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Posts from the ‘Communications’ Category

A Solopreneur for Good

MN Women's Press LogoYesterday I picked up the July edition of Minnesota Women’s Press, and it was fun to see my mini-essay published in the “Your Thoughts” section.  Here it is:

Choosing the Life of a Solopreneur

When I left my job, I never could have guessed that being a solopreneur was my professional dream.

I had worked in organizations big and small – from a Fortune 100 company to small creative shops – and I thought I needed structure to stay focused and productive.  Plus, running my own business seemed scary.

Oh, how wrong I was.

As a solopreneur I’ve discovered new talents, expanded my skill-set and embraced the ultimate benefit of working on my own:  Choice.

I choose my clients.  They are smart, dedicated nonprofit leaders.  And I share their passion for their missions.

I choose my schedule. I research, plan and write when I am sharpest, whether that’s before sun-up or on Saturday – when others are frantically running errands on their prescribed day off.

I choose my priorities.  Sometimes caregiving for my elderly mother.  Sometimes enjoying a week-day matinee.

Go solo.  You’ll have no regrets.

Thanks to all my nonprofit and foundation clients who make my life interesting and fulfilling.  And thanks to Minnesota Women’s Press (plus all the ethnic media in our region) for sharing new voices and perspectives in this, and every, issue.  Check it out online.

The “How To” of Writing and Winning Grants

Book cover of Winning Foundation Grants by Martin Teitel

Here’s a quick read that offers some solid tips for writing grants and building program officer relationships.

I’m a sucker for “how to” books. To overcome the monotony of walking the track at the gym, or to mentally escape when trapped in an airplane seat, I always have at hand someone’s advice on writing, organizing, healthful living or whatever.

During a few recent laps at the gym, I scanned “The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants” by Martin Teitel.  This book’s been around for a few years, but the advice is still solid for writers in all types of nonprofits and foundations.

Teitel understands both sides of the funding equation. For more than half of his career he was a grantmaker, but he also led nonprofits and knows first-hand the challenges of grantseekers.

May the Best Writer Win
So, to win the competition for grants, Teitel offers these tips:

  • Have a brilliant opener and summary.  When you’re writing your LOI, he recommends spending a quarter of your time on the two-sentence summary of how you will solve the problem and another quarter on your opening sentence.
  • Use facts and action verbs.  As he says, “Show, don’t tell.”  Be concrete and specific, especially regarding outcomes of your work. (But as you write from your head, show your passion from your heart, too.)
  • Cut the words and cut the jargon.  Ask for funds to build a “park,” not an “outdoor recreation facility.” Buzzwords add fuzziness, not clarity.
  • Be modest and be positive.  Blaming and finger-pointing tears down you, not others. And the program officer is smart enough to recognize overstatements and embellishments.
  • Skip the emotional manipulation. Guilt won’t make the funder open up his or her wallet.

Be Accurate and Neat, Not Flashy
As you can see, Teitel’s advice draws heavily on sound communications practices.  He says outright: Write like a journalist, think like a marketer.

And that brings me to a cardinal rule of journalism: Accuracy. Take time to proof, says Teitel, and while you’re at it, be timely. Last-minute submissions with errors send the wrong message to the grant reviewer — that your proposed project work will also be late and sloppy.

“Winning Foundation Grants”  has many more useful tips for grantseekers, like how to build effective relationships with foundation staff, what are red flags in proposals, and how to follow up and write reports.  Pick up the book yourself, or wait for highlights in a future post — after my next cross-country flight or 30 minutes on the treadmill.

Did You Listen . . . and Understand?

Listening Ear

Effective communication requires active listening — and much more.

Over the past few weeks our family has been struggling with concerns about the treatment someone received at a large medical facility.  Dozens of people beyond the patient have been involved — family members, physician’s assistants, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, patient advocates, physical therapists and others.

Needless to say, the situation has been rife with chances for communications breakdowns — and we’ve had some doozies.

Many of the breakdowns occurred because family members assumed that they had been heard and understood, and therefore medical personnel would act accordingly . . . but that was a wrong assumption.

Are You Listening . . . and Understanding?
No matter your job or industry — health care provider or professional communicator like me — we all face communication challenges every day.  If I’m engaged in conversation and I don’t employ active listening skills, chances are our discussion can quickly go off the rails.

Local human resources and leadership consultant Judy Hartley offers some excellent strategies for creating an open communications environment — particularly when miscommunication or conflict may occur.  To fully attend to what someone is saying to you, she recommends:

  • Hearing them without getting defensive; listening to learn/understand.
  • Verifying that all parties are operating off the same information.
  • Summarizing and paraphrasing back what you have heard.
  • Thanking them for bringing the concerns/issues to your attention.
  • Appropriately responding to those concerns/issues.

Clients Who Specialize in Listening
Right now, I’m lucky to be working with some excellent communications role models.  Several of my current clients are in the business of listening to vulnerable and underrepresented populations:

  • Store To Door drivers deliver groceries to seniors who can’t get out to shop.  As soon as each driver steps in the door, he’s listening and observing closely, watching out for any changes in the senior’s needs and creating a personal connection that contributes to her well-being.
  • The staff members at CornerHouse (which I wrote about in my last post), embrace listening as part of their mission:  To assure that the voices of children and adolescents are heard, in cases of sexual abuse or violence.
  • The Rainbow Research evaluation professionals have highly developed listening skills.  They specialize in participatory methods and have a keen ability to engage with diverse audiences in culturally appropriate ways.

What Are Your Best Listening Strategies?
What lessons on active listening and effective communications are you learning from your clients and colleagues?   Do you have a personal trick to stay present in a conversation or to remember to be quiet and listen (like the old “one mouth, two ears” saying)?

Let me know what works for you.  I’ll be listening to — and really trying to understand — your comments.

Image: CC Ky

Design Thinking While You Work

Charities Review Council design thinking

At the Charities Review Council Annual Forum 2014, participants engaged in design thinking exercises about disruptive philanthropy.

When I ran into a former colleague recently, she asked me what I liked about freelancing.  Without hesitating, I commented on how stimulating it is to work with such a diverse group of nonprofit and foundation clients.

As I explore fields that are new to me, I meet fascinating people, and best of all, I get to apply what I learn in unexpected ways that benefit my clients — and my community.

For instance, before I was introduced to CornerHouse in Minneapolis, I knew little about child and adolescent abuse.  Plus, I was completely unaware that this local agency is known worldwide for training of forensic interviewers, or that it is the only children’s advocacy center in the country that is offering healing home visiting services to children and families dealing with the aftermath of abuse.

Experience the Creative Rush
So in the course of just a day or two, I’ve written about families recovering from trauma, grocery delivery services for seniors, and rural broadband access, among other topics.  Shifting from one subject to the next, I see surprising connections between ideas and audiences, and new communications strategies emerge . . . it’s a sort of creative rush.

And it feels like that creativity allows me — in my own small way — to participate in the  local “disruptive philanthropy” movement.  The Charities Review Council team members — who championed the movement at their annual forum last fall — defined disruptive philanthropy as:

“a transformative event or moment, an act of giving and relationship building that is a departure from the status quo. It may not be easy, endorsed or comfortable, but it is necessary to inclusively create a shared vision, a new sustainability, innovation, imagination and growth.”

Personal Design Thinking
In another way, my work on behalf of my clients and their beneficiaries feels like a personal design thinking exercise.

During participation in the Giving 2.0 MOOC last fall, I heard David Kelley from IDEO speak about design thinking in philanthropy and use of the Human-Centered Design Toolkit.  Its underlying premise is that problem-solving in philanthropy must be preceded by deep empathy for the people who will benefit and close engagement with them in “need-finding.”

No matter what how you describe it, I feel happy to zig and zag while I work, using my neurons to connect seemingly unrelated dots . . . and making my small contributions to the third sector and our greater community.

Behind the Nonprofit Ratings Curtain

The dog pulls back the curtain.

When using resources that rate nonprofits, be sure to look behind the curtain to understand information sources and ranking systems.

Have you ever used GreatNonprofits as a research tool for evaluating which charities should receive your donations?

This website (among others) is a recommended resource in my materials for Giving 2.0: The MOOC.  It’s been around for five or so years and has big-name national endorsements (including a Bill Gates testimonial).

GreatNonprofits describes itself as “a place to find trustworthy nonprofits.”  Its mission is “to inspire and inform donors and volunteers, enable nonprofits to show their impact, and promote greater feedback and transparency.”

Rating a System that Rates Nonprofits
But as with many nonprofit ranking systems, this tool — which uses a Yelp-like platform — has some shortcomings:

  • The geography search function is set up by city, which isn’t particularly helpful for metropolitan areas with multiple municipalities (like the Twin Cities region).  Plus, as with many nonprofit organization databases, the user can’t tell if the location is where the nonprofit is based or where it provides services.
  • There’s no Boolean search ability, so the user can’t narrow the results.  For instance, if I click “children” and “education,” it appears I only get results for “or” and can’t specify “and.”
  • The results are limited.  When I searched on Minneapolis, less than 50 of 7,733 organizations had any reviews.  Of those 50, about half had two or more reviews and the rest had only one.  (And a few with lots of reviews were filled with comments by the nonprofit’s interns, staff and volunteers.)
  • Nonprofits didn’t show up in the appropriate issue lists.  For instance, Washburn Child Guidance Center had a high number of rankings in the overall Minneapolis list, but it didn’t even show up when I searched on “children.”  (The most fun result I received was the “Beer Judge Certification Program” when I searched on “food”!)
  • And most concerning, some rankings appear to be paid listings.  For example, when I explored the site, Second Harvest Heartland was listed as a “top-nonprofit” (via AdChoices), but it had no actual reviews in the system.

So, what’s the take-away?  Caveat emptor.  GreatNonprofits is not alone among ranking systems that have limited or sometimes misleading information.  When you’re evaluating your charitable giving choices, take time to look behind the curtain of rating tools.  Learn about their sources of information and their ranking criteria.

What Are Your Favorite Comparative Tools?
If you’re a donor, what do you think of Yelp-like sites as tools for rating charities?  What are your favorite resources to research and compare nonprofit organizations?

If you’re a nonprofit communicator or fundraiser, how much time do you invest in creating and enhancing your profile on the many ratings sites?  Which ones are the most important to monitor and maintain?

Please share your thoughts so we can all be informed donors!

Magic Messages: What’s Your Favorite Formula?

Historic photo of woman in chemistry labDoes your nonprofit organization have a bright shining message that’s like a beacon to your supporters?  Do you have a tagline or a compelling one-sentence description of your services that makes volunteers race to your door and donors open their wallets wide?

Asking the Right Questions
Crafting those magic words that draw in your constituents and move them along the engagement continuum . . . from awareness to interest to desire to action . . . is more art than science.  Yet, nonprofit communicators — myself included — are always in search of magic formulas that will unlock the mysteries of message development.

For instance, I recently facilitated a communications planning session using Marc Fest’s Message House method.  (Fest was a vice president of communications at The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, a leader in media innovation and community engagement.)

His simple system poses four key questions that push you toward discovery of the societal benefits of your services (What gives you goosebumps?) and the personal benefits to key audiences (What’s in it for me, or WIIFM?).

The Message House model reminds me of how creative teams at ad agencies sometimes use the “Why?” exercise so they can find the hidden benefits of sometimes dull product features.  (This toothpaste contains secret ingredient “X.” Why? To remove stains from your teeth.  Why? So your teeth sparkle.  Why?  So your boyfriend likes you.  Why?  So you can live happily ever after!)  Success with the “Why?” activity requires not going so far that your message becomes vague or grandiose — like “we advance the common good” or “we spread world peace.”

What’s Your Favorite Messaging Formula?
No message development exercise  is right for every organization and every situation.  So that’s why we communicators, like alchemists, keep searching for new formulas to transform simple words into magical motivators.

So, what’s your favorite message creation method? How did you use it?  What were the outcomes?  Comment here to describe your successes (and failures), or drop me an email .  I’ll be glad to share your ideas for discovering messages that will light the way for us all.

Make the Census Count for Your Cause

Colonial Ship's LogHave you ever attended a family reunion where you didn’t know a soul?

It may sound improbable, but this summer I was a first-time attendee at a national reunion of the descendants of two German brothers who emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1730s.

At this gathering I didn’t know any of the dozens of my relatives (except, I confess, my history-loving brother who recruited me for the trip).  These new acquaintances reported that I am just one of more than 10,000 living U.S. “cousins” who are descended from these long-dead ancestors.

Free Tools, Free Data, Free Help
So how do we know we’re all  related and, more importantly, why should you care?

One valuable tool of avid genealogists is data from the U.S. Census.  My newfound cousins have used handwritten entries on census forms from decades long past to reveal interesting information about parents, siblings, births and deaths, residences, occupations and much more.

But that’s ancient history.  Today’s U.S. Census and American Community Survey data are rich repositories of information that you can use to build support for your nonprofit cause.

Free government data sources and tools, such as American Fact Finder, can help you sort, compare and configure data — about age, education, employment, poverty, housing, race & ethnicity and a seemingly endless variety of other topics.  Plus, you can slice the data into tiny geographies in order to present persuasive evidence of community needs and illustrate clearly your programmatic impact.

And you don’t need to be a data geek or computer whiz to access useful information. At a recent U.S. Census workshop co-hosted by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, data dissemination specialist Ryan Dolan almost begged attendees to call or email his government colleagues or him to assist with data searches.

Minnesotans for the American Community Survey
While you’re using these free resources, don’t take them for granted.  Also present at the workshop was a representative of the Minnesota State Demographic Center who updated everyone on recent challenges to the American Community Survey and threats to U.S. Census funding.

She spoke on behalf of Minnesotans for the American Community Survey (MACS), a coalition of concerned citizens, business leaders, educators, social service providers and others who have joined together to educate elected officials and the public about the importance of census data to drive a strong economy and improve the well-being of all Minnesotans.

MACS supporters are not political.  They are simply people like you and me who believe in data-driven policies and actions.

Make the Census Count
So whether you’re counting cousins or keeping tabs on community needs and organizational outcomes, use the U.S. Census.  It’s free, it’s accurate and it’s easy to access.  And while you’re at it, tell your elected officials to maintain funding and current participation rules for this vital public resource.

Homelessness: Upbeat Message on Downbeat Problem

Heading.Home.LogoOn Tuesday I caught a snippet of an MPR interview with Cathy ten Broeke, Minnesota state director to prevent and end homelessness.  She was discussing the problem of homeless veterans as she prepared to leave for Wednesday’s White House event on the subject with Michelle Obama and state and local government officials.

When I heard ten Broeke’s voice, my ears quickly perked up.  While I have long been interested in our state’s homelessness problem, I was also drawn into the broadcast by her delivery.  Ten Broeke sounded so upbeat and positive — almost like she was smiling. (They say you should smile when you call someone on the phone — your listener can tell!)

Skillful Interviewee
Her delivery was articulate and direct, too — no dodging of the interviewer’s questions or bridging awkwardly to self-serving messages.  And she didn’t fall into a little cynical trap laid by the interviewer when he asked whether the White House event was timed to shift attention from the developing Department of Veterans Affairs scandal.

The facts ten Broeke delivered were easy to understand and memorable.  She reported that at last count in January 2014 Minnesota had 317 homeless veterans, and that’s down from nearly 600 in 2010.   She stated confidently that Minnesota can reduce the number to zero veterans sleeping outside by January 2015.

Her skillful description of solutions to homelessness reminded me of a communications strategy used by my former colleagues at a marketing agency.  To test alternative positioning statements, they used the RUB test: Is the message Relevant, Unique and Believable.  Her messages easily passed the test.

Props for Partners
Finally, ten Broeke gave credit where credit was due.  She complimented the federal government for funding permanent Section 8 housing vouchers and providing V.A. services for former military men and women.  And she cited the Minnesota Legislature’s allocation this year of $100 million in bonding resources for affordable housing.

A very successful private/public partnership called Heading Home Minnesota has also contributed to significant progress on ending homelessness in Minnesota.

Are You an Articulate Spokesperson?
I recommend taking a few minutes to listen to ten Broeke’s interview.   And then think about what strategies you can use to convey hopeful, meaningful messages about intractable problems your organization is trying to solve.

Even if you aren’t the official spokesperson for your nonprofit, you should be prepared to represent and present your organization well.  The more staff and volunteers who speak up in positive, forthright ways, the more likely you’ll garner much-needed support for your cause.

The (Ethnic) Medium is the Message

Working on a project yesterday about diversity in the environment, I ran across a new (to me) national ethnic media resource: New America Media.

This nonprofit describes itself as “the country’s first and largest national collaboration and advocate of 3,000 ethnic news organizations,” and it’s funded by some top national foundations, including ones familiar to us in Minnesota: the Knight Foundation, the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Ethnic Media in Minnesota
Part of New America Media’s network is Minnesota’s own Twin Cities Daily Planet, a project of the Twin Cities Media Alliance (which also receives support from local philanthropies, including the Bush Foundation, The McKnight Foundation and The Minneapolis Foundation).

The Twin Cities Media Alliance publishes a Minnesota Ethnic Media Directory and offers citizen journalism classes and media skills workshops.  Here’s a snapshot of its work:

Why Diverse Media, Anyway?
If you’ve read this far, you might still be wondering, why are these diverse media outlets important?  You might be thinking: “If our nonprofit gets mentioned in the Strib or on MPR (or if we’re on Facebook), won’t we automatically achieve our outreach goals?”

I could write an entire post about defining and segmenting target audiences, but for now, I’ll just refer us to Marshall McLuhan’s now famous concept: “The medium is the message.”   Quite simply, we should never underestimate the vast social implications and overriding influence of the media vehicles that we choose to deliver our nonprofit news.

So who are your constituents and which communities do they represent?  And which ethnic media outlets do they prefer?  Think about this as you develop your outreach strategies . . . and explore diverse media options in Minnesota and beyond.

Shed Some Light on Your Nonprofit

Window washer, blinds and drapes

What’s obscuring donors’ views of your good works?

A coworker once told me my favorite word was “transparency.”

She might have said that because I was constantly extolling the virtues of transparency for nonprofits, foundations and corporate grantmakers.  After all, freely sharing information about your organization builds trust and lasting support from your constituents.

Or she might have remembered that I sometimes refer to an editor as a window washer.  A good editor cleans away the grime (murky phrases, muddled grammar and the like) that obscures the reader’s view.

Either way, it’s essential that every nonprofit displays itself in the best light — because a crystal clear image will attract and retain donors and build vital support for its mission.

Three Steps to Spotlight Your Nonprofit
I’m always surprised when I go to a nonprofit’s website and I can’t find the basics — such as an annual report, a link to the organization’s IRS 990 or basic contact information.  Without such information, the nonprofit not only has dirty windows . . . it’s drawn heavy drapes that are completely hiding its good works from the world.

If you are a nonprofit leader, have you:

Posted your latest annual report on your website?  Is it easy to find (just a click or two from your home page) and easy to read?  Annual reports don’t need to be onerous and expensive to produce.  Sometimes simpler is better.  (For a quick list of what to include in your annual report. see the “Public Information” section of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofit’s “Transparency and Accountability” principle.)

Completed the Program Service Accomplishments section of your IRS990?  Your tax form is not just about the numbers (although they’re essential for transparency, too!).  Marry your positive financials with a restatement of your organization’s mission and accomplishments and your IRS990 can become another useful communications tool.  (Review “Give Your 990 a Workout” by Kate Barr at Nonprofits Assistance Fund for some more tips.)

Updated your Nonprofit Report on Guidestar?  Chances are your donors and other constituents are using Guidestar to learn more about you (particularly if you haven’t posted your IRS990 on your website).  Using your existing communications (such as copy from your annual report), it’s relatively easy to reinforce your key messages in your Guidestar profile — and at the same time build legitimacy and support for your cause.

These are just a few ideas to help you start polishing your image so donors and other can see perfectly your positive impact in the community.  Do you know of other ways to easily and effectively increase the transparency of your nonprofit?  Please share your suggestions . . . the more of us washing the windows, the better the view of the nonprofit world.

photo cc Jonathon Hutchings