Why? Because I love when nonprofits and stand-up comedy come together. (Police involvement or not).
As someone who spent years in the stand-up world, I think there’s about a hundred things that nonprofits can learn from stand-up comedians, particularly about their online experience. So in honor of Jerry’s lemonade uproar and the ultimate rule of comedy, here are three of them:
1. Know when to do crowd work
When a crowd is hot, you can grab the mic and go right into your act, and they’ll do exactly what you want—laugh. But when an audience isn’t responding to your material (for any number of reasons), do some crowd work. “Where you from?" "What do you do?" "Are you on a date?” These questions bring audiences into your moment. Once you’re re-engaged, you can go back into your material. So instead of going right into a bit about marriage, you could ask, “Any married people here tonight?,” do a little riff with them, and then lead back into your marriage bit.
What does this mean for nonprofits? Your website needs to be ready to do crowd work. Now, sometimes you’ve got a hot lead and a "donate" button works seamlessly. But for some audiences, you need an online experience that engages them. “Where are you from? Chicago? See what we’re doing to help animals throughout Illinois." “What do you do? Accounting? Have you thought about joining our program 'Financiers Against Animal Cruelty?'"
Smart technology can help you create that experience. So, if they aren’t buying your act, do some crowd work, ask them about themselves and then connect their interests with your material.
2. Perfect your TV-ready three-minute showcase
Every comic’s goal is to be on TV. When you audition for a television casting person, you have three minutes to differentiate yourself from the 12 other comics on the bill. But, it’s not enough to be funny. You have to stand out with a unique perspective. They want to know you have an angle on life that they (and audiences) want to be part of. (And by the way, it can take comedians three to eight years in the business before they find their voice.) Casting people will pick you because, in a world of 1,000 comics, you are one worth following. They want to put you on "Conan" or "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" and have audiences at home thinking, “I’m so glad Jimmy introduced me to this girl. I can’t wait to hear her perspective on things again!"
For nonprofits, be a brand. When people land on your website, don’t use jargon that makes you sound like everyone else. Don’t use words that everyone else uses. Be original. Figure out your voice. Is your team young? Old? Conservative? Progressive? Are tattoos and piercings part of your culture? Are they forbidden? Are you loud? Quiet? Feminine? Masculine? Don’t sound like every other nonprofit. Don’t just be “a nationwide, community-based voluntary health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer.” Be “The Official Sponsor of Birthdays.” Or be “F*** Cancer.” Either way, show people something new that tells them who you are. You have three minutes of your online experience to sell yourself. Don’t waste them.
3. Never be afraid to bomb
In the beginning, at least 50 percent of a stand-up comic’s performances will be horrible. But here is the awesome part of bombing: It makes you better. You'll keep bombing, but it will wane. You figure out how to ease yourself through the process onstage so that when things don't go well, you can right the ship and get the audience back on your side.
Letting a fear of difficulty stop your progress is the absolute worst way to do anything in life. And that includes nonprofit technology practices. I see day in and day out nonprofits that don't want to learn a new software system, so they stay on the one they do know—even if it's hurting their advancement.
But like bombing, that pain of conversion will make you better. That pain helps you clean your data and get your house in order to fundraise smarter. It helps you find new ways to do things that make better sense. It lets you take on new initiatives that are exciting.
Here's the thing: As hard as it is, comics don't mind bombing because they know it makes them better at what they love. That’s how you should see the pain of going through improving your technology. Or finding your voice. Or trying a new engagement strategy. If you aren’t afraid to be innovative and different, you may just impact the world.
Sometimes it’s good when life hands you lemons. Because if you really love what you’re doing, you’ll eventually turn them into your own East Hampton fundraising lemonade stand.
Just remember to get a permit.
(Ohhh, callback! Mic drop! I’m outta here! Goodnight, Cleveland!)
Leigh Kessler is VP of Marketing and Communications at donor management software platform CharityEngine and a frequent speaker on branding, fundraising, data and technology. He is a former nationally touring headline comedian and has appeared on numerous TV shows including VH1’s “Best Week Ever”, CNN’s “Showbiz Tonight”, Discovery Channel & Sirius Radio. He has overseen and informed research and branding strategies for some of the most well known brands in America.