Bright Ideas

Communications Strategy

Virtually every fundraising initiative, marketing effort, policy program, or political campaign depends on an effective communications strategy: clear, helpful, and timely messages arriving at the right time in the right ways to the right audiences.

Bright+3 has guided local and national advocacy, fundraising, and political campaigns.

We specialize in helping clients nail down the best messages, assemble the right mix of strategies and channels, and ensure that your communications strategy is tightly aligned with your organizational or campaign goals. Whether online or offline, utilizing earned media or paid media, permission-based or prospecting, and whatever your budget, we know what it takes to effectively engage your members, shape public opinion, and impact decisions.


Blue Shield Foundation of California
Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition

Organizational Effectiveness

Most organizations and leaders are struggling to keep up with the change-driven pressures that digital are placing on them. There are more communications channels than ever, we’re quickly buried in data, and individuals outside the organization have the tools to create power that can both support and tear down organizations.

How do we organize our leadership and staff for digital success? How do we train and support our staff? How do we manage digital channels, social networks, and data across the broader organization. These are a few of the questions we help organizations answer.

Bright+3 helps leaders navigate the turbulent waters of new positions, changing programs, and new pressures from rapidly shifting technologies. Our experience spans the spectrum of organizational and executive support but focuses primarily on ensuring that organizational cultures are digital-facing so that organizations can prosper in a rapidly changing environment.

Some of our clients include the Sierra Club, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, The Wilderness Society, and Blue Shield Foundation of California.

Offline community is where the power happens

It was with great interest and some amusement that I read a piece by Andy Ellwood in Forbes titled (ironically, I think) Could Offline Communities be the Next Big Thing?

Occupy Monopoly
Offline community action via Flickr user Conskeptical

After all, it was only a couple decades ago that the public consumption Internet was just getting rolling. Up until that time all “communities” were, you know, happening in real life – that’s what we now call offline. But the thing is that community – civic groups, clubs, political interest groups, just neighbors getting together – was languishing at the time.

People were, as Robert Putnam described, spending a lot of time bowling alone instead of collaborating in and around their community.  This, Putnam argued, sapped citizen engagement and weakened democratic institutions (which may be continually weakening for a variety of reasons – discussion for a later day).

Ellwood’s piece in Forbes profiles several examples of offline communities strengthening entrepreneurship in the United States and abroad. Startup culture is driven by people supporting one another. It’s just about impossible for one person alone to move from seemingly brilliant idea to functional company. You can read blog posts and connect online but real progress needs time and trust of the sort that happens in person.

There is a lot of talk about online communities in the nonprofit world. Rightfully so. Engaging and supporting your social media, email, and supporter communities is important. But real changes to behavior, community decision making, and public policy require we invest in offline networks (see this recent story from the Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab about Washington Bus for a great example of offline/online working together). Offline community – it’s where the people are. It’s where empathy, reliance and trust mix together in that mystical recipe for power.


Annoying your list works except when it doesn’t

This goes in the category of things you probably shouldn’t adapt from the Obama campaign for your organization.

Annoying annoying-email-wonkaA friend sent me an excerpt from Wednesday morning’s Politico Playbook. It amounted to an excerpt from Jonathan Alter’s book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (to be released on June 4th) that focused on the Obama digital team’s email strategy, fundraising, and the value of extensive testing.

The Obama campaign tested most everything. As Alter describes, they  even (wisely) ran tests against their experience and hunches. As the campaign progressed the need to raise more (and more) money became more (and more) pressing. Good sense and experience told the email team that too much email would annoy people to the point of tuning out, unsubscribing or maybe just not voting.

You know what’s smart? Testing the frequency of your emails.
Continue reading “Annoying your list works except when it doesn’t”

Power of the people: Acknowledge it

We send thank you notes to donors and good organizers do what they can to thank their activists and volunteers. But it seems difficult for groups to acknowledge the power of the people – the huge cross-section of regular people that give up their time – that together make our work bigger and better than it could be if we were just staff out doing our work.

A friend, Apollo Gonzales, recently shared the story of a project he started when he worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Apollo and his team wanted to recognize and acknowledge the people (and their power) that made NRDC’s advocacy successful. Apollo tells the story best:

Before I left NRDC in 2011 I started a project that was aimed at telling the story of how our advocates and members were a major force in the work we were doing. I wanted to tell a story that told the importance of people power. I interviewed staff who I knew had been with the organization for a long time, and who I knew had a passion for how people drove the victories we were winning. This story took shape as a video, and for a thousand little reasons we were never able to get past a script and story boards. It was the one thing I regret not having finished in my time there. Yesterday, my dear friends at Giant Ant sent me the final version.

The resulting story, Loud Voices Together are Heard, is told in a wonderful video produced by Giant Ant and narrated by Shane Koyczan

Continue reading “Power of the people: Acknowledge it”

Listening to the Obama campaign’s digital team: Four ways to strengthen organizational culture

Last week I was fortunate to be part of two discussions in one day about digital teams in big organizations. Instead of talking about the latest big win (and one had a huge win) or cutting edge campaign, both conversations veered towards organizational culture issues. One team addressed culture concerns head on, knowing it makes a difference in digital success. The other sees problems but is stuck, unable to steer, even a bit, the culture issues that weigh down the team.

One conversation was with a key member of the digital team at a national nonprofit advocacy group. The digital team has struggled for a while as the group has tried to figure out where digital fits in the organization. As we talked – and as I reflected on the next conversation – it became obvious that structure (and continual “restructuring”) wasn’t the whole story.

The second discussion happened at an event that included a panel of four key members of the Obama campaign’s digital team, including CTO Harper Reed.

Obama digital team leaders speak at Galvanize in Denver. March 7, 2013.
Obama digital team leaders speak at Galvanize in Denver. March 7, 2013.

I expected this panel to focus on how they pulled the products and technology together. The event was organized by a start-up incubator so it would probably touch on the lessons that iterative design, open source development, and relying on a cloud application servers might offer entrepreneurs.

Continue reading “Listening to the Obama campaign’s digital team: Four ways to strengthen organizational culture”

Investment, results, and transparency: Younger generations change changemaking

A recent study by the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and 21/64, a nonprofit consulting practice, dives into the giving interests and preferences of young major donors. The report, available at, provides useful insights into how young, highly engaged activists and donors view their relationship with charities and social change campaigns.

Modern fundraising integrates online and in-person approaches. Photo via Flickr user jaymiek.
Modern fundraising integrates online and in-person approaches. Photo via Flickr user jaymiek.

This study has been making the rounds. It has been covered recently by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, was introduced by its authors in Stanford Social Innovation Review, and moved Jeff Brooks to provide a valuable critique that we’ll get into shortly.

What’s important about the opinions of a few hundred wealthy young donors? It’s well known in philanthropic circles that the transition of wealth from baby boomers to younger generations is coming – it has in fact begun – and will pass trillions of dollars to donors that have come of age in a world where the Internet has radically changed both communications and donor-organization relationships.

Basically, these are important nonprofit supporters today but in years to come this cohort will be found on nonprofit boards and in other leadership positions. Their attitudes towards giving and programming will help shape nonprofit budgets, staffing, and more.

What’s less clear, of course, is how transferable the experience and opinions of a small set of young donors is to a larger populace that will (one hopes) become tomorrow’s nonprofit donors, members, activists and volunteers. We can, though, highlight some key takeaways from this survey that coincide with our own experience working in and around nonprofits in recent years.

Investment, results, and transparency

The nature people’s relationship with nonprofit organizations is constantly evolving. This is true on an individual level – most people are more engaged in their community as they get older, have kids, stay in one place for a while, and have more disposable income – and at a broader scale. The Internet has changed communications, hastening a shift in expectations people have about information sources, interaction with government and community groups, and the availability of performance or result-driven data. Continue reading “Investment, results, and transparency: Younger generations change changemaking”

Your leadership elephant

Is missing technology leadership in your organization shouting at you? The elephant says it is.

Chances are your organization doesn’t have people in senior leadership roles with experience in digital campaigning, technology development, or online movement building. No high-level ability to analyze and manage the relationship between technology and programmatic outcomes may be one of the greatest obstacles to organizational growth and success today. And too few are talking about it. Get your board and managers together and chances that visionary and capable leaders comfortable with technology are the elephant in the room.

Yesterday, NARAL Pro-Choice America announced that Ilyse Hogue will become its next president. Ms. Hogue brings deep campaigning experience and, notably, a background in meshing online and field systems to build movements, raise money, and change politics. I don’t know exactly why NARAL made this choice but I suspect that online experience played a role.

Technology is Pervasive

If you work with technology at all you likely are (or have been) overwhelmed by the complexity and variety of ways to solve every problem. Web and social media metrics, application development, video production, and even web design are just a few of nonprofit tech subjects that are continually evolving yet increasingly basic to digital advocacy and marketing. Continue reading “Your leadership elephant”

What community advocates should know about the Princeton Offense

2310501543_c25c74204f_bIt occurred to me, while watching Georgetown trounce Western Carolina a few weekends ago (thanks for the game, Eric!), that nonprofit advocates might learn a thing or two from the Princeton Offense practiced by the Hoyas and others.

The Princeton Offense, so named because of its origins at its namesake university early in the 20th century, is a high-energy offense that uses constant motion, frequent passing, and sharp cuts to create shooting opportunities. The offense relies on nimbleness and speed … by making frequent and sudden cuts timed with sharp inside passes, players often find themselves all alone with the ball and an easy layup. If the defense pulls in to cut off those opportunities, the offense finds itself with more open three-point shot options.

The Princeton Offense has some limitations. For one thing, it depends on the entire squad being strong at passing, layups, and shooting three-pointers. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need to excel at everything, but they all need to be solid. For another, it requires a great deal of preparation and discipline, effective communication, and tight teamwork. This may be true for basketball in general, but it’s exacerbated in an offensive scheme based on sharp, precision movements.

But it doesn’t rely on overpowering your opponent, which is good given that small community groups are often at a disadvantage in terms of funding, political connections, and political muscle. Instead, it relies on qualities often found in spades among nonprofit advocates: agility, high-energy, and versatile team members.

This analogy is a stretch, I know, but the basic point is sound: play to your strengths. Design strategies that take advantage of your assets, and sidestep or minimize the strengths of your opponents. Whenever possible, set the terms of the engagement rather than play their game.

If you like the basketball-as-political-strategy analogy, the basketball team at Grinnell College offers another fun example. Unable to compete for the best players (it’s a small college in the middle of Iowa, after all), but still able to recruit a bunch of guys with solid high school experience, they twisted convention on its head: rather than field their best players for longer stretches, they substitute fresh legs constantly so that every Grinnell player on the court is able to play at 100% for the entire (short) time they’re on. The details vary every cycle, but they send in substitutes every half-minute or so, and within the first three minutes Grinnell has already fielded fifteen players playing an average of a minute each. They shoot like crazy and they leave guys on the offensive end (violating convention but not the rules). Although their opponents may consistently field better players, each member of the Grinnell squad can play at 100% the entire time they’re on the court (versus, say, an opponent, only playing at 80% because of their need to pace themselves for longer stretches of game time). “The System,” as it’s called, is a controversial approach, and it isn’t popular among basketball purists, but Grinnell – with a 7-2 record this season – is figuring out a way to play competitive ball despite being underpowered and out-skilled.

Analogies like these obviously have their limits, but there might be some wisdom to draw from the comparisons, and at the very least they can help reinforce some basic instincts about crafting effective strategies even when outmatched by your opponent.

(Photo by Flickr user Keith Allison.)

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.

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.