People who start, or work actively for nonprofits tend to have one major thing in common: they want to do some “good”.
That “good” could be anything from rescuing neglected dogs, to helping older people find a safe place for their final years, to digging wells in Malawi, to bringing children to museums, to funding cancer research… but the sentiment is similar at the core. You wouldn’t work to make a difference unless you thought a difference could be made… and not just a difference, but an improvement. That conviction is key to making your investment make sense.
The hardest thing to learn about our convictions, however, is that not everyone shares them — not for the same cause, not for the same reason, not for the same result, and often not enough to do anything about it. And when your heart is deeply invested, it can feel almost offensive when someone else doesn’t see the value.
But it’s not necessarily that they’re being cold or callous.
They’re just not invested in your “good”.
This is where things start to fall apart for many nonprofits:
The assumption that your “good” is, or should be the same good that matters to others.
The assumption that telling the story should do all the work of engaging.
The assumption that the ask should be irresistible because the cause is irresistible.
The assumption that everyone else should care.
Our backgrounds, cultures, priorities, and passions create a unique map in our minds and hearts. What resonates with us has a long journey to get all the way to our emotional core, through biases, beliefs, and sometimes, fear: the fear that we’re investing in the wrong thing, or that what seems compelling right now won’t always matter. Which is why the notion of “good” often fails to go the distance.
The most unsuccessful nonprofits are just as convinced as the successful ones that they’re pursuing an important vision. They dream of solving problems, of helping, of changing things, of moving forward.. all beneficial results. But unlike organizations that make an impact, they assume their passion should guarantee support.
Certainly, there will be donors and supporters who see a light in your eye… and they will invest in that glimmer.
The vast majority, however, need something more.
And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if it seems like the existence of a problem should be enough reason to care about the solution, it’s impossible to solve all the problems we see. We have to prioritize where we put our energy, or we’ll never move the needle on anything worthwhile. And those choices often come down to a sense of connection to what an organization does.
Which is why you need to learn about your constituents before you can reach them.
Is there something you do that overlaps with something they already care about?
Can you tell a story they recognize themselves in, or perhaps someone they love?
Is there a simple, practical way they can help — help they might not know you need?
Is there a difficulty they experienced that you’re working to prevent?
Is there an aspect of who you are that isn’t immediately obvious, but would radically change the way they saw you?
How might your brand halo add more shine to theirs?
And how are all of your different audiences actually perceiving your brand, period?
From our perspective, the brand you’re communicating is actually a Mosaic Brand: there are parts of it you can control, and other parts you can only influence. Ultimately, you want to control as many tiles in your Mosaic Brand as possible, in order to influence the tiles you don’t control… thus creating a Mosaic Brand that makes an impression, and one that provides multiple opportunities for connection… which brings us back to “ways in.”
There’s a lot of resistance to this “ways in” approach among some of the most dedicated people who work for causes, because they see it as an inferior point of connection to altruism. You should want to help. You should see the value intrinsically. You should know it matters. You should take my word for it.
You have to invest deeply to do the job well. And being “all in”? It changes your filters.
But hanging on to the value of your “good” — over the possibilities inherent in developing a whole range of “goods” — won’t advance your mission. And if you’re not advancing your mission, are you really doing the most… good?
Your value isn’t one-note. Your constituents aren’t one-note. Your possibilities aren’t one-note. So why is your call to action?
Maybe it’s time to learn a new tune.
Lessons learned from the client perspective—our friends at Chorus America share lessons learned during a major website project.
In the fall of 2010, we were lucky enough to be selected by Chorus America—the national service organization for choruses, choral leaders, and singers—to collaborate with them on a complete overhaul of their website. For non-profit membership organizations, websites are crucial. Not only must they communicate value, drive earned and contributed revenue, and market programs and services—they’re also often a primary means of delivering programs and services to the field. We’ve had plenty of experience over the years collaborating with non-profit cultural groups and membership organizations (including Chorus America’s peer in the orchestra world, the League of American Orchestras), and felt confident we were an excellent fit for the project.
We learned many things over the ensuing year, but what really sticks out is how excellent a fit the client was for this project. The team at Chorus America was prepared, hands-on, and ready to roll from the get-go. They understood that a project of this stature requires engagement at the highest levels of their organization, and that they would be partners in crafting the strategy and vision for the new site. Perhaps most importantly, they dug in and took ownership of their content.
Fast forward to earlier this year and the launch of the new Chorus America website. We’re certainly proud of the strategy, information architecture, design, and development work that ultimately led to their new website—one that places Chorus America’s value front and center, and dynamically connects individuals in the field with the information they need to do their jobs, further their careers, and advance their organizations.
But so much of the credit must go to the team at Chorus America, and we encourage anyone considering a major website project to read their story: Once Upon a Website (How Building a Website Can Transform an Organization) shares lessons learned from Chorus America’s point of view. It’s an excellent, honest piece.
Fit matters. And success always takes two.
2011 was a tremendously busy year at Sametz Blackstone — and 2012 is shaping up to be another year of compelling projects, fantastic clients, and much time spent exploring opportunities and tackling challenges as a team. We’re thrilled to be embarking on some new collaborations, and to have some fresh projects ramping up with old friends.
This is a tremendously exciting time to be doing what we do: never before has there been such a diverse range of communication tools and venues available to help organizations tell their stories, and build a “mosaic brand.”
Blog posts around New Year’s often focus on reflections on the year behind us, or predictions for the year ahead. We’re going to land somewhere in the middle, and share a few favorite posts from our blog over the last 12 months. Technically, that’s reflective, I suppose — but some of them had predictions, too!
We’ll be sharing more of our thinking in the months ahead, and celebrating some great achievements by our friends and partners.
Stay tuned.. and the very happiest of New Year’s to you and yours.
Thanks for coming by today — and join us for more in 2012!
One of the challenges we are called upon to tackle most often is helping large organizations with diverse activities (and equally diverse constituent groups) to coalesce around a unified and mutually reinforcing set of messages that can live within all of their communications.
Earlier this year, Roger and I traveled to Atlanta for an on-site messaging workshop with a diverse cross section of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra staff. Working with representatives from the performing and presenting sides of the house, their community and education programs, and their institutional advancement team, we conducted a series of exercises designed to identify the unifying messages across the organization — messages that also have the power to speak to multiple constituent groups.
Our day-long workshop produced great conversations, and, more importantly, a host of great ideas we’re now helping the Orchestra bring to life throughout their organization.
Fortunately, I had a little time around the workshop schedule to do a little exploring around the art scene in one of my favorite cities. (Full disclosure: I went to Emory University for my undergraduate degree).
One of the ‘sites’ my friend and former roommate, Josh Phillipson of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund showed me was a series of street art installations.
Part of the multiple-city Living Walls Conference, these installations are scattered around the city, transforming and punctuating otherwise nondescript or abandoned walls.
Some of the installations we saw were still in progress; I’m looking forward to returning to Atlanta to discover more of these extraordinary works. And perhaps, one day, Living Walls might just come to Boston.
I can certainly hope!
One of the most interesting things about working at a “small shop” is that everyone tends to have a range of responsibilities and interests that extend past their job description. If you’re good at something, you’ll likely get a chance to do it.
This also tends to come up in how we hire new team members: we look for people who have diverse experience and interests, who show initiative in making things happen (even if it’s a little outside the parameters of their role), and who value collaboration in all things.
Everyone has a voice, so we want to make sure we bring in people who have good ideas—and who listen (and get excited) when other people come up with them, too.
Right now, we’re in the midst of hiring two key positions to fill out our team: a Brand Strategist, and a Designer.
In the time since we’ve been on the hunt, we’ve learned a few things (well, we kind of already knew…):
(And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s why we’ve been around for 32 years.)
We’re “system thinkers”: we make sure everything we create—from top to bottom web projects for financial companies, to postcards targeting potential applicants of a summer high school program—strengthens our clients’ brands. If the visual elements don’t jive with their other communications… if the message doesn’t ring true to the organization and their goals… if you can’t point to where it “moves the needle”… well, we’re wasting an opportunity.
To us, a “brand” isn’t a logo or a tagline or an eye-catching color you choose. A brand lives in the hearts and minds of an organization’s constituents: it hinges on how people perceive them and what they do, both in the context of the communications they create, and what others are saying (in the press, via social media, through word of mouth… and beyond.)
And no matter how big or small an organization might be, they are only so much in control of their brand—which means that at the moments when they are in control, they need to do a great job of sharing who they are.
That’s where we come in…
We’re seeking a Designer who makes beautiful things—beautiful things that do what they’re meant to do, within functional, smart, compelling systems. You will work on a wide range of projects—across an equally wide range of clients, both for- and nonprofit—in print and electronic formats, from worldwide brand identity systems to multi-year capital campaigns. Versatility is a must (if you couldn’t tell already!)
… then we’d love to talk to you. Scroll down to learn how to get in touch!
We’re seeking a Brand Strategist who sees both the forest and the trees: you understand how brands are created, maintained, and loved, and how every aspect of an organization’s communications can reflect and strengthen that brand. You’ve ideally worked with both for- and nonprofit organizations (because we do!), and see each one of your clients as a unique, complex entity with their own needs and goals. In fact, you’ve thrown out all your cookie cutters… because you haven’t used them in years.
This isn’t an “account exec” position or a “brand manager” position or a “project manager” position, though all of those things are wrapped in to what you’ll do with our team.
… we’d love to talk to you. Our ideal candidate has 5+ years experience in and around branding, business and communication strategy, marketing, and website development. Experience in nonprofit marketing and fundraising wouldn’t hurt, either.
Ready to join us? We’d love to meet you—and we think we’re pretty fun to work with, too.
Please send your resume (directed clearly to one of the positions above) and some words about who you are and why you’re interested in being a part of our team to Human Resources, Sametz Blackstone Associates, 40 West Newton Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02118. You can also email hrATsametzDOTcom (no phone calls, please!)
One of my favorite movies ever, The Princess Bride, also contains one of my favorite quotes ever:
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
If you’ve done much browsing of nonprofit websites, received materials in the mail from a cause you may or may not support, or signed up to receive updates from an organization in your Gmail inbox, you’ll notice a pattern emerging in how most mission-driven organizations express themselves:
They love jargon.
Not the same jargon for every organization, mind you — although organizations with similar causes tend to use similar language. Unlike Vezzini, they likely do know what those words mean… but odds are, not everyone does.
This makes nonprofits like the vast majority of groups, of course: communities often derive a significant degree of comfort and connection from the terminology and messages they share, whether they’re fundraising or selling products — or even just talking fly fishing.
Unfortunately, this “in language” often leaves outsiders feeling excluded from the conversations these groups are having — which makes it tough to bring anyone new into the fold, or generate support for your cause.
And if that language doesn’t really speak to what your organization does, or who you really are, or what your staff / clients / volunteers / donors care about, then you’re doubly in trouble. If you ask every level of an organization how they share the organization’s story, you’ll often get a lot of different answers, expressed in vastly different language — with a particularly large divide between the public and private voices.
Which means that, both internally and externally, you’re using words that don’t necessarily mean what you think they mean… and don’t really say what you want to be saying.
Take a close look at a couple of the pieces you use to communicate internally (what you send or distribute to your staff, to your board, to loyal volunteers) and a couple pieces you use to communicate externally (via your fundraising collateral or website to potential donors and supporters), and ask yourself a couple of questions:
1. If I didn’t know anything about what I do, would the words I’m using to talk about it inform and enlighten me… or leave me in the dark?
Don’t assume people will dig deeper to figure out confusing terms or concepts. It’s not their job to figure out what you do — it’s your job to make it plain to them. This goes for your internal conversations, too, when you’re equipping volunteers to speak to potential supporters and donors. Nothing undermines an ask faster than an inability to leave the script behind.
2. Are the messages we’re equipping people to share designed to be relevant to people who are just learning about what we do — or only to those of us already on board? And do the messages match at different levels of our organization?
You know why you care about your cause, or you wouldn’t be involved. And that’s likely the case for your supporters, too. But why should it matter to anyone else? What aspects of your cause align with their values and interests? How does your work change the world around them? And if I asked five other people in your organization, would their answers mesh with yours to provide me with a solid picture of your mission?
Using jargon to describe your work and your passions is a normal temptation. We all do it, and often without thinking twice. But when your goal is to bring other people alongside and include them in what you do, that language you’ve adopted to belong in your community can end up creating a wall between you and your goals.
What could you do to be more clear in how you express your mission — and how you train others to share it?
Nine years ago, on January 25, 2002, I received an email from one of my colleagues entitled: “Celebrity Series—it’s a go.”
Our strategy team immediately embarked on several months of thoughtful research, followed by an exploration of initial design directions by our design team—including the development of a new identifier that accommodated different title sponsors over time (as well as no title sponsor in recent years). The resulting system has enabled Celebrity Series to build a brand that’s remained strong over the years.
Since the launch of the system in early 2003, the brand has evolved—each year the design team, in collaboration with our friends at Celebrity Series, endeavors to create a fresh look-and-feel for the upcoming season while staying true to the brand.
Fast-forward to March, 2011: We’re thrilled to announce that we’ve kicked off the design phase for the 2011–2012 season brochure. Venus Wan, the lead designer on this project for the past four years, is busy exploring the visual direction, while Director of Production Michael Eads is working on the production schedule and budget for the overall project.
Our team is excited to collaborate once again with Celebrity Series—and we look forward to delivering another great product in April!
Thinking of plugging some form of 140-character messaging into your communications practice, such as LinkedIn or Twitter updates, but find yourself at a loss for newsy inspiration?
If you’re like me, you might feel that once you’ve crafted the best way to say something, the hard work is done.
But the statusphere is as much about frequency as it is content. And, depending on your community of readers, you may need greater or lesser degrees of novelty or variation in your messages. So if you don’t possess the background or natural impulses of the Managing Editor (still like me), you’ll need a little editorial calendar of sorts to help think through the work.
Here’s a handy matrix I’ve developed to consider all the things I might compose notes or tweets about, and the many ways I might spin them to take advantage of the sharing / re-Tweeting / back-and-forth qualities of social media.
In the category column, you fill in whatever topic you want to promote. The top row suggests a range of ways you can frame any given topic. There are probably other ways to structure this row, and you might not need them all — but if you have a different approach, please comment and share!
Here’s an example for a hypothetical biomedical research institute:
Here’s a little key:
You could (should) fill out each cell with many, many messages—that’s where the frequency, and possibly the novelty, come in. Another way this can save time is to write a bunch of messages in advance, and, using a program like CoTweet or Hoot Suite, schedule them for automatic publishing.
The beauty is the rationalization of the problem, transforming mystery and anxiety into a clear plan. Plan the work, and work the plan.
Some tips for increasing the impact of those microbursts:
This is by no means a comprehensive “Twitter strategy”!
And there’s a ton of material on that elsewhere (including other posts on this blog). And should you have the fate or fortune (depending on your point of view) to have lots of actual interaction, you’ll need a separate policy—and discipline—for maintaining dialogue. I offer this matrix as a way to rationally plan your outbound messages: those that you generate and share with the world.
What echoes back is your next challenge…