Doubling Attendance in One Year: A Success Story

Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History attendance numbers.
I’m an unabashed Nina Simon fan, and I love this post on her Museum 2.0 blog about their growth in visitor numbers, how they pulled off the impressive growth she describes, and their plans for next year. This is the type of candid, under the hood, here’s-what-we-did-what-worked-and-what-didn’t writing that I think we need much more of in the nonprofit world.

The “five great ways to do something” lists (guilty), the “a great example of doing it wrong” posts (guilty), the big picture trends stories (guilty) … all of these can be useful, but often I find the posts that lay it all out there – good and bad, lessons learned, what they’re going to try next – to be the most helpful. There isn’t anything else like it: real social sector folks describing concretely and candidly what they actually did and what they learned.

We blogged about another of Nina’s terrific ‘lessons learned’ posts back in May in case you missed it (“Year One as a Museum Director … Survived!”).

We Apologize For Any Inconvenience …

From the “tone-deaf member/customer service” files:

An automated email from United Airlines asking about my flight from Albany to Chicago. Since United repeatedly delayed and then ultimately cancelled my connecting flight out of Chicago, resulting in a 15-hour unplanned layover, and their email to me makes no mention of the cancelled flight, their note just reminds me of how oblivious they seem to the considerable inconvenience I experienced on my way home.

What might they have done instead?

They obviously have my email address and know who I am, they know I was on a flight that they delayed multiple times before canceling, and they surely can figure out that the flight I eventually caught was a long time after my flight was supposed to leave. They could have sent an email offering a small discount on my next United flight. They could have comped me the frequent flier miles even though I ended up on another airline (or just given me some extra miles). Even a simple apology would have been better (“We know what a hassle it is when your travel plans are disrupted, and we apologize for the inconvenience it caused.”). If they really wanted feedback on that first leg, they could have at least bundled the two messages, apologizing and then making the ask.

Your nonprofit is going to do things once in a while that annoy and frustrate your supporters. Owning the error, and going out of your way to making your supporters feel valued even when those inevitable mistakes happen, can go a long way toward sustaining their loyalty.

(Photo by Flickr user #96.)

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’s your member mission statement?

Can you say what the purpose of members (or, more simply, people) are in your organization?

Membership doesn't always have privileges.
Membership (or any sort of engagement) should be better than this.

I don’t mean something generic such as “to help us achieve our mission” but more to the point. How do people help meet the mission? What can they do? What is their role? What can a person (or a member, donor, supporter, volunteer) hope to really, tangibly do to be part of your team that is working so hard for change in the community?

The other day I wrote about the role of people in our organizations.  We spoke of people generally but were mostly thinking of staff and other direct team members that are actively part of the day-to-day workings of the organization. How these people fit into and excel in our rapidly evolving organizational systems is critical to the success of nonprofits, social ventures and other organizations. The role and value of people in the organizational context is changing, as Maddie Grant gets at in her Future of Work: A Manifesto.

But staff/team members are only part of the puzzle. In a highly networked and social media driven world, organizations are asking more from supporters and relying on them for their word of mouth, their networks, their time, their likes and retweets, and, of course, their money. All of that (and more) is important to organizations.

What IS the purpose of your people?

But what is the purpose or role of members/supporters in any given organization? What is the mission of the member? WHY do organizations have members (or email list subscribers or social media supporters)?

While at The Wilderness Society I kicked around the idea of a “member mission statement.” The organization has, of course, its own mission statement that you can find if you look for it. But it says nothing about what people (aka members, fans, followers, donors, supporters, and so on) can actually DO with/for/alongside the organization.

A member mission statement would have two audiences. The first (and most important) is the organization and its staff. The days when a “membership department” sent out recruitment and renewal notices while (perhaps) a volunteer organizing unit had people make phone calls or mail literature are gone. Every person in your organization has a public-facing role and is, whether they know it or not (or like it or not), interacting with members. It helps them to understand and appreciate the organization’s plan for people. And, to be clear, by staff we don’t mean just the membership and/or development department. We mean everyone.

A member mission statement is also for the members/supporters. We don’t understand why more organizations don’t clearly spell out what the expectations (or hopes) for a member are at the beginning of the relationship. Talk about the need for people to take action online, give money, tell friends, and meet or get involved with local chapters, for starters. Lay it out there. This isn’t about a newsletter and some emails. This is about you and how you will make a difference. On the flip side, say what you will provide to them.

More than anything, be clear about what the organization needs, wants, hopes for from people. Don’t keep those needs inside. Share them with the members and subscribers themselves. If you can’t or don’t want to be transparent about it then a problem exists. Go for it, instead. Tell everyone what the deal is and get going. There is a lot to do.

Photo via flickr, Tom Simpson.

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. Continue reading “Want to Fundraise Like Charity:Water? Develop Engaged Advocates, not Donors”

Connections that Bind

We hear a lot these days about increasing numbers of followers, building email lists, interacting more with users and retweets. We measure click-thrus and response rates, pageviews and bounces, and may use PostRank or Google Alerts to monitor conversations about us and our issues.

What does all this tell us about how well our organizations are or aren’t using social media, communications and membership programs in general? It can inform our efforts, certainly, but if it contributes to solid analysis is debatable. It is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and want to explore in coming posts.

A common thread in all these metrics is that they indicate a relationship between an individual and organization.

But to what extent do these relationships matter? That seems the question. What are we as individuals able and willing to do for the organization and (it must be asked) what is the organization doing for the individual?

I really like Gideon Rosenblatt’s talk a couple months back about “powerful connections” between organizations and people. Gideon asks the question: Is it possible to have a soulful relationship with an organization? He goes on to tell the story of his long-term relationship with both Groundwire and Social Venture Partners and how he worked to connect people in the organizations. His position in and among these organizations is unique, of course, but throughout he seemed driven by idea that it was people and their relationships with the organization that mattered. The program and policy minutiae would work themselves out if the passion and personal connections were in place.

Can everyone on an email list or Facebook fan page have a “soulful” connection with your organization? I hardly think so. But proactively striving to create opportunities and openings for deeper connections seems like it could only pay off in the long run.