Thursday, September 23, 2010

Give Your Small NP's Communications "The Business"

Over at Duck Call, the post is about striving for clarity in your writing – knowing the rules of grammar and be willing to break them if it will get your point across better. There’s something I’d like to add to that: improve and segment your communications vocabulary.

How Come Why For?

Because of the Business of Charity. We all know how the economic landscape has changed. The Wall St. meltdown hit a lot of foundations as much as anyone else and there’s less money to go around. This has made the foundations more picky and one of the ways that shows is in the grant proposal requirements – they are expecting nonprofits to be more “businesslike” in the way they present themselves and their missions. Before the foundations hand out a check, they want to make sure that the money will be spent as they expect it to be and the reports will be impeccable. Sure, that’s a Duh. But one of the ways your small nonprofit may be judged on its communications with its funders is in the lexicon it uses.

How Well Do You Talk the Talk?

Any money from a grant to a very small (maybe micro) nonprofit usually comes in reverse snowball form.  That is, a mid-sized education nonprofit may get a grant from a large foundation (the snowall) and then parcel it out to small and micro sized nonprofits (the snowball diminishes as it rolls downhill). Because the big guys are requiring the mid-sized guys to be “businesslike” in their dealings, and the mid-sized guys have to report back to the big guys, they’re going to be asking the little guys (you) to be “businesslike”, too.

In the overview of the Fractured Atlas Course: The Business of Charity in the New Economy, the description of Adam Sutler’s talk includes this:
He considers legal strategies, like the L3C and fiscal sponsorship; discusses structural approaches, including systems-centric cluster management; and notes the philosophical underpinnings of the whole conversation — Who are our customers? Is professionalism really a good thing? When should infrastructure be outsourced?

Fiscal sponsorship. Systems-centric cluster management. Outsourcing infrastructure.

Maybe you already know what these terms refer to with respect to nonprofits. (I’m good with the first and last, but fuzzy on the middle one.) Maybe you’re clueless on all three. Well, you may need to get un-clueless.

I Didn’t Sign Up For This

Oh, yes you did.

I know – this kind of talk makes my eyes glaze over, too. I prefer my communications to be less… businesslike or academia-like. More direct, less abstract. But I’m not looking for a grant and you are. So you need to add some terms to your communications with funders.  And now, a word to the wise:

Way, way back, when I was very young and more evil and business management ala Gordon Gecko was as sexy as parachute pants and big hair, a friend and coworker of mine and I shared a boss who had come up the hard way (no MBA or CPA). He was desperate to be viewed as business hip and had the slicked back hair and suspenders under his pin-striped, double-breasted suit to prove it. He also had a habit of using the business-speak of the moment to underscore that hipness.  My friend and I did not think well of his management. As department heads, we would sit down with this man early every Monday to discuss the plan of the week before getting together with the rest of the troops for a multi-departmental meeting in the afternoon. Before our private meeting began, my friend and I would get together and construct a business-sounding phrase, usually made up of bits and pieces of phrases that were going around at the time, and both of us would use this phrase strategically during our meeting with our boss. Then we would count the number of times he used it during the afternoon meeting and were always delighted when we could hear him using the phrase in discussions with his bosses (I said I was more evil then). I know some of the directors and the VP wondered where the heck he was getting this stuff from. The lesson I’m trying to impart here is – no cheating – you need to know what the terms mean and how they apply to you and your mission. If you try to plug jargon into your communications to show how hip you are, you run the risk of exposing how much you really don’t know.

Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!

You might get to liking this new vocabulary and spend more time puttering about in your new lexicon, admiring the hard sheen of the financial phrases and the sturdy solidity of the business management descriptives. That’s fine. I personally collect old slang and ordering shorthand from the days of soda jerks (“nervous pudding” = Jello). But don’t let it carry into your communications with the people in your non-funder community. Keep your conversations with them conversational and pretty much free of your fancy, high-falutin’ business talk. When you do have to use business-of-charity phrases like “strategic plan”, make sure you define them and make sure you define them in terms of what they mean to the community, not necessarily what they mean to your small nonprofit as a going concern. It’s fine to tell your funder that a grant for creating a new five year strategic plan will “allow your agency to re-examine the foundation of your mission with respect to the current economic climate so that you can identify strategies to leverage resources in a way that will underscore commitment to the core segment of the community the mission was instituted initially to address…” But leave that stuff out of your tweets and FB posts, et cetera.

You might infer from what I've been saying that I detest business jargon. In general, that's true. I hate any kind of communications that obscures meaning instead of clarifying it. But there are also different vocabularies for different communities. Like the soda jerks or hash-slingers of old, these groups have a way of expressing themselves that, when used, alerts the listener to the fact that the speaker is knowledgeable in their field.

One Last Word

Do use social media to find out these things. You’re on the mailing lists for blogs and newsletters and such from social media “influencers” (Ha! Jargon!). Don’t just let this kind of talk go by in the stream. Social media is one of the best places to hear the latest theories and learn about the latest trends and best practices (another term).  You’re trying to do good, and getting grant money may be a part of that. Heck, even local businesses may be more inclined to support you if they feel you understand their language. Just try to be honest and as clear as you can be, even when using jargon. Whatever you do, it’s about the mission, right?

It’s always about the mission.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Small Nonprofits and the Social Media RT - Make Your Brain Work for its Supper

image via Carolyn Essert-Villard

I have a hungry brain – if I don’t feed it new ideas and information regularly, it starts to eat itself out of boredom. With the internet, I have a very large hunting range which takes me from the mountains of Science and Academia to Silicon Valley, from the collaborative social media communities on the outskirts of Nonprofit/Social Good to the silly whimsy of LOLCats. But just to keep my brain fed isn’t the only reason I’m all over the interwebs.

Feed Me, Seymour; I'm Hungry

I was reading a veritable storm up today in the Tribal Leadership section of the bnet bookstore, when I ran across the headline “Employees Down in the Dumps? That’s Great News!” Muttering, “WTH?” I read Dave Logan’s post on why the recession may be a good thing for leadership – because it disabuses us of the notion that “greatness was easy” if we followed simplistic solutions. As Logan puts it:

We’ve gone through a decade when companies became stupid and managers focused on simplistic solutions. Even universities got into the act by suggesting that the road to success is merely a degree away. We’re grieving our beliefs that we can be saved by moving our collective cheese, exorcising the five dysfunctions of teams, tapping “The Secret,” or transporting our penguins to a new iceberg.

And I’m worried about something similar happening in social media, especially with respect to nonprofits. Not to say that any of you are looking at or employing simplistic solutions in trying to achieve your mission-related goals, but newcomers or those who are unsure of their skills may become hungry for checklists or easy-to-absorb maxims about how to increase their community or enhance interaction with their stakeholders.

On any given day, I often see retweets on Twitter of the latest blogpost or activity by well-known NP tech or social media heavy-hitters. If you have a column display with all the Tweets with the hashtag “nonprofit,” you’ll know what I’m talking about. These people routinely give great advice and so it’s normal to want to share it. But in most cases, forwarding the information is preaching to the choir. If I’m looking for best practices and information to help my nonprofit, I’m probably already reading the posts of the people whose tweets are being shared so liberally (if I’m not, then I haven’t done my homework in identifying the thought leaders in my community).

Yes, They're Smart, But -

Even though I value the thinking of these people, they are not the only ones who can think, and if I continually make a meal out of what they’re thinking and nothing else, then I am depending on a simplistic solution of my own devising – read this, and you shall be saved.

I don’t just want to know what they think – I want to know what you think about what they think; whether or not you’ve implemented some or all of their solutions and what you learned from it. I want to know what ideas you got from reading about the ruins buried under Phoenix, AZ and how it applies to what you’re trying to accomplish.

Accept No Substitutes

As Dave Logan implies, success is not easy, leadership is not easy, greatness is not easy, and every small nonprofit knows this. There can be no substitute for taking in a new viewpoint, combining it with facts and experience, and coming up with a thought that is yours alone.

To me, this the real value of the knowledge and experiences so readily available on the internet and through social media. Don’t pass up the opportunity to not just feed your brain, but to make it work.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Leading the Unwilling - Your Nonprofit and Connected Volunteers

TextingImage by ydhsu via Flickr
Nonprofits always need volunteers to help out. Small nonprofits really need them. Although it would be nice if they always turned up when you needed them, knowing your mission and objectives, we all know they don’t.

Sometimes they come from high-schools which give extra credit for volunteer work or may even require it as part of a particular curriculum, and sometimes they are family members conscripted to help out. Sometimes, volunteers aren’t really volunteers at all, but unwilling participants in a court-ordered Community Service program.

What Do You Do With Them?

Do you put them to work as soon as you can; stuffing envelopes, entering data, filing or sorting? If you are, you’re missing a good opportunity. Especially if they’re teenagers. These are people who have grown up connected. They text their friends dozens of times a day. Sure, they’ll have little problem with the tasks you’re giving them, but they could be doing more for you than running envelopes through the postage meter. That’s IF they were engaged.

How To Engage Them

Why not start with taking a moment over coffee to ask them what they know about your nonprofit and what it does. That will give you an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. If they don’t know anything about your nonprofit, now you’ve got a chance to educate. You’re talking to a possible future donor here, you know, not just a kid who got busted for being out after curfew or whose mom thought doing a little work during the summer was good for them.

How about adding what is only the truth – that even though they may not have chosen to come and help out, what they’re doing is valuable to you and the mission you serve and that you’re grateful for their help? It doesn’t matter that their teacher said they had to do something in the community and your nonprofit was the only opportunity left – they are THERE and you can take the moment to share your passion for what you do.

If you can give them a glimpse of a bigger picture, you might find that you’ve helped to broaden their perspective of the adult world, a perspective that can carry through their social media conversations with other potential supporters in your community.

Communication is at the heart of social media and even if the “volunteer” never works for your nonprofit again, if you’ve successful communicated how you feel, that experience will continue to color this person’s life and how they view nonprofits in the future.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

All Aboard - At the Social Media Train Station With Your Small Nonprofit

Locomotive EPL2T on train station in DonetskImage via Wikipedia
Have you ever heard the expression, "The train has to leave the station sometime"? I used to repeat this to myself whenever it seemed that I was dithering too long over a writing piece or even an art piece. It's an acknowledgment that you can try for perfection, but at some point, you just have to get on with other things. Social media networking can be one of those trains.

In past posts, I've mentioned things like strategy and evaluating which social networking tools might be best for your nonprofit, setting milestones and other pause points at which to analyze how well you're doing. Other posts have talked about metrics and identifying the data (hard and soft) for tweaking your tactics.

That information - while useful - is all about how and we can get hung up on the idea of how to... whether it's developing a strategy, brainstorming tactics, measuring effectiveness.

You might feel some anxiety about making sure that you're doing everything you ought to be doing to get the most benefit out of social media networking. So you work hard at setting goals and evaluating. But the thing is, social networking is about being social. It's the interaction with your stakeholders and potential supporters that is at the heart of your social media efforts.

So what I'm saying is, try to keep the trains running on time. Don't completely forget about analysis and evaluation and goals; they're important. But what is most important is just getting on the train and mixing with the other passengers. The stories they have to tell you may end up making what you planned to do go out the train car window to be replaced by something that hadn't occurred to you before.

In social media networking, the journey is definitely as important as the destination.

NOTE: Sorry there was no post last week - I was unwillingly off-line.