Monday, February 28, 2011

Communicating With Your Constituents

by Bunnie Riedel, Host, Nonprofit Conversation

I do a lot of benchmarking and needs assessment studies focusing on communication.  Whether you manage a nonprofit or a business, effective communication with your constituents (and prospective constituents) is essential.  However, for many, lack of time and resources (both human and financial) are major roadblocks to good communication.

I am fascinated by the results of a recent Focus Group I conducted in Massachusetts.  In the group was a sprinkling of small business people but mostly local nonprofits.  For the Focus Group, which takes about five hours, I go through a series of multiple choice questions and provide opportunities for narrative responses.  We engage in large group discussion and small group discussion.  The session is designed to get them thinking about how they receive information, whether they perceive their communications to be effective, what messages they want to deliver and what vehicles of communication they believe work best for them.

Seventy-two percent of the participants spent less than $5,000 per year on communicating with their constituents or prospective constituents.  In that seventy-two percent were the small community based nonprofits.  Eight percent spent over $25,000 per year, that group included a real estate agency, a tourism agency and a radio station.  Emails, phone calls, word of mouth and website were cited as the vehicles most used for communication.  However, meetings, phone calls, newspapers and word of mouth were rated high for effectiveness, while email and websites were rated low. 

When asked if they thought their communications were effective forty-eight percent answered “Maybe.” 

Again, this group was very local, very micro.  The opportunities to have meetings and word of mouth work for them as communications tools are greater than one would get from a larger organization, such as a national nonprofit.

They had very important, sometimes critical information to convey, such as availability of social services, assistance for problems, solutions for community building and even their own existence.  The group found that obstacles to communicating their messages included an inability to know if the constituent received the message, lack of return phone calls and emails, misunderstanding of what services they provided and competition from too many other messengers (information overload).

Friends, community groups and religious institutions rated quite high as ways they received information about organizations in the community.  While newspaper articles, websites and promotional advertising rated quite low. 

In mulling over these responses it struck me how the “personal touch” worked in this community and it made me wonder how does one take that personal touch and apply it in the larger sense?  Especially if you are talking about a larger regional or national nonprofit.  Could it be that our challenge is to find ways to take the tools we assume have a wide ranging impact, such as our websites, emails, Facebook pages, etc. and personalize them?  Can we make them work and feel like a community meeting or a person to person communication?

In theory, Facebook edges in that direction, it seeks “friends” and “fans,” people who have affirmatively selected to have some sort of an interest in what your organization is doing.  However, Facebook also has a way of de-personalizing messages.  Lost in the clutter that is Facebook, important messages risk becoming just more electronic background noise. 

How do we create websites that provide intimacy and personal interaction rather than simply act as placeholders for information?  Are our websites inviting and friendly?  Do any of us really update them enough that people want to keep coming back to see what’s new?

And those email blasts, like Constant Contact, do they behave more like pop ups intruding on one’s communication experience or can we use them almost like friendly handshakes?

I think smaller communities often have an advantage in communication.  There’s always the chance that you will run into your constituent at the grocery store or on the street corner and be able to pass on the latest information or affirm the personal relationship.  The challenge for all of us is how to create the personal when the geography is so large.

As always, I welcome your thoughts on this article.  Feel free to leave a comment or submit an article for Nonprofit Conversation by contacting me through my website

Thanks for reading! 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

9 Keys to Using Online Video to Increase Your Nonprofit Marketing Impact

Video is everywhere these days.  Video can compel action in ways that no other medium can.  It allows you to tell your organization's in ways you simply cannot do in any other way.  Nancy Schwartz provides excellent advice (as always) on how you should approach your online video.  I would also like to add that your videos can be shown on the hundreds of Public access television channels across the country and certainly the Public access channel in your community.  And...if you need to find a video producer, let me know.  I know of several excellent and talented video producers that can deliver a quality video to your organization.  Bunnie

9 Keys to Using Online Video to Increase Your Nonprofit Marketing Impact

by Nancy Schwartz, Getting Attention

Online video is big and getting bigger. So much so that it’s rapidly changing the communications landscape. And we have some great models to work from.

Online Video is Getting Bigger – Fast

Here’s the proof, drawn from a recent ComScore study:
  • Over 133 million Americans watched online video in July 2007 – or 74% of US internet users.
  • They watched more than 9 billion videos, 27% of them on Google sites including YouTube.
There’s so much nonprofit video out there on YouTube, DoGooderTV and organizational Web sites. Here’s how distribution breaks out:
  • YouTube captures 40% of the current market – This most popular video hosting site receives 50,000 video uploads and streams some 50 million videos to about 6 million viewers daily.
  • MySpace, a social networking site, accounts for another 25%.
  • The remainder consists of major Internet players like Google, MSN, Yahoo and AOL, and niche venues like the nonprofit-focused DoGooderTV, each of which capture a fraction of the overall market. My guess is that audiences for these niche players will grow fast and furious.
So online video is big. But what’s the best way to put online video to work to strengthen your nonprofit marketing?

Pros Share Online Video Guidelines for Nonprofit Marketers

Here are some critical guidelines for jumping into online video:
  1. Online video is an expectation, not an option, for online audiences 25 and younger
    Higher ed marketing guru Bob Johnson suggests that online video is an expectation for most 30-and-under nonprofit audiences (definitely for prospective college students).
  2. Keep videos short and sweet – 30 seconds to two minutes max
    Video length is a classic case of less is more, advises Alia McKee of Sea Change Strategies Direct. Obviously, a good edit is crucial.She also recommends that online video should complement – not replace – other communications channels.
  3. Know your audiences
    This is definitely one of the ten commandments of online video production. You craft your messages and graphics to your audiences. Don’t forget to do the same with your video. The imagery, soundtrack and text you select must appeal to your target demographic. Video is more “in your face” than text or graphics so if you strike out, you strike out big.
  4. Make sure your video is more than moving, talking delivery of traditional content.
    Bob Johnson warns against oh-so-deadly talking heads and other staged approaches. Use video to show, not to tell – that’s the beauty of the medium.
  5. Tap that funny bone
    Most online videos that succeed in high pass-along rates (and viral distribution is a key strategy to increase views), usually include some humor or satire, say the experts at Online Video Services.Remember how Hillary Clinton grabbed attention when she spoofed the widely-viewed “Sopranos” finale on to motivate participation in her campaign song contest. Not only was she covered everywyere, she was credited with a seldom-seen-before sense of humor.But be careful in being funny. Humor is delicate. and the right timing and broad appeal have to be spot on. Testing humor is a good idea; a bomb can be fatal.
  6. Don’t forget the call to action
    It’s great to build awareness and support but you’re stopping short if you don’t include a clickable call to action at the close of your video. This Greenpeace video offers engaged viewers the opportunity to act with a simple click at the very moment they’re processing this very powerful video. Grab ‘em when they’re hot.
  7. Work it: Put your online video to work in multiple versions and venues
    Forget the stand-alone gala dinner video that never again sees the light of day. Your organization should milk your video productions for all they’re worth.Your videos, in some form or another, can be projected in your org’s waiting room, at a gala and during programs, as well as distributed online via video sites, your own site,and your blog and e-news. The possibilities are nearly endless, suggests See3′s Michael Hoffman.
  8. Do-it-yourself is fine…for now
    As a matter of fact the authenticity of “amateur” video is au courant right now. Just take a look at this video Katya Andresen “produced” as her blog post response to my query.
    However, my guess is that amateur video will soon become tedious as the novelty of the medium erodes. Expectations for higher-end production values will begin to increase very quickly. I’ve watched this cycle before, most recently with blogging. Meanwhile, you can produce your own videos for almost nothing with a WebCam or video camera.
  9. Budget $1,000 per minute of finished content for a professionally-shot and edited video
    The OVS experts feel strongly that quality counts, cautioning that you get what you pay for. OVS estimates the cost for a professional video shoot, including editing, at $1K for each minute of on-demand finished content. Live Webcasts are much more costly.Another firm – Charity Docs – produces online on-demand (e.g. not live) videos for a flat fee of $2,500.
What’s working best with your online video production? Please share your tips with me as a comment below and I’ll pass them along to Getting Attention readers.  Contact Nancy Schwartz

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Preparing for Stricter 990 Filing Requirements

For those of us here in the U.S., it's tax time!  Tax time causes a certain amount of angst, whether it's business, personal or nonprofit filings.  But new rules at the Internal Revenue Service regarding small nonprofits will potentially derail nonprofit efforts.  Whether it's the local Kiwanis Club or the Boy Scout troop, leadership and board members need to know the new rules regarding fundraising and reporting.  Lynne Leavitt lays out what you need to know simply and easily.  In my own experience, I have found the IRS fairly helpful and easy to work with as long as you are straightforward and honest.  It's okay to tell an IRS agent that you don't know the rules or how to do something.  Really, if you have a question, pick up the phone and call.  Bunnie

Preparing for Stricter 990 Filing Requirements

Lynne LeavittFrom neighborhood baseball leagues to local senior centers, thousands of small nonprofits across the country are at risk for stiff penalties or even loss of their federal tax-exempt status. 

Such organizations may not be aware of the recent IRS changes that are responsible for this situation. 

A critical redesign of the IRS form known as the 990 now requires nonprofits to reexamine their tax reporting procedures to make certain that anyone filing forms on the organization's behalf is aware of the new tax provisions.

The new 990 filing requirements went into effect at the beginning of 2008 for tax-exempt organizations with gross revenues of $1 million or more. 

A 990-EZ, or short form, was required of all other nonprofits with revenues over $25,000. 

A progressive lowering of the gross revenue threshold over the past three years has caused significant concern among nonprofit personnel and their financial advisors. 

In 2009, the threshold for filing the new 990 long form dropped to $500,000 in nonprofit gross revenues. In 2010, the 990 form is required from nonprofits earning $200,000 or more. 

Fees for simply preparing the revised 990 form can easily reach $6,000, a cost that could represent a significant expense to a small nonprofit. 

The 990-EZ form, which costs substantially less and saves a considerable amount of time, can only be used by nonprofits under the standard form 990 gross income threshold. Nonprofits with gross revenues under $25,000 are required to file an electronic Form 990-N (e-Postcard) online. 

On July 26, 2010 the IRS announced that it is providing a one-time relief for organizations grossing less than $1 million that have tax filing dates before October 15, 2010 and that have failed to correctly file in the past three years, allowing them to retain their tax-exempt status.  

This one-time exemption only applies to organizations required to file Form 990-N and Form 990-EZ.
Adding to the challenges now faced by nonprofits, the IRS has hired an additional 100 tax examiners whose job is to audit nonprofit returns in order to ensure compliance with the new requirements. 

Clearly, the IRS is not taking the new filing requirements lightly - it has already revoked the tax-exempt status of many nonprofits for non-compliance. When such organizations lose their tax-exempt status, they must shoulder the time and expenses of reapplying. 

In the interim, any income earned during that process could be taxed, and donations to the group would not be tax deductible to the donor.

The IRS rationale for imposing these strict new requirements on nonprofits is simple: Past abuses, such as inflated salaries and unsound conflicts-of-interest have raised public concern over governance of these organizations. 

On the other hand, a nonprofit with gross revenues under $500,000 may have a volunteer board and the staff may not have the necessary expertise to keep up with esoteric tax-filing requirements, and their accountants may not possess the necessary skills and expertise required. 

The new Form 990 is designed to promote transparency and disclosure, thus making the nonprofit's operations open to public scrutiny. 

The questions posed are extremely detailed, and will require organizations to draft new disclosure policies and procedures in order to meet filing requirements.

For most nonprofits, the key to staying in compliance and retaining the trust of watchful donors is to become familiar with IRS requirements and to take appropriate measures to ensure that IRS filings are as accurate and detailed as possible. 

This may mean seeking out a tax accounting firm with extensive nonprofit experience.  In view of the implications for nonprofits who fail to meet the IRS expectations, such action may be the best investment that organizations could make.

Lynne Leavitt, CPA with Brakensiek Leavitt Pleger LLP, has more than 25 years of accounting and tax knowledge with extensive experience assisting nonprofit organizations with all of their financial-service needs.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

18 Resolutions for the Small Nonprofit Organization in 2011

 A few years ago I stopped making New Year's resolutions.  I guess I finally had the realization that making a resolution at the beginning of the year and failing miserably at keeping it by February or March was not a good thing for my psyche.  So my solution was "if you don't make resolutions then you won't have any guilt when you fail at keeping them."  Mmmm.  That logic doesn't apply to the management of your nonprofit.  It is not only healthy but necessary to take time to really look at how you are managing your organization and your fundraising.  Pamela Grow always has great advice on grant writing and fundraising and her 18 Resolutions for the Small Nonprofit in 2011 can be implemented any time of the year.  Read, consider and "grow."  Bunnie

18 Resolutions for the Small Nonprofit Organization in 2011
by Pamela Grow
  1. Resolve to master the art of persuasive copy-writing.  No no no, not your typical ‘non-profit speak,’ but persuasive copywriting.  Watch infomercials (I’m serious).  Take a creative writing course.  Read any one of Tom Ahern’s books.  As you read what you’ve written, ask yourself “would I care?”

  1. Develop systems.  Within your systems, establish small daily or weekly habits – such as 30 minutes daily of foundation research or spending 30 minutes on the phone with donors.

  1. Quit copying your peers.

  1. Learn how to use email effectively.

  1. Resolve to leave your comfort zone.   Before signing up for another AFP workshop, consider attending an email marketing seminar or even a Dale Carnegie training.

  1. Establish the processes to build relationships with grant funders – just as you do your donors.  A declination is an opportunity for further communication.

  1. Integrate your communications.  Online, direct mail, email, social media – it needs to be cohesive.

  1. Via Tom Ahern:  “Be different. Be fun. Be authentic.”

  1. There’s more to social media than updating your Facebook status or posting blast tweets on Twitter.  Learn how to use social media to engage.

  1. Excel is not a database.  Lose it.  If you’re keeping your data in Excel, know your criteria for a database, evaluate three providers and select one.  Make sure that training and support are key components.

  1. Spend money on training.  Yes, when I was a nonprofit employee, with one exception, none of my employers paid for any training.  Guess what?  I bought books and attended seminars on my own dime.  Invest in yourself.

  1. Start a monthly giving program.  This one’s a no-brainer – need I say more?

  1. Educate your board on fundraising.  This one doesn’t involve hiring a one-time ‘board trainer’ for your next retreat.  It involves developing a – dare I say fun? – culture of fundraising within your board.  One very simple way to start is by sharing a clip from the Movie Mondays series Top 10 Best Movies for Helping Board Members at the beginning of every board meeting.

  1. Take a hula hoop to work.  When the stress gets to be too much incorporate a little joy and movement into your day.

  1. Learn how to re-purpose content for different donor communications channels.

  1. Communicate more.  Yes, I know that studies consistently show that donors are turned off by organizations who over-communicate or over-solicit.  Trust me, the small, community-based nonprofit organization rarely falls into that category.

  1. Take charge and take responsibility.

  1. Say thank you.  Again and again and again.  And again.  Create a stewardship system and put it in writing.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Unstable Employees, Direct Threats and the ADA

I opened my email this morning to find the following question from fellow blogger The Evil HR Lady:

As you probably know, I’m an avid reader, even though I’ve never lived in Ohio, although I have been to two weddings there, so that must count for something.

I've been reading about Jared Lee Loughner--the Arizona shooter and came across the e-mails written by a class member who thought Loughner was dangerous here:

My question for you, the employment lawyer, is given ADA protections, if I notice an employee becoming increasingly unstable, what can I do about it?

I’d love to read your thoughts on this.

Instead of responding directly, I thought I’d share my thoughts with everyone.

The ADA contains a specific exception for employees who pose a “direct threat.” The statute defines “direct threat” as “a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by reasonable accommodation.” The ADA’s regulations require that the determination that an individual poses a direct threat must be “based on an individualized assessment of the individual’s present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job.” Employers must base this assessment on either “a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge” or “on the best available objective evidence.” In making this determination, employers should rely on the following four factors:
  1. The duration of the risk;
  2. The nature and severity of the potential harm;
  3. The likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and
  4. The imminence of the potential harm.
Palmer v. Circuit Court of Cook County (7th Cir. 1997) succinctly explains the Hobson’s choice employers face when deciding whether to retain a potentially violent employee. Since I can’t say it any better, I’ll just quote from the opinion:
The [ADA] does not require an employer to retain a potentially violent employee. Such a requirement would place the employer on a razor’s edge—in jeopardy of violating the Act if it fired such an employee, yet in jeopardy of being deemed negligent if it retained him and he hurt someone. The Act protects only “qualified” employees, that is, employees qualified to do the job for which they were hired; and threatening other employees disqualifies one….
It is true that an employer has a statutory duty to make a “reasonable accommodation” to an employee’s disability, that is, an adjustment in working conditions to enable the employee to overcome his disability, if the employer can do this without “undue hardship.” … But we cannot believe that this duty runs in favor of employees who commit or threaten to commit violent acts…. The retention of such an employee would cause justifiable anxiety to coworkers and supervisors. It would be unreasonable to demand of the employer either that it force its employees to put up with this or that it station guards to prevent the mentally disturbed employee from getting out of hand.
To sum up and answer the question posed, employers faced with a legitimate and potentially dangerous employee need not wait for the powder keg to explode. Instead, employers can treat the employee as a “direct threat” and separate the individual from employment.
A few additional practical points to consider:
  1. Prior to the termination, obtain written statements from co-workers, supervisors, and managers documenting all threatening behavior.
  2. The severity of threat is proportional to the duration of the risk. In other words, the more real the risk the less amount of time you have to allow it in your workplace.
  3. Typically, I’m opposed to security escorts of terminated employees. The termination of an employee who poses a direct threat for violence is the exception.
  4. Consider carrying out the termination as late in the work day, and work week, as possible. This timing will create and artificial cooling-off period and help limit the risk that the employee returns to do harm.
  5. Put the local police department on notice. Also consider a private security detail for a period of time until you are reasonably certain the employee is not going to return to cause harm.
Finally, my thought and prayers are with everyone in Tucson as they mourn, fight for their lives, cope with what happened, and start the healing process.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or