Pretending to be your donor

2468506922_c1ed495959_z - Sybren A. StüvelI found myself wondering the other day – as I struggled to make sense of the less-than-clear instructions on my business’ quarterly sales tax return – how often anyone from the Department of Revenue actually goes through the process of filling out their own paperwork as though they were a business owner like me.

If the folks who process returns, the people who manage the people who process returns, the department heads and the political appointees at the top of the org chart … if any of these folks had actually experienced the process of filling out a return, they might be inspired to improve the design of the system, or at the very least prepare clearer instructions.

I suspect, however, that most of these folks don’t actually use the system they run, so most have no idea just how complex, frustrating, and difficult it might be for the end users.

It’s easy to poke fun of large government agencies for not bothering to use their own services, but I’m willing to bet that most nonprofit folks don’t do it, either. When is the last time you walked through any of your user experiences, not with the eye of the program manager or executive director but as though you were the customer, user, visitor, or client? If it’s been more than a few months, it might be worth revisiting.

  • While pretending you are a first time prospective donor to your organization, visit the website and see how easy it is to find the information you think you might want to know.
  • Go through the process of making a donation while pretending you are a supporter of the organization but unfamiliar with the donation process … visit the website, find the donation page, and actually make a donation. Any annoyances? Any steps where you might be tempted to give up and do something else?
  • Try signing up for your newsletter. Was there any friction in the experience? Now unsubscribe to your newsletter. Was that as easy as it should be?
  • If you sell products online, are there any annoyances in the shopping or purchasing experience, or it is smooth and delightful?
  • Try playing the part of a long-time supporter experimenting with a new service or tool for the first time. Did you easily figure out each step? Did the process make you feel valuable?
  • If your nonprofit provides a facility or a service, this list gets a lot longer: imagine being a first-time visitor to the museum, or a first-time customer of the service.

Walk through every step of the process thinking about how that user will experience it. Every user touch point sends a sharp signal to your supporters and potential supporters. It tells them how much you care about them and their contribution. And beyond the symbolism and messages, the more friction and the less pleasant your user experience, the fewer who will actually complete the transaction.

When we run programs, websites, and organizations, we often think about their design in terms of what’s easiest for us. We pick the donation tool that most easily integrates with our database and our bank. We design the navigation on our website in terms of how our staff uses the website. We design the sign-up forms for our membership programs, field trips, and services based on what’s convenient for managing those offerings.

We often don’t think about the experience of our supporters, visitors, customers, and clients. The result: the user experience is often neglected, filled with unnecessary points of friction, and can even be simply unpleasant.

And, unlike the Department of Revenue, we can’t compel people to use our services.

(Photo by Flickr user Sybren A. Stüvel).

Jacob Smith is the co-author of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, the former mayor of Golden, Colorado, and a nonprofit consultant.

A friend of a friend: How Obama used Facebook to turn out voters

We all know that social networks can be a crucial arena for engaging your supporters and developing new relationships, but for a sense of scale look no further than the 2012 presidential campaigns. Both campaigns made extensive use of social networks like Spotify, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and, of course, the giants Facebook and Twitter.

One major problem for the campaigns in the closing weeks of the race: 18-29 year-old voters are very difficult to reach by phone, and making sure that very specific audience actually voted was a critical campaign element, especially for the Obama campaign. Their solution: aggressively, intelligently, and strategically using Facebook to identify supporters, keep them engaged, and then – during the GOTV (“get out the vote”) efforts in the final weeks – reminding them to actually vote.

Because of their early and sustained efforts identifying supporters through Facebook, 85% of the campaign’s GOTV 18-29 year-old targets were friends of friends of Barack Obama on Facebook. Obama for American Digital Director Teddy Goff explains, “We had about seven million instances of people contacting about five million people, all of their friends who they knew … these were people we had to reach, and couldn’t reach otherwise.”

And note the importance of very clearly identifying the audience. Even though Facebook users span a wide range of demographics, different demographics use the network differently. This was a strategy targeted for a very specific demographic. This not-so-little detail highlights a common problem in exhortations for nonprofits to use social networks more aggressively. The first step should always be defining the goal, and the second step – always – understanding the mechanisms of change enough to clearly and specifically define the audiences you need to influence. Then you can figure out if and how social networks matter, and how to use them effectively if they do.

But there is clearly a growing chance that social networks will matter, and if your target audience for a given campaign includes 18-29 year-olds in the United States, then social networks may well be critical part of your strategy.

Jacob Smith is the co-author of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, the former mayor of Golden, Colorado, and a nonprofit consultant.

Feeling the Love

I’ve been subscriber to a local cultural organization for twenty years now, and for the first time since I first joined I didn’t renew my subscription.

From the “Missed Opportunities” folder: in all those years, nearly every time the organization has ever reached out to me has been a solicitation … contribute to the organization, buy tickets for a special event, donations to special funds. No notes just thanking me for being a supporter. No acknowledgment of my long tenure as a subscriber. No invitation to offer my thoughts for the next year’s performance schedule or ideas for other events and programs. No phone calls from board members asking what I think of the organization or if I enjoyed the performance last week. No gestures of appreciation at all.

What’s so striking is how little it takes to make supporters feel appreciated. It doesn’t require fancy parties, expensive gifts, or elaborate theatrics.

For their five-year anniversary, the local cafe in a town I used to call home gave coffee mugs to all of their customers. A decade later that mug is still a cherished part of my morning coffee routine, and I eat there every time I pass thru town. Every now and again, I’ll get a call from a nonprofit staff member or board member just to thank me for supporting the organization. I’ve enjoyed the occasional “member appreciation event” over the years. After getting stuck in the dreaded “purple line” at President Obama’s inauguration and missing the event, my Congressional Representative sent me a photo of the swearing-in. It didn’t make up for missing the event, but it was a very cool gesture and required very little effort or expense.

Even more disappointing: if they couldn’t figure out how to reach out to me in some non-solicitous fashion during the many years of my support, at the very least this local cultural organization might have done so when I didn’t re-subscribe by the deadline, since retaining me as a subscriber has to be much less expensive than re-acquiring me later. Doing so would have offered them an opportunity to learn why I didn’t renew (too expensive this year), earn my gratitude if it had been because I forgot and missed the deadline, perhaps offer me a special deal because of my tenure, or suggest an alternative (“did you consider renewing with tickets in a less expensive section?”).

I’m a huge fan of this organization, but I’m not feeling the love coming back my way, which can’t help but weaken my enthusiasm for them. Even for those organizations that are the most resource constrained, you can find ways to make sure your supporters know how much you appreciate them, and that, in turn, can’t help but deepen their relationship with you.

(Photo by Flickr user candiceecidnac).

What Nonprofits Can Learn From the YouTube Laugh Factory

Wired Magazine shares lessons from Maker Studios.

Last month’s Wired magazine had a feature on Maker Studios and the rise of commercially viable independent web-based videos. Their takeaways on effectively using video online:

Rule 1: Make a lot of video content. A lot.
And if the video releases are regularly scheduled, all the better.

Rule 2: Target a niche.
Be really clear on what audience you are targeting and make sure you understand that audience really well.

Rule 3: Connect with your fans.
Olga Kay is sending a personal note to each of the 450,000 people subscribed to her YouTube channel. Nuff said.

Rule 4: Collaborate.
Collaborations can make for great content and introduce all of the folks to each other’s audiences.

Rule 5: Optimize for the algorithms.
One example: tagging, title, explain, and annotate your videos with as many specific and general descriptors as possible.

The goal for most nonprofits might focus more on engagement than ad revenue, but the lessons apply just as well.

Want to Fundraise Like Charity:Water? Develop Engaged Advocates, not Donors

I’ve always been struck by the different ways old and new organizations approach online communications, fundraising and organizing. The two groups could learn a lot by studying each other.

Charity:Water poster - 4,5000 children will die today from water-related diseases

Charity:Water poster with a focused and powerful idea.

Newer groups aren’t beholden to a certain way of doing things, entrenched hierarchies and well-established silos. They’re likely led and staffed by bootstrapping generalists that are truly passionate about an idea or mission and not much deterred by failures. Their enthusiasm rubs off on those around them and can stir up a hornet’s nest of much-needed action.

Organizations that have been around a while (and let’s say 15-20 years or more) have staying power. They have figured out how to get things done and sustain the business of running an organization. Relationship-building takes time and they have stuck to it – likely carving out strong relationships with the powerful in communities and government.

Most that work in and around nonprofit organizations these days would probably say that adapting to digital networks and online fundraising has been a challenge for older groups. A well-established way of doing things is challenged by the speed and apparent loss of control over message and action wrought by online networks.

Learning from Younger Groups

There is room in the nonprofit tent for both old and new organizations. But technical change is happening fast and the fabric of communities, environment, institutions is fraying before our eyes. Groups need to be at the top of their game. [Read more...]

Relationships are about organizations and people (not communications tools)

It seems that “email is broadcast communications with the audience” while social media is (or can be) interactive and a way to have a conversation with your audience. Broadcast messaging is a shout at recipients to take action. Interactive or social media may make a call to action but it assumes opportunity for other involvement by the recipient.

Shouting in the storm by Flickr user lanier67

Organizations that aren't thinking about relationships may be shouting into the wind regardless of communications medium. Photo by Flickr user lanier67.

Communications media have been forever evolving, however, and while some channels may lend themselves to more or less interaction their use as engagement and relationship-crafting tools has more to do with the communicator than the medium. To paraphrase Beth Kanter, perhaps, a fortress organization with a Facebook page is still a fortress.

Social media to the rescue?

We talk about conversation, continued interaction, and (if you like) two-way engagement is viewed as more valuable. Relationships aren’t built in a command and control environment (except in the military, perhaps). An organization, campaign or company that can interact and have a back-and-forth dialog with a constituent or customer is, they say, going to have a more fruitful relationship with that customer (or donor or member).

Social media is sometimes characterized as a knight in shining armor riding to the rescue of organizations besieged and alone inside email and print walls that let messages out while nothing comes in. Social medial will knock down the walls and create a free flow of conversation and information amongst leaders, staff and citizens. All will benefit. Cake for everyone.

[Read more...]

Storytelling a Start to Engaging Action, not the End

Is storytelling enough? Is storytelling the peak engagement activity? If your organization is engaging supporters with good stories are you doing all you can for your people and issues? Storytelling is essential but it must tie tellers and readers together into a network that takes meaningful action.

Storytelling HereThat seems one possible conclusion that could be drawn from a recent post by Katya Andresen in which she discusses the “humanization highway” concept in Jay Baer and Amber Naslund’s book The Now Revolution. Baer and Naslund are describing responsive businesses with great customer service models. In their view (quite rightly, it seems) the more “human” an organization becomes the better service it provides. This leads to better, more loyal customers. A similar case could be made for nonprofits: interact with members and supporters on a personal, human level and you’ll have more active and engaged participants.

Baer and Nasulund lay out a five point continuum of “humanness” that places storytelling at the top. The full list is:

[Read more...]

Colorado Kaleidoscope: the Story of a Good Online Storytelling Site

Some days I wake up and think that storytelling seems to have become the buzzword du jour (well, I don’t think this immediately upon awakening…after a cup or two of coffee perhaps…a time when “buzz”word takes on meaning). Inviting members, supporters, constituents or whatever part of your audience you like to “tell their story” now seems to be step one of the online engagement handbook.

Colorado Kaleidoscope homepage

Colorado Kaleidoscope storytelling site from Colorado Health Foundation

But once something enters the handbook it can be mishandled. Organizations run the risk of commoditizing stories by using them primarily as a tool, a tactic, a method for getting towards “engagement” and increasingly elusive fundraising and/or advocacy goals.

By their very nature, stories are personal. Those of us who write blog posts, fundraising emails and other material about the issues we work on ever day sometimes forget the personal nature of stories. A good story – with plot, hero, crisis and resolution – does nothing if not peel back the onion over the soul of the teller.

A story can give a glimpse into the experience, heart and mind of people. This is personal and can be a bit scary, which helps explain why good stories can be so hard to write. Despite evidence provided by Facebook’s rise (or perhaps evidenced by the often shallow nature of Facebook interaction), sharing is not simple. Most people have a hard time revealing or hinting at details of their lives for an audience. We’re shy. Or wary. Reticent. Or just way too damn busy to bother.

Organizations Behave Like Organizations, not People

Organizations too often approach storytelling projects as, well, the organizations they are and not as people. It’s hard to explain the purpose of the story, what will happen to it, what the organization will offer in return for the story. Organizations dive into the technical aspects – guidelines, format for the web page, forms, where do photos and video actually live – and can pay too little attention to the story itself and the opportunity for creating and strengthening sustainable relationships that can offer more value to the organization and the storyteller.

We can, with a good sized email list or other audience, make a request for user stories – narrative, audio, video, photos or a combination – and get responses. But it’s easy to undervalue the opportunity and/or not be sure how much value there might be. Interaction and relationship-building has a reputation for being staff resource intensive – and it can be tough and not necessarily scale. Rather than undermine the potential, however, by not giving a project enough resources and the participants enough support.

That’s why it is great to see an online storytelling website with a purpose in mind and a fair value proposition for the audience while providing the support needed to help the audience craft great stories.

[Read more...]

Slow Action: Engagement with Intention

Slow Food International’s website has a quote from Carlo Petrini, Slow Food founder and president, at the top of the homepage that does a great job summing up what the movement is about:

“Slow Food unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”

Tortoise and the Hare sculpture in Copley Square, Boston. Photo by Leo Reynolds, Flickr.

Tortoise and the Hare sculpture in Copley Square, Boston. Photo by Leo Reynolds, Flickr.

Set aside the “food” part for a minute and let’s talk about “slow.” I know, nobody wants to deal with slow. In our culture – and organizations – slow seems counter to progress. And progress, moving forward and change is what we want. Most often, change needs to happen now. Or tomorrow. Or at least by that key deadline for donations at the end of the month.

Take a look at our communications with constituents. Emails are action alerts. We strive to create a sense of urgency. There is so much “noise” out there that we presume that if the tone isn’t critical, dire and needing action today then we’ll be ignored.

There is nothing slow about what we’re doing. In fact, we can be so frantic that constituents can’t keep track of who we are and what we’re doing.

What’s missing is not so much the “slow” but rather engagement and intention. Campaigns roll out quickly, perhaps even unexpectedly from the view of the member.

One concept at the base of slow food is “oneness.” A deep understanding of food issues – and agriculture, nutrition and humane eating – is fostered over time by establishing relationships with other people, recipes, animals and the meals themselves.

What’s often missing is an intentional plan and commitment to helping people create relationships with issues – and with other people in and around the issue – over time. Immediate needs and critical issues are not sustainable over time. Relationships – deeply felt bonds – can be held onto and built upon.

Perhaps we need to up our expectations: both what we hope for the time and investment that people will make in our issues AND the level of guidance and support that we provide to constituents.

In most organizations we can’t have personal engagement plans for each and every person that comes through the door (or the inbox) but we can create general guidelines and strategies to implement them. Maybe we say that 50% of new subscribers will take a second action within 45 days (and while that may not seem impressive it would be a big reach in most organizations). Then we need to measure for that and create, assess and adjust our tactics to meet that goal.

This might be a start. We could create similar plans for Facebook and other social network constituents – and I would argue that those networks need clear goals, plans and resources to move fans to action-taking contributors to issues.

Engagement and relationships are a process. The tortoise didn’t beat the hare with quick action but through intention and commitment to a plan. If organizations are going to be good stewards of their goals, issues and donor resources then there needs to be a commitment to strategic intention that builds and deepens relationships over time.

Model Goals, Not Just Outcomes

Dealing as I do with online campaigns and social media I hear quite often about how we the organization or client “need to do it like they did it [at group or campaign X].” Invariably, when pressed for what that means, you hear something like “well, they really got a lot of people involved” and/or “they raised a ton of money.” Sometimes you hear “well, they won.”

350 Day of Action photo by Sioux Falls Green Project

Photo from 350.org day of action by Flickr user Sioux Falls Green Project

All good reasons to look for inspiration and models in the work of others. They were successful. Let’s do it that way.

But this assumes at least a couple factors that organizations or campaigns can’t necessarily replicate. Nor should they.

  1. It assumes that the goals and practices of “good campaign x” track are a match and transferable. Hmm. Maybe but probably not. This deserves examination. When you peel back the layers of a campaign’s communications, staff, volunteers, ads, news coverage and all the rest you come to its core goals. Nine times out of ten (at least) the best campaigns perform at a high level because those goals were crystalline, achievable and shared amongst all involved. The outcomes track to those. If your goals aren’t similar you’ll struggle to replicate outcomes. Align on goals first.
  2. These high-performing online campaigns share interesting structures that are optimized for the web and social media. This doesn’t mean they’re all built the same way (which would lead one to define the secret formula…psst, there isn’t one) or that they aren’t tied into a larger structure that operates differently.

This structure is one that takes into account the interconnectedness and social aspects of the web. But staffing and “culturing” this network-sensitive approach in an organization takes some awareness. It’s not just about creating a website with “social features.”

Recently, Jason Mogus at Communicopia blogged about how organizations and campaigns can craft themselves using the network principles of the web and how that structure lends itself to creating campaigns, cultures and organizations that thrive on the hyper-networked web. He draws on actual first-hand experience (the best kind) with entities and campaigns like 350.org, Avaaz and TckTckTck . Here’s what he had to say:

From my own observations working with these groups familiar patterns emerge: small, usually virtual teams of multi-skilled people – all leaders in their own right – collaborating in real time without silos or management reporting boundaries. Not distracted by ongoing programs that muddy priorities and chew up resources, and empowered to say no to opportunities that don’t fit or aren’t realistic. Valuing listening, letting the community they serve inform (or even set) priorities, and collaborating openly with them on their most important work. Disciplined people, tracking metrics in real time, dropping what doesn’t work, and focusing on a few key leverage points, throwing everything they’ve got at one thing when openings appear.

They way they use technology is also important. There is often no “web department” of networked orgs – everyone is comfortable using modern communications tools. There are of course specialists on staff to build and fix things, but no one has to ask a different department to “blog that story” or “tweet that insight”, everyone has their fingers on the pulse of a different version of their constituency, everyone is a collaborator. Technology helps them do this faster and more efficiently, and lowers the barriers between those inside and those outside the organization.

This is worth chewing on as you tackle your next “big social media campaign.” It’s not about the technology – this app or that website – but rather it’s about the people. The people you’re trying to reach and engage, no doubt, but also the people inside guiding the work. How do they interact, learn and share? Build and model networks internally and you may have more success building and engaging them externally.