The Veggie Return On Investment

Food Literacy Center

Philanthrophile (a.k.a Betsy C. Stone) hasn’t dropped off the face of the planet but she has been detained as she works on a nonfiction-something-or-other through Bennington’s College’s M.F.A. writing program. And – shock face! – the local nonprofit world seems to be surviving just fine without her ministrations.

She did, however, participate in a listening sessions sponsored by the Sacramento Region Community Foundation where there was some interesting dialogue about measurement and evaluation. Philanthrophile (perhaps I should stop speaking of myself in writerly third person right about now) is a fan of measurement. In Washington, D.C., for example, Venture Philanthropy Partners has been using their investment and advocacy power to make measurable differences in the lives of youth.

So I (see? first person! I’ve got this point of view thing nailed!) was delighted to see the evaluation findings in Food Literacy Center‘s annual report, drawn from three years of findings from Capitol Heights Academy:

  • 87% of kids can provide an example of a healthy vegetable (the report notes that in the first year, the kids had never seen broccoli or plums);
  • 91% of kids agree healthy snacks taste good;
  • 80% of kids know how to make a healthy snack and read a recipe;
  • 87% know how to save money by selecting foods that are good for them; and
  • 80% of kids know how to read a nutrition label.

Are these outcome measures? Has Food Literacy Center proved that kids are really eating healthier at home, achieving healthy weights, feeling more energetic or doing better in school? No… but give a small nonprofit a break. I appreciate Food Literacy Center’s commitment to evaluation.

Carrot-y congratulations and broccoli bravos to the staff and volunteers leading California – and now the country! – in food literacy.

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Sacramento Gave BIG!

BIG Day of Giving SacramentoI was so excited when Sacramento put its toes in the water last year with its first online giving blitz, Arts Day of Giving, catching the wave of national enthusiasm for this viral approach to inspire charitable giving. But (to stick with the beach metaphor) I was blown away by the tsunami of support.

The headline: Sacramento raised over $3 million — $3,020,000 to be exact — from 18,915 donors, benefiting 394 local nonprofits.

One of the striking findings from this region-wide philanthropic event was the diversity of the nonprofits that were attracting donations. In late morning, I tweeted that @PlacerLandTrust, @TFTGreaterSac (The First Tee of Greater Sacramento), and @YMCASuperiorCa were all rocking it.

According to the Giving USA 2013 report, food banks and human services grew disproportionately during the Great Recession, but donors began to return to their historical preferences in 2013: education, arts, environmental and animal nonprofits. (Religious organizations continued to rank number one in donations, receiving 32% of all giving.)

Look what categories “won” in Sacramento (based on a cursory review of nonprofits receiving over $20,000): public media, animals, arts, human services, health (a yoga collective), land/environment (including the Sacramento Tree Foundation), libraries, programs serving low-income kids, the LGBT community (yay Sacramento LGBT Community Center!), legal assistance programs, housing, adoption programs, and a museum (The California Museum).

In terms of dollars raised, the biggest winners were:

  • Sacramento Ballet — $91,776 from 334 donors
  • Placer: Placer Land Trust — $54,896 from 246 donors
  • Yolo: Winters Friends of the Library — $20,799 from 184 donors

But it was clear from the leaderboard throughout the day that lots of nonprofits — big and small — were “winning” in terms of energizing their base and achieving their goals.

  • Effie Yeaw Nature Center, for example, had a timid goal of $2,500. They raised $12,200 from 136 donors. I bet they’re in shock!
  • River City Food Bank set a goal of raising $10,000. They surpassed that even before the lunchtime challenge, one of two challenge prize periods that they encouraged existing friends to support. Now it was my turn to be timid. I tweeted, “@RCFoodBank, “Time to set a new goal! $12,500 is in reach.” At that moment, their tweet came through setting $20,000 as their new goal, along with this explanation of their thinking to me, “Go big or go home!” They finished the 24 hours with $25,460 from 162 donors.
  • I thought the California Food Literacy Center was overly ambitious in its out-of-the-chute goal to raise $10,000, but they, too, surpassed their goal by mid-day and set a new $20,000 target. They expressed their joy with brand-centric posts that were so cute they made your cheeks hurt: “We can’t wait to give you thanks with a double pea pod cartwheel!” They ended with $18,145 from 99 donors. This, for a nonprofit that’s only been around two years, has California in its title and isn’t obviously dedicated to kids (although childhood nutrition is its primary programmatic focus).

As I watched the action on the leaderboard and my Twitter feed, this question burned in my mind: How were some of these nonprofits succeeding? What was their tactical strategy?

Clearly, some nonprofits had donors in the wings, ready to snap up those matching funds when the day began (at 12:01 a.m.!). At 11 a.m., Placer Land Trust already had $30,646 in the kitty. I suspect the same was true of a few others who had a fast start to the day, raising more than $20,000 by 11 a.m. before leveling off: Cottage Housing, YMCA of Superior California, St. John’s Shelter, and The First Tee of Greater Sacramento. I’m pretty sure that Social Venture Partners of Sacramento also encouraged its shareholder partners to take advantage of this opportunity to leverage their support for its portfolio of nonprofits (clue: they only had 17 donors).

Watching the numbers jump during the 12-1 hour, it became obvious that some nonprofits had encouraged their supporters to donate during certain challenge periods. Capital Public Radio and Sacramento Ballet were among those I noticed had big jumps during this period. I plan to ask both whether they nudged their fan base, or it just fell out that way.

In the days ahead, I’ll connect with a few nonprofits — hopefully Sacramento Ballet and the DCI Sacramento Mandarins (an expected star and an underdog, both of which were big rainmakers) — to see if I can get some insights into their position going in and their tactical strategies. I know many nonprofits made good use of pop up windows on their websites, mailed materials, emails and social media, but what worked best for which kinds of charities and fan bases?

I’m also curious about which charities didn’t do as well as I expected. With the exception of the Mandarins, a drum and bugle corp, where were the music nonprofits? I would have expected WEAVE to have a little stronger total, so I’m curious if they didn’t push the BIG Day of Giving. Same with Sacramento Habitat for Humanity, WIND Youth Services and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Sacramento area. Hospice and disease-related organizations (such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society) typically have pretty loyal bases, so I wonder why they didn’t generate much interest.

When I think about it a bit more, I realize this is such an unknown beast for nonprofits. Strategically, they may wonder if this will cannibalize their existing base of support or if they’ll lose control of it by having it go through the Give Local Now online donation system. Or they may not know how to organize an integrated communications plan — and staff it — so that they can succeed.

For those who did succeed, how much did they have to invest in staff time or out-of-pocket costs (e.g. for a mailing)? How did they feel about the ROI? They may not know until they see how many new donors they attracted, or how many lapsed donors they woke up.

As the then-director of Give Local Now told me last year, online giving events were part of a strategy “to increase the regional average of households that give to charities; increase the average household contribution of households that give; and increase the share of giving that stays here in the area versus benefiting national or international charities.” She went on to say, “If information about the cool things that are happening here were more broadly known, there would be a greater sense of pride in philanthropy.”

Sacramento certainly has reason to feel proud this morning. I’d say Give BIG got the word out!


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The Best Big Day of Giving Promo


Big Day of Giving

Tomorrow, May 6, is the BIG Day of Giving here  in Sacramento (a.k.a. #GiveBigDOG) – our first full-blown effort! And we are not alone…. BIG Day of Giving has been growing nationally as part of a promotion to give charitably.

After Sacramento put its toes in the water (before the drought) with the Arts Day of Giving in 2013, I’ve been keeping my eye peeled to see how charities would fire up their support base for this online giving event.

My favorite promotion thus far comes from… ta da!… Bainbridge Island. Our friends in the rainy north shared this short and clever Millennial-meets-Boomer video with their supporters:

I’m in quite a few nonprofit databases, between the support I regularly give to a few, and my “test” donations to Arts Day of Giving. Email and a few snail mail promotions started showing up almost exactly two weeks ago:

  • I received oversized postcards from the Sacramento Ballet (splitting its message between #GiveBigDOG and its upcoming Modern Masters performances), the Sacramento Children’s Chorus and the event’s sponsors, Give Local Now and the Sacramento Region Community Foundation. That one promoted the availability of matching funds.
  • The first promo email from a local nonprofit arrived on April 22 from the California Food Literacy Center. They did a great job (as always) with their brand-centric message, with bits like, “We have reason to jump for Juneberry joy!…Help us put the pepper pot in their day!” The email went  on to give a short, compelling reason to give (a short story and a couple of powerful statistics). It also gave specific instructions about how to participate and made the “ask” (“give $100 or more to Food Literacy Center and other nonprofits that are important to our kids and our food system” and tell your friends). This was interesting: they not only gave the link to the BIG Day of Giving donation page but to their own website. P.S. who doesn’t love pictures of kids playing with their veggies?

California Food Literacy Center Big Day of Giving Promo

  • Next in my email inbox was the Effie Yeaw Nature Center with a straightforward announcement and Q & A’s about the event…
  • …Followed by River City Food Bank’s colorful  5 Good Reasons to support its mission beginning with this: “From nine weeks to ninety years, folks need to have healthy food to grow and maintain good health.  River City Food Bank cares for everyone in need through Sacramento County.” Rather than asking people to give a certain amount, RCFB shared its goal to raise $10,000 and encouraged people to give during two “challenge” periods that could earn the emergency food nonprofit extra prizes for raising the most money: the noon to 1 p.m. lunch time blitz, and the 6-7 p.m. chowtime blitz.
  • On its heels, United Way announced it would be crowd funding community gardens although its “ask” was simply for community members to make a donation to #GiveBigDOG
  • More emails flowed in that week: Volunteers of America, the Nonprofit Resource Center, B Street Theater (that one was kind of hard to read), the Nehemiah Emerging Leaders Program (which asked for a donation of $25 or more) and the Davis Arts Center.

You can learn more about how to participate tomorrow with this quick tutorial from BIG Day of Giving folks themselves:

Which of the 400 participating nonprofits will YOU give to? I hate shopping, but I love it when it benefits people in my community!




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Time to Take the Board Temperature


Maybe it’s the H1N1 flu that’s got me thinking about temperatures. Boards vary a lot in their effectiveness. Some are too big to reach consensus, others too small to have the right mix of skills. Some have had so little turnover that they’re hidebound, while others so young and new that they’re deer in the headlights. Some Board silently and don’t rock the boat, while others make speeches rather than foster dialogue.

That said, there are a lot of well meaning and talented people serving on nonprofit Boards. But even good boards can get better.

The early part of the year is a great time to consider fielding a board self-assessment tool. I constructed the one below — this was a paper version though it could easily be set up on Survey Monkey — for a local nonprofit that had added quite a few new members. The tool helped them to determine opportunities for improvement, and resulted in changes to their board agendas and reports. Because they had circulated a similar self-assessment three years before, they were also able to track change.

What questions have you found most helpful to Boards that undertake self-assessments? How have you used the results to foster dialogue and improvements in Board functioning?

Overview:  It’s considered a good governance practice for a Board of Trustees to regularly evaluate the work of the Board and the organization.  Your answers will help us pinpoint opportunities to improve our governance and the way we work together, to further our important mission!

Instructions:  Please circle the item that best represents your response.  Where appropriate, please provide added comments in the space provided or on additional paper.

For questions 1-19, the rating key is: 1 = Strongly Disagree (SD)   2 = Disagree (D)   3 = Agree (A), 4 = Strongly Agree (SA)        ? = Don’t Know (DK)

Mission, direction and planning

1.  [    ] has a clear and important mission.

2.  [    ] has a clear set of priorities and direction.

3.  The Board has the opportunity to provide input to [    ]’s strategy and priorities.

4.  The Board gets enough data and information, of the right kind, to be able to monitor [    ]’s progress towards its mission and strategy.

5.  I am confident about [     ]’s financial health and sustainability.

6. The Board has the opportunity to approve [     ]’s annual objectives.

Financial and risk management

7. The Board monitors the financial performance of [     ] including its adherence to the budget approved by the Board.

8.  I have a good understanding of the risks facing [     ] and [our category of nonprofit] in general and feel comfortable raising issues to protect the organization and its mission.

9.  I have a clear understanding of [     ]’s revenue sources, expenses and liabilities.


10.  I understand how [    ] is structured and staffed.

11.  I understand what services [    ] provides, for whom.

12.  [    ] has clear policies and guidelines for its operations, to ensure consistency and continuity, and the Board reviews key policies periodically.

Board Role and Communication

13. The Board gets the right amount of good quality information, in a timely manner, for it to fulfill its responsibility to the mission of the organization.

14.  The Board gets enough information about [our issue] and [    ]’s services to the community.

15.  I understand the roles and responsibilities of the Board of Directors.

16.  [     ] makes appropriate use of its Board members’ expertise.

17. There is a healthy back-and-forth of questions and discussion at Board meetings.

18. [     ] calls upon its Board members appropriately, including asking them to give charitably to the organization, and to encourage friends and colleagues to donate.

19. Board meetings are devoted to topics and discussion that are important to the success of the organization.

Board composition and satisfaction

20.  The Board has the right mix of skills and experience to support [     ]’s mission. (Yes, No)

21.  The Board is getting stronger. (Yes, stronger; No, weaker; Neither, about the same)

22. The demand of my time as a Board member is (Appropriate, Too Much, Too Little)

23.  Being a Board member is fulfilling (Yes, No)

24. I would recommend being a member of this Board to others (Yes, No)

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Don’t Let Moss Grow on Your Nonprofit Website

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There’s no such thing as being “done” with your website. You can’t check it off your list. If your nonprofit is like most nonprofits, it’s been at least a couple of years since you updated or revamped your website.

But it’s been over three years since Microsoft brought its distinctive tile navigation to smart phones, and already four months since Apple transformed the look of its home screen with ios7. Out went “start” buttons and busy black backgrounds. Things got leaner and cleaner.

Website conventions change and not just to present a fresh aesthetic. They’re designed to make the user experience easier (although many of us don’t appreciate it, at least initially, when we have to think twice about what we’re doing).

An effective website is still a nonprofit’s most effective communications tool. As software advances have put user-friendly tools and templates within the financial and technical reach of all nonprofits, there’s no longer a good excuse to let a website grow moss.

That said, just slapping content into a template does not make for an effective website. It takes answering questions like the following:

1) Who is the website for? And who is it MOST for? (many organizations have volunteers or members and have to weigh whether the website is being used to attract new supporters, or meet the needs of existing constituents)

2) What are the organization’s top three goals that a website can help support?

3) What are the top three actions that we want our top priority audience members to perform easily?

4) What is the most frequently viewed content on the current website that should continue to be easily within reach?

5) What must the website communicate about us through its look and feel, its imagery and tone, to support our brand?

Most nonprofit executive directors or fundraising professionals don’t have a lot of experience with website designs. It’s hard to know where to begin.

Fortunately, Idealware (itself a nonprofit) has just begun a five-part series of webinars called “From Audit to Redesign: the Complete Nonprofit Website Kit.” I think the content is bang-on, and the price tag ($200) should more than pay for itself when you consider what a well-designed website can do for an organization. The first session, “Starting the Audit Process,” was held January 28 but it’s not too late to jump on this moving train. Upcoming on February 11 is “Defining Your Design and Content Strategy.” The third session on February 28 should be a great introduction to the “nitty gritty” of web design and cover best practices for usability and accessibility. The last two sessions get into content management systems (the tool that lets non-technical people easily update content), search engine optimization (so people find you), integration with tools like online donation systems, and an overview of a website development process.

As a former Northwesterner, I love moss. But not on websites. Get moving!

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Three Fresh New Year Tips for Nonprofits

What nonprofits do in these first ten days of the year will leave a lasting taste in the mouths of their supporters. Will it be the feeling of a warm hot toddy on a cool winter’s eve? Or a sip of eggnog that’s been in the fridge a week too long?

Here are three tips — two things you should do plus one idea that might intrigue your supporters, a best practice gleaned from the news publishing industry.

1.  Say thank you, and do so in a way that reflects your brand. By now most nonprofits know they have a brand image, whether they choose to manage it or not. In the midst of the charitable gift acknowledgement letters that are fluttering in was this little gem, a handwritten note from Betty Cooper, development director of the American River Natural History Association, and artwork created by one of ARNHA’s little clients (click images to see full size):

Is it practical for every nonprofit to send out a handwritten note? Of course not. The point is that it is important to capture the feeling of the nonprofit’s mission. Run the organization like the responsible business that it is, but for heaven’s sake don’t sound like an accountant. (Sorry, accountants.)

2.  Remind supporters what THEY accomplished by getting behind the nonprofit’s mission. I gave small amounts to over 20 nonprofits this year (due partly to journalistic curiosity about events like #ArtsDayofGiving) and I subscribe to probably a dozen nonprofit newsletters. I received TWO emails with subject lines that congratulated supporters. My favorite was an email from No Kid Hungry with the subject line, “Look what you helped do in 2013.” I don’t actually donate to No Kid Hungry — I prefer to support local food banks and closets like River City Food Bank — but I thought this was a brilliant piece, complete with video. Listen to the music. It’s anthemic. Listen to the words. They’re hopeful. You end up singing along, “We could do this all night!”

A more basic but still effective approach was taken by Appleseed, a nonprofit network of public justice centers. The subject line of its January 3 email was, “Looking back, looking ahead.” Betsy Cavendish, the president, wrote:

As we start a new year, Appleseed joins millions of Americans in reflecting on the past year and thinking about our potential for 2014. Before I get into that, I first want to thank all our supporters. As you may know, four Appleseed board members offered a $20,000 challenge grant in the waning days of 2013, matching each dollar we raised. I am delighted to report that donors rose to their challenge! 

And now for the look back. My law school classmate Ken Stern wrote a powerful critique of the nonprofit sector last year, taking to task nonprofit organizations whose programs don’t work effectively. I’m glad to say that, as broad as Appleseed’s mission is, we are effective at what we’re doing. We’re not content to simply identify a problem and call it a day: we translate our research into lasting solutions. Here are some of those recent successes from the Appleseed network…

3.  Look ahead. As soon as newspapers and magazines have finished their year-in-review and their best-pictures-of-2013, they’re off to the races hooking readers for the year ahead. City Arts, an arts magazine based in the Pacific Northwest, promoted its January issue with “The Future List: 12 Artists and Innovators Who Will Define 2014.” Why not a list of ideas for solutions, or program improvements, or hopes for 2014? As we start the new year, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Hope that things will get better? A plan for change that we can support?

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Top Planning Retreat DON’Ts


Ah… September is around the corner. And with the return of fall, college football, a fresh season of The Big Bang Theory,  and… planning retreats.

I’ve been to a lot of planning retreats over the years and facilitated a fair number, for organizations big and small, for for-profits and non-profits.

For your consideration, here is a list of my top “don’t’s” for retreat planning:

1. Don’t turn the planning retreat into making a new list of stuff to do. One Board I used to serve on created a new “strategic plan” every three years. Every three years, they started over, brainstormed a list of possible new programs, prioritized it and called that the strategic plan. We did not get a chance to talk about how the environment was changing, how the portfolio of current programs did or didn’t make a difference. Planning retreats were about adding rather than winnowing and refining.

2. Don’t let fun and games dominate the agenda. If you’re Herb Kelleher and a fun-loving attitude is a core value, that’s one thing. Touchy-feely stuff has its place, but people are time challenged and resent what they view as a waste of time. Volunteers on an effective nonprofit board presumably are there for the right reason: they want to share their expertise, talents and connections to help achieve the mission. That means they need to use their brain cells and contribute. Retreats must feel productive.

3. Don’t wring the juice out of it. I know one CEO who was so terrified by the prospect of free-ranging discussion that he turned the retreat into a three-ring circus of management presentations. Discussion was to consist of limited opportunities to react to the presentations capped by a request for approval of management’s strategic plan. I said “was to” because the Board chair hijacked the agenda and said the Board was going to have the conversation that it wanted to. He even drew a picture of himself wearing a cowboy hat. Yee ha!

4. Don’t forget where the group is in its formation. Despite the warning about the “touchy-feely” stuff, Boards with new members need to take time to loosen up. Ice breakers have their place even among grown ups. Have some fun! The facilitator has an important role in setting discussion rules including reminding participants that everyone, even new members, are there for a reason. The facilitator can also help to draw out participants.

5.  Don’t assume the CEO or executive director knows where the Board is. Board interviews or a survey can be very helpful in discovering issues that may need to be discussed, or concerns that could take the retreat off in an unexpected direction if not accommodated or dealt with. I’ve seen CEOs conduct the interviews themselves (which can be relationship-building) or they can be undertaken by the facilitator.

6. Don’t ignore pacing. We as humans are primed for stories: we need a hook that grabs us, a desire to achieve something, conflict we can gnash our teeth over, rising energy, and satisfying resolution. Good stories don’t drone on. In a retreat, pay attention to the movement created by the length of the presentations, their point, and the balance between presentation and dialogue. Avoid death by Powerpoint!

7. Don’t forget to start with clear objectives for the retreat itself. You know the old dialogue from Alice in Wonderland:

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

As an example, yesterday, I met with an executive director to discuss objectives for an upcoming retreat. Here were the five we identified based on her perception, Board interviews and a Board survey: 1)  Check in on the progress of the strategic plan to ensure alignment and/or identify any new steps that need to be taken to ensure its implementation; 2) Engage the entire Board in a strategic discussion about a new program, in development; 3) Continue to develop relationships among Board members, since the Board has a number of newer members; 4) Identify ways to enhance the Board’s functioning so that they are fully and appropriately engaged throughout the year; and 5) Enhance Board understanding of their group governance role and their individual responsibilities.

With that under control, you can worry about the important things this fall. Will the Huskies get back in the national conversation? Will Cal’s new coach be able to speed up the Bears? Will Leonard return from his research trip and Amy and Sheldon get together? Stay tuned…

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