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Community Engagement

3 Market Changes That Have Completely Altered the Role of Marketing in Nonprofit Organizations

Word of mouth cartoon

 

Gone are the days of marketing from the inside-out…When the exhibits teams would decide on the new attraction and leave it to the marketing team to get folks in the door. Now, in order to remain relevant and solvent, nonprofit organizations must market from the outside-in.

The increasing importance of the role of technology in our lives has brought about several changes in how the market interacts with organizations, raised the stakes in brand communication (with a new emphasis on accessibility and transparency), and even altered how we maintain our own personal relationships. This era of stakeholder (donor and constituent) empowerment has also changed the way that smart, sustainable organizations operate on the whole…not just how they “market.”

The old, inside-out method of marketing: Nonprofit boards of directors, exhibits teams, program executives or other content gatekeepers decide on the next, big feature or program for an organization – often based solely on “experiential intuition” and supported by little or no market data.  In other words, the “Someone Important – a would-be expert – just decides” method of content development.

Once the decision is made, marketing teams are notified of the content and charged with the task of bringing people in the door to see/experience the content that this important person/committee likes. It’s a self-protecting system for higher-ups and other departments: If people didn’t come, it was the marketing department’s fault.

The new, necessary outside-in method of marketing: Organizations actively listen to their audiences and collect market data to determine what kind of content the organization’s visitors and supporters want. Instead of marketing and PR teams responding to executive committees alone, things are increasingly the other way around: Marketing folks are the experts on your audience and they work with decision-makers to determine which programs will engage the maximum audience (and, in turn, attendant revenues). Instead of being informed of what to “sell,” marketing teams within the most successful organizations that IMPACTS works with (nonprofit and for-profit clients alike) are brought on board in the earliest phases of the content development process to lend voice to the market’s preferences.

Here are three, critical evolutionary changes that serve as key reasons why organizations benefit by “marketing” from the outside-in:

 

1. There is an increased emphasis on product and experience (mostly, because you cannot hide it if people do not like your product or service)

How many times have you looked at your on-staff social media pro and asked urgently, “How can we increase our Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews?!” (Some CEOs even ask me this with the assumption that the answer lies in somehow “mastering” social media sites!) Your social media pro can’t increase your peer review ratings on their own because peer reviews are a result of audience experiences with your product or service. Marketers can frame the experience, provide critical clarification, and manage customer service on public platforms after the event, but you cannot sweet-talk your way out of several already-posted negative peer reviews harping on the same product or service downfall. In today’s world of transparency with the increased importance of word of mouth validation, smart organizations increasingly understand that sometimes maintaining support and affinity is dependent upon listening to audiences and then changing the product.

Increasingly, organizations are finding that they should not just have special exhibits – they should aim to have special exhibits and permanent collections that people want. (I’ll put extra emphasis on permanent collections because we can trace “Blockbuster Suicide”  to many of the financial perils currently faced by many museums).

 

2. Welcome to the age of the empowered constituent/supporter (and the increased need for audience interaction and participation)

Thanks in large part to the real-time nature of social media and digital platforms, today’s audiences are armed with vast amounts of real-time information. So much information, in fact, that audiences prefer to make decisions on their own or with the help of peer review sources (the value of which is on the rise). Indeed, if your organization isn’t particularly attune to the market (or chooses to selectively ignore potentially negative feedback as “anomalistic”), then there is an excellent chance that your audience may have more “visitor intelligence” than you do.

The role of the curator is evolving, and people now prefer to experience and interact rather than to be told what to do/think. We are seeing an increase in audience participation and crowdsourced exhibits. With these trends possibly re-defining the staid reputation of museums and other visitor-serving organizations, the “come to this because I told you so” method of thinking about marketing doesn’t work as well. It’s an outdated, inside-out approach to cultivating visitors. Today, organizations build stronger affinity when they articulate the value for the visitor (i.e. “What’s in it for the audience?”) rather than messages wherein the only apparent “gain” is the admission revenue (i.e. “What’s in it for the organization?”).  And, really, the “Because I say it will make you smarter” rationale doesn’t cut it as a major component of the value proposition.

Simply put, in order to articulate value to your visitor, you have to know your visitor now more than ever before.

 

3. Nonprofits sometimes determine importance, but the market always determines relevance (and organizations that misunderstand this now experience expedited financial strife)

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating: As highly-credible topic-experts and trusted authorities, nonprofits often are able to declare “importance.” However, if the market isn’t interested in your area of expertise or does not find it salient in their lives, they may deem your “importance” to be irrelevant. All too often, nonprofits generally misunderstand the role of the public as the ultimate arbiters of an organization’s relevance…and how much they need supporters and diversified revenue streams simply to stay afloat.

When we forget this, we get caught up and sidetracked by things like Judith Dobrzynski’s recent “High Culture Goes Hands-On” article in the New York Times. We forget that at the end of the day, we need to attract attendees, members, donors, and supporters…and that a museum that is closed cannot serve its social mission.

Due to the speedy share rate of vast amounts of information, we now live in a time when irrelevant messages are easily drowned out by other priorities – and even more-relevant “noise!” This may possibly expedite financial woe for organizations unwilling to consider the wants and needs of their audiences.

We must keep up or get left behind. We must evolve (like every other being, entity, or industry that has ever existed) or risk extinction. Increasingly, a big part of our evolution is discontinuing old habits of marketing from the inside-out, and instead keeping tabs on the market so that we may contemplate the best ways to operate from the outside-in.

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter!

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 5 Comments

Social Media Degrees: The New Fool’s Gold for Companies and Nonprofits

twitter degree

In my line of work, I frequently get asked to review job descriptions for social media-related positions. At the onset of the search process, my feedback is very straightforward and my recommended “edits” to the job descriptions are invariably very similar: “Take off ‘5-7 years professional writing experience.’ There is no faster way to kill brand transparency than to hire a stilted, ‘professional’ writer. It’s harder to ‘un-teach’ experts in one-way communications than it is to teach a PR pro from scratch how to approach social media.”

But when candidates start responding to these job descriptions, things become more difficult for the organization. In a world in which seemingly everyone with a Facebook profile calls himself or herself a social media guru, it can be hard to identify the folks with the foresight and talent to transcend simply utilizing social media tools to strategically leveraging social media to ensure the sustainable relevance and solvency of an organization.

In the not-too-distant past, I’ve struggled with trying to explain the deep-rooted difficulties of weeding out those who just want to find something “hot” in which to be an “expert,” and candidates who may genuinely prove valuable in moving organizations (and the sector) forward.  This difference was very hard for me to explain…until I saw the recent buzz about universities offering graduate degrees in social media.  Suddenly, separating the qualified wheat from the wannabe chaff became a whole lot easier:

The kind of person who gets a graduate degree in social media marketing is exactly the type of person that your organization should not hire to guide your use of digital platforms and content marketing. Though it is unclear how popular this kind of degree (or even related certification programs) may currently be, my aim is to provide a framework to identify the attributes and skills that suggest a truly qualified candidate to help maximize your organization’s social media opportunities.

Beware the social media community manager whose primary credential was earned in an ivory tower – these people are dangerous to your brand. Here are the five attributes that organizations should try to avoid like the plague and that, quite remarkably, seem inherent to the type of person who may choose to pursue a degree or “certificate” in social media:

 

1. Beware of social media managers who underestimate how quickly social media tools and market trends change. (They will tether your organization to the past.)

Facebook is notorious for frequently changing its status-delivering algorithm and just about anything else every few months. And that’s just within one platform.  Usership statistics and demographics for various digital platforms – and even (especially) market expectations of brands are constantly evolving as new platforms and trends in media alter the digital marketing landscape. Vine was a big deal …until Instagram rolled out video and Vine’s links began to tank on Twitter in just one week.

vine tanks in one week

Things move fast in this here li’l social media joint. An organization’s ability to succeed in this space often depends on its agility, willingness to evolve, ability to utilize new tools, and a market-centric priority mindful of audience expectations.

Getting a degree in social media is incongruent with the revolutionary pace of change in the industry. Imagine how out-of-touch your skillset would be if you graduated today from even an expedited graduate program that you walked into 18 months ago: You’d have missed Vine and the rise of Snapchat. You’d have had no-longer-relevant Facebook 101 classes without hashtags and an understanding of evolving algorithms. You’d be without acknowledgement of the move to a more visual web, and be desperately playing catch-up on the critical rise of social CRM (“social care”). It’s a little bit like getting a graduate degree in “the state of the world in January 2012.” Unfortunately, you would commence into irrelevance and obsolescence – all of your efforts studying a then-today would only make you expert in yesterday.  And social media doesn’t evidence much need for a rearview mirror.

Smart social media managers understand that the digital landscape changes and what makes these real-time, two-way platforms so powerful is their ability to connect with an evolving right now.

 

2. Beware of social media managers who emphasize their ability to use specific tools. (Their value to your organization has an expiration date.)

As a friendly reminder: We live in a world where people can print edible hamburgers. People can print hamburgers from a printer and then eat them! This may be particularly impressive to those interested in the physical evolution of the sharing of information, but the inevitable march of technological progress looks a lot like death for someone who majored in, say, ink.  There is a world of difference between someone who understands the theory and application of evolving ideas, and a person who sole mastery is of a tool.

Social media helps your organization achieve a greater goal like visitation or donor support…and the best tool for the job often changes. If you’re trying to build a cabinet, hire the best builder/designer – not the person who has majored in turning a screwdriver.  To be clear, the builder needs to know how to use a screwdriver, but they need to do so in a broader, holistic context that contributes to the overall goal.  Successful social media efforts have infinitely more to do with strategy and integration than the practice of any specific “tips and tricks” (AKA “the tools of the trade”).  And, just to completely beat my bad metaphorical references to death, we live in a world wherein screwdrivers are being replaced by power tools on most every job site.

Smart social media folks are eager to learn how to use new tools…but they are wise not to invest more time learning techniques than the length of time that those tools may be relevant.

 

3. Beware of social media managers who undervalue strategy and public relations/communications skills. (They directly misunderstand how social media advances organizational goals.)

A person who chooses to obtain a master’s degree in social media (specialized, single-purpose) has actively decided not to pursue a master’s degree in communications, management, or even the humanities (degrees that generally focus on how to think). And the reason may be indicative of a quick-fix, instant-expert mentality. (“I see this opportunity and it’s good for me right now” instead of “I’d like to develop my strategic capabilities in order to meaningfully contribute in the long-term.”)

If one thing is for certain about social media, it’s this: Tips and tricks for specific platforms or even entire systems aren’t long-term. The need to clearly communicate with stakeholders with transparency and respect? That’s likely to stick around.

 

4. Beware of social media managers who are not capable of thinking critically about how to apply societal developments to strategic decisions. (They have a blind spot to greater, market contexts.)

I understand that many of you reading this work in universities and formal learning environments – but for those of you who may appreciate the reminder: universities, like other organizations, need to make ends-meet, too. Here are two things that are rather prevalent in the news: 1) universities currently have strained budgets, and 2) there are a whole bunch of people looking for a shortcut to a job. Potential solution? A degree in social media in a hopeful attempt to offer a program to boost university revenue. (Hey, universities need the money and people “need” the shortcut.)

At best, your organization probably doesn’t want a person who capitalizes on self-oriented shortcuts running your most public form of public relations. At worst, your organization probably doesn’t want a person incapable of identifying current happenings in the news and putting them together running platforms that center on one’s ability to assess news and think critically about how they apply to that person’s job. 

 

5. Beware of social media managers who are willing to make shortsighted investments of time and money. (These are especially valuable resources in the nonprofit world.)

This may sound sassier than I intend it to sound, but here goes nothing:

We nonprofit folks (myself included) – and especially museum folks – tend to love higher education. And, if there’s one thing we’re arguably pretty good at it’s hiring substantive experts instead of social entrepreneurs to run our organizations. But as audiences become more sector agnostic, there may be an increased need for business (or nonprofit!) savvy in addition to academic pedigree.  As mentioned above, some university programs exist solely as revenue centers for the school…a degree in social media might be one of them. Getting a “degree in social media” may, in some way, seem to speak to us academic-loving folks in our language. And it just might be a ploy.

For the reasons listed above, investing in getting a degree in social media may be a questionable investment of time and money. Your organization probably wants someone who makes thoughtful, considered investments for good reasons…

Here’s an idea for your good thinking and hopeful discussion: Excluding short-term seminars, conferences and defined, discrete courses to help keep abreast of evolving social media strategy and market trends, what value do you think obtaining a graduate degree in social media would afford someone looking to ultimately rise to a leadership position or elevate the sector in the long-term?

 

Photo credit goes to iJobs.

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter!

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Digital Connectivity, Myth Busting, Trends 4 Comments

Entertainment vs Education: How Your Audience Really Rates The Museum Experience (DATA)

museum experience flickr

When considering the overall satisfaction of visitor-serving organization (VSO) attendees, data indicate that not all aspects of the experience are created equally. In fact, the individual components that collectively comprise a visitor’s onsite experience may run counter to many VSO’s differentiation and engagement strategies. In terms of maximizing visitor satisfaction, VSOs may not truly understand “where their bread is buttered,” and this misunderstanding may result in serious financial repercussions.

IMPACTS gathers data to inform the development of key performance indicators concerning 224 visitor-serving organizations (zoos, aquariums, museums, theaters, symphonies, etc.). One of the key performance indicators that we regularly quantify for specific organizations is “overall satisfaction.”  Overall satisfaction is a composite metric (i.e. a metric informed by a multiplicity of data inputs yielding a single output) that contemplates 10 source evaluation criteria (e.g. employee courtesy, admission value, retail, etc.)

In developing the overall satisfaction metric, IMPACTS doesn’t weight each evaluation criteria equally because the market isn’t influenced by each criterion equally. As indicated in the table below, the market determines the “weight” of individual criteria based on each criterion’s relative contribution to the visitor’s perception of overall satisfaction.  (The formula to calculate the respective weight of any individual criteria contemplates such factors as frequency of mention and strength of conviction.  The overall satisfaction metric updates in “near real-time” based on the most contemporarily available data so as to accurately reflect seasonal influences on the visitor experience.)  Perhaps most interestingly, in my observation, the weight of any single evaluation criteria tends to vary very little between organizations.  In other words, please don’t make the mistake of assuming that your organization is somehow indemnified from the implications of this data because you’re a symphony…or an aquarium…or a museum.  The data simply doesn’t support any notion of “exemptions” for certain types of VSOs.

IMPACTS Overall satisfaction by weighted criteria

These weighted values may be used to inform resource allocations to maximize overall satisfaction (which data indicate are critical for securing positive word of mouth, repeat visitation, etc.). The values may also inform marketing strategies for museums so that they may best communicate the educational experiences that they…oh, wait…

Well, this is awkward.

 

1. Museums may overvalue educational assets as a differentiating factor positively contributing to visitor experience.

Unfortunately for many museums’ social missions, visitors indicate that the quality of an organization’s “educational experience” matters relatively little to overall satisfaction. Many of you may have – at some point or another – heard of/been involved with a museum leadership team that is convinced that it cannot fail because of the number of academic minds at the helm that are working to further the museum’s superstar educational opportunities. Regardless of the organization, I’ll bet that they are either strapped for cash and/or rely disproportionately on public funding or grant and contributed income – which means that in the world of “Museum Darwinism” (or heck, according to the plain old rules of economics), these museums may be at financial risk.

Data suggest that museums may not be looking in the mirror clearly when it comes to understanding the value of their educational assets. Will you be a successful organization (in terms of market relevance and long-term solvency) if your greatest experiential asset is your mastery of first-rate, dissertation-worthy, you-get-a-master’s-degree-equivalent-in-a-visit content? Sadly, no. The market is the ultimate arbiter of your organization’s success, and the data suggest that even the most educational VSO risks relevance if the experience isn’t entertaining…

Oy. I said the other “E”-word…

 

2. Deny being an entertaining entity at your own risk.

As nonprofit organizations with valuable social missions, we can get rather feisty when someone compares our entity to Disneyland…and museums aren’t Disneyland for all of the important reasons that drawing that comparison probably makes nonprofit stakeholders squirm. That said, the market attributes a higher value to “entertainment experience” than any other criteria – even the overall satisfaction summary (“sum of its parts”) metric!

Organizations that try too hard to promote education at the expense of providing an entertaining experience are truly missing the mark. Remember: your organization only has the opportunity to communicate what is important after the market dubs you relevant. If nobody wants to visit, then nobody is going to participate in the educational experience that you are trying so hard to perfect.

 

3. Education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Aim to be BOTH but understand how each aspect individually contributes to your reputational and experiential equities and strategize accordingly.

Knowledge is power, right? If you didn’t know it (or at least suspect it) already, you do now: the market at-large cares comparatively little about the super-specialness that is your educational experience. And that’s sad for museum leaders…but the weighted value of “entertainment experience” isn’t necessarily bad for museum leaders. The knowledge of this data may make VSOs more prepared to serve both functions effectively or, better yet, make educational experiences more entertaining.

The trick may be to understand the role that each of these aspects plays within the market – and what that means for your organization. On one hand, many VSOs are nonprofit organizations with a mission to educate and some research has shown that seeking an educational experience may justify a visit for some. However, the market considers “educational experience” a relatively small piece of the overall satisfaction puzzle when visitors actually have their onsite experience.

Considered collectively, I think that it may prove worthy to further parse the differences between motivation and justification.  I observe a compelling abundance of data that suggest that entertainment is the primary motivation for a visitor experience, whereas education is often cited post-visit as a justification for having visited.  In other words, all being equal, the public will often choose an experience with an educational component over “pure entertainment” – provided, of course, that all is actually equal!  Education will not compensate for a deficiency of entertainment.

Henry David Thoreau (a personal favorite who receives a hat tip for my blog title, Know Your Own Bone) advised, “When a dog runs at you, whistle for him.” The power of this data comes in embracing the findings rather than trying harder to deny them.  Let’s strive to be the most entertaining educational entities possible.

After all, who decided that “entertainment” was the enemy of “education” anyway?

 

*Photo (and cute kid) credit belongs to Flickr user Jon van Allen

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter!

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution 11 Comments

Information Overload: How Case Study Envy Stifles Nonprofit Success

whatever competition does

Between numerous conferences, written reports, podcasts and other resources, nonprofits should have no problem accessing an abundance of industry case studies. And smart organizations actively seek them out in order to appropriately consider precedents. However, too many nonprofits seem to distract themselves from opportunities by making inappropriate comparisons between other organizations and their own. They risk the loss of their own identity when they become too easily seduced by the (alleged) successes of others.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the nonprofit industry – one with an innate value for transparency and a culture that celebrates collaborative knowledge transfer – is so often easily misled by these “success studies.” Arguably, nonprofits are the most communicative of any business sector.  Due to a culture of sharing, organizational risk aversion, and a very mature business model, there isn’t a lot of “secret sauce” in the nonprofit space.

“So how can nonprofits be considered laggards when it comes to building effective ‘business’ strategies?! We’re in constant dialogue. We listen to one another!”

Well, maybe that’s the problem.

Having a lot of information is good. Not taking the time to develop a culture of thinking about it critically is bad. While sharing experiences certainly has undeniable advantages and can positively inform organizational strategies, I’ve noticed a detrimental trend in how nonprofit organizations discuss the operations of perceived industry leaders whom they’d like to emulate. Namely, nonprofits seem increasingly less able to differentiate between models and examples, and this confusion creates unrealistic expectations that may hinder the success of organizations.

When considering case studies and the operations of other nonprofit organizations, it may help to keep in mind the following four items:

1) Many singularly successful organizations are terrible models

IMPACTS collects intelligence concerning 224 visitor-serving organizations in the United States. Data indicate that the US public overwhelmingly considers the Monterey Bay Aquarium to be the “best aquarium in the world.” Increasingly, we hear organizations (and not just aquariums) attempting to emulate the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the hopes of similarly increasing their own reputations, securing their financial futures, maximizing audience engagement, etc.

(I am exploring the category of aquariums (again) because the aquarium industry has a clear, defined market leader. Museums, symphonies and zoos have tighter “line ups” with greater variance in public opinion concerning which is the “best.”)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a wonderful example of a world-class organization achieving enviable business and mission successes…but, as far as being easily replicated, it is a terrible model. Consider: The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the dominant – and near exclusive – major attraction in a very popular coastal destination.  It is led by one of the most influential leaders in the global conservation community.  It opened its doors unburdened by debt or other financing obligations. The lists of singular superlatives associated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium could go on…but, I think that you get my point. While it is easy to identify the attributes and practices that make the Monterey Bay Aquarium an acknowledged market leader, it is very difficult to duplicate these conditions.

Do other organizations also have some of these things? You bet. Do they have all of them? No. Similarly, your organization likely has its own, unique conditions. (Monterey is the example I am using here to make a point. It is not the only organization with unique conditions and the promise or potential of a successful enterprise).

(Uh oh! I feel a bad analogy coming on…) Other organizations cannot reasonably expect to copy the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “recipe for success” because they aren’t working with the same ingredients (or, for that matter, the same kitchen and same executive chef). Organizations have their own unique ingredients (and kitchens and chefs), and they have to optimize those to best respond to their own unique opportunities.

 

2) But organizations can provide helpful examples

Continuing with my horrible “recipe for success” analogy, if you spot an admired market leader that shares some of the same ingredients as your organization, noting how they successfully utilize these ingredients may help your organization cook up an equally tasty dish. In fact, if you add on to the case study by contemplating and incorporating your own unique advantages, you may end up with something even better (for you) than your would-be model.

For instance, although Monterey Bay Aquarium is a terrible model (again, in the sense that they – like many other organizations- aren’t replicable), their ability to experiment and take on unique initiatives in creative ways provides several examples that may benefit the balance of the museum and nonprofit industry. Examples may be broad and deal with the evolution of best practices, or serve as case studies for engaging the market.

As an aside: Question case studies. Sharing case studies (especially in conference settings) is frequently a way that organizations pat themselves on their own backs, but just because a case study was shared doesn’t mean that the initiative aided in securing donations, getting people in the door, or increasing brand reputation. There are some gemstones, but there’s also a lot of hot air out there. Be wise enough to tell the difference.  (People regularly ask me what are some of the biggest differences that I observe in my work with both for-profit and nonprofit clients.  Easy!  Whereas the nonprofit case studies presented to industry colleagues are invariably sunshine-filled, self-congratulatory success stories, the vast majority of case studies that I observe being presented in the for-profit world are cautionary tales of woe, struggle, and failure.  I don’t know what to make of this dichotomy, but I think it is interesting).
 

3) If you aspire to replicate a model, you jeopardize your relevance

If a similar organization with the same brand equities that you strive to achieve already exists (i.e. if you have a true model), then your organization is probably less relevant and you may be cannibalizing the market and unnecessarily dividing the resources needed to efficiently tackle the shared social mission.

However, a “conceptual model organization” that exists in another market could be a valuable tool – provided that two conditions are met: 1) You understand how this organization (its positioning, reputation and resources) differs from yours and you create a plan for optimizing these same areas uniquely for your own equities; and 2) You understand that successful organizations evolve to meet market needs and opportunities. What was true and a “best practice” yesterday may not necessarily serve as a suitable precedent for tomorrow. Your model will change its operations over time (especially if it is a good model), and you will likely need to change yours, too. Frequently, the best things that a “conceptual model organization” can be are thought provoking and inspirational – its practices may not be transitively applicable. 
 

4) Making nonprofit best practices the basis of your business strategy is a bad strategy

Another disadvantage of the “sharing” nature of the nonprofit industry is that organizations often become more caught up with what other organizations are doing than paying any attention to their markets – which (decidedly unlike the behaviors of other nonprofits) is directly correlated to their financial and social success. (Read: It doesn’t matter at all how many other nonprofits are utilizing social media. What matters is that the market is utilizing social media as its single most influential, go-to source of information.)

Think it’s great that your nonprofit is almost at the industry average for email open rates? Congratulations on being almost mediocre. (Tough love? Maybe. But think about it: You won’t catch successful for-profit companies celebrating benchmark victories…so why do we allow ourselves to frame averageness as “achievement?”) We can do better than simply keeping up with the Vastly-Underperforming-And-Almost-Broke Joneses. It’s important to be marketing your nonprofit and creating programs for the folks that actually matter – not to keep company with peer organizations (a large portion of which may be flailing).

My advice to nonprofits with one eye on their neighbors: Take what you can from case studies as applicable, but don’t get caught up in becoming another organization.  Gosh darnit:

Be yourself oscar wilde

(Full disclosure: As the Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS, I work with the Monterey Bay Aquarium…and, for that matter, with a number of other aquariums, museums, performing arts organizations, zoos and similar visitor-serving enterprise. The reason that I reference the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a specific example is two-fold: (1) Data compellingly indicate its public perception as “best in class,” and thus a natural topic for case study; and (2) It is a frequently cited aspirational “model” suggested to me by other aquariums – as well as several other types of visitor-serving organizations – when they reference a third-party entity.)

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter!

 

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 6 Comments

A Hint for the Future of Museums: Europe is Looking to US Aquariums

In my line of work (developing predictive data) and my spot in that line (analyzing and applying data on behalf of organizations equally concerned with social and fiscal bottom lines), opportunity often comes from keeping a pulse on the market. Along these lines, I’ve recently experienced shifts in my professional world that may be illustrative of the future of museums and the broader nonprofit community.

"7 hours and 57 minutes until I am officially based out of Chicago AND London! Let's do this!"

“7 hours, 57 minutes until I’m officially based out of Chicago AND London! Let’s do this!” (4/1/13)

In April, I officially joined the ranks of part-time expatriates (and long-haul commuters) when IMPACTS asked me to help open our London office while also maintaining a “home base” in Chicago.  Preparations for our London office enabled me to hire a Digital Marketing Manager to provide additional support to our projects, and also challenged me to be more thoughtful about how I could focus my efforts to best serve our clients.  A few months removed from my hop across the pond, I’ve been reliably asked two questions from colleagues, other museum professionals and even friends and family – the answers to which are closely related and may provide interesting insight to the museum industry:

1) Why London?

The obvious answer: proximity. I am in London largely because it is an accessible base for much of the work that IMPACTS is currently performing on behalf of visitor-serving organizations (e.g. museums) throughout the Americas, Europe and the Middle East.

The more interesting answer: market demand in Europe for the American nonprofit business model. You read that right! Any quick glance at the news tells stories of shifting economies that have created an unprecedented struggle for many of Europe’s most treasured museums.  While not-too-long ago many of the elite European institutions might have politely sneered at the suggestion of adopting a more “American model” of doing business (especially “nonprofit business!”), these sentiments are quickly shifting.

The “American model” (as it is colloquially referred to in my dealings) is a euphemism for a visitor-serving business that doesn’t rely on government support (or grants or endowments) and, instead, is a market-driven enterprise whose success hinges on engaging a diverse, sustainable constituency.

In other words, many of the world’s greatest museums – the ones that we Americans revere and admire with a distant and mysterious “otherness” – are looking to U.S. visitor-serving organizations as sources of inspiration, innovation and know-how when it comes to reinventing their business models to best respond to their current economic conditions.

2) Why do you spend so much time working with aquariums?

It’s true. I do find myself increasingly spending more time and energy working closely with aquariums. Here’s the end-game: We have an interest in aquariums because they are often cited by our clients as best-in-class practitioners of the “American model.” (Stick with me, other-types-of-museum folks. I’ll connect the dots…)

IMPACTS works with nearly every form of visitor-serving organization from art museums and symphonies to science centers and botanical gardens, and there’s one thing that we’ve found to be generally true: The market-driven practices developed by aquariums may have the greatest impact and “usability” for exalting the entire visitor-serving industry.  While the role of aquariums as models may seem surprising to many of America’s most venerable museums, the relative esteem with which U.S. aquariums are internationally regarded evidences itself in my work on a daily basis. In fact, the European organizations (including many art museums) that I work with have less interest in the “best practices” of American art museums and, increasingly, more interest in those of American aquariums.

Here’s why.  There are two conditions that make U.S. aquariums of particular interest to the global museum and visitor-serving industry:

 

A) The U.S. aquarium business model is motivated by market demand (and not overly dependent on grants, endowments, or government funding)

This is not to say that aquariums do not seek to obtain grants or secure government appropriations – but, as a group, the chart below indicates that aquariums tend to rely least on contributed and dividend revenues when compared to other types of visitor-serving organizations:

IMPACTS Visitor Serving Organization Earned Revenue

Theoretically, if government funding were to cease on a macro-level tomorrow, aquariums (as well as select museums, theaters, science centers and other more self-reliant organizations) may have the greatest chance of keeping their doors open long-term.

Also, after evaluating a representative sample of 224 U.S.-based visitor-serving organizations, aquariums generally have the smallest endowments relative to their annual operating budgets – perhaps suggesting that aquariums must be particularly attuned to the market since they have less “cushion” in their revenue streams. We see outcomes of this market responsiveness all the time: While some museums are hiring extra grantwriters and expanding their lobbying efforts for funding, many aquariums are hiring social media and online community managers because they understand that digital engagement helps drive attendance. Of course, smart museums also realize this and are hiring these kinds of people, too – but as the chart below illustrates, the lack of a “safety net” places a particular financial imperative on aquariums to be responsive to market opportunities:

IMPACTS - Visitor Serving organization endowment backstop

 

B) Many aquariums regularly invest in active, global, social missions that extend beyond education and research

I can hear you now: “But all museums aim to change the world!” I know. This does not mean that other missions are any less important – simply that many organizations with which I work consider aquariums to be at an interesting intersection between topic expertise and “right now” relevance…particularly when it comes to prominent, controversial issues such as climate change and other environmental topics. In short, while the social missions and operations of aquariums tackle education and research (two critical items that are also common among other, select visitor-serving organizations), they also take up the battle of ocean conservation. The initiatives attendant to this addition are particularly timely, global, and live in a rather elusive “save the world” space.

It’s a seemingly at-odds and extreme combination:  Aquariums may be considered among the most “for profit” of organizations in that they rely heavily on earned revenues, but they also aim to be among the most globally impactful among organizations pursuing active, social missions.

 

I “go deep” in my work with aquariums because helping them evolve and perfect their business model to remain solvent in both fiscal and social terms provides the lessons that help other organizations achieve their similarly aspirational ideals.

I’m intentionally speaking in terms of sector generalities – not all zoos rely on government funding, not every museum lives on its endowment, and, for that matter, not all aquariums are truly bringing their A-game to the “save the ocean” effort. The organizations operating with the objectives of being both market-relevant AND “big mission-serving” (aquarium or not) may be our best models for the future of museums. They can survive on their own, and they can do it while serving a very large-scale social mission.

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Nonprofit Social Media Data Dilemma

marketing and sales cartoon

Everyone seems to be all about the world of “big data” right now. And – as a data nerd who gets her professional kicks in that same space – I’m not (even a little bit) complaining. I’ve found in my work with IMPACTS that nonprofits are placing an incredibly strong emphasis on data collection and analysis. Ostensibly, organizations paying careful attention to their social media data may seem an encouraging trend, but in our age of information overload many organizations are misplacing emphasis on the wrong metrics – or misinterpreting the meaning of these metrics. In essence, social media metrics are becoming nonprofit (and even business) fool’s gold. 

Social media data is critical to understanding how your organization best engages with the market – and this knowledge is critical to achieving your goals. However, social media data are diagnostic metrics and NOT key performance indicators (KPIs). They inform how your organization is doing on social media…NOT the overall health of your organization. (They are related…but not the same.) Confusing the meaning and rightful application of this data can put organizations on a very arduous, frustrating path. Is a healthy organization active and engaging on social media? You bet. But high engagement numbers on social media mean absolutely nothing if your organization isn’t getting more people in the door, increasing membership renewal rates, facilitating donor-related conversations, or achieving any number of the goals that indicate the solvency and relevance of an organization.

Am I getting too jargon-y with all of this “KPI” talk? Here are some clarifications:

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): KPIs are used to evaluate the ongoing success of an organization or a particular initiative. Success is often defined in terms of making progress toward achieving the strategic objectives that optimize the solvency of an organization. In other words, KPIs have a direct correlation to desired outputs (fundraising, visitation, etc.). For instance, for our nonprofit visitor-serving partners at IMPACTS, we measure items related to market sentiment that include metrics such as reputation (e.g. top-of-mind metrics), educational value, satisfaction, value-for-price perceptions – and other items that correlate directly to the “health” of an organization and its ability to achieve its bottom line objectives.

Diagnostic metrics: Diagnostic metrics are data points that contribute to KPI performance and aid organizations in pinpointing specific opportunities. In the online space, these metrics allow organizations to observe how effectively they are engaging audiences. However, these metrics cannot “stand-in” for KPIs because they are a sub-measurement of assessment criteria (i.e KPIs) that lead to desired behaviors. For instance, on the surface, certain social media diagnostic metrics may look positive, but if they aren’t elevating your reputation (a key driver of visitation), then…well, a “like” is just a “like.” Diagnostic metrics are also helpful for “listening” to audiences, and informing organizations of opportunities for improvement.

Here’s how they work together (flow chart style):

IMPACTS - KPIs and Diagnostic metrics

And here are three, critical points to consider concerning social media metrics:

1) Social media metrics do not directly measure your bottom line (so keep them in perspective)

A measurement indicating online reach, for instance, only measures online reach. Just because your organization reached a large number of people with a social media status doesn’t mean that anyone paid attention to it, that it was the right message, or that it strengthened any individual’s connection to your organization. Is does mean that the message had the opportunity to build a bit of affinity among a certain number of people. This is not your bottom line. More meaningful metrics include donor giving, membership acquisitions and renewals, and attendance.

2) Even when social media metrics are high, they can still be at-odds with KPIs (making it HARDER for your organization to achieve its goals)

This is a big one. If you are evaluating the efficacy of your digital strategists and social media community managers strictly by Facebook Insights numbers – knock it off (please). These metrics can be purposefully and even accidentally inflated to the detriment of organizations.  “Gaming” this system is child’s play for even the most neophyte of social media professionals.

To cut to the chase: If you’re measuring social media efficacy strictly by social media numbers and rewarding staff based on these metrics, you’re actively setting up your organization to fail. Your team may feel pressure to offer discounts or post superfluous updates that will artificially increase engagement rates (i.e. good for them in terms of their performance evaluation), but these practices will ultimately increase visitor dissatisfaction, devalue your brand, marginalize your mission, and demean your perceived reputation as “expert.”  Have you asked yourself this question: If we’re so popular online,  how come nobody is coming in person?  Chances are that you’ve created ineffective, misleading evaluation criteria based on social media metrics and not true KPIs.

3) You do not control the platforms providing key social media metrics. (They actually control YOU)

TANSTAAFL (pronounced: “TAN – staf –ful”) was a common “word” on campus at my alma mater. It stands for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (though it came from science fiction writer Rober A. Heinlein, the term was popularized by Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago professor – hence, the popularity on campus).  Sometimes organizations get so caught up with the ability to report numbers that they forget to think critically about social media metrics. Specifically, they forget about the concept of TANSTAAFL as it applies to social media.

Facebook and You - Product being sold

Over 15 million businesses, companies, and organizations have Facebook pages and sometimes Facebook metrics have bugs. Actually…a lot of the time Facebook metrics have bugs. At IMPACTS, we attempt to correct for bugs by gathering insight information from several organizations and normalizing it, comparatively…but if you’re a single organization, you likely don’t have this opportunity and you are, well, a wee-bit stuck with whatever information or misinformation Facebook shows you. Organizations that run more than one Facebook page likely know first-hand how common system-wide bugs are for individual pages. If you notice a bug in your Facebook Insights, the best that you can do is contact Facebook and hope – over the course of several months – that they will fix the bug. Here’s a thing to remember: Your organization is using Facebook for free or at a low cost (if you aren’t constantly buying ads, or promoting or sponsoring posts) and there isn’t a direct incentive to fix your Insights bug (that you may or may not know that you have). In short, these metrics should not be the MOST important metrics or the ONLY metrics for your organization.

There’s no doubt that social media measurement is absolutely and increasingly critical to effectively engage audiences and remain relevant with the market. These metrics are NOT unimportant. But with social media metrics being relatively accessible to non-expert evaluators, and absent the considered interpretation and analysis of their “true” meaning, organizations risk confusing isolated data points with KPIs.

Bottom line: Social media is a tool for achieving your organization’s goals. Social media metrics help organizations assess how well they are using these tools.  However, these metrics are not the end-all-be-all assessment tool in your organization’s toolbox…and organizations that misunderstand how to evaluate these metrics in terms of larger organizational goals risk confusion, frustration, and may jeopardize their long-term success. 

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter!

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends 2 Comments

Time, Treasure, Talent: Priority Confusion on Nonprofit Boards Limits Success (STUDY)

Finding: Nonprofit board members grossly overestimate the importance of their own time and talent, and believe personal philanthropy to be the least of their responsibilities in the “time, treasure, talent” continuum.

time treasure talent

For nonprofit executive leaders, “Give [money], get [money], or get off [the board]” seems to have been a board development maxim since the beginning of nonprofit-time. Despite this fact, many CEOs consistently struggle to raise meaningful funds from their board members. This may be due to a convenient untruth that board members may be using as an excuse to sidestep the “give, get, or get off” maxim: The belief that time, treasure, and talent are of equal value to a nonprofit organization.

A recent study conducted by IMPACTS reveals that, among visitor-serving organizations, there is a stark perceptual delta between executive leadership and board members when assessing the primary asset that board members bring to their organizations. And perhaps unsurprisingly, this difference of opinion regarding board responsibilities is pronounced within “smaller” organizations (i.e. those serving 500,000 or fewer visitors annually).

IMPACTS (the predictive technology company for which I work) was engaged to develop intelligence and analysis concerning the efficacy of nonprofit boards of trustees.  The related research and interviews sought to improve the understanding of the optimal role of the board as it relates to the governance and operation of the contemporary, nonprofit, visitor-serving organization.

The data collection processes included quantitative intelligence gathering and qualitative interviews with both the executive leadership and members of the boards of 49 nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations (e.g. aquariums, museums, performing arts organizations and zoos).  The study sought to include a broad, representative sample of nonprofit organizations of various types, usage levels, and annual operating budgets.

 

1) Staff leadership believe that securing funds is by far the most important role of board members

 

IMPACTS staff perspective of board role

Giving/securing “treasure” for an organization is clearly identified as the most important role of a board member by CEOs and other executive leaders. Lending “talent” (think of an attorney on the board providing legal counsel) holds significantly less value according to these same leaders.

Qualitative assessments from leaders reveal that the delta between “treasure” and “talent” may be in large part due to an organization’s strong preference to buy talent with treasure (as opposed to relying on the “in-kind,” donated talent of their board members). Executive leadership tends to believe that this type of “hired,” on-demand, best-in-class talent puts the organization in a better position to succeed than does a board member who is potentially less specifically qualified and/or has less time dedicated to the organization. (Not to mention the fact that many nonprofit organizations have conflict of interest policies that limit or restrict a board member’s participation in aspects of the organization’s operation.)

 

2) With the exception of larger organizations, board members believe that lending their own talent is their key role and raising funds is the least of their responsibilities

 

IMPACTS Board perspective of board roles

An argument may be made that organizations serving greater than 500,000 annual visitors are necessarily larger operations and may reliably attract more experienced, “sophisticated” board members than smaller organizations. This type of board member may have more experience on a greater diversity of boards, and may have a better understanding of the needs of nonprofit organizations and their own role on the board.

 

Key Finding: Nonprofit board members over-emphasize the importance of their own time and talent

 

IMPACTS Board and staff perspective of board roles

Some may say that my interpretation of these assessments assumes that the nonprofit CEOs have a better perspective of what will lend success to an organization than board members themselves. I’d like to propose an alternative point of view in regard to the survey outcomes: Board members seem to believe that their biggest contribution is a thing that the organization isn’t always asking for (i.e. their respective talents), and the single thing that many organizations require most to keep their doors open is the very thing that many board members do not view as their primary responsibility (i.e. treasure). From this perspective, some organizations serving 500,000 or fewer visitors per year (or boards of any nonprofit organizations with “smaller” annual revenues) may be stuck in a cycle:

Nonprofit board members may disproportionally view their own “talent” as beneficial because they don’t perceive that the organization possesses equivalent talent on-staff. So, because the organization lacks internal capacities, its board members disproportionally value their  own (occasional, off-staff) “talent” – but in valuing their talents over their “treasure,” they limit the organization’s ability to develop more robust resources and capacities. Thus, the organization comes to depend on board “talent” largely because its board members choose not to alternatively supply the organization with sufficient “treasure.”

Does this mean that board perspectives are unimportant? Most certainly not. The experiences and connections afforded organizations by their board members are important assets. However, if they don’t positively impact the long-term solvency of an organization in a meaningful way, then these connections may not be worth as much as “status board” members seem to believe them to be. Connections, networks and experiences are all latent benefits that may be made manifest in terms of an organization’s financial health. Unlike these potential latent benefits that board members lend to an organization, donations provide direct benefit.  Ultimately, organizations quantify financial health in numbers – and numbers don’t lie.

 

In Their Own Words:

“I think that it takes all three (i.e. ‘time, talent, and treasure’) to be a great board member. Arguably the greatest talent of all is realizing that your time is less valuable than your treasure.”- Chief Executive Officer, attendance = 500,000 – 1 million 

“A particular challenge for many of our new board members is the time that it takes for them to understand that we didn’t ask them on the board because of their professional abilities and talents. We asked them on the board to gain access to the wealth that the practice of their professional abilities and talents has enabled.”- Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees, attendance = 250,000 – 500,000

“I’m proud of the way that our board has evolved. It now understands it has an absolute and significant giving imperative. With all due respect to our board members’ abilities and talents, if you don’t give in a meaningful fashion, then you are short for our world.”- Chief Executive Officer, attendance = >1 million

“It drives me crazy that we still have board members who think that their job is to critique staff decisions, plan galas, and stuff envelopes. As a donor, it is embarrassing that the outside world considers these people to be my peers.” – Member, Board of Trustees, attendance = 100,000 – 250,000

“The best thing about leading a large organization was saying goodbye to the ‘bake sale boards’ of my past where every financial crisis was met with a social-status-elevating fundraiser that never netted any real funds but was deemed a success if it got the chairwomen mentioned in ‘Town & Country.’”- Chief Executive Officer, attendance = >1 million

“As a board member, you have two obligations: Number One is your fiduciary obligation to the organization. Number Two is your financial obligation to the organization. The entire ‘time, talent, and treasure’ discussion is bunk – a board member’s duty is to ensure that the organization is able to buy the time of those resources possessing the most talent.” Chief Executive Officer, attendance = 250,000 – 500,000

“Honestly, our board is a joke. They want to derive every social benefit and milk every professional network that comes from being on our board, but they don’t think that they should pay for the privilege. We’ve let ourselves become a status symbol…the worst sort of trophy wife. What I would do to fire the whole lot of them and start over!” Chief Executive Officer, attendance = 500,000 – 1 million

“On our board, it is both implicitly and explicitly understood that you pay for the privilege of your vote. There is no representation without taxation. If you don’t like our arrangement, then, frankly, we’d prefer that you not serve on our board.” – Chief Executive Officer, attendance= >1 million

“Over the years, I’ve been asked to speak to other boards about how they, too, can increase their respective board giving capacities. Invariably, they cite an inability to ‘attract heavy hitters’ to their boards. I ask them to survey the room – the so-called ‘heavy hitters’ don’t keep company with people who don’t value personal philanthropy. No one wants to be the deep pockets on a board who subsidizes their fellow board members. So, if a board wants to raise more money, the first step that they need to embrace is significantly increasing their own personal giving in the hopes of attracting more like-minded philanthropists. The second step often involves stepping aside and allowing these philanthropists to assume your position on the board. The best board donors try to replace themselves with even better donors on a regular, ongoing basis.”- Chairman of the Board of Trustees, attendance= > 1 million

“I appreciate how invested with their time our board members are, but I’d be lying to say that I didn’t wish that they weren’t equally invested with their money. We struggle to meet the giving benchmarks of our peers. My board’s answer to EVERYTHING is ‘Let’s have a fundraiser!” or “Let’s try for this grant!” – never anything out of their own pocket. They’re in love with other peoples’ money.”- Chief Executive Officer, attendance = 250,000 – 500,000

“A sure sign of a lousy board is a bunch of ‘talented’ people on your marketing committee. That’s where organizations dump the folks whose sole currency is hot air.”- Chief Executive Officer, attendance = 100,000 – 250,000

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter!

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Financial Solvency, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution 7 Comments

6 Sad Truths About Fundraising That I Have Learned as a Millennial Donor

millennials-360

Hi, nonprofit executive leaders and board members. My name is Colleen Dilenschneider. I am a Millennial donor and I exist.

 

And data suggest that I’m not alone in being a millennial donor, either.

First, let’s be honest: I’m not a crazy-huge donor that is going to make-or-break your nonprofit operations (yet…). That said, I’ve made a personal decision to prioritize charitable giving as I’ve grown in my career by making several four and five-figure gifts (And more to an organization in which I serve on the Board.)  I intend to be a lifelong giver to philanthropic causes. Hey, I’m a millennial – realistic or not, I’m optimistic about my financial future. And, no, not a single penny of that came from my parents (who data suggest aren’t as long-term financially supportive as we millennials may think they are). Like my peers, I am public-service motivated and I care about making a difference.

I learned an awful lot about nonprofit solvency through the pursuit of my Master of Public Administration in Nonprofit Management degree, but one thing’s for sure: I’ve learned a LOT more about fundraising as a donor than I ever could have dreamed of learning while studying fundraising.

Millennials – those roughly between the ages of 21 and 35 – represent the single largest generation in human history. Come 2015, Millennials will have more buying power than Baby Boomers, and then this massive demographic will have a stronghold on the market for the following forty years at minimum. Thanks in large part to the web and social media connectivity, we function and think very differently than the generations that came before us. Nonprofit organizations that are not targeting this population right now in terms of building affinity and creating personal connections may find themselves suddenly irrelevant within the next decade.

Here are six sad truths that I’ve uncovered about the realities of nonprofit fundraising as a millennial donor:

 

1) Nobody thinks you can give any money so nobody asks you

I’m not complaining about this one as a donor, but I absolutely want to call attention to it as a person working to strengthen the nonprofit sector. Aside from our colleges and universities (efficacy of their methods aside), not many organizations are earnestly prioritizing folks under 35 as donors or even cultivating the relationships required to secure future gifts from millennials. Yes, a great number of millennials are in debt and our unemployment rates are high, but there are nearly 90 million of us, and common sense should tell organizations that out of a population so large, surely some of us are capable of supporting those organizations that we care about.  More simply put, donors are generally the exception and not the rule for many organizations, so why do organizations tend to focus on the “average millennial” as a rationale to not actively cultivate their support when they apply an entirely different standard to every other donor segment?

 

2) Nobody likes a millennial donor

This one has been my single biggest detour in making donations. When you’re a millennial donor, two very important types of people directly associated with the organization really, really dislike you…and don’t hide it even a little bit:

Board members don’t like millennial donors: In at least two cases, I’ve made donations similar to or larger than those made by over half of the board members of some notable organizations (and I’ll remind you that I’m no multi-millionaire). Though I thought about neither board at the time of my giving (and didn’t intend to do anything but give), it became very clear through consequent communications with the organizations’ CEOs and my own connections to specific board members that…well, if I was hit by a bus, there might be a select group of “public-service motivated” Baby Boomers that wouldn’t mind.

This hurt at first, but I get it. My giving as a non-board member (let alone someone their children’s age) makes them accountable for their own “age and stature-appropriate philanthropy” and forces them to honor their implicit obligations to get or give meaningful funds. Or, more directly, it makes them look bad – especially because board members of mid-to-large sized nonprofit organizations (“status boards”) often try to keep young folks out of sight for other reasons. We millennials are indeed innately threatening in many ways (sheer size and our different methods of connecting with other generations and the world around us, etc). But when a new generation knocks on the door and enters society’s living room, there is no ignoring the new tenants. After decades of simply talking about it, older generations begin to suddenly understand that they may need to fit more, different people on the couch at some point. And they get mad. It is not easy to fire yourself for your own underperformance. That couch is pretty comfy.

Millennial fundraising and major gift officers don’t like millennial donors: While one could argue that millennial giving is good for nonprofit organization board members because the associated dislike is simply a symptom of necessary evolution, they aren’t always the biggest barriers to giving…sometimes those are millennial fundraisers and major gift officers.

We millennials are a connected and “equal” bunch. On our soccer teams growing up, everyone was a MVP (watch this and laugh…or cry). We are also very socially connected and generally care about being liked by our peers. When a CEO asks a millennial fundraiser to “court” another millennial, the interaction that ensues is usually NOT what the executive leader probably envisioned. In one-on-one conversations, our colloquial millennial nature takes the conversation very quickly off of the “let’s talk about how you can help the organization and/or strengthen your connection with us” track to a “prove yourself” narrow-eyed inquisition of what I’ve done with my life to be sitting there. (I simply prioritize giving!) My sample size is disturbingly high in encountering this situation and it seems to be more rule than exception.  Once I even received a very direct and condescending, “So tell me why our CEO asked me to speak with you today.”

In the history of the planet, I’m pretty sure that nobody has ever talked down their own achievements and apologized for their “available funds” faster than a millennial donor in front of an unnecessarily-personally-threatened millennial fundraiser. I nearly always walk away feeling like an awful traitor to my generation.

That said, I have also had fun and valuable conversations with a select few millennial major gift officers who have themselves strengthened my relationship with an organization. One thing that may be the difference? The millennial fundraisers who have made me feel good about potential giving seem to be the ones that feel good about themselves and understand the value of their skillset. I know firsthand that these specific individuals have access to their CEOs and executive leadership, and that leadership looks to them as experts in fundraising. Bottom line: value millennial employees and you’ll have a better chance of attracting millennial donors. (I cannot stress this point enough. Also, to be honest, a vast majority of millennial fundraisers that I’ve encountered seem to unfortunately fall into the first category – not the second – so please don’t write this off.)

 

3) You will probably be asked for large funds via snail mail

My first ask for a five-figure gift was delivered to me via snail mail. For years, I’d been looking forward to the moment when I’d be seriously courted by an organization (nerd alert), and this was my very first little donor heartbreak. The broader market increasingly mistrusts direct mail and its overall efficacy as a communication method. It should come as no surprise that this decline is far more drastic for millennials and younger generations. To be blunt, older folks: what we millennials receive in the mail is mostly bills. When millennials give, they are looking for an emotional connection and to be a part of something. We aren’t emotionally connected with a high level of affinity to our bills. A thoughtful, hand-written thank you after making a donation? Well, that’s a personal touch and a completely different story.

 

4) Even though you could not possibly be more findable on the web and giving money feels very personal, the person who asks for support will know NOTHING about you

Even though details like what you ate for dinner last night may be all over your social networks, the person who asks you for money and the person who thanks you (if you get a personal thanks aside from your form letter for tax purposes – even with bigger gifts it doesn’t always happen) will know NOTHING about you. Amazingly, many haven’t even taken the time to figure out where you live or what you do for a living.

Here’s just one example in my collection: A coordinator for an organization that I believe in contacted me to ask for support from IMPACTS (where I work) on a project that I think is particularly valuable for the nonprofit sector. She sent us a general proposal for funds that was obviously not intended for a company like IMPACTS. When I asked her to please write out a less boilerplate request (read: something actually contemplative of anything about the company and its giving priorities) so that I could in turn recommend a gift to our founder, she sent me another generic letter that still did not acknowledge the company, our potential “fit” with the project, or even my own work as an employee within IMPACTS (which related to the project). I was then reminded several times of the upcoming “deadline to give.” When I explained both my passion for the project and my disappointment with the generic, thoughtless asks, my company CEO said, “Let’s wait and see if they notice our silence now. If they mention anything specific to us at all, we’ll give them $25,000 on the spot.” Needless to say, it never happened.

 

5) Pick only one: Giving online (convenience) or receiving any real acknowledgement of your gift (dignity)

Online giving (an option that nonprofit leaders often seem to think they’ve taken their time and energy to do just for us) is another big no-win for larger-scale millennial donors. If you give online, you get an automated email of thanks and rarely receive a more personal follow-up – if you receive a follow-up from a real human being all – which can be even more heartbreaking than the automated response (see item #4). This is true even if you make a five-figure gift online (true story, folks). It seems that because you’re not handing a check directly to a human being who feels responsible for saying thank you, you generally won’t get one.

But to digital natives, this “worthy/unworthy of attention” differentiation doesn’t exist between giving methods – except that giving online tends to work best for us. Millennials believe that technology makes life easier (a win for online giving), but that it also makes things more real-time and personal (a lose for online giving follow-through in most situations). Thus, the way that online giving is currently carried out simply doesn’t adequately suit our needs (or arguably, anyone’s). Providing online giving mechanisms may be seen by millennials as a way to provide real-time thanks and connect on multiple platforms to retain donors long term…not as an automated system to remove the responsibility of human touch from the giving equation.

It’s a textbook example of pandering to out-dated legacy systems. Traditional fundraising mechanisms have been around for years, but organizations seem to treat the web as an “add-on” to a broken system, rather than letting market behaviors drive the development of something that should already exist. Even our most national nonprofit organizations take a “Blockbuster Video” approach, fearing evolution so severely that they resist anything but baby-step adaptation until they are nothing but a memory.

 

6) You will be courted lovingly until they get into your pants (pocket), but then you are just a booty call.

As I mentioned before, millennials want to feel like they are a part of something and making a difference. Smart organizations do a great job of letting you know how your funds will help move their missions forward, and it’s truly exciting to hear the statistics and feel like you have the opportunity to help! However, my experienced truth is that after you make a donation, there’s a good chance that you won’t soon again feel this involved.

Unless I work directly with the organization, I tend to be “forgotten” after I give…until it’s time to raise more money. As a donor, I understand the statistics about low donor retention rates.  As a millennial, I also have expectations (that are rarely realized) after I make a donation that the organization knows who I am and recognizes when I amplify their messages on social media channels. (Most don’t. Fundraising and marketing are very similar departments but they don’t often seem to communicate regarding donors). I’m a donor and proven evangelist after I give, and it seems that several organizations miss that I (and my peers) are good targets for encouraging other donations.

I am fiercely proud of the organizations that I’ve chosen to support financially, and I hope to support them well into the future. I don’t think I’m abnormal. There are a whole lot of millennials out there and we want to make a difference. I hope for the sake of the nonprofit organizations that I love and those that my peers and I may come to love in the future, that they start speaking the same language as their evolving audiences. And that they do it fast. At some point in the rapidly-approaching future, a majority of nonprofit donors will have to be millennials, or the organizations that we love simply won’t exist. 

 

*Photo credit belongs to philanthopicintelligence.net

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Fundraising, Millennials, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 24 Comments

Inequality: A Nonprofit Social Media Best Practice

stand out fish 1“All men are created equal.” No doubt you’ve heard that before, and no doubt I’d have a hard time finding a public-service motivated nonprofiteer who would disagree with that sentiment. I personally agree with it…except when it comes to social media. And if you’re a smart nonprofit organization, you may risk the efficacy of your entire marketing strategy if you don’t understand that inequality of social media followers should be a founding principle in your social media plans.

Simply put, your organization’s fans and followers are not all of equal value to your nonprofit’s relevance and long-term solvency – and treating every ‘like’ the same way means purposely sabotaging your ability to achieve organizational goals through social media. Some types of fans and followers are much, much more important than others in terms of increasing amplification, spurring visitation (if you’re a visitor-serving organization) and inspiring donations.

Like most matters of organizational strategy, social media is about “knowing where your bread is buttered.” Many nonprofit organizations misunderstand the distinct importance of unique online audiences or individuals, and instead, calibrate their efforts to the average “potential supporter.” Forcing striations of unique audiences to a “mean” misses opportunities for deeper, more meaningful engagement with higher-value individuals and wastes precious resources trying to attract folks that aren’t likely to engage with your organization beyond a status “like.”

As a reminder, many of the “rules” of real life (both social and business-related) generally apply to social media – perhaps foremost amongst these truisms being Pareto’s Principle (i.e. the “80-20” rule).  Applied to social media, Pareto holds that 80% of your engagement and support will come from but 20% of your audience. 

So what audience members should demand most of your social media attention? Pay special heed to these folks:

 

Members/donors

Sounds obvious, huh? Does it sound so obvious that the person running your social media channels has access to a list of members and donors right now? Probably not. (Quick! Email or print a list and run it over! It’s cool…. I’ll wait here.) If you’re like most visitor-serving nonprofits, membership and marketing/communications operate separately, and this separation often means that this critical (and very simple) little action item has been overlooked… along with several others.

In fact, this overlook is indicative of a necessary shift in how we think about the relationship between marketing and membership in the digital age. As I’ve mentioned before, membership increasingly needs the marketing department to function – not the other way around. However, your organization needs both departments to keep its doors open. Contemplating the role of social media in cultivating donors and members is a must for organizations. Knowing who these supporters are and where their interests lie provides the marketing folks with the information that they need to a) identify these individuals; b) pay special attention to their interactions on social sites; and c) utilize this information to inform content strategy to ensure that these high-value individuals remain actively engaged.

A goal of social media for many organizations is to inspire visitation and cultivate donors (and social media is pretty darn good for that). As a little hint: those who have already proven their affinity through membership or a donation are likely to be those who will support you again and potentially provide ongoing support. If you don’t know who they are and what they like (or you’re missing an opportunity to target specific content to these audiences), then you risk losing this valuable, precious market to a competitor (for-profit or nonprofit) who is paying better attention to their wants and needs.

 

Influencers

Influencers are bloggers or other content-creators with a high-perceived word of mouth value across a range of personal networks. This is the category in which the elusive and powerful “mommy bloggers” make their appearance for many organizations. If properly cultivated, content creators provide a trusted voice to share your mission messages.

Ample data support the importance of targeting Influencers as a key component of an organization’s social media strategy. For example, 29% of consumers trust blogs over other forms of digital marketing, and blogs are even more likely than Facebook to influence a purchase decision. Influencers aren’t just bloggers. They are also active on other social media platforms. But beware to judge the strength of an Influencer simply by their follower numbers. Influencers with smaller, more focused followings sometimes have more influence than those with a larger following.

A little bit of paying personal attention can go a long way in inspiring affinity.  On a personal note, I really like to run. Though my tribe on social media is generally nonprofit and/or marketing folks, Brooks (the running shoe company) pays special attention to me. They send me free running shoes and, in turn, I know that they want some link-love and positive word of mouth when I just can’t help but share a race-related update…and I’ll give it to them willingly. Why? Because they simply let me know that they are paying attention to me. They have mentioned this blog. They keep track of what I like. I feel like they know me. I have purchased far more of their gear as a result of these efforts than the cost of their investment, and just learning a bit about me could not have taken more than five minutes of their time. There’s both a lesson and an opportunity here for nonprofits.

Another personal example? My alma mater’s Twitter account sometimes converses with me and other alumni. Without being asked, I made an online donation last month simply because they occasionally remind me that they are paying attention to me and make me feel like part of a community.

Social media unleashes the same dopamine that is released when you physically interact with someone, and we get a physiological and psychological rush of this feel-good chemical when we share things on social media. Nonprofits may do well to capitalize on this phenomenon to build affinity among those Influencers who can amplify your messages and cultivate more/higher-level visitors and donors. The broad action items are rather simple: 1. Identify these people. 2. Uncover their personal points of connection to your organization. 3. Start a conversation. Good-case-scenario: you’ll have cultivated a potential supporter. Awesome-case-scenario: you’ll have cultivated a socially influential supporter.

 

Evangelists

Evangelists are folks who have a high level of affinity for your organization’s mission and brand. These people like you (they really like you, not just Facebook-like you) and pay close attention to your content. They think you’re cool, interesting, and just downright important. High-level Evangelists are often also members or donors – and they may be Influencers as well. Some Evangelists may be non-members who are likely to share your message or support your organization with a visit (if you’re a visitor-serving nonprofit), and are ripe and ready for another level of engagement – say, providing support by attending a special fundraising event.

There are varying levels of Evangelists, and this is a broad term that we use for “folks who like you and want to help you.” They do this in different ways: Some may provide financial support, but the most common method of support that I observe is via the re-amplification of your messages. At the risk of over-simplifying this audience, these are your Facebook “sharers” who promulgate your content to their networks.

To be clear, the vast majority of people who “like” you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter (or any other platform, for that matter) are NOT higher-level Evangelists. In fact, most of your audience on social media channels likely falls into a “low-to-mid-level Evangelist” category – occasionally engaging with your organization from time-to-time but without making the brand a clear part of their online identity. To be sure, these lower-level evangelists are important. Content should aim to spark a connection with them to bump them into higher-level categories. However, these folks are not nearly as important as those who speak out about you and consistently let their friends know that they “real-life-like” your organization. Organizations should focus on higher-level evangelists because they are your likely repeat visitors and have potential to lend real-life support – either through valuable word of mouth marketing or future financial contributions.

Among online audiences, real-life donors/supporters, Influencers, and Evangelists are the most important folks to target with your nonprofit PR strategy. The quality of your fans is far more important than the quantity of your fans on social media platforms. If your organization isn’t paying special attention to key audience members, then your social media strategy is likely leaving both money and mission-amplification on the table. And these are things that most organizations cannot afford not to lose.  Not all audiences are created equal.

 

*Image photo credit  belongs to nexlevelvision.com

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends 2 Comments

Marketing Your Nonprofit to Audiences that ACTUALLY Matter

dilbert_mediocrity

This is a bit of a tough-love post.

The nonprofit sector has lots of hard-working people trying their gosh-darn best to create social change. And, yet, there are still far, far, far too many organizations headed by smart, thoughtful leaders flailing in their attempts to concurrently achieve their missions and ensure their long-term financial futures.

Many of these same organizations have researched their perceived competitive sets to learn from their nonprofit colleagues and peers…and, well, perhaps this is part of the problem.  Namely, many nonprofit executives are collecting information and doing everything in their power to keep up with nonprofit-dubbed best practices….and, perhaps that’s why a lot of them are still flailing…and why many will ultimately fail.

As a sector, many nonprofit organizations have confused “pervasive practices” with “best practices.”

These nonprofits are doing it wrong. Our hearts are in the game, but we continue to grapple with the same issues that have always challenged our effectiveness: burn-out, low-pay, fundraiser retention, donor cultivation, long-term solvency, etc.  Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Perhaps many of us have been called “insane” for sticking to the hard work that we do but, arguably, too few people call us out for doing the same thing over and over and thinking things are going to change.

I have a proposal of where to start stopping this insanity: Nonprofits must pay significantly more attention to the market. The market – not internal audiences and certainly not other nonprofit organizations – determines your organization’s relevance and long-term sustainability  

Here are some friendly reminders that may help your bottom lines of promulgating your mission AND promoting long-term financial solvency:

 

1) Nonprofits often determine importance but the market always determines relevance

Nobody caresLet’s not undervalue the critical role of our organizations: Many nonprofits are rightfully perceived as “content experts” in their respective fields and, as such, are highly-credible, trusted authorities.  In other words, as “experts,” nonprofits often are able to declare “importance.”

However, if the market isn’t interested in your area of expertise or does not find it salient in their lives, they may deem your “importance” to be irrelevant.  All too often, nonprofits misunderstand this relationship (or generally misunderstand the role of the public as the ultimate arbiters of an organization’s relevance), and spend significant time and resources essentially “talking at” people with their important voices.  These practices don’t amount to dialogue – and they certainly don’t foster the types of meaningful, lasting relationships that we are all endeavoring to develop with our audiences.

A part of even staying alive in the digital era is “showing” and not merely “telling.” Content is king, and building personal connections helps to provide opportunities to prove relevance and open the door to conversation regarding your “important” content. If you make your organization relevant through storytelling, you can help audiences understand what is important and why. But, and again, this is a harsh truth: If you are telling your story and solely explaining its importance without first establishing its relevance, then the market will speak…by not acting.

When evaluating the effectiveness of an organization’s messaging, I always revert to the most basic of marketing principles: What’s in it for the audience?  In other words, does my “important” message articulate a personal benefit to the target audience?  If your message doesn’t articulate a meaningful personal benefit, then it is likely to be deemed irrelevant.

 

2) The market determines the means by which nonprofits best communicate (not the other way around)

Many organizations are not adequately investing time and resources into web and social media support – in spite of abundant data that compellingly indicate that these are the most important marketing and communication platforms. Often, nonprofit leaders simply don’t understand social technology platforms (or are scared to dive in), and just keep chugging along trying to create impact through direct mail, brochures, billboards and 15 second spots on drive-time radio…in spite of data clearly indicating that no amount of paid advertising can make up for a lack of word-of-mouth advocacy like that achieved via social media.

Moreover, the more “traditional” marketing channels are considered less trustworthy than real-time communication channels, so sticking to these methods doesn’t do your organization any reputational favors. (And if your methods are so outdated, perhaps the audience may similarly perceive that your message cannot be that urgent. The market won’t wait for you to catch up.)

Here’s the point: You can have the best message in the world, but if you shout it into to an empty room, then it doesn’t matter. Nobody heard it. Instead, go to the room where the party is taking place and share your message through the channel that works best for your audiences and not the channel that makes you most comfortable.

 

3) The market (not other nonprofits) informs your strategy, so beware of unintentional collusion

follow the leaderJust because other nonprofits are doing something, doesn’t mean that they are doing it right or achieving a desired outcome…or even that they have any special information that you don’t possess. Often, nonprofits become subject to what we at IMPACTS call “unintentional collusion.” In other words, they base their practices off of what other nonprofits are doing, assuming (often incorrectly) that the nonprofit that started the trend either had some sort of “insider knowledge,” or that the decision yielded positive results. Time and time again, this proves untrue.

If you want to know what works or if something may be a good idea, look to the market and your audiences’ behaviors – not to the average operations of other flailing nonprofits. Nonprofit executives should care what the market is expecting, and not what other nonprofits are doing. For some reason, this seems to be a hard one for many institutional leaders. If the best that you want for your nonprofit is to be mediocre, then aiming for the middle or matching your marketing efforts to industry averages is the way to go. My guess, though, is that this is not what you want for your organization.

When it comes to informing your strategy, use case studies from successful organizations – for-profit and nonprofit alike – that are similar to your own in content, promised personal benefit, and primary audience. In other words, find the best of the best and learn from their examples. (Please note: By “the best of the best” I mean the organizations that are actually achieving their missions and performing well financially…not those organizations who may be getting by on perceptions that don’t align to their current fiscal realities.)

Talk to other executive leaders to discuss the outcomes of their most impactful initiatives, and match their experiences to market data to find out if a similar initiative would work for your organization. If all nonprofits aim to be the best they can be and are contemplative of how to reach their section of the market, then the industry can be elevated. If we all revert to the “average,” we cannot evolve. If we cannot evolve, then we cannot thrive in an increasingly competitive, fragmented world.

Nonprofits don’t seem to have a hard time paying attention to one another or paying attention to their own internal desires but, perhaps ironically, nonprofits are less frequently equally contemplative of the market. As a reminder to nonprofits: You need your followers more than they need you. Pay attention to what they want or you may be left alone on a soapbox self-importantly talking about yourself to a family of tumbleweeds.

 

*Image photo credit (in order) belongs to Dilbert, Hugh MacLeod, Eloqua and Funny-pics.

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter!

 

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 10 Comments