One of the most challenging aspects of managing an organization is maintaining focus on the organization’s core mission in a world of ever-increasing distractions. A seemingly infinite number of worthy causes, great ideas and event inspirations arise on a daily basis, presenting the temptation to pursue them. While it is important to be able to adapt to change and incorporate new information, long-term sustainability requires a consistent focus on the core mission and vision of your organization and your community. This means exercising discernment when it comes to new ideas that present themselves— and can sometimes even mean saying no to ideas that pose an opportunity to serve a key constituency, hint at a potential new revenue source, capture a cool new trend or (particularly in 2021) head off yet another challenge facing your district. This month’s Intersections offers guidance to help you avoid these pitfalls and stay focused on your broader vision.
Pitfall 1: The shiny object
Some boards are fascinated by the newest shiny object or community trend, constantly adding new programs or projects. This can initially be rewarding, since it can inspire energy from community members and volunteers that enjoy tackling new initiatives, but is often a double-edged sword. Once added, programs are very difficult to end. What might start as a novelty program to capitalize on a social media moment has a way of developing its own constituency, making it difficult to pivot—and ultimately, constantly reinventing the wheel just might make the wheels fall off, as volunteers become burnt out or alienated when their past successful projects are dropped in favor of something new.
To resist this temptation, develop annual work plans that focus staff efforts and funding resources on key initiatives that have been proven to deliver, while allocating a small contingency fund (of time and money) to pursue additional opportunities that might arise. Setting a limit on resource use will force the organization to be more thoughtful about undertaking new initiatives mid-year, with the added benefit of encouraging longer lead time for planning new initiatives, allowing for more partnerships and fundraising development to occur.
Additionally, the board should develop criteria for evaluating opportunities that may arise, including requests for support from partner organizations. Example criteria might include:
- Does it meet our core mission?
- Does it create or expand a relationship with a valued partner?
- Are there significant time/implementation costs that are not budgeted?
Depending on the answer to any of these, it may be appropriate to help support or sponsor an initiative that aligns with your mission, if it does not divert time or funds away from core areas. Sector Source has a comprehensive toolkit that includes many worksheets to assist with this.
Pitfall 2: Dead weight
In many ways the opposite of the pitfall we just discussed, the second common pitfall is when organizations retain activities or programs that are no longer performing. Longstanding traditions are hard to derail, as they likely have constituencies that benefit from the activity as well as a cadre of loyal supporters that help support or fund the initiatives, and they likely generate nostalgia for community members. Too often, organizations fear the public backlash from ending a program and keep it going far longer than is logical, at the expense of new programs that could have greater impact.
To make sure your programs don’t become dead weight for the organization, make sure that each event, program or initiative included in your work plan has defined goals and objectives that help achieve your mission. These goals should go beyond basic financial objectives such as covering costs, expanding social media reach or attracting more attendees. Instead, evaluate what the event is intended to achieve. Is the goal to:
- Attract new demographic groups to the district?
- Increase the amount of time visitors spend downtown?
- Encourage customers to discover new businesses? Drive sales or activity during otherwise slow times?
- Change the image of downtown as a residential destination?
Any of these could be acceptable goals depending on the vision for the district. Regardless of the objective you select, be sure to establish a target goal and a method of measuring success. You can then evaluate event outcomes against other similar initiatives, as well as previous years, to make it easy to track performance. Underperforming activities can be reevaluated and changed, but if this is unsuccessful, they should be ended or handed off to another entity to manage if they are effective in serving a purpose for another organization.
The University of Colorado also offers numerous tools, including this simple evaluation tool:
Pitfall 3: Silos
Often, an initiative or program is designed and carried out by a specific committee or work group with a specific objective in mind. While the activity may be highly effective at delivering desired results, it is likely the organization is missing out on the opportunity to cross-pollinate and engage additional partners or audiences that could further expand the organization’s reach and impact. For example, if a wine walk event is designed to bring customers into new businesses and drive sales, organizers could add to an already successful event by highlighting one or two vacant spaces as potential locations for new or relocating businesses. Instead of replacing a participating location, the vacant spaces can be used as a ticketing or check-in location for participants. For even greater payoff, the vacant space can be used to showcase wares from a local art gallery or furniture store, to both enliven the space and highlight another local business. This is just one example of how a successful event can be extended to achieve additional goals.
Volunteers of an organization are typically only familiar with the one or two initiatives they are actively involved with, and are often unaware of the breadth and depth of initiatives carried out by the organization. This limits their potential to act as cheerleaders for the organization and to effectively recruit further support. To combat these gaps, explore ways to strategically update and inform committees or work groups of what others are doing. Basic strategies for achieving this include newsletter features and social media highlights on volunteer initiatives from all work areas, or an annual volunteer recognition event that brings individuals from all programs together to learn about past achievements and future projects. Additional cross-pollination can be achieved through volunteer development activities. For instance, some organizations require that board members have served on every committee at some point prior to being involved on the board, while others may strive to purposely cross-populate groups, host annual strategic planning events with intentionally diverse discussion groups, or recruit or assign a liaison position to solicit ideas or feedback from targeted groups or partner entities before making strategic programming decisions.
Pitfall 4: Failing to communicate
The final pitfall that many organizations fall into is failing to communicate. This is a catch-all category, but so often we’re concerned with inundating or annoying people that we forget to keep them in the loop on all the good things that are happening. As a point of comparison, the average nonprofit sends 9.8 emails in December for end-of-year fundraising. To make the messages you send count, use simple language (do an audit at https://bloomerang.co/ahernaudit/) use creative subject lines to increase engagement (test them for free at subjectline.com), and keep track of open rates, including segmentation, with software such as track.bananatag.com rather than an intrusive read receipt.
What follows are some strategies for communicating with core groups of supporters. While some of the tools highlighted might require a small subscription fee, if used effectively they should pay for themselves with a single new donor recruited or retained.
Forge an emotional connection. Connection is what drives people to return, to think of you and to donate. While corporate supporters might be seeking public recognition or future business opportunities, individuals are driven to organizations and causes that resonate with them. Use images of your district or your brand to reinforce the positive memories associated with experiences in your district. Ensure that the imagery reflects and reinforces your district’s key image or brand.
On Broadway Inc. in Green Bay leveraged the tradition of community gatherings during recent crowdfunding initiatives.
Sarasota Springs doubles down on its dog-friendly branding in social media posts about district events and businesses.
Make it personal. The more personal and customized your approach, the more engaged your audience will be. Studies have shown that receiving a personal call within 48 hours of making a financial contribution to an organization or cause increases the likelihood of future donations by 400%. Similarly, 75% of donors indicated that future giving would be based on results achieved, but 80% said they were never told of the outcome of their gift.
To maximize personal impact, follow up each gift with a customized email or video thanking the contributor. Punkpost.com is one source for personalized digital thank-you cards, and Bombomb.com is one option for video (view a sample at bit.ly/SampleVideoThanks).
Similarly, you can preset future recognition communications by arranging to send a text campaign on the anniversary (month or year) of each gift, with a check-in and photo highlighting the impact or outcome of the gift. If you have never tried text notifications, it may be time to do so, as 98% of text messages are read, even by seniors—94% of people age 75 and older report sending texts at least weekly. One tech tool to make automating texts easy is taxology.co.
Reflect and remember. While we all get bogged down in the day-to-day, it is important to schedule some time to reflect on lessons learned. Amid the challenges of the pandemic, support for local community engagement has been stronger than ever. Here are some insights we’ve heard from communities that have reflected on the benefits of connecting and communicating to pull together:
- “We learned that our largest event, which we had considered as an organizational fundraiser, really just provided funding to support our other events. Without events, we have more time to focus on physical changes and engaging new stakeholders.”
- “The pandemic has allowed us to forge strong partnerships with municipal and civic partners that we hadn’t previously worked with.”
- “We have come to recognize that there are stakeholders in our community that we weren’t well connected with, and are consciously exploring ways to add diversity to our committees and events.”
- “Our relationships with businesses have become much stronger, as we have been able to directly help them weather this situation with a focus on marketing and communications, grant/loan application assistance, policy advocacy (signage, parklets, carryout policies) and direct funding for business expenses associated with e-commerce initiatives.”
- “The pandemic reinforced downtown as the center of our community. Downtown was the place people came to share messages of support with chalk drawings, to advocate for social policies, and just to get out and walk or bike and enjoy our community.”
While 2020 introduced many challenges, it also introduced new ways of thinking, engaging and doing business that can be retained and incorporated in both day-to-day interactions and strategic planning for the future. Take the time to thank those that make our communities unique and make our work possible, and leverage this positive momentum to power future initiatives.
Much of the communications content from this post was shared by Rachel Muir at our February workshop series. If you’d like to learn more, she will be returning in April of 2021 for another two sessions on nonprofit fundraising and communicating with sponsors. Visit the Wisconsin Main Street Facebook page to learn more or register to attend.