For nonprofits, winning by year's end needs to be a year-long effort

The “year-end ask” has been a staple of the charitable funding equation for years. Like retail, this is the season that can define the fiscal year. Black Friday – along with consumer-friendly initiatives such as Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday – has recently inspired Giving Tuesday. Noble as this giving initiative is, it also finds itself strategically hamstrung as it falls on the heels of the nation’s biggest retail spending days in hopes that there is something left in the consumer wallet to support the greater good.

And that leads to a bigger, more strategic question for the charitable sector:

How can nonprofits connect effectively with prospective donors who might already be suffering from seasonal spending and donor fatigue?

Nonprofits can benefit from some of the same separation strategies that entrepreneurs and startups need to apply with investors and venture capitalist firms to gain funding support. It also requires knowing your audience, compelling them to action, and not relying on the calendar to spark donor interest.   

Following are five ways nonprofits can better attract, and work to retain, a loyal donor base:

  • DEMONSTRATE CREDIBILITY & EXPERTISE. Entrepreneurs must demonstrate talent and expertise by identifying real business problems and offer solutions. Investors will admit that good ideas don’t get funded if the right people aren’t in place. If you’re relying on a track record of past successes or name recognition to carry your organization, it’s time to rethink how your people – your most valuable assets – are helping to drive successful outcomes.
  • BE OPEN & TRANSPARENT. Investors demand regular metrics and details from entrepreneurs to see if they are delivering on their promise – and donors should expect similar consideration. Are you making it easy for donors to understand your impact? Is data relegated solely to your annual report? Proactively share your impact on both the financial and compassion meter regularly with your audience and take ownership for all that you do – even as you grow and learn to do it better.
  • TELL COMPELLING STORIES – AND NOT JUST AT YEAR'S-END. What you do and why your organization is worthy of being funded needs to be part and parcel of every nonprofit story. It’s the organization’s responsibility to raise awareness as well as funding if meaningful change is to occur. So get personal. Share insights from individuals who benefit from or impact your organization’s work. Leverage video to bring those real stories to life for the donor. And strike a balance between successes and the emotional reality of what you’re facing. As you tell authentic and compelling stories, existing and prospective funders can see that progress is being made without losing sight of a need that demands greater attention.
  • EMPOWER YOUR DONORS TO SHARE THEIR STORY – AND YOURS. Leaders and development officers will always serve as chief fundraisers, but they also need to be relationally engaged and recognize how their donors are being transformed, and then identify the right avenues to have them advocate from the heart and personal experience. This third-party validation of your organization's work often can reach and inspire a group of prospective donors that may never appear on a prospect list.
  • BRAND PRESENTATION MATTERS. Donors will judge the book by its cover. Like it or not, perception matters. But today brand strategy and communication tools that enhance brand credibility are accessible to all, including those with limited budgets. If extreme frugality has been your branding and communication strategy, then carefully consider what your brand might be communicating before you ever get a chance to speak with a donor.    

While many charities hope to hit a home run on Giving Tuesday, some inevitably will strike out. But all can take a cue from Cal Ripken – baseball’s most reliable player to ever play the game – by showing up every day and finding ways to make an impact. In doing so, nonprofits can demonstrate to donors that they have compelling reasons to be charitable that trump the well-intended, once-a-year plea.    

Your organization’s story is unique. How are you making it compelling? And how is your year-long strategy taking the pressure off the year-end ask?


A version of this post first appeared on re:charity.  

Your brand needs internal feedback, not consensus

While it’s tempting to think that coming to consensus represents good brand ideas and communication concepts winning out and a team fully aligned, it’s often the case that consensus is a way to politely sidestep what people truly fear – conflict. But healthy debate should always trump the pursuit of benign alignment. It’s how you make the good idea better.


Leaders who value input do themselves a favor by asking others to voice their opinion and then listening carefully. In particular, people outside of their area expertise can provide helpful insights as they’re not immersed in the details of the work. These ‘fresh eyes’ can reveal a lot. Or sometimes nothing.  

However, leaders are not obliged to interpret this feedback as fact. And this is where many of us run afoul – attempting to adjust and please everyone at the expense of doing what’s best, right or strategically sound.  

Like it or not, we all come to the table with our own biases and preferences. We bring strong personal opinions that seep over and taint our professional judgment. As we evaluate marketing and communication initiatives, seeking consensus can be problematic as it can dilute the way the brand is positioned, how it communicates, and how it is perceived by the audience.

Perhaps you've had conversations around communication topics with this type of pushback:

BRAND DESIGN: “I don’t like that color.” “The typeface is too modern, too big, too small, too _______.”

MESSAGE:  “Do we have to say it this way?” “We’re too stodgy.” “We should be more playful.” “We should talk more about X and less about Y.”

MARKETING: “I don’t like our ads.” “We should be advertising more.” “Our website needs more videos.” “Our competitors are on Instragram so we should be there, too.”

I’ve seen brands lose their punch, watched messages get diluted of their power, and observed marketing campaigns that fell flat because consensus prevailed. The real problem with consensus is that customers are the ones who lose out. They don’t get to see, hear or experience unique brands being bold and memorable. Instead they encounter another brand that lacks differentiation in a crowded market.

Any strategic communication approach should come equipped with thoughtful rationale for brand development, messaging and content marketing, and the most effective ways to reach the target audience.


As leaders we must ask ourselves:

  • Is this feedback pivotal or is it personal preference?
  • Do we have a strong case for 'why' that can turn skeptics into believers?

For today’s leader to be an effective chief brand ambassador, there needs to be equal parts business acumen, deft communication skills and social psychology at work. Introduce something new, bold or challenging and rest assured it will take time for everyone to embrace it.   

So take all the feedback you can get. Sift up what’s valuable and adjust as appropriate. Lead with conviction and confidence. And then give it time.

Dare I call it consensus, but you just might be surprised how big the bandwagon gets when people see all of the brand pieces coming together.   

Does your brand need more calculated risks?

Ruts. We all get into them. The goal is to get out of them, quickly – and for a brand this can be especially challenging and often saddled with cost implications.

A common knee-jerk reaction is to do something big and drastically change things up. While this may be warranted in some cases, brand managers also need the green light from those who will foot the bill for shifts in marketing strategy. Having strong rationale in place to validate a change in approach can be the difference between an ill-advised leap and calculated risk.  

Taking a calculated risk doesn’t require relying on gut intuition. It’s about recognizing performance realities and probing the depths of creativity within the proper context. Consider the following as you push the brand envelope:

ACKNOWLEDGE THE SIGNS. Knowing when it’s time to part ways with a business as usual or we’ve always done it this way approach is critical. Few branding strategies are developed with the goal of maintaining the status quo. Examine your brand and determine if your content marketing is static. Are you sharing real insights or uninspiring information? Do events offer anything new or do they come off as old activities that have been recycled for a new calendar year? If you’re seeing diminishing returns, then it’s time to rethink your engagement strategy.  

EXPLORE YOUR BRAND CHARACTER. This doesn’t suggest you do something out of character. Every well-conceived brand should have a brand roadmap that also reveals brand characteristics.  And, much like people you’re trying to reach, you’ll recognize that brands are equally multifaceted. But chances are several facets of the brand personality have been overlooked for those that have taken priority. If your brand is in a rut, explore its character traits as they may offer ways to present the brand and its offerings in a fresh light and meaningful ways to your audience.  

KEEP IT IN CONTEXT. A calculated risk doesn’t mean ignoring strategy, data or your values. It’s also not about shock and awe. It simply means taking a different approach to reaching the same desired outcome. Keep focused on the main thing as you explore and test new ways of getting there.

GIVE IT AMPLE TIME & RESOURCES. This is true for existing strategies as well as new marketing approaches. While you may feel compelled to abandon a campaign that is lacking traction, first confirm you’ve devoted the right talent for the job, given it the proper time to work, and the opportunity to tweak or perform the necessary triage to salvage good ideas that haven’t fully come to life yet.  In a world that craves instant gratification, be patient. Your marketing budget just may thank you.

We’ve heard it before: no risk, no reward. Just make sure those risks are calculated. You’ll likely earn the opportunity to take more of them, especially when performance reaps the reward.


The four-letter word that can kill credibility

Communication leaders don’t have to be in their roles for very long before they are confronted with a statement that goes something like this: 

 “We need you to find a way to put a positive spin on this.”

Spin is the one word that completely undermines what the communication function – and the PR profession – stands for. Whether it was said in jest or with every intent to sidestep the real issues at hand, spin is a trigger word the puts one's role and relationship with leaders on high alert.

Communicators are not alone in this. Our financial colleagues have a similar reaction to hearing language such as "fudge with the numbers" or "go cook the books" regardless of the context in which it was said.

But given this gaffe, it's important to give leaders the benefit of the doubt knowing that greater insight on what reputation management is and isn’t can go a long way. When corrected immediately and with resolve, leaders gain a better appreciation into how valuable their communication counsel is to protecting the brand in addition to simply promoting it.

But leaders who fail to recognize the err of their ways by advocating a less than truthful telling of any story are setting themselves up for irreparable damage – personally and for the brand.

Few companies enjoy lasting success when there is intent to spin news that isn’t deemed favorable. Every company has highs and lows. How those fluctuations get handled speaks volumes.

Further, bad news doesn’t age well, and the longer it is concealed the worse it will be when it comes to light. And it almost always does.

Spin is the four-letter word that should prompt the ethical communicator to pause and think twice. It’s typically an indicator into a leadership ethos and begs the question whether the values painted on the company wall are true or simply an outcome of a group exercise.

This is why communicators owe it to the leaders they serve and support to confront them on this issue and help them think strategically about the value of clear, concise and credible communication.

The white lie, the half-truth and the diversion tactic all constitute a lack of honesty, and when thrust upon employees, customers or the media, each audience will call it what it is. Worse yet, it erodes credibility from the inside, hollowing out a company’s values and culture while creating much larger issues.  

There’s a lot at stake packed into this one word – the ethical behavior of communicators, the credibility of leadership, and the lasting reputation of the organization. When leaders turn to their trusted communication counsel during challenging times, answers won’t necessarily be easy. But they should take great comfort in knowing that challenges will be met head on and with veracity, keeping in mind that this too shall pass. That's not the case when choosing to equate public relations as spin.

Next time you hear (or use) the word spin, think of it this way: in its simple definition, to spin is to go around and around, often at a dizzying speed.  Ironically, the things that people most often speak of spinning are the very things they don't want coming back around at all. Best to handle them the right way, the first time. 


Integrity: one value that organizations shouldn't claim

Enron claimed it. Washington Mutual, known today for one of the largest bank failures in American history, also claimed it. And so do many other companies looking to champion their vision and values to employees, shareholders and prospective clients.

As writers and strategists know, not all words are equal. There’s a continuous effort to find new and better ways to articulate ideas. But all this work to differentiate can lead to the homogenization of uniqueness – or more plainly stated, when the efforts to be different result in greater similarity.

Enter integrity – a word that has been elevated to the highest moral ground above terms such as trustworthy, honesty and fairness. It has become a bellwether descriptor – stoking the insatiable desire to be atop the mountain, to exclaim superiority. When a bronze, silver or gold standard isn’t good enough, a platinum or titanium standard gets ushered in. It seems integrity represents the shiny new thing of values quite well.

But when an organization proclaims its integrity and “firm adherence to a code of moral or artistic values” (Merriam-Webster), it should acknowledge it's rolling the reputational dice, especially when adherence is the job of imperfect people. Leaders would be wise to recognize the obvious: mistakes will happen and poor judgment will occur. The more people an organization employs, the more that “firm adherence” becomes a fanciful vision instead of the one that was mapped out. A definitive stance of integrity also can put leadership in a difficult position when dark clouds appear.

This doesn’t mean the tenets of integrity should be overlooked or neglected. Rather, organizations would be better served by aspiring to be recognized as possessing integrity instead of touting it as a self-anointed badge of honor. It needs to be earned daily.

Integrity means something when it is bestowed upon individuals or organizations by others. Only then does it carry real weight as intended.

That’s the irony with integrity: those that truly have it are often the ones that are least likely to claim it.

And perhaps that’s the real takeaway – to place greater value on humility and selflessness more than the chest beating and fist pumping that we have been conditioned to perform.

Is your organization articulating a set of values that is aspirational? How is it helping the entire team uphold what it stands for with confidence rather than false hubris? Share your thoughts and subtleties with us as we strive to not only say the right things, but also follow through with consistent behaviors knowing that, occasionally, bad things happen to good organizations.