Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Development and Communications Equation

There's the do you combine development and communications? In small nonprofits, there is rarely the staff to have robust development and communications efforts. In larger nonprofits, that actually have staff or even departments solely devoted to these two things, there often seems to be a chasm between the development arm and the communications arm. And now, more than ever, as the scramble to survive continues on, these two elements (working in harmony) are even more critical. Good advice from Jessica Berk Ross. Worth mulling over at the next staff meeting. Bunnie

The Development and Communications Equation
by Jessica Berk Ross

This past year has been a challenging one. The economic downturn has put pressure on all organizations to increase efficiency and to do more with less. While that’s not a new mantra for nonprofit organizations, those competing for philanthropic dollars have a renewed sense of urgency. They have an even greater mandate to gain mindshare, communicate relevance and demonstrate impact in order to secure the funding they need to further their mission.

2010 is poised to be an even tougher year than 2009 for nonprofits. Giving levels have been nearly nonexistent, leading to what may be a particularly dismal period in the next 12 months. It is a critical time to evaluate organizational communications and how messaging and outreach can effect real outcomes--both programmatic AND financial.

Development Outreach is Communication

“We want to launch this new initiative, but need to secure funding.”

“We’ve applied for a grant to support this program. Without it, we won’t be able to operationalize this initiative.”

“Our usual donors have been bombarded with requests this year. How can we compete?”

Statements like these have become all too familiar over the past year. It’s a tough time to be raising funds even for the most worthy of causes. But there is something you can do so that your efforts have a greater impact. One important – but often overlooked - way to optimize development outreach is by thinking about it through the lens of strategic communications. At its heart, development outreach is communications. It is reaching an audience – in this case donors rather than, say, consumers, shareholders or the media – to build awareness and spur them to action. But far too often, the development and communications functions are almost entirely separate within an organization. When combined, though, these functions are far more effective--and efficient-- than when operating independently.

As one development consultant explained, “At least 80% of the non profits I work with have communications tools that are ineffective. I do my best to try and improve it, but I don’t know that a development professional is the right person for that job.”

It’s Not Either/Or But Both

Ruder Finn, a national public relations agency, has many clients in the nonprofit and advocacy world. Very often, at the crux of the business challenges these clients face is development. Ironically, though, that is seldom what we are tasked with at the outset of an engagement
Many of these organizations either think about communications OR development, but rarely about both at once or in an integrated fashion. As we begin to work with a client on a specific program – perhaps a Web site launch or a new initiative – the discussion quickly turns to development. These programs require funding and adequate funding requires effective development outreach. . It becomes clear in a very short amount of time that communications objectives are inextricably linked to fundraising efforts.

On the flip side, communications outreach around a particular program must take into consideration messages already in the pipeline related to raising funds. You don’t want to bombard the same audiences with disparate, uncoordinated messages. If a development related message goes out one week, the collateral piece you send about your new report the following week may be met with either aggravation or confusion.

It can be far more effective to look holistically at your outreach. Leverage the tools that already exist to share news or launch a product. Do you have a donor letter going out? Why not use that to also share information on that new report? By only reaching out to donors in a very strategic, thoughtful manner, you are likely to have a far greater impact.

A Few Tips

A more integrated approach to communications can yield far greater results. And it doesn’t have to be complicated, overly time consuming or costly. It only requires a few simple guiding principles:

1. Key messages. Having a set of consistent talking points that are then referred back to and woven into all of your communications goes a long way to building a strong brand. It can elevate the level of awareness of your organization with your donors (and, by the way, any other audience with whom you are communicating). It also makes developing new materials a lot easier – you already have a starting place for the language you’ll need to use.

2. Create an outreach timeline. Establish a framework for a combined

development/communications program. At the beginning of the annual planning process, ensure that the development and communications director are not only coordinating, but have worked together to map out a timeline for donor outreach throughout the year. In short, embed development within the overall communications program.

3. Personalize the message. An integral part of success is creating awareness of your organization’s value to the community and to society as well as building an awareness of the financial need. Quantify and personalize your mission and objectives as much as possible. It’s the old “what’s in it for me” message. Targeted communications – ones that resonate with each audience including individuals, corporations or foundation - demonstrating why that person should care about your organization’s mission will create a more favorable giving climate by conditioning the marketplace.

4. Keep it up. Sustained and ongoing communications to funders and potential funders is critical. It is important to establish touch points at regular intervals throughout the year. You may have an annual dinner, but how often are you communicating with donors and potential donors in between these events? Are you updating them on progress regularly? Are you sharing good news in a timely fashion? You should be reaching out, at a minimum, on a quarterly basis.

5. Variety is the spice of life. Ideally, outreach will take place across a variety of mediums – electronic, print and face-to-face – to accommodate the different ways people absorb information. Consider what tools – collateral, events, e-mail updates, newsletters, and social media – will help you gain support from new prospects and maintain relationships with existing funding sources.

6. Social media works! Social media – including sites like Facebook and LinkedIn as well as blogs like this one – are an absolutely essential part of every organization’s communications and development programs. If you think your donors aren’t using them or you just aren’t taken them into consideration, you may be missing opportunities. If you’re not comfortable with them, there are many (free) opportunities to learn more. Organizations such as Vocus ( frequently host free webinars that can be very instructional.

Build it in

It starts with the strategic planning process. To make your communications and development programs a success, integrate the two from the outset. As you embark on your planning for 2010, think about increasing the impact – and the return on investment – of development programs by more efficient use of communications resources. With this adjustment to your overall operating model, you may just make a very challenging year a lot more manageable.

Jessica Berk Ross is the managing director of the Washington, DC office of Ruder Finn. With over 20 years of strategic communications experience, Jessica is adept at helping clients in both the nonprofit and corporate world meet their organizational objectives.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Deadly Fundraising Mistakes

Here's the latest from fundraising consultant extraordinaire Sandy Rees. Another valuable article to share with Board Members and Staff. The market for donor dollars is tough out there and you can't afford to make these mistakes! Bunnie

Deadly Fundraising Mistakes

by Sandy Rees, CFRE

Fundraising these days isn’t as easy as it once was. With the difficulties facing many organizations, now is the time to be on top of your game when it comes to raising money. The last thing you want to do is make mistakes, especially mistakes that can kill your capacity for fundraising.

Here are some mistakes that I have seen small nonprofit organizations make, either on purpose or out of ignorance, that have been devastating. Making just one of these errors can put your organization in a downward spiral faster than a jack rabbit on a hot summer’s day.

1. Lack of planning and strategy. If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there. Having a plan is critical to the success of your organization. It doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer-prize winning document, but it does need to provide you some guidance and direction for your organization. I’ve seen lack of planning result in a good organization becoming lethargic and sort of stuck on a hamster wheel of day-to-day monotony. Remember, people don’t plan to fail. They fail to plan.

2. Lack of support and participation from organization leaders. Your CEO or Executive Director MUST be involved in fundraising. When it comes time to ask a donor for money or thank a donor for a gift, your top staff person must take the lead. Likewise, your Board of Directors MUST pull their weight. It’s one of their basic responsibilities. They should make a monetary gift themselves and they should support fundraising efforts by the staff.

3. Not allocating enough resources to fundraising. One truism of fundraising is that you must spend money to raise money. It can be done on a shoestring, but it’s tough. It’s a lot easier when there’s funding available to cover postage and basic supplies. Sometimes an organization cheats itself out of success by not committing the necessary money to hire a fundraising staff person.

4. Reinventing the wheel. There’s no need for anyone to start from scratch with fundraising. There are many resources out there that you can draw from. Take advantage of trainings and books. Network with other fundraisers. Attend professional association meetings.

5. Putting all your eggs in one basket. A basic principle of business that works in the nonprofit world is this: don’t have most of your business coming from one customer. Yet, too many nonprofit organizations get most of their funding from one grant or one customer (usually government reimbursement). If for some crazy reason that one goes away, you’re dead in the water. It makes the future of your organization terribly unsure.

Want to know more? Get a free copy of my special report “10 Deadly Fundraising Mistakes and How to Avoid Them” at

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Govern Like a Jazz Group: A Core Chart for Optimal Flow in Nonprofit Governance

Does it get any better than this? Many of us spend plenty of time looking for good analogies or strong metaphor; that connection to enhance our communication and really express our feelings. Brian Fraser, of Jazzthink, really hit the nail on the head with this article. It's not something that you can necessarily quantify, but we all know (because we feel it) when the rythyms are working and everyone is in harmony. Conversely, we also instinctively know when they're not. Love this article, take it to your next board meeting! Bunnie

Govern Like a Jazz Group: A Core Chart for
Optimal Flow in Nonprofit Governance

by Brian Fraser, Ph.D., "Lead Provocateur"

Think of the last board meeting you participated in at one of the nonprofits in which you are involved. On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being highest), rate the flow of the meeting. Think of flow as a process in which the achievement of purpose progresses unimpeded. It’s something like a stream with no debris in it flowing smoothly to its destination. It’s also like a jazz performance in which all the musicians are in sync and their instruments blend harmoniously into a toe-tapping, body-swaying performance. To get a sense of how that looks and feels, click here to enjoy Jamaican piano virtuoso Monty Alexander and his group playing Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.”

In the liner notes to his Impressions in Blue album, Alexander offered an astute description of jazz, identifying five elements that go together in creating optimal flow in great jazz. Taken together, they constitute a core chart of the key notes (the basic melody and rhythm sheet of music from which jazz musicians play) in engaging and effective governance. They describe optimal flow in nonprofit governance as well.

“Jazz, at its best,” writes Alexander, “is a situation in which participants willingly support each other, working together as one, each player bringing virtuosity, optimism, mutual respect, good will, and the desire to make it feel good.” [Emphasis added.]

Let’s take a closer look at each element as it applies to the flow of nonprofit governance.


Each member of the board brings a particular set of talents to contribute. In most cases, those talents have been honed through deliberate practice over many years. The person who has those talents comes onto the board to use them in the service of the organization’s purpose. It will take some orientation time, sage advice, and intentional support to assess and decide together how best to deploy those talents to achieve the organization’s aspirations. But if your board does not have a clear process for matching talents to tasks in the operation of your organization, put that on the agenda of your next meeting. You are wasting your greatest asset – the virtuosity of your board members. Board members who are frustrated at not being able to offer their best to the success of your organization will not be fully engaged in willingly supporting your work.


The jazz musicians with whom I have worked most closely at Jazzthink are born optimists. Prior to a performance, they are loose, jocular, and positive about the potential they are about to achieve in their performance. They know their instruments and how to use they to the best advantage when they are playing together. They are sensitive to and appreciative of the audiences for whom they are playing. They anticipate the best. If something goes wrong in the midst of the performance, they have the confidence, based on experience, to find ways to overcome the problem and get things back on track. The best boards on which I have served and with whom I have worked thought and behaved the same.

Mutual Respect

Respect is the oil that keeps different personalities working smoothly together. If respect for the varying virtuosities of each board member and for the potential of them all flowing together smoothly is not present, your board will not be working together as effectively and efficiently as it can in helping people change their lives. Time, money, and opportunities will be wasted.

Unfettered conflict around ideas about the best ways of doing things is essential. If that conflict starts to center around personalities, either within your own head, or at the table, or over coffee, you’re in trouble. In the midst of the current challenges being faced by nonprofits, both in terms of emerging needs and dwindling resources, you can’t afford that. Valuing the virtuosity you have gathered and the power of mutuality to enable you to continuously improve your performance is foundational to finding the kind of flow we are considering and achieving the impact you desire.

Good Will

Closely aligned with mutual respect, good will has to do with the intent you bring to the table. You were invited to sit on the board and probably said yes in order to work together with others to willingly support all those in the organization who help to change lives through whatever the organization does. Keeping that intention in mind in every situation that comes to the board, no matter how conflicted or pressured the board may be, will model the good will needed to work through the functions of the board to guide and monitor well the performance of the organization. Jazz musicians who are wrapped up in their egos, or who insist on their own way all the time, or bring their own idiosyncratic agendas to the performance too often simply are not invited to play with the group again. I know it’s not easy to fire a volunteer board member, but sometimes it’s necessary. Don’t agree to or continue to play with people lacking or unwilling to develop any of these elements of optimal flow in nonprofit governance.

The Desire to Make it Feel Good

Jason Koransky, long-time editor of DownBeat, once said, “Jazz ain’t supposed to make you frown.” I think the same should be said about nonprofit governance. People should leave a board meeting feeling a deep satisfaction for having accomplished significant things that strengthen the capacity of their organization to do its good work. Smiles rather than frowns should grace their faces. To achieve this in the midst of the disagreements, crises, pressures, and tensions that mark any gathering of people with the responsibility to attend to fiduciary, strategic, and generative matters relating to a nonprofit’s success requires exceptional self-management. You have to pay attention to how you show up and seek support from your colleagues on how to show up better. The good purpose of your organization deserves that kind of effort.

You Are All Jazz Musicians

Here’s the connection. You co-create this quality of nonprofit governance through the conversations that you have, especially those in your meetings. Donald Schön, professor of urban studies and education at MIT and an accomplished jazz musicians himself, pointed out that the most common form of jazz or improvisation in human experience is ordinary conversation. Your instrument is your voice. Every time you engage in conversation, you use vocabulary and grammar differently, improvising with them to create something new. The intent with which you engage in conversation and the deliberate practice you undertake to continuously improve the results determines the positive contribution you make in any endeavor. That is especially true in finding the optimal flow of good governance in your nonprofit organization. The reality is that you are all governing like a jazz group. You can all work together like Monty Alexander’s group to support the purpose of your organization. The question is “How great are you willing to sound together with your colleagues?”

Dr. Brian Fraser is lead provocateur of Jazzthink. He speaks, consults, and coaches with nonprofit organizations and their leaders using the wisdom and workings of jazz to help them imagine better ways of serving the common good. He sits on the board of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management and is on the governance and leadership training team at Volunteer Vancouver. Visit his website at This article originally appeared on Charity Channel. Re-printed here with permission of the author.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Grant Contract Isn't a Suggestion

I saw this article on Charity Channel and knew I had to "reprint" it! The truth is that you really do need to expend grant funds just as you promised you would. It may be tempting to apply grant funds to pressing needs, but if you want to get a second or third grant, the grantor has the right to know exactly where you spent every dime. Additionally, even if it is a one-time gift, the grantor has the right to ask for re-payment of funds if the money was not spent as was promised in the grant application or contract. Read and heed. Bunnie

A Grant Contract Isn't a Suggestion
by Rebecca Shawyer, Director of Grant Administration at Brazosport College

Throughout my career I have noted that far too often, program staff and administrators discuss and debate the meaning of the words "grant contract." What does this term really mean? Is it really a binding contract? Why can’t we buy that new computer we need? After all, we have grant funds left over.

Sadly, in the past I have found that some of my colleagues honestly believed that once grant funds have been received and deposited into the agency’s banking account, they were free to dip into them for any expenditure associated with the relevant grant project. As grant professionals, we know differently; and, it is our job to educate our colleagues before there is a problem.

So, what is a contract? The dictionary lists a variety of definitions for the word contract. Two that pertain to grant contracts are as follows: (1) “an agreement between two or more parties for the doing or not doing of something specified”; and, (2) “an agreement enforceable by law.” (Source:

“An agreement between two or more parties for the doing or not doing of something specified.” Hmm, this sounds quite clear. It doesn’t mention the possibility of loop holes or wiggle room. It clearly states “for the doing or not doing of something”. So why do program staff, accounting offices, and administrators offer think that it is acceptable to spend funds in ways not included in the grant contract?

I think that the answer is quite simple. Grant professionals oftentimes find themselves playing the role of a compliance officer because they failed to educate their organization and colleagues about the strict nature of any grant contract. It is our responsibility to take the time to fully explain contractual limitations prior to the signing of a contract.

I believe that this educational process should begin at the time grant proposals are being developed. In fact, I have found that it is crucial that everyone (including the president or CEO) clearly understands that the written proposal including its implementation plan, outcome objectives, evaluation plan, and budget will become an addendum to any future grant contract awarded. This is true for private foundation, corporate donor programs, and government agency awards.

Thus as I lead my college’s grant development teams, I consistently and constantly remind them that our eventual performance will be rated on that which they state will be done in the proposal narrative. In order to facilitate the development of ambitious but attainable goals and objectives, we develop a progressive program logic chart that clearly shows the relationship between program activities, minimum process objectives, staffing plan, equipment and supply purchases, and anticipated outcomes.

As we develop our grant applications, their attention is focused upon three primary issues:

The proposed program plan – With a contract award, the granting agency or foundation will expect that the proposed plan detailed in the application will be implemented as described with a minimum of changes. It will be assumed that as professionals, the program team has developed and proposed an implementation plan and strategies that are based on recognized and best practices in their field. If the team proposes to achieve that which is not truly attainable, it is likely that the organization will not be able to meet its contractual obligations if an award is received. If this happens, the organization could be endangering future grant awards and be putting itself in a position that requires the repayment of grant funds.

The budget – The budget needs to be realistic, accurate, and well thought out. After a contractual agreement has been reached, many funders will allow only minimal changes to the budget. Funds must be used for expenditures specifically listed in the proposal. For example, if the requested budget allocates $25,000 in salary expenses for direct service personnel, the agency may not pay administrative fees with these funds (unless the funder provides prior written approval of the change). For this reason, program teams should give as much attention to how the requested funds are being distributed as they give to the rest of the proposal. If funds are not properly allocated, the organization could find itself without adequate funds to cover key costs required for optimal implementation. If this happens, the funding agency will expect the grantee to find the needed funds elsewhere.

Equipment and supply purchases – Without prior written approval, equipment and supplies (such as computers, laptops, furniture, inkjet cartridges, etc.) cannot be paid for with grant funds unless they were included in the proposed budget. Additionally, if it was proposed that computers be purchased with the grant funds, these same funds cannot arbitrarily be switched to pay for new furniture.

After all, a grant contract is not a suggestion. Any grant professional that has ever survived a funder’s audit knows that it is in fact “an agreement enforceable by law.”

Contact Rebecca Shawyer at Rebecca.Shawver at BRAZOSPORT.EDU

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bad, Bad Board Members

by Bunnie Riedel, Host, Nonprofit Conversation

You know who they are.

They engage in side bar conversations with other board members or even the members, about what they think is wrong with the board or the executive director or the organization in general. They joined the board simply to promote themselves or their business and then come up with schemes to get the organization to buy their services or products. They ask for special favors such as upgraded airfare or free tickets to a fundraising event or free products from vendors.

They commandeer meetings and interrupt other board members or talk incessantly. They don’t show up for meetings. They don’t have their assigned tasks ready when asked or they drop the ball altogether. They never raise a single dime. They insist that money be spent on projects that are not in keeping with the mission or they come up with grandiose projects for which they will bear no responsibility. They over-scrutinize everything the CEO does and never find anything worth praising. They have unreal expectations of the CEO, often calling the CEO at home or while he/she is on vacation.

They are rude to volunteers or members. They have no comprehension of nonprofit governance and often make suggestions that are contrary to maintaining nonprofit status. They are willing to break the law, falsify tax documents or behave unethically. They date or have a romantic relationship with a staff member. They donate a large sum of money so they can blackmail the other board members or CEO or staff with their generosity. They go behind the CEO’s back and direct staff to perform certain tasks. They get their friends hired to the nonprofit.

I could go on. These are just a few of the things I (or my colleagues) have personally experienced. There is a “comment” section at the end of this article and I would love to hear your comments on behaviors of “bad board members.” The point of this article is: what is a CEO or board members to do with board members who misbehave?

Years ago I was speaking to a peer explaining a particular problem I was having with a board member. He gave me a piece of advice that was golden. “Put a board member between you and the problem.” In other words, it is the responsibility of the board to manage its membership and even the most talented CEO must turn to the board for assistance in dealing with bad board members.

This isn’t always easy because frequently board members don’t want to be confrontational or they hope that a problem will eventually work itself out. Most often though, problems do not go away on their own and ignoring them can cause them to grow. Problems are best avoided through written policies, governance structure and organizational culture.

A clear set of guidelines such as a “Conflict of Interest” statement that each board member must agree to and sign, can help organizations fend off attempts at hijacking the organization for personal gain. Conflict of Interest statements can also define what board members are free to discuss with non-board members or the public at large. The National Council of Nonprofits has an excellent sample conflict of interest policy that can be tailored to your organization at

Board members who don’t attend meetings can be dealt with by establishing a policy for meeting attendance. I’ve always favored the policy that requires a board member who misses two meetings in a row be automatically removed and must be affirmatively voted back on the board. This saves the board from having to vote members off the board, which so often boards are reluctant to do.

Establishing clear guidelines for fundraising expectations can also save the board headaches. After talking with CEO’s for many years, I would hazard a guess that well over eighty percent of all board members do not raise money for the organization they serve. This is contrary to one of the essential responsibilities of being a board member, fundraising.

How a board handles an obnoxious person is a reflection of organizational culture. Ideally the president or chair of the board should manage meetings in such a way that no one person can dominate the agenda or bully the other members. However, if board behavior is out of hand, it might be time to call in a consultant to conduct board training.

And speaking of board training, does your organization have a board handbook and are new board members provided with training? This is an area that often gets overlooked or dismissed. And while organizational expectations might seem obvious, it should be remembered that people aren’t born “board members” and many people who find their way into board service are well meaning volunteers not governance experts.

The functionality and health of the board of directors is a direct reflection of the health of the nonprofit. If a board is dysfunctional, the organization will be dysfunctional. If a board is focused, healthy and mission driven, the organization will be the same. If you are dealing with bad, bad board members, it’s time to take action, delaying will only cause the problems to grow.

Earlier this year, Angela Newman wrote an article on the “Key to Motivating Board Members.” It is worth another read: