Lesson 12: How will you socialize your message?

This is the final installment in our series introducing you to Claxon University, where smart nonprofits go to learn how to use better words to create a better world.

Claxon University’s first course is Words on a Mission. Each of the twelve lessons in the course asks a fundamental question a nonprofit needs to answer in order to develop high-impact messaging. In each post in this series, I’ve shared what the question was, along with a snippet from the video lecture.

If your interest has been piqued by these videos…check out Claxon University’s Vimeo channel where video snippets abound! And also learn more about the Claxon University community. It’s a pretty awesome community for dedicated, hard-working nonprofit professionals who want to do everything in their power to make the world a better place.

Lesson 12: How will you socialize your message?

Lesson 12: Overcoming Common Fears from Claxon University on Vimeo.

Lesson 11: How will you tell your story?

This is part of a series introducing you to Claxon University, where smart nonprofits go to learn how to use better words to create a better world.

Claxon University’s first course is Words on a Mission. Each of the twelve lessons in the course asks a fundamental question a nonprofit needs to answer in order to develop high-impact messaging. In each post in this series, I’ll share what the question is, along with a snippet from the video lecture.

Lesson 11: How will you tell your story?

Lesson 11: Story of self, us & now from Claxon University on Vimeo.

Videos: from ho-hum to mee-wow!

There’s no doubt that cat videos are all the rage online. There’s even an Internet Cat Video Film Festival. This feline obsession is for reals.

There’s something about cats that effectively mirrors the human experience. Obsession, surprise, melancholy.  The cats, they know how you feel.

In this clip from the Social Good Summit, Jessica Mason from YouTube for Good explains 3 lessons non-profits can learn from cat videos:

  • Tell universal stories
  • Engage regularly
  • Be surprising (yes, folks, this might require taking some risks and getting a little outside your comfort zone)

Taking a few lessons from cat vids might be the purrfect way to add a little mee-wow to your message.

Two quick apologies:
1. To the dog people: dogs are cool too. Totally cool.
2. Those of you who, like me, are totally allergic to cats and, therefore, get itchy just watching these vids. All in the name of making the world a better place, right?

(Photo credit: mashable)

Is overhead hijacking your impact?

Dan Pallotta
Man on a mission to get us over overhead.

Phil Buchanan, President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, issued a rather scathing review of Dan Pallotta’s new book, Charity Case.

This is the latest in what is an ongoing debate about overhead.

What is overhead anyway? We throw this term around but are we clear on what it means?

According to Wikipedia, the “term overhead is usually used when grouping expenses that are necessary to the continued functioning of the business but cannot be immediately associated with the products or services being offered (e.g., do not directly generate profits)…Overhead expenses include accounting fees, advertisingdepreciation,insuranceinterest, legal fees, rent, repairs, supplies, taxes, telephone bills, travel expenditures, and utilities.”

You can see why donors really want you to make the case for contributing to boring stuff like insurance and supplies. Who wants their donation going to yawners like that?

We can educate donors until we’re blue in the face about why the lights, staples and post-it notes are all necessary parts of meeting our mission. But why not spend that time talking about impact instead of expenses? Tell a story of impact and then connect that impact back to the light switches, hosting fees, and telephones. Not the other way around.

Overhead is important. It’s necessary. We can’t operate without it. But don’t let it hijack your story. 

Your story is about impact. Not your income statement.



Taking Columbus out of Columbus Day?

Christopher Columbus, Native American Day, Columbus Day, history
Christopher Columbus: explorer or exploiter?

The second Monday in October is Columbus Day in the U.S., except in South Dakota, where it is officially Native American Day.

The choice of what to call this day is interesting. Is it about Columbus, the guy who sailed the ocean blue, or the Native Americans (and the Tainos, to be specific), who had discovered this land long before Columbus was tall enough to hoist a sail.

In their book, Rethinking Columbus, Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson encourage us to revisit our assumptions about history. They are on a mission to write “a true people’s history”. Both the characters in the history and the ones telling the history matter. The tales they tell and the words they use to tell those tales will differ. At times drastically.

Columbus Day. Native American Day. Explorations Day. All refer to the same day. Each offers a different version of history.

Which version of history do your words tell? (Hint: This matters to organizational and personal histories, not just history as it relates to the second Monday in October.)

What non profits can learn from reality TV

reality TV, lessons, bachelorette, top chef, secret millionaire
[ Reality or not, we can learn from reality shows.
Yesterday, Microsoft launched their first reality show, Be the Next Microsoft Employee. It’s five weeks long and, at the end, one of the four contestants will be picked as the next Microsoft employee. It’s like Top Chef for geeks. (Full disclosure, I worked on this show…and, no, I won’t tell you who wins.)

Then there’s Secret Millionaire, ABC’s showcase of big-hearted millionaires who change the lives of others and, along the way, their own.

[Obviously, there are some bigger name reality shows. We could throw those into the mix, but I’m opting to focus on the two that have some “do goodness” to them.]

Be the Next and Secret Millionaire are very different shows, partially because one is web-based and one is a full-blown TV show and one is about employment and the other redemption.

But they have many things in common–as do all reality shows–and this is where there’s some transferable tidbits for DIY marketers.

Here are three take-away’s worth noting:

  1. People like drama. This is why the highs are so high and the lows so low on reality shows.
  2. People want to relate. Reality shows editors look at how to bring out the human element whenever possible.
  3. People get attached to people. They have their fav contestant and they are miffed when he or she gets booted off.

How do you, the non profit marketers of the world, parlay these into your marketing?

  1. Tell a good story. Make it interesting. Don’t water it down. You can tell a story that is both respectful and yet very, very interesting.
  2. Focus on individual people. We relate on an individual level. Tell your supporters about one person who exemplifies why you do your work and how you do it.
  3. Be mindful when someone who your clients, donors, and volunteers are attached to is leaving. It may just be staff turn-over to you, but can evoke the same “don’t vote my person off” emotions from others.

Any other lessons we can learn from all these reality shows?

Canada, the US, Independence Days & Brand

4th of July, Canada Day, United States, brandI’m Camerican–born in Canada to American parents. Comparing and contrasting the two countries is inevitable.

Take, for instance, how we celebrate our respective Independence days.

Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate the 4th of July–a day of fun, festivities and fireworks. It’s a big deal.

Meanwhile, Canadians celebrated their Independence day on July 1–lovingly referred to as Canada Day or Canada’s birthday. It’s kind of a big deal. But it doesn’t hold a Roman candle to the hooplah that goes on in the U.S.

If both holidays are about the exact same thing–independence from Great Britain–why are they so different? Brand and history.

An exceptionally brief history lesson: Whereas the United States fought for its independence, Canada came into being because Great Britain decided to create a new country out of three existing colonies. <end history lesson>

Just like organizations, many elements inform a country’s brand. History is one of them.

Canada’s brand is understated. It is the mosaic to the American melting pot. Courtesy is currency.

Rabble-rousing and a serious independent streak are what got the United States its independence, so it’s no surprise its brand is more boisterous and extroverted.

Had the United States and Canada been formed in the same way, they might be more similar in terms of their brand. But, contrary to popular opinion, they’re really very different. (If you’d like a more exhaustive list of how they differ, email me and I’d be happy to enumerate.)

History matters. Why and how your organization came into existence matters. It’s where the story of your organization begins.

If you were going to have an independence day for your organization, when would it be? What makes that date significant?

Event donors: more than a one night stand

event360, fundraising event, donor communicationsEvent 360 recently released a new white paper: 4 steps to converting event donors to organizational donors. I will leave the in-depth commentary on whether these are the “right” 4 steps to event pros like Shanon Doolittle but will say that the event donor segmentation and sample engagement plan for major donors alone are worth giving over your email address for (which you have to do to download it).

Here’s the thing: Event donors often get stuck in the one night stand camp because we try to go too far, too fast.

Unlike most other forms of fundraising where there is a longer lead up to the ask, event participants go from ‘I don’t know you at all’ to ‘going all the way’ (i.e. making a donation) very quickly.

Even after the event, event attendees barely know you! You’ve had a fling. Even if it was a great fling, it was still just a fling. That’s very different than a courtship.

From a messaging perspective, this means you have to properly introduce them to your organization after the event. In the event follow-up, don’t make the mistake of leaping to the middle of your story. Reinforce what they learned–and felt–at the event. Reiterate the key points from the event. Reinforce why they should like you. Cement their basic knowledge of your cause, your mission, what makes you unique and how they can engage.

This may sound incredibly, painfully obvious. But I’m always surprised how clunky post-event communications tend to be. Take it slow and your event donors can turn into much more than a one night stand.



Yesterday, I got a great piece of feedback from someone working at a food program in New York. He had watched this week’s Tune Up Tuesday video. The video advocates for using relativity and specificity so that your supporters can connect with your cause. This is based on research about making issues ‘human scale’, and is articulately explained in Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers. (They’re so dang smart!)

As this viewer explained, he can tell a variation of the following story…

Jennifer hadn’t eaten in three days. She struggles with multiple chronic diseases that prevent her from leaving her house. This lack of food was not uncommon for Jennifer and the level of weight loss was significantly damaging her health. Our program brought food right to her doorstep and now she’s eating healthy and getting healthy!

…and it might be an effective way to connect with some individual donors. However, this viewer’s point was that for many funders, especially foundations, he has to then draw the connection to the bigger issue and show broad, measurable impact. In the case of Jennifer, for instance, he would go on to say that 75% of their clients show progress toward achieving a healthy weight after being in the program, i.e. Jennifer represents an overall trend they see in their work, which is that it works.

It comes down to audience and sequencing. (Yes, yes, I know you all know that I don’t like the term ‘audience’, but sometimes you just gotta use it.)

Human beings are hard-wired to understand and relate to stories. That’s why starting with a story works. In order for some donors to make a connection–or make the case–for supporting your organization, they will also need the facts and figures to back it up. It all comes back to one of the cornerstones of effective nonprofit marketing: Know Thy Audience.

Thanks to this viewer for bringing up a REALLY important point!

What have you found with your supporters? Is storytelling an effective way to inspire action for your organization or do you need the facts and figures?

The Story of Lance

When you tell your story, or the story of your organization, your believers see themselves as part of it. Honor that because you might just be someone’s story of hope.

Here’s what I mean.

In July 2000, my mum was bald. She had just gone through chemo for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She now has all her hair and is happy and healthy–thank goodness!

At the time, however, we didn’t know if the chemo would be successful. I was training for a marathon with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team-in-Training. I needed a little hope to keep me going.

And so, when we found ourselves a few kilometres away from the Tour de France that summer, we trekked to see it. I didn’t know the first thing about cycling. That didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to see the peloton. I was going to see what cancer could look like on the other side of chemo. I was going to see hope on a bike. I was going to see Lance Armstrong.

Ever since that fated day, I have been one of Lance’s biggest fans. He is wowerful to watch on a bike and he has created an awareness about cancer that is rivaled only by Komen. His name has become synonymous with cancer, hope and living strong.

Lance’s story of hope became my story of hope. It was a story about being able to not just survive cancer, but to thrive in its wake.  It was a story about coming back from cancer and conquering mountains–both literally and figuratively–on sheer will, hard work and determination.

Then came last night’s 60 Minutes with its allegations and testimonials about doping. This is not the first time Lance has been accused of doping. Not by a long shot. (Skewering Lance has practically become a national sport in France.) The allegations have always been part of the story. As a believer, however, I simply convinced myself that the allegations couldn’t possible be true. There was no room for doping in a story whose power was predicated on its epic nature.

Now it seems undeniable that the story of Lance includes doping, drugs and EPO. It may still be a story of hope, but it is no longer my story of hope.

How Lance handles these latest accusations will determine his legacy because they will be some of the most critical chapters in his story. Lance is a masterful marketer. Can he be an honest storyteller?

With the Greg Mortenson scandal in full swing, Lance would not be alone in the “fallen philanthropic hero” category. What will that do for the cancer community? If he hadn’t done the drugs, would he have won anyway? If he hadn’t won, would he have been able to raise as much awareness and money for the cause? Impossible to know.

What I know is that I probably need to start looking for another story of hope. If you have one, please let me know. You’ll make my day… and probably the day of a lot of folks whose story of hope was the story of Lance.

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Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?