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Put Persuasive Storytelling to Work for Your Nonprofit
Most successful communications products, both print and online, have something in common. They begin with a real story about a person or situation that motivates the reader to read on. And, just like a good novel, the story features interesting characters, a rich context and a compelling plot. Think “Anna Karenina,” not Danielle Steel.
Storytelling cuts through the mass of information surrounding us. So, instead of being bombarded with facts, names, figures, and other chunks of information that dull your prospect’s interest, a story lead makes what you’re trying to say seem personal and exciting.
For example, instead of promoting a two-year-old program (and promotion is the first step in fundraising) with a promise of being able to “provide art and music classes for 8,400 children in 450 Philadelphia elementary schools that currently offer none at all,” you can lead with a story like this: (NOTE: This is a fictional scenario.)
“In 2001, fifth-grader Arlene Sherman was one of the first elementary school students in her Philadelphia district to participate in the Art for All program. Arlene, who had never before had art or music classes in school, found that she loved to sing, and had a talent for it. After three years in the program, one of her middle school teachers took Arlene to an audition for a city-wide children’s choir, and she made the cut. After three years as the lead alto in the choir, Arlene is now the student choirmaster, and has started a choir in her own high school. Thanks to Art for All, Arlene now loves music, and has honed her singing talent. Even better, she’s spreading her passion, and her knowledge, with fellow students.”
When you use a story like this, you must tell the truth. Exceptions are stories that you clearly label as based on imagination by saying something like “Imagine ..”
Well-told stories (or case studies, which for promoting programs and services serve the same purpose) enable your nonprofit to communicate more effectively. Through compelling stories, you:
- Sound experienced and expert.
- Present your information in a way that makes people enjoy reading it and remember it more easily.
- Avoid barriers of excess information.
- Pull together many independent facts and figures into an easy-to-absorb whole.
- Show (and not tell) your reader what you’re really delivering.
- Make your message more manageable.
- Give your audiences an easy way to understand (even visualize) and explain his participation decision (to volunteer, to give, to serve on the board).to himself and others.
There are nine elements to any good story, whether storytelling lead, novel, or movie. A good story:
- Is relevant to your audiences. Know your audiences and what they care about. Choose an example, and craft the story, to focus on those passions.
- Is usually about a person or people. We’re far more attracted to stories about people than stories about machines, ideas, strategies, or the like.
- Carries an underlying message. The message in a storytelling lead is usually your promise or an idea that leads directly to your promise.
- Is dense with detail. Details give stories (and promotions) a texture of credibility.
- Is entertaining, and entertainingly written, as the story builds, and ultimately, surprises. A story about a kid in music class isn’t as exciting as Arlene’s success story. Evolution or adventure makes a good read.
- Isn’t too long. Ever been to a movie that you felt ended two-thirds of the way through? You probably wanted to (and maybe did) walk out as the story dragged on. If you’re writing a storytelling lead, don’t make your audiences suffer the same way.
So when you’re shaping the messages for your next campaign, annual report, or service/program promotion, see what stories you can find and feature them in your copy. And, take one step further to fortify your stories with photos and testimonials if possible.
When you do, I think you’ll see what a difference a story can make, and find lots of applications for stories in your nonprofit’s communications.
By Nancy E. Schwartz, Publisher – GettingAttention.org / President – Nancy Schwartz & Company -Published in NEW’s February 2013 edition of NewsNotes. Schwartz helps nonprofits succeed through effective marketing. Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to nonprofit organizations and foundations nationwide. She is the publisher of the Getting Attention e-update and blog. For more nonprofit marketing guidance like this, subscribe to her e-update.
NEW Unveils Workshop on Building and Sustaining Diverse Boards
NEW (Nonprofit Enterprise at Work) is excited to announce a new BoardConnect workshop – “Towards a Culture of Inclusion: Building and Sustaining a Diverse Board.” The workshop, the first in a series of three offered through our new “Catalysts for Change” program, will take place Tuesday, January 22 from 8am– 11am at the Hannan House in Detroit. Additional offerings will include a two-part workshop titled “Cultural Fluency in the Boardroom.”
Nonprofit organizations are recognizing that to better serve their communities, they must include the representation and engagement of individuals with diverse identities across all lines of difference. This workshop, developed and facilitated by Rosemary Linares, NEW’s Program Associate and Training Specialist, is designed to help nonprofit organizations meet these needs, recruit diverse Board members, create an environment that is inclusive and establish a diverse leadership pipeline.
Rosemary Linares, NEW's Program Associate and Training Specialist
“For many years the for-profit sector has embraced the values of diversity and inclusion as a way to strengthen the bottom line, particularly as the demographics of our country are rapidly changing,” says Linares. “It’s time for nonprofit leaders to intentionally expand and deepen the impact of these values across our sector, in order to foster innovation and sustainability, as well as effectively advance our charitable missions. We designed this workshop to share our tools and resources with nonprofit board members throughout Southeast Michigan.”
In preparation for this workshop, Linares incorporated data from national reports on nonprofit board diversity, as well as findings from the statewide Transforming Michigan Philanthropy through Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, spearheaded by the Council of Michigan Foundations.
Attendees will review nonprofit board diversity trends, learn how to examine barriers of diversity, inclusion and equity within their organizations, as well as learn how to develop a diversity and inclusion action plan.
“NEW is excited to add another component to its governance training. We have found that most charity boards want to embrace a diversity of volunteer talent, but they don’t always know how to approach the conversation or put a meaningful plan into action,” says Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs. “As with all our consulting and training offerings, we are taking a hands-on, realistic approach, and see this diversity and inclusion training as one more tool in our toolkit in helping nonprofit boards be the best they can be.”
Before joining NEW, Linares launched Cross Movement Social Justice Consulting, L3C, to advance social justice by increasing the capacity of nonprofit organizations and building alliances across movements. She currently serves on the board of Detroit Latin@z, the Washtenaw County Pride Picnic Planning Committee and is a Community Engagement Co-Planner with the Understanding Race Project in Washtenaw County, in conjunction with the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.
The cost of the workshop is $75 per person and includes breakfast. Register here!
See additional program information in the January edition of NewsNotes.
What is Founder’s Syndrome and How Should Boards and the Founders Handle It?
A founder is a single individual or a small group of individuals, who bring an organization through tough times (e.g., a start-up, a growth spurt, a financial collapse). Often these sorts of situations require a strong passionate personality—someone who can make fast decisions and motivate people to action. Founders often invest significant time and money into the nonprofit. They are used to being very hands-on and drivers of programming and service delivery. But the question is how to move successfully past the founder stage? How can the stakeholders of an organization ensure sustainability of the nonprofit and the mission when the founder continues to play a role while the organization grows and changes?
Just like start-up for-profit businesses, nonprofits require flexibility as the needs for making decisions in the organization change. They need to implement mechanisms for shared responsibility and authority. It is when those decision-making mechanisms do not change while the organization grows that “Founder’s Syndrome” becomes an issue. We see this most frequently with organizations that have grown from a mom-and-pop operation to a $2-10 million community powerhouse, and decisions are still made as if the founders were gathered around someone’s living room. Founder’s Syndrome isn’t necessarily about the actual founder of an organization. The central figure could be the person who took over from the founder. It could be someone who took over in a time of crisis, and led the organization to clear waters. It could be a demonstrative board member there from the beginning who does not recognize the need for changing roles. Or, it could just be someone who has been at the helm forever. It could the person that “birthed” the nonprofit and holds tremendous passion for the mission and possibly has significant personal and financial investment. In other words it could the person to whom everyone seems to defer to out of respect or because this person still holds the purse strings.
Regardless, it is very important for individuals in leadership roles to understand this place in the nonprofit’s lifecycle and lead it to sustainable governance.
What Founder’s Syndrome Could Look Like
Founder’s syndrome decisions often are not made strategically. Usually decisions are simply made by the “Founder.” All other parties merely rubber stamp what the founder suggests. There is generally strong resistance to any change in decision-making, where the Founder might lose his/her total control of the organization. Boards of these organizations usually do not govern, rather they “approve” what the founder suggests. Planning is not done collectively, but by the founder. And plans/ideas that do NOT come from the founder usually do not go very far. In other words, regardless of the size of the organization, everyone who is NOT the Founder is relegated to the role of support staff to the Founder. (If you ever hear a board say, “Our board’s role is just to support the CEO,” that is one of many classic signals that Founder’s Syndrome is likely at play.)
Some may ask, “So what’s wrong with that?” And the answer is simple: If the “Founder” is hit by a meteor tomorrow, the organization is not sustainable, and all the good work the organization has done over the years is in danger of screeching to a halt. This threat occurs because organizations facing Founder’s Syndrome usually have little infrastructure in place because it simply has not been needed. In these situations, the founder IS the infrastructure!
What Founders Need to Know
Once you have birthed it, it is no longer your baby. Just as it is with our own children, once they are born, they are their own people. We can guide our children, teach them, nurture them—but our son or daughter is a person in his/her own right. The same goes for “our” organization. It’s not ours. It is its own thing. We don’t own it. In fact, legally, a 501C3 is owned by the stakeholders.
Once you give a gift, it’s no longer yours. You have created this amazing gift for your community. Now that it is used and depended upon by others—now that you have given this gift to the community, it is no longer yours. It belongs to the community. That’s the definition of a gift.
From these two facts—that the organization is a being in its own right, and that that being belongs to the community, not the founding member—come a number of other facts many founders may hesitate to face.
- Along with the decision to bring a child into the world comes the responsibility to raise it to live independently. We all know the old adage “nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Well, the part we do not like to admit to ourselves is that there is another certainty associated with the “death” part—and that is that none of us knows exactly when our day will come. Because we know we are not going to live forever, and we cannot know if our last day will be tomorrow or 50 years from now, it is irresponsible to run our organizations as if we will, in fact, be around forever. It is simply not fair to the organization, or to those who benefit from the work we do. The only responsible approach, therefore, is to raise this child to NOT need us.
- The world doesn’t owe you anything for having founded your organization. We gave up our lives to create the organization we founded. We went without sleep, sweated, cried and bled for this organization, and in some cases, even went into debt. But the sad truth is that nobody owes us anything for doing that. We did it because we cared. Regardless of which metaphor you use—that of having a child, or that of giving a gift—neither of them provides for a payback. Our “payback” in having children is in seeing them grow and take on the world on their own. And our “payback” for giving a gift is in seeing how happy the recipient is to use that gift, hopefully for a long, long time.
- It’s not about you. Harsh, but true. It is hard sometimes to acknowledge that regardless of how much we put into nurturing the organization we founded, in the long run, none of that really matters. It is not about our emotional needs—regardless of what those are. It is not about what we have sacrificed to make it all work, or the recognition and gratitude we think we should get. It is about the community—which is why we created this gift in the first place. If we have not prepared the organization to survive (and dare I say thrive?) without our presence and we cannot even think of leaving, as the organization would crumble without us, then we have somehow made it about us, rather than about the community.
- Your vision isn’t nearly as important as the organization’s vision and the community’s vision. Yes, it was our vision that founded the organization in the first place. But as the organization grows and matures, that vision may not be all there is. The ability for the organization to dramatically affect the community may be far larger than the vision we had when we first opened the doors. Doing things the way they have always been done, and thinking the way things have always been thought is not necessarily the best thing for the organization, nor for the community it serves. It is simply what WE would do. So if we fear the vision would change if we weren’t there, perhaps it’s time to let it evolve while we are still present. In the first year after birth it is time to revisit the mission and the vision. What does the community want from us and what is missing in the community as it pertains to the importance of the work?
So What is a Founder To Do?
First, if you are the founder of a brand new organization and you are just starting out, build it right. Build it to be sustainable for the future. Build it as if you won’t be there to see it through its life. Think about the future while you are creating the organization’s present.
If, however, the organization is an older one, and it and you have become inextricably entwined, then there is work to be done. Some of that work is organizational. Some is personal.
Let’s start with the personal side:
- Acknowledge that some day, the split will happen. The only way to ensure that your legacy is an organization that serves the community long after you are gone is to acknowledge, right now, that you cannot be there forever—and that you never know when that “forever” will occur. Take that to heart and be conscious of it as you plan for your organization’s future, and you will likely put the needed tools in place to survive you. If however you keep a sense of entitlement or make others around you think you deserve entitlement as the founder, then you will have trust problems and you will risk the organizational health of the nonprofit. Do not surround yourself with “yes” people. You need workers and you need people who will debate openly with you for the good of the organization.
- Get help. Find a professional coach who can help you work out the personal aspects of your eventual separation from the organization, even if you are not going anywhere but are just thinking about ensuring the organization is ready in the event you do. This is especially important for those of you who do not believe you have Founder’s Syndrome, but have heard it whispered.
On the organizational side:
- A healthy organization starts with a healthy board. Whether you are a board member or the CEO, if the board as a whole is depending on you for everything from the organization’s vision to the connection to the community, then it is time to begin developing, training and restructuring your board to lead the organization. This will likely take some very strategic recruiting efforts as well—because there is a good chance many of the existing board members were hand-picked by you! (That’s all part of the syndrome.) If the organization is to thrive into the next decade and further, the board will have to understand its role at the top of the organizational chart, and it will have to be populated by people who want to do that job. It is time to really look at governance structures that will allow for sustainability.
- Codify the vision and values that are at the heart of the organization. Create a working credo that will guide both the board’s future decisions and those made by the staff. There is nothing to say that the credo won’t evolve over time– it likely will. But the core of what is important will remain, and that will be another part of your legacy. Do not disregard the importance of organizational values.
- Create a succession plan that proactively deals with all the things you (or the board) fear might happen when you leave.
- Are they afraid that you have been the link to the community, the public image of the organization? Then determine a way to proactively deal with that—perhaps creating a speakers bureau or PR committee.
- Are they afraid that most of the institutional memory of the organization resides inside your head? Then find a way to proactively deal with that—perhaps by committing that knowledge to paper or video.
- Are they afraid that you have been the best fundraiser they could dream of? Then find a proactive way to deal with that—perhaps by developing an army of development volunteers with a passion for the mission or a board that understands that 50% of their role will be ambassadorship and fundraising.
Whatever the fear, make sure your succession plan deals with it proactively to ensure the viability of the organization for the long term. While the main focus of this plan will be succession, the ancillary benefit is that you will be building organizational infrastructure. And that will provide benefit immediately.
- As part of your succession plan, train someone now who could replace you, even temporarily, in the event something happens to you. This doesn’t mean you are going anywhere soon. You may not be leaving for another 10 years! But if the whole organization relies on you for its survival, and you really are hit by a meteor tomorrow, then what will happen? Find someone you can share your institutional knowledge with, and train them to share the load now, while you still can.
- When you leave, do not plan to stay on the board of directors. If you move to a governing role on the board, the new CEO/Executive Director will never be able to get out from under your shadow and you run the risk that board members and others will continue to defer to you. You should move out of the way and let the new culture be created.
All nonprofits have a “start-up” phase. If you are in it now and you are reading this article, then you can start to build sustainability with a clear understanding of “Founders Syndrome” and all of the components it entails. For the beginning leadership group, do not rush the process; make sure to embrace achieving clarity of mission, vision, governance structures and norms. Yes, they will change over time, but just like children need to go to school to learn, nonprofit founders and boards need to adapt to change, while learning about best practices for sustainability and high impact.
Written by Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs, for the December edition of NEW’s Notes. Diana has a commitment to board governance and strong nonprofits. She is considered an expert in nonprofit board dynamics and governance.
Check out other stories in this month’s NEW’s Notes here.
Giving – A New Era?
Now that “Giving Tuesday,” the “national day of giving” for Americans, has passed, I wonder if the desire to support a cause will continue beyond the holidays?
A few weeks ago, I watched the History Channel premier of “The Men Who Built America,” a series documenting the lives and achievements of the men who built modern day America – Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Henry Ford. These men competed for decades to see who could accumulate the most wealth. At one point in the series, Carnegie remarked, “the man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” A new competition began. The race was to see which industry titan could give away the most money before dying. This made me think about giving and what that might mean for me.
After five years in the nonprofit industry, I’ve learned there are many important causes. Although, that 42 inch plasma and puppy I secretly want would be nice, I’m determined to do something meaningful this year. This year, I’ve decided to forgo the dreaded and often lengthy excursions to the mall to purchase gifts, and will give to my favorite cause instead.
Individuals are inspired to give for many reasons, including a personal connection to or passion for the mission, the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others, and a personal connection to a community the organization serves.
There are different ways to give as well. Some people make a financial donation. Others volunteer their time. Organizations also give back. Many, including NEW, have giving campaigns, in which they choose one organization to support throughout the year, and the entire staff is encouraged to contribute. Organizations or individuals may also host a fundraiser to support a cause for another organization.
Personally, I am always drawn to those in which I have a personal connection to the mission, particularly to those institutions that promote health, fitness and youth development. As you begin to decide which causes and organizations to support, think about what your interests and passions are, what inspires you, and how you want to give.
Tread carefully, you’ll soon discover that giving is addictive and contagious. Here’s to hoping our friends and family catch what’s going around.
Written by Janice Gates, NEW’s Manager of Program Support. You may reach Janice at (734) 998-0160 ext. 206 or email@example.com. For more information about NEW’s programs visit www.new.org and sign up for NEW’s Week and NEW’s Notes.
Governance as a Lever
As United Way for Southeastern Michiganevolved its business model from one that raised and disbursed funds to one of measurable results and impact, the organization’s leadership recognized the necessary step of emphasizing the role of governance in accelerating its impact. The organization was in a place of strength, and, as part of navigating change, leadership was ready to innovate strategies to increase the effectiveness of the Board of Directors.
A Task Force, launched by the board, was charged with developing a set of recommendations to evolve governance culture, structure and processes, with the overall theme of allowing for flexibility to adjust to changes in the external environment. The Governance as Leadership model and its “three modes” of governing – fiduciary, strategic, and generative – became a foundational element, and the Task Force spent time deliberating over what it would mean for United Way to reframe the board’s work around this model. The Task Force also spent time strategizing board member composition and the level of engagement necessary for success.
Although United Way is just over a year into implementation of the Task Force’s recommendations, we are often asked about our experience, including how we got started, what we have learned and our initial successes.
How We Got Started
We got started! While the Task Force undertook its deliberation process, volunteer and staff leadership partnered to redesign board and committee meeting agendas to include engaging segments where members could “turn and talk” to discuss critical questions facing the organization.
What We Have Learned
• Vision: The importance of understanding where we were vs. where we wanted to be.
• Talent: The board is a strategic asset that is often under-leveraged.
• Leadership: Success depends on creating space to activate Champions.
• Intentionality: Each mode of governance is necessary and important to an organization’s success. We have learned the importance of dedicating time to developing agendas, questions and processes that will engage the minds of those around the table.
• Commitment: The importance of dedicating time and resources. Our Senior Management Team devotes significant time toward continuously strengthening governance processes and developing meaningful experiences for members.
• Composition: The importance of determining the right criteria for individuals who join the board. At United Way, we identified three main attributes beyond the traditional demographic considerations that we use to select board members: passion, resources and expertise.
• Engagement (defined as relationship plus meaningful action): The importance of getting clear on the board’s role and investing time and resources in developing the interests of individual members.
While we are early in this journey, the board is making positive strides. Here are a few early indicators of progress:
• There is greater ownership of the organization’s mission. Individual leadership and group engagement has deepened with knowledge and dialog, clarity about roles and opportunities to activate individual passions, resources and expertise.
• The board has adopted a set of specific metrics to measure its own performance.
• Meeting attendance has increased since moving to a schedule of quarterly meetings and an annual retreat designed to maximize all three modes of governance.
• The board has a common language around culture and the three modes of governance.
We believe cultivating the governance necessary for success is an on-going process, and are continuously considering ways to take our effectiveness to the next level. We also believe strong governance is one of the most powerful levers an organization can invest in to achieve impact, create a culture of innovation and ensure sustainability.
Written by Susan Murphy, Senior Director of Corporate Governance and Strategic Initiatives for United Way for Southeast Michigan for the November 2012 edition of NEW’s Newsnotes. The mission of United Way for Southeastern Michigan is to mobilize the caring power of Detroit and Southeastern Michigan to improve communities and individual lives in measurable and lasting ways.
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Strategic Alliances: First Children’s Finance
by Monica Duncan, Michigan State Director, First Children’s Finance
I’m looking forward to a great panel discussion about strategic and shared service alliances on Thursday, April 12, as part of NEW’s Get Connected workshop series. Join us at 1 p.m at the Hannan House on Woodward in Detroit for just $10. Check out this link for the details. I hope to see you there! Let me introduce you to some of the relationships we’ve formed locally.
First Children’s Finance helps children, families and communities thrive by increasing the availability, affordability and quality of early care and education. We accomplish this by providing financial and business-development assistance to high-quality child care businesses serving low- and moderate-income families, and building partnerships that connect these vital businesses with the resources of the public and private sectors.
That means everything we do requires strategic alliances!
Here in Michigan, we have dynamic partnerships with foundations and corporations, as well as government agencies and other nonprofit organizations.
Our Michigan Children’s Chamber of Commerce provides opportunities for business people to support high-quality child care businesses in their own communities, both financially and by sharing their experience and expertise through locally-designed volunteer programs. We are proud to have PNC Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and the Detroit Regional Chamber as founding members of the Michigan Children’s Chamber.
First Children’s Finance relies on a broad network of child care industry experts and business people to advise our organization and the businesses we support. Our Michigan Leadership Council provides strategic guidance and linkages to public and private resources, as we develop programs and services that complement regional economic development initiatives. Our Growth Fund Advisors screen program applicants and review draft business plans as they are developed by child care businesses participating in our Growth Fund Business Development Programs. We couldn’t do it without them.
Register for Thursday’s Get Connected workshop: Benefits of Forming Strategic and Shared Service Alliances. Also on the panel with me:
- Brooke Franklin, Director, K-12 Strategic Partnership, Detroit Regional Chamber
- Israil Steen, Director of Education Development, Vanguard CDC
- Jane Linn, Manager of Business Operations, Cultural Alliance of Southeastern Michigan
- Carolyn Burdi, Vice President, Apparatus Solutions
- Tim Wintermute, Executive Director, Luella Hannan Memorial Foundation
Can Nonprofits Do Good and Make Money?
Yodit Mesfin Johnson, NEW’s Director of Business Development, says of course! See her lead article in the current issue of NEW’s Notes, NEW’s monthly e-newsletter. It’s not the easiest thing to start a profit-making enterprise within a nonprofit — but the rewards can be huge! A combination of the right people and targeted goals can give your organization a foundation for sustainable growth and service.
Start a Nonprofit Social Enterprise
by Stephen Y. Nose, S|Y|N Associates LLC
NEW is hosting a panel of 3 on January 26 in Detroit at their Get Connected program entitled “Starting Social Enterprise Initiatives for Community Nonprofits.” Join us for an informative session with two women who have created new funding sources for their nonprofits.