Category Archives: Strategy

20 questions from CSUS Graphic Design students

CSUS professor Gwen Amos’ “Visual Image” students have a tough assignment:  research and understand the scope of poverty in Sacramento, and develop a print piece, poster and campaign to assist a worthy nonprofit.  Today I met with four students — Biz Lemma, Charmian Mendoza, Jessica Ripley and Kevin Swaim — to discuss their preliminary ideas to benefit Women’s Empowerment, an organization that they see has having a vital mission and approach to helping homeless women. (Note: their work is not sponsored by Women’s Empowerment but they selected the organization and are busily working on ideas to advance its cause.)

They also came with a laundry list of questions – 20, to be exact!  More than a dozen were of general interest so I’ll do my best to answer them here.  Readers, do you disagree with me? Please comment.  I know the students would appreciate the input.

How can we, as designers, use social marketing strategies to influence the behaviors of the public?

How can’t you?  I know that’s not what you asked. Social marketing literally means influencing attitudes and behaviors to accomplish a public good. All causes have to “map” how they will get people from point “A” to point “B.”  They may have to create awareness first before getting people to take steps that will accomplish the good they envision. Or it may be that people are already aware of the issue and just need to know how they can get involved, usually starting with low-risk baby steps and progressing to higher involvement. Social media, which we discussed today, offers an important set of tools to get people to engage.

What methods have been used in “call to action” campaigns that would work on a local scale?

We discussed a variety of examples when we met, but I’ll share one here.  Some of the most successful campaigns address a problem that people immediately grasp, make it easy to support the effort, and have a short-term sense of urgency.  “Give to the Max Day” in Minnesota is an effort by that state’s nonprofits to come together and get people to give locally.  Last year, the effort raised more than $10 million from 42,000 donors in 24 hours.

What levels of interactivity do we need to reach in order to make an impact? How important is it for the audience to be able to interact with an advertisement as opposed to simply read information on a flyer?

I know from our conversation that you’re wondering whether a poster or flyer (which requires no interaction) is better or worse that some kind of communications tool that makes you take an action (like a tear-off pad).  Old school direct mail advertising used to favor pieces where you had to apply a sticker and send in for the free offer.  Asking people to do something yielded higher returns than just a plain old mail appeal.  But today, it’s important to remember that people have short attention spans.  Something tactile might work if it’s clever enough and makes sense, or it might get ignored.  Spend time thinking about where people are now in their decision process about involvement.  Do you need to spend time raising awareness as a “drip irrigation” method: delivering a steady stream of short messages through passive media like billboards?  Or do people already ‘get it’ and just need an easy way to act – like click a button on a website?  When it comes to interactivity, I’d think less about print, which has a substantial up front cost and may be risky in terms of return. Think more about online tactics.

For a cause like helping to alleviate poverty, is a magazine the right way to present the information we have?

It could be a way to present it.  First you have to reach an audience that wants to know more. Magazines have the luxury of multiple pages to tell the story, and the ability to present compelling visuals.  They might be a great tool for major donor prospects.  Another approach might be a video.

Do you think that social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is more successful currently than traditional billboards, print ads, mailers, etc.?

The metric for success here is return on investment.  For every dollar you spend, what do you get back?  Because social media are cheap or free, it’s hard to beat the return.  Plus you can experiment rapidly.  On the other hand, the jury is out in terms of social media’s ability to generate substantial donations.  As pointed out recently by John Kenyon at the Nonprofit Resource Center conference, email and even “snail mail” still play an important role in generating donations.  (Here’s an old presentation of his that explains the role of email in fundraising.)  Online donors frequently become snail mail donors.

Is there any gain in having volunteer organizations on Yelp?

Yelp is definitely a social medium, but people tend to go there for reviews.  It can be a good place to create events to attract new friends and followers.

Do you feel that QR codes are a fad?  Are these marketable to older crowds as well?  Are people more likely o get involved with an organization, or at least visit their websites, if there is a QR in the ad?

Old like me 🙂 ? I think they’ll be useful eventually but right now they’re mostly sizzle and no steak for nonprofits.  On the other hand, there is a small set of people who love new tech toys, and those people might follow a QR to a website.  If you’re trying to recruit programmers to work with disadvantaged kids near Silicon Valley, a QR code on ads might work well.  Think about your target audience first.  Do they have smart phones and use a QR reader app?

What is a good way to advertise for volunteers as opposed to donations?

Volunteering and donating are both behaviors.  As we talked about today, friends are a more influential source of information than paid advertising.  Think about how you can mobilize people to bring their friends into a cause, whether it’s as a volunteer or donor.  You might think of those as alternative paths for giving.  Some people might have more time or talent, while others have more financial resources.  Nonprofits need both.

What is a good length for a YouTube video campaign?  Would these be effective for groups such as Women’s Empowerment so that the target audience can put a face to the cause?

Watch TV news and you’ll get a pretty good idea about the optimal length of a video.  Keep remembering: we all have short attention spans!  I haven’t seen data about optimal length but I’d guess 2-3 minutes would be the maximum before you start to lose people.  Videos do need a story arc: something that engages you, depicts a struggle or a challenge, and releases tension by providing information about what you can do.  Video is ideal for organizations like Women’s Empowerment, much harder for organizations that have “colorless” visuals – e.g. free tax preparation assistance. [Update:  The Give Minnesota folks are also running a nonprofit video contest called “Does this make my heart look big?” The second flash image that comes up once you land on the site asks for votes on the most compelling video.  Check them out and see what you think about length and impact.]

What sort of information would an organization trying to raise community involvement need to include on a Facebook page?  In trying to up the number of volunteers, would Facebook be more successful than traditional print ads or flyers?

What works best – always – is an integrated media campaign across multiple channels, but nonprofits rarely have the money for that.  Websites and Facebook are very cost effective channels for engaging people.  The beauty of Facebook is engagement and interaction; it’s a conversation rather than a one-way channel.  Spend time looking around on Facebook fan pages to see what kind of content (and messages) seem to be working for nonprofits that have similar appeals.  Draft a one-page “message and voice” guideline with your ideas about what the nonprofit needs to convey (prioritized) and what its personality should be.  The idea is to get other people to post on your page and on their own page.  Above is an example from today on River City Food Bank‘s Facebook page – 2 people who cared enough to post.

How many campaigns should an organization have per year?

Whatever number is effective!  It would depend on the organization and what it’s asking through the campaigns.  The big thing is that the organization should map out a strategy for the year.  For example, it might start the year with a personal outreach campaign to major donors, then promote an event, then focus on a membership drive, then do a holiday push and “it’s not too late” New Year’s reminder.

Parting words

Start with the end in mind (outcome).  What is the problem the client — in this case, the nonprofit — is struggling with that marketing and design can help solve?

Conceptualize a strategy that goes from awareness of a problem or cause through the behavior that the nonprofit wants to encourage.  You will undoubtedly have a limited budget so pick just one step on the long ladder from awareness to behavior as a place to begin.

Test it on your mother.  Can you explain what you want your Mom to do in 140 characters or less so that she gets it and wants to help?

Think in terms of a short campaign – or at least a fairly short experiment.  So many of the “old reliable” marketing techniques have fallen by the wayside with splintered audiences.  Now everything is test and learn, keep building on what works and stop doing what doesn’t.  What can you do that’s not too expensive and gets a response in 6 weeks or less?

Good luck.  And thanks.  The nonprofit world needs young people like you who care, and have talent to share.

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Goodwill’s Midtown boutique: those are jobs you’re buying

This long and difficult recession has forced many Sacramento nonprofits to reconsider their basic funding models.  Organizations that have depended on grants, government funding or even individual and business donations have taken steps to diversify their income, and many have started social enterprises related to their missions, like St. John’s Shelter’s Plates Cafe.

One organization in Sacramento has relied on social enterprise funding of  its mission since 1933: Goodwill Industries.

From the looks of things this morning (more than 100 people had filed through the door within the first hour), Goodwill is about to get a big boost in support of its job training and placement mission from the opening of its new boutique in Midtown Sacramento.  (For photos of the store and its opening, go to Goodwill’s new Facebook page.)

Sales of those 1,100 pairs of trendy shoes on the wall racks will help cover the training for disadvantaged and disabled Sacramentans.

In the first five months of this year, 515 people were supported by Goodwill’s employment and job training program.  The training program prepares people for employment in custodial and retail jobs, and the new boutique adds to the organization’s opportunities for hands-on learning.  How long someone remains in training depends on a person’s needs.  One of the store greeters, Sam Timoti, has been in the program for two years, and was enjoying his first store opening.  His fellow greeter, Harry Clinton, is a veteran of the program with eight years under his belt; he said he’d been on-hand for the opening of 21 stores.

I had the chance to ask Joe Mendez, CEO and President of Goodwill locally, about his hopes for this latest initiative:

How is the Midtown store a departure from what you’ve done elsewhere?

The Downtown Store on L Street is a departure from other Goodwill Stores because it will specifically feature brand name clothing, business wear, and vintage styles for men and women. The store’s boutique feel is especially appealing to fashion enthusiasts looking for reasonable prices.

Everything Goodwill does is ultimately about job creation for disabled and disadvantaged people. How do you expect the store to contribute toward your mission? What will you be able to do that you can’t without the store?

Not only does Goodwill provide jobs, Goodwill also provides job training to help people develop the skills they need to be competitive in the job market. Over 90% of revenues directly fund Goodwill’s training programs, mission related activities, and payroll. The Downtown Store will directly employ mission related members of our community and its revenue will contribute to mission by providing training and work experience to people with disabilities and other special needs.

What do people not understand about Goodwill that you wish they did?

Goodwill is not just a place to drop off donations and buy used clothes. Goodwill takes donations and turns them into jobs and job training opportunities for people with disabilities and other special needs.

Besides its job training messages, Goodwill seems to be emphasizing its eco-friendliness. How important is the “green” aspect of Goodwill’s operation here and how does the store opening relate to it?

Goodwill provides our community an opportunity to help save the planet. Goodwill recycles more than 30 million pounds of donations a year in the Sacramento Valley. The Downtown Store will help Goodwill collect, recycle, reuse, repurpose, and employ people in our community.

A number of local nonprofits are just developing or starting social enterprises to help fund their missions. How much of Goodwill’s operational funding here comes from sale of goods or recycling, vs. charitable donations?

Our major source of mission funding is from the sale of used clothing and household goods donated by individual members of the community.

What are you most interested in motivating people to do to support Goodwill’s mission? Donate goods? Recycle? Shop at stores? Volunteer?

Donate goods to support and fund Goodwill’s mission. When people donate they help someone find work or obtain training while helping to divert usable goods from landfills. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s beneficial for the entire community.

According to Goodwill’s parent organization, “Every 42 seconds of every business day, a person served by Goodwill earns a good job.”  Hopefully the Midtown boutique will not only introduce new audiences to its merchandise, but to its mission.

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How small non-profits developed strategy maps to improve performance

After co-presenting on the topic of strategy maps with Dr. Mary Hargrave, CEO of the River Oak Center for Children, to a group of non-profit executive directors in February, I offered to try a little experiment on behalf of the Nonprofit Resource Center.  For non-profit execs who were interested, I offered to facilitate a “Self-Directed Learning Circle” to help the execs develop strategy maps for their own organizations.

Tuesday, I received a completed strategy map and email from David DeLeonardis, who has been CEO of Crossroads Diversified Services, Inc., the broad-based non-profit, since 1991:

I used it with our board at last Saturday’s retreat, and I must say the map worked.  Board members paid very close attention to it …then the board spent the rest of the retreat discussing what outcome metrics they wanted.  The map put the board on the strategy level (30,000 ft. view), they “got it” quickly and they enjoyed a productive retreat.  The amount and level of discussion was perfect.

If you want a glimpse into David’s challenge as he attempted to depict Crossroads’ strategy, take a minute to read Crossroads’ history.  Yes, it offers services for people with disabilities, but it is also the umbrella for an incredibly diverse range of services for both private and public sector companies.

In their book, Strategy Maps, Robert Kaplan and David Norton provide a few examples from non-profit organizations.  All were large organizations, ranging from Teach for America through government agencies and ministries — even the U.S. Army.  Although River Oak Center for Children definitely benefited from the effort they put into development of a strategy map, as well as better “balanced scorecard” measures, it remained to be seen how well the tool would work for small, local non-profits.

The members’ reasons for participating varied.  Dave was responsible for presenting a new draft strategic plan to the Board on May 1; they had fully accomplished their last strategic plan and Dave was looking for a way to “paint the picture” of the proposed direction.  Two other participants had also achieved recent milestones and needed a way to describe their new vision and direction.  A third was trying to find a way to integrate two very different halves of an organization’s operation and to interest its Board in establishing a strategic direction.  A final member of the group needed to develop a strategic and operational plan that would help the organization to double its capacity over the next several years, based on a commitment the Board had already made.

At the first meeting, participants were asked to come prepared to describe the impact their organization aims to achieve.  That alone was revealing.  Several organizations shared lengthy mission statements, and noted in some cases that the mission didn’t do a good job of getting to the essence of what they try to accomplish.

Each member of the group worked through the various lenses of their strategy map to show the cause-and-effect relationships between intangible assets such as human and information capital, to value-creating internal processes such as operations, through the customer value proposition and finally to the financial perspective.  Initially, some of the maps were cluttered with too many elements to be manageable.  Some were oversimplified.  Just talking about “what drove what” led to greater clarity of understanding about the organization’s strategic points of difference and its dependence on internal processes.

Our “Self Directed Learning Circle” convened just three times.  I’ll be interested to hear more about the experience of the other executive directors as they rolled out their strategy map drafts with their executive teams or Board members.  We’re going to formally debrief in about a month.

One of the most gratifying aspects of the experience was watching different executive directors “get in the sandbox” with each other by offering suggestions and insights.  I certainly got more out of the experience than I put into it.

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Quickie post: improving performance with dashboard metrics

My last two posts dealt with strategy maps and balanced scorecards, both terms that hail from Robert Kaplan and David Norton.  Balanced scorecards have spawned a whole industry devoted to automated solutions for displaying real-time key metrics to executives who are supposed to use them much as they would use the dashboard indicators on their cars.  Not surprisingly, those automated solutions come with hefty pricetags and require data that are reliable and can be programmed to feed results into the ever-hungry maw of the dashboard.

Idealware has a post today about how three non-profits have developed dashboards to help keep them focused on the performance of the metrics that are most important, ultimately, to organizational success and fulfillment of the mission.  Worth a read.

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Strategy maps: great tool for improving nonprofit performance

I had such a great time Tuesday visiting with 15-20 nonprofit executive directors on the topic of strategy maps (Kaplan and Norton), under the auspices of the Nonprofit Resource Center.  I co-presented with Dr. Mary Hargrave of River Oak Center for Children, to whom I introduced the idea of strategy maps in June 2008.

Don’t you love it when someone takes an idea you give them and absolutely knocks it out of the park?  Mary did.  As Mary explained to the group, a clinical organization like ROCC, especially one that is so focused on evidence-based practices (and JCAHO accredited, no less), is already focused on data.  But that doesn’t mean that the data helps the organization know if it’s achieving the right level of performance on the factors that have greatest impact on its ability to achieve its mission and vision.  In other words, measures that help the organization know it’s doing the right things right.

Mary took the strategy map I drafted to her management team.  They hashed it out until they made it their own.  And now, month-by-month, the organization can pinpoint — down to the team level — where they are and aren’t making their mission critical targets.

While I introduced strategy maps to Mary with the idea of increasing clarity among the Board, she has used it to improve operational execution.

All of that sounds very “business-y”, but it boils down to ROCC being able to successfully provide solutions for overburdened families, with financial strength “into perpetuity.”

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9 big reasons non-profits should consider strategy maps

In the nearly five years since I left corporate life to take care of my Dad (now 93) and concentrate on helping small non-profits build marketing capability, I’ve seen some amazing examples of mission-driven organizations that manage to find the “sweet spot” in the community that they (and not others) are best able to fill, to grow sustainably in a huge economic downturn, and implement the things they make their strategic priorities.

I’ve also seen many examples of Boards that don’t engage in the right kind of dialogue, organizations that mistake lists of new potential programs as a strategy, and management teams that implement late or poorly.

I think people who run non-profits are some of the most amazing people I know. They make a difference with very limited resources. They find motivated, talented people who will work for them for little money. They not only develop and offer services to clients or beneficiaries, but they find a way to fund those services. They keep volunteers and constituents happy.

Increasingly, I’m realizing how limited executive directors’ management toolkit is to manage all of that complexity. They often don’t have good measures that tell them if both the programmatic and fund development aspects of their enterprise are on track to meet objectives and budget.

They are often hamstrung by fuzzy strategies that don’t really answer the important questions, like: what is the group/market that the organization can serve differently and better than other alternatives? Or: does the organization have sufficient scale to be able to provide its services efficiently? Or: has it identified the financial engine that provides adequate resources to run the existing program and keep improving it, which includes funding information technology needs? Or: what does the organization have to really excel at operationally to fulfill its mission and vision?

Tomorrow I’m talking with a group of non-profit executive directors associated with the Nonprofit Resource Center about why I think strategy maps, as conceived by Kaplan and Norton, can be a useful tool for non-profits. A strategy map is just (just?) a visual depiction of how four perspectives — learning/growth, internal/operations, customer, and financial — relate to one another in a cause-and-effect fashion to achieve the impact that the organization aims to achieve. Here’s a posting of some case studies and examples of public sector agencies that are using balanced scorecards and strategy maps.

And here are some of the benefits for Boards and management that I’m sharing with the executive directors tomorrow. We’ll see if they think I’m all wet!

Explanatory Slide: how the four perspectives link to achieve the mission

A strategy map provides the Board with:

  • A tool for developing a shared mental model of key drivers, the cause-and-effect relationship between critical inputs like internal processes (e.g. training) and outputs (e.g. services)
  • A framework for prioritizing strategic options
  • A stimulus for meaningful dialogue
  • A visual approach to describing the strategy
  • A basis for deciding what metrics should really matter to the Board
  • A way of embracing difficult but important factors that must be balanced in the strategy – like growth and profitability

For management, a strategy map can provide:

  • A tool that can be used as a framework for strategic analysis (strengths/weaknesses)
  • A tool for testing value: is it differentiated and does it meet a real market need?
  • A tool for improving execution because: the team understands how their processes connect to the strategy; the right things are measured – things that ultimately underpin the strategy; targets and quantifiable objectives relate back to what’s important; the strategy gets linked to action plans; and the organization prioritizes a few strategic initiatives that are the right things

Creating a strategy map doesn’t have to turn into a giant time suck.  It can be helpful to an individual executive director just to try to draw something that they think shows the linkage between the internal organization and an agency’s constituents and funding sources.  Though Kaplan and Norton would surely snort at me, I embrace fully the management art of fiddling. Here’s a tool.  Fiddle around with it.  Might it help add clarity to a discussion where Board members seem to be talking at cross purposes?  Or where the internal team isn’t focused on doing the right things right?

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Searching for Mr. Right Now: my top 5 tips for non-profits

Read this!  (Image thanks to 427 via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Read this! (Image thanks to "427" via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

There’s Mr. Right, and there’s Mr. Right Now.  The blogosphere is rife with opinions about the very-most-important tools and tactics for non-profits.  When working with small, local non-profits, it can take six months (or more) to implement the very most basic of basics.  While I think that Facebook in particular is an important part of the marketing mix, it’s a “Mr. Right” but not necessarily a “Mr. Right Now.”

Here are my top five nominations for “Mr. Right Now” when it comes to non-profit tactics:

  • Website – All roads lead to the website, or they should.  Whether people stumble across you through search, or are looking for your website to respond to something, you need to make sure your website is prepared with the right content to inform people, the right look and feel to move people, and the right navigation to help people.  Websites are digital brick and mortar.
  • Email/e-newsletter – Even if Facebook traffic now rivals emails, many of the constituents who will give to your mission still prefer email.  Email and enewsletters are also superior for their ability to target both cultivation and appeal messages.
  • Blogging – In my experience, this is the hardest sell.  Misconceptions abound: blogs are full of snark, blogs are a waste of time, blogs will send forth droves of creepy stalkers after me or my staff.  Blogs are a great, immediate way to collect and share stories about the work your non-profit is doing.  They are also one of the very best ways to keep websites fresh and attract search traffic.
  • Media relations – This now incorporates both traditional media and online media.  It’s hard to beat the boost in credibility that comes with a feature story.  I’ve written a lot about how non-profits need to begin to identify who blogs about their issues locally, given that most traditional news outlets have had to make radical cuts in staff.  Online newspapers, like Sacramento Press here, are also gaining steam.
  • Messaging – OK this doesn’t fall into the tactical bucket; it’s strategic.  Many bootstrap non-profits have poor names and rely on their mission statements to communicate their value.  Short of name-changing, it’s vital to have a brief – like seven words brief – tagline or statement that informs and inspires.  No wonder America’s Second Harvest changed their name to Feeding America.  It’s also important to put appeals in a context by “campaignizing” them.  How much do you need now, by when, and why?  In today’s turmoil, people need a really good reason to part with their dough or get involved.

I blogged back in April about John Kenyon’s perspective on chicken-or-egg dilemmas when it comes to non-profit marketing.  John’s a strong believer in website and emails being top priority.  Yesterday, Beth Kanter published a guest post from Jordan Viator who interviewed David Neff of American Cancer Society’s High Plains division for the Connection Cafe.  David’s top five includes website and email, but he also puts Facebook, videos and file sharing on his list.  About Facebook, he says, “If you concentrate on one social networking tool that’s out there, I would say get on Facebook and make sure you make your presence known.”  You’ll find David’s tips explained best in the video embedded in Jordan’s post.

I’m recommending Facebook, too, but often in the second six-month period of a plan, after the very-most-important pieces are in place.

What’s in your top five?

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Don’t skip to tactics until you know what you’re trying to do

The Camppaign for Female Education took 13 years to build its list to 10,000 supporters and is now picking up 5,000 members a day on Facebook Causes

The Campaign for Female Education took 13 years to build its list to 10,000 supporters and is now picking up 5,000 members a day on Facebook Causes

Non-profit social media rock star Beth Kanter is making a cross-country move.  Rather than taking a hiatus from blogging (as I did last month), Beth wisely lined up some cool guest bloggers.  A post today by Brian Reich, author of Thinking About Media, got me thinking about what’ s been missing in several non-profit marketing plans I’ve seen lately:  a hypothesis about what will cause a desired action to happen (be it donations or advocacy) and a strategy about how to achieve that momentum.

The plans I’ve seen are a bucket used to hold a bevvy of popular tactics (including social media) – with no educated guesses about how they will contribute to the desired outcome, and no prioritization.  I’d call them a listing more than a plan.

Brian’s post is focused on Facebook Causes, about which he’s skeptical, but his comments go to the heart of my concern about lack of strategy:

You can’t expect your audience, no matter how passionate they are about your work, to make an online contribution only because you ask – or to continue to make donations after they became involved through an event or opportunity.  Those are all actions that you, as an organization define.  Your audience, and particularly those who donate, want to be directly involved in your work and empowered to help support your efforts in the ways, and using the tools, they feel most comfortable with…. Stop developing new features and tools until you have found ways to get your users more invested in the setup you already have.  Find ways to better educate and support all your nonprofit members, as well as the users that power your success. I’m not suggesting you stop innovating or improving your tools, but the needs of your audience should drive that work, instead of the technology driving how the users are able to get involved.

Many of the organizations I’m working with as a pro bono consultant haven’t clearly defined why the world needs to support their organization or cause, nor have they raised awareness.  To use Brian’s suggested five-part process, they have to start by listening, introducing and educating their target audiences before they turn to engagement and mobilization.  His process is a variation on a traditional marketing communications pyramid model (from awareness building to preference, trial, use and loyalty) but it’s a nice update for the non-profit world.

If you’re thinking about Facebook Causes or any other form of social media, read Brian’s post first.


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Chicken or egg dilemma for nonprofits – what’s first: website, email, Facebook, Twitter?


Kathy Gill tweets - what's first?

Kathy Gill tweets - what's first?

I listen when the universe sends me the same message twice in one day.  Yesterday morning, I saw the Twitter post (pictured) from Kathy Gill, University of Washington’s social media senior lecturer.  Attending NTEN’s “Effective Online Communications,” John Kenyon, consultant, asked (and answered) the same question about which online communications component should come first.

Here’s what he said:  “Your website and email are the foundation of your online strategy.”

Here’s what I had tweeted back to Kathy earlier in the day:  “For commercial co, optimize website 1st, then blog and newsletter.”

Came across a summary of a new study (hat tip:  Mack Collier) that suggests blogs are going to play an even bigger role for commercial enterprises going forward.

For a nonprofit, I agree with John.  Make the website sing, and build off of that!  (Kathy, if you happen to see this post I want to know what answers you received from your Twitter followers!)


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Is it exploitation when non-profits use the names and images of real people?


Screen shot of World Vision's home page with 7 year old's story

Screen shot of World Vision's home page with 7 year old's story

Read this brief ethical dilemma and then tell me what you think

:  should non-profits use real people’s names and images, knowing that Americans (now fed a steady diet of reality-based programming) respond to them, or is it wrong to use this approach?



It hit me when I was at a meeting with a non-profit last week.  The internal/external team that is working on the redesign of the non-profit’s website was checking out various approaches.  Two of the most compelling sites we looked at were operated by CARE (title tag:  “Defending Dignity, Fighting Poverty”) and World Vision, which uses rotating images of children like Penina, 7, who bottles and sells milk to help support her family.

The website we’re working on is for an organization that has an iron-clad policy against using clients’ images or names, even with permission.  The executive director feels that the children and youth who are their clients might feel differently about having their faces plastered on the Internet when they get older.

It struck me that many of the organizations that use images of real people provide international aid.  Donors like to know exactly who they’re helping, and I’ve seen many blog posts where individuals provide specific profiles of people they’ve funded through organizations like

But organizations that work domestically are far more careful about using images of real people.  It seems we feel it’s exploitative if we’re using the image of someone we could run into in the grocery store.

Modest Needs is an organization that addresses domestic need by matching specific requests with donors.  They do this by having individuals in need complete grant applications and submit documentation, when appropriate.  The vetted applications are assigned a number, posted on the website and headlined, as in “Once Homeless Family Needs Car Fix” or “Help Us Keep Our Lights On”.  When you click on the grant application, you can read the brief description of need.  Grant applications get funded when enough people “vote” for them by investing their points, a currency they acquire when they make a donation to the organization.

Here’s the point.  The individual client story is there, but Modest Needs does not use names or photos.  If there’s competition for the heart strings, it happens through the quality of the headline and the compelling nature of the need.  Maybe you’ve got a soft spot for teachers, or single moms, or grandmothers parenting grandchildren.

Without real photos and profiles, there’s no question that local non-profits are pulling their punches.

What say you:  should non-profits use real people’s names and images, knowing that Americans (now fed a steady diet of reality-based programming) respond to them, or is it unethical to use this approach?

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