Monday, July 28, 2014

Think you don't need content? Think again.

For some reason, try to market "content" to most small businesses and nonprofits, and the first words out their mouths are often " We don't use or need content".

OK, fair enough.  If you don't sell anything or have a mission to support, then you are probably right…you don't need content.

On the other hand, if you have a website, a blog, a newsletter, run appeal campaigns, apply for grants or financing, sell goods or services or use brochures, then you are already using content
Content isn't something sleazy or esoteric.  Content is simply words that inform, sell or connect you to your supporters or customers. It can be as simple as a three-line product description or as complicated as an annual report, case study or statement of need. 

While hard-sell marketing tends to be the area that most people think of when they think about content, that isn't the only focus.
Good content can be educational, informative or simply a product update. In the business world that may translate into more sales, but it can also just be a way to keep them connected and aware of you. 

Content is an integral part of donor management and retention for nonprofits as well. Content is the way you stay relevant and top-of-mind with the people that matter to your mission. Instead of just announcing an event and essentially saying "bring money", spend a little time explaining how it will benefit the attendees. Will they hear an awesome speaker, learn something new, enjoy great food or listen to great music?

Good content not only engages the people who already know you, it should encourage new people to interact with you.
Notice I said "good content". Rambling on about things that aren't connected to your business focus is not a productive use of your communication dollars. That's fine for your personal life, but it isn't going to produce results for your business or nonprofit.

Whether you are a nonprofit or a for-profit, you need people to succeed. There might be trillions of dollars squirreled away in bank accounts, but you don't get at it without connecting with the people that own it. Well, at least not legally!

Content today has to be more than just SEO or mass mailings.  It has to be relevant to the audience as well as to you. It should be time-conscious. The reason stores have back to school sales in July is to encourage people to think ahead and be prepared when school does start.  Oh yes, and also to fill the revenue gap that typically occurs between the 4th of July and Labor Day.

Planning a good communications strategy is not something you should be doing three days before you need it published. Like almost any other business task, it requires planning and strategy. 

If you are about as excited about sitting down and producing content as you would be to have splinters driven under your fingernails, you won't produce effective content. Outsourcing the job or assigning one person whose job  is to actually craft good content may the best use of your communication dollars.

There should be a goal, a master plan if you will, for your content. At Cloudlancer Writing Services, I work with both businesses and nonprofits to learn their needs and work with clients to produce content that supports their goals throughout the year.  While I certainly have clients who have rush jobs, one of the first things I like to see is a calendar or timeline for their goals, whether that is writing proposals, updating a web page, or keeping their blog fresh and relevant.  If you don't have goals for your communication needs now, that would be a great place to start.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The creative side of grant writing

In business writing, there is a category that deals with sales copy. It used to be called copywriting, but the new terminology is "creative content".

To put it succinctly, the people that call themselves "creative content providers", including me, craft words  and sometimes images into what amounts to a sales pitch. They can be both long and short form, but they are all designed to do one thing, and that's to make you want to spend money on something. And let's face it, a grant proposal is asking someone to spend money on your mission. 

Most grant applications are heavy on facts and statistics by necessity, but there is one place where you can get creative, and that's in the statement of need. This is the one place where you can kind of let the creative juices flow.
That's not to say that you should make up stuff, or wax so poetic (or just plain sappy) that the reader feels like s/he is drowning in syrup. Creative writing doesn't work with every grantor, or for every program. Some foundations and programs are strictly "just the facts" oriented, and it's up to you (or your grant writer) to determine which approach works.

Still, you do need to create some sort of connection with the grantor.  Admittedly, that's harder than it used to be, given that many foundations are using space-limited online applications, but it isn't impossible.

Here's an example of two ways to pitch your "winter coats for kids" program to a grantor.

Example 1 

There are 6,000 children living below the poverty line in Anyplace County. Most of these children do not have a warm winter coat.  Our program provided 1500 winter coats to children last year, and we could add 1000 more with your support.

Example 2

Anna is seven, and she's waiting for the bus. The thermometer on the bank shows a temperature of 22 degrees and it's windy. Anna huddles behind the bus stop bench wearing just a thin sweater, because she doesn't have a coat to shield her from the cold. There are 6000 Anna's in Anyplace County living below the poverty line.  Any money her family gets goes for food and rent.  Our "buy excess inventory " program provided 1500 coats for some of these children last year, and we can add another 1000 to that number with your help.

Of course you will have to go on and explain the program more fully, provide a budget for it, submit financial statements and all of the other business-type things that grantors need to see, but Example 2 will very likely entice someone to read through your proposal, while example 1 might just get tossed to the side.

By the way…Example 2 netted $10,000 from the grantor, and Anna got her coat.

Monday, July 14, 2014

How do you find your first Board of Directors?

This is one of the questions that comes up fairly often when I'm working with an aspiring  nonprofit founder.
First , understand that the board is a governing body. You don't want to put your sister or your Mom on the board unless they are actively involved in your charity and they understand their legal and leadership role.

Before you recruit board members, read up on what the board (as a body) is supposed to be doing.  Typically, and aside from the legal and fiduciary requirements, the board facilitates the culture and direction for the organization relative to its mission.
That means they all should be on the same page when it comes to the mission and vision statement. They should know what the end game is, and have a basic understanding of what it will take to get there.

They should also be able to get along. All boards have times when someone disagrees with the majority, but that person or persons need to be able to do it politely and with respect for other viewpoints. Stay away from divas and drama junkies.

So, where DO you find board members?  There is no one right way, but in general, your first board will probably have at least some members that have helped you get started; in short they will be people you know well.

After that, try to approach people you may know about or who have specific skills to add to the board.  Although there is no rule, it is always good to contact people with  experience on nonprofit boards, but be sure that they are genuinely interested in your organization. Some people are what I call professional joiners.

For the sake of argument, let's say you are new to town and don't have many contacts.  Try asking local groups if you can present your organization at one of their meetings.  Some places to start are the local Chamber of Commerce, and trade or industry groups that might have some connection with your mission, churches, and your local elected officials. These are great places to use your elevator speech.

Let them know you are looking for board members and ask them to pass the word along to their friends and connections if they aren't interested. And don't forget co-workers.  The more people that know about you, the more likely you are to have a well-rounded group of applicants to interview.

One  other way is to take out a small ad in your local paper.  It doesn't have to be fancy…just a heading that says you will be interviewing for board membership, the name of your organization and your mission statement, as in this example:
ABC Charity will be accepting applications for board membership from M/D/Y to M/D/Y.
Our mission is to (Insert mission statement here).
For more information please call 555-555-5555 or email (your name@xxxxx).

Don't forget the lowly flyer.  Post them at grocery stores, restaurants or other places where people tend to gather. Always ask permission though, or the flyer may be removed before anyone sees it.

Be ready to answer questions. Be sure you have a written description of your expectations, a job description, if you will. Many times you will attract someone who is very interested but has no board experience, so you will need to start with the basics.

If you are not already a 501(c)(3), you may also want to try to attract someone in the legal and accounting fields, or at least with a business background to help guide the organization through its first few years.
Many, many nonprofits start out with just a group of friends or family.  As long as they understand that they have to take those hats off and put on their board member's hat for meetings, that can work out just fine. In your bylaws, have an out for them in the form of specific terms or lengths of service.  Serving on the board shouldn't be and shouldn't feel like a life sentence.

If you have further questions, feel free to email me at:

Monday, July 7, 2014

Is your LOI killing your grant opportunities?

Many foundations require an LOI, or letter of inquiry. This is your one and usually only chance to make a good first impression. Since I edit a lot of these for clients in my business, I have seen a pretty good cross-section of  approaches, and some things stand out.

Many LOI submissions read more like a letter to a friend than a proposal outline. Others almost sound like the writer is bored with having to write it in the first place.

The LOI is essentially an executive summary of your longer grant proposal, not a "Hi, nice to meet you" social media post, or a mere formality. It needs to stimulate the grantor's interest in inviting you to submit a full proposal.

LOI submissions are normally size limited. Some online submissions are as short as one page, but in general they run from two to four pages. Some grantors give you a maximum length, but in general, if your pitch can't be synopsized in three pages, it may be too long or more properly, not focused enough. I have yet to see any grantor request more than five pages.

Others don't follow the specific instructions from the grantor. If they say "do not include graphs or charts" that's what they mean. Requesting a "brief program overview"  means hit the high points. If they want a full program explanation they will ask for it if your LOI is selected for follow-up.

Many LOI writers don't address the grantor's field of interest. This is a common failing of the templated or boilerplate LOI. Just as in every other life event, one size usually doesn't fit all. You may know that your program or organization is a good fit, but the grantor doesn't know how or where you will fit in, so you need to tell them. This is particularly true if the grantor is funding several fields of interest.

You need to stand out from the crowd. If you have a particularly novel problem-solving approach, highlight it. LOI's today need to address outcomes, either existing or planned. If you have outstanding results, at least allude to them to pique the grantor's interest in knowing more.

Should you include a specific monetary request or target?  In general, yes, but it has to be done correctly. If your program is budgeted to need $50,000, but the grantor doesn't award above $10,000, you will need to mention where you expect to get the other 40K. Some LOI's require it.

Some grantors don't want a specific number, but in general they will include that information in the LOI guidelines. If they don't, it never hurts to pick up the  phone or email them to ask for clarification. You can also review their previous grant awards to get a sense of how much they are likely to consider reasonable.

Your LOI is sort of the nonprofit equivalent of a sales letter. You need to strike a balance between sounding like a late-night commercial and taking the reader for granted. You need to show there is a benefit to the grantor in partnering with you rather than the other fifty organizations that submitted LOI's for consideration.

The LOI is an important fundraising tool. Use it wisely and well.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Learn how happy donors make happy bank accounts

Recently Facebook was "outed" for playing mind games with its subscribers[1]. Actually, "outed" is a bit misleading.  They've been doing it for years, and it's all right there in the 9000 words of their service agreement. And guess what they proved?  Negative words create more negative words, while happy, positive words caused people to comment more positively. Not exactly newsworthy, but interesting.

Not very original either.  Every marketing person since time began knows that truism. It's called the psychology of selling. What made everyone a bit queasy is that they did more or less surreptitiously. Somehow, people missed the point that Facebook sells stuff, namely advertising.

Think about your favorite merchandise, say aftershave or lipstick. Do you buy it because the ads say "We know you think you are not really all that attractive, but our product will make you look better (or smell sexier)  than you are now!" Probably not.  That might be the real psychological reason you buy the product, but you'd rather keep that part to yourself. So, the ad reads "Add more excitement with our great new product – do you dare to be different?

It's the same thing with wooing donors to support your programs.

Of course you have to frame your message in a way that makes donors want to get on board, and you do that by being positive and upfront with them.

Tell donors exactly what their money will accomplish.  If $5.00 will really provide three meals for a family of four, be prepared to back that up.  Everyone frames things within their personal experience, and normally, three meals for a family of four costs more than $5.00 a day. Your donors don't know that you are giving donated food a value based on your cost to collect and distribute it, rather than going to the local big box food store and buying it.  Tell them.  Once they understand, they may feel more like a part of the team, not just another debit transaction.

It isn't enough to whine about your eroding bank balance. It isn't even enough to tell wonderfully sad stories about the people or things that need help.

Keep it positive and involve your donors on a personal level.  It may seem strange, but on some level, your donors want to know what you can do for them. Can you make them feel useful, powerful and needed?

Yes, you have to define the problem and that may involve some unpleasant facts, but you want donors to feel that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Make your actual appeal reflect that.

Try it. You may find out that it's a lot more fun than writing doom and gloom appeals and way more productive.