Thursday, May 26, 2011

The myth that you are different.

There's a school of thought in not-for-profit branding that says looking inward is all there is. I recently read a new book on one of the high priestesses of this way of thinking. Her approach is simple. Get all of your  stakeholders to fall in love again with your values and mission, whip up a cool logo and a tag line and call it a day.

The advantage of course is that by going back to your roots you re-discover what makes you you. And it has obvious fringe benefit of rallying your stakeholders back to the colours -- the focus on re-living the mission takes their minds off the many troubles the organization faces here and now. The final benefit is that the process is simple...for the branding agency. They can use the same cookie cutter approach one organization after another, and it sells.

But does it work? Yes and no. Anything that brings you back to your roots is beneficial. The trip down memory lane to see what your founding fathers and mothers wanted when they started your organization is powerful. However, it is not enough. This approach creates good brands, but never great ones.

The main problem is that it leaves out the most important and pressing challenge not-for-profits face: competition. Today, the not-for-profit brand must be an external facing brand. The days of having an identity that could look inwards without a care for the outside world are over. Not-for-profits today live or die because of outside forces -- government funding, fundraising, volunteers, regulation and more. And many of the previously internal challenges that they faced, such as recruitment, are fast becoming external ones. Branding, for example, is a major force in recruitment of new staff and volunteers -- a process that these days involves a great deal of competition indeed.

The internal approach tells organizations that by just being themselves again they can succeed in an ever competitive world, and that is a lie. It assumes that each organization is different to begin with, and common sense tells us that is untrue. The vast majority of not-for-profits are very similar to others in their sector, sub-sector or niche. The cancer charity is similar to other cancer charities. The local charity, even though it may fundraise for different things than others in the community, is very similar to other local charities. You can see this very clearly in most mission and value statements. They all sound the same. The idea that not-for-profits are different is a myth. And because of that the internal approach further reinforces that sameness. So, a new brand from the folks who practice this approach could actually serve to make your organization more mediocre.

With not-for-profits facing a chorus of competition how can their lone voice be heard? The answer is to build a brand that takes the competition into account. If your town has a dozen charities, your local charity needs to have a brand that is different from the other charities. If your cancer charity looks and sounds like a dozen other cancer charities, then you need a brand that is unique amongst that group.

This process of being more external than internal is what for-profits, especially retailers, do. They realize the obvious. Competition is fierce and the only way to succeed is to stand out in the crowd. Why doesn't the not-for-profit sector do the same? There are many reasons. One is that they and the branders they hire consistently fail to appreciate the competition they face. Another is that most not-for-profits have very internally-focused communications ideas. They think "internal" and not "external" and that is why they fail.

A good example was a process I was a part of as an observer. The big not-for-profit hired a big branding company who went the "internal" route. They mostly consulted board members and senior staff to create the brand. The idea of testing it against the competition wasn't part of the process. The result was a brand that consisted of a nice logo and a tag line. It didn't move the organization forward. It didn't solve the serious marketing challenges they faced, which, in their case, was that no one knew who they were. They still have a very low national profile.

The lesson in all of this is that not-for-profit brands have to be a balance of internal and external.

Monday, May 23, 2011

New report says Canadian Hospitals failing to use power of the web to full advantage

Canadian hospitals are failing to give the public the information they want online. That’s the conclusion of a new white paper called Page Not Found: Canadian Hospitals and Their Websites.

The report was created by the Non-Profit Marketer, Canada’s leading not-for-profit marketing and communications blog, and published by JohnSuart.Com, a Kingston, Ontario third sector marketing agency.

Page Not Found: Canadian Hospitals and Their Website, which brings together several sources along with first-hand experience in the Canadian health care sector, concludes that while Canadians are increasingly going online to get health information, the websites of many hospitals do not meet basic standards.

“There are a variety of hospitals across Canada and an equal variety of websites. Some, especially at larger institutions, are state-of-the-art platforms. However, at medium-sized and smaller hospitals it is a different story. While there is not hard data on website capabilities at Canadian hospitals, it is well known that hospitals as a group have some of the worst websites in the public sector,” the report says.

A recent visit to hospital websites across Ontario found a number of common problems, including:
  • Poor overall content.
  • Lack of updating to a point where in some cases information is years out of date.
  • Poor navigation that makes it hard to find key information quickly.
  • Poor integration with social media or, in many cases, no social media at all.
  • No use of email newsletters or other devices to talk to target audiences directly.
  • Reliance on online PDF versions of print materials, which are often hard to download because of mismanaged file sizes.

Facebook is a good example. At many Ontario hospitals, staff are not allowed to go on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube from a workplace computer. In order to start a Foundation Facebook page staff working for one hospital in Ontario had to request access in writing from the head of IT. It took more than a week, and even then parts of Facebook continued to be blocked, preventing them from uploading any pictures. The hospital’s attitude was that social media was a “waste” of time and only personal benefit could come from it.

“This flies in the face of everything we know about social media and its use,” the report concludes.

The report also reviews the latest information about the growing use of online health information. The Social Life of Health Information, a 2011 report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, found that while doctors, nurses, and other health professionals continue to be the first choice for people with health concerns, online resources, including advice from peers, are a significant and growing source of health information in the US. For example, 36% of adults have gone online to gather information on hospitals or other medical facilities.

Page Not Found: Canadian Hospitals and Their Websites makes several recommendations, including calling on hospitals to set new web standards and embrace social media. It also calls on senior hospital leadership to take a more active part in their websites and content creation.

The report is available online for free at



Thursday, May 19, 2011

The 5-minute Engagement

Take 5
One of the most fundamental issues that your non-profit faces in engagement is also the most difficult. Many non-profits are not exactly clear what their stakeholders want of them, and many stakeholders aren’t sure they know what the non-profit wants of them. This issue is often masked by others. Yes, if you are a charity, you want donations. If you are a social service organization, you want volunteers to help deliver programs. But there needs to be more. The charity wants more from its donors than just a financial transaction, but what? The social service agency wants volunteers to do more than just volunteer a few hours a week, it want them to tell the world about what the organization does. These “needs” aren’t always very clear, and the lack of clarity often sabotages engagement efforts.

Here’s a five minute exercise you can do with any number of stakeholders to get a better handle on your level of engagement. Ask your donors two questions. First, get them to tell you exactly what they want from you. Get them to list it in order of priority. And follow-up with a question about what they don’t want. Don’t dwell on the technical, such as how many emails they want to receive a year. Stick to the strategic issues, such as what kinds of communications they want to receive instead.

Second, ask them whether they know what your non-profit wants from them. Is being a stakeholder clear in their mind. Do they know what to do and how to do it?

Now, put the two sets of answers together and look at whether they fit. Are you telling the stakeholders what you want? Are you listening to what they need? Chances are there are gaps. You likely haven’t spelled out everything you need. And like most organizations you could stand to listen more. Map out this relationship and see what you can do to address some of the gaps.

You can use this informally on individual stakeholders, in large meetings or massive online surveys. Any way you use it will yield information you can use to improve engagement.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Build contingency into your budgets, plans

I learned a communications management trick while I was working in the public sector. The doomed organization I was in was plagued by a host of problems, both internal and external. The institution we were fundraising for was in serious trouble. Our leadership spent more time fighting with each other than fighting for the future of the organization. We seemed to change direction every day. The question I often asked myself was how could I plan a communications program in such a wildly changing environment?

A case in point was a project I and a colleague worked on for nearly three months. It was a major piece in the communications program -- a number of other things depended on it. Then one day the boss came in and told me to change the whole thing. We had to start over. All that hard work was wasted.

The key to planning a communications program that is based on shifting sands is to create a contingency in your budget. This came home to me during budget time one year when I couldn't figure out what would happen to our organization at the end of the week let alone a year down the road. Our budgets had to be exact. Everything had to be spelled out. My solution was to build into every budget and every project a 15% contingency. If we spent $100.00 on X, then I'd also budget $15.00 for contingency. As well, I added capacity to non-financial things, too -- hours, infrastructure, staffing, etc.

When things changed (which they did until the day I got downsized), I had some wiggle room. I could move some money around. I could move some resources from here to there.

And the best thing about it was that it was easy to sell. Since I based it on a formula -- 15% -- and not just an arbitrary amount of cash, people respected it.

Try this yourself in your next project or at budget time. And if you get any flack, tell them some marketing guru somewhere said it was "a common benchmark". Then put up your feet and have a cup of tea!

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Crisis you aren't prepared for

Many of my clients aren't prepared to communicate in a crisis. That's not too surprising because many of them aren't prepared to communicate when there isn't a crisis -- they lack a communications infrastructure, they don't have a strategy, they don't have any key messages. But a crisis is special. It happens quickly. It can be unfair. It can do more damage in one instance than years worth of communicating. Your next crisis needs to be handled well.

The place to start is to recognize that a crisis can happen anywhere, anytime, and in ways you never thought of. Everyone always thinks a crisis is when your building burns down or your CEO is arrested for fraud. It can also be when you get a mega-donation or when someone gets your website mixed up with another and you wind up being bombarded with web visitors and emails. It happens. It often is the unexpected. So, how can you prepare?

Planning is the key. You need a crisis communications plan that tells your organization what you will do in an emergency and how you will do it. The plan should put into one document a number of key steps.

First and foremost, you need to know who is in charge. This sounds silly, but I was once in an organization where different parts spent the initial part of the crisis arguing about who should respond. They had a plan, but they couldn't agree whether the crisis was a crisis. Don't make the same mistake. Make a list of who needs to respond and how. Make sure there is an hierarchy, so that if one key person is away another can step into their shoes.

Second, take the time it takes to get things right. In a crisis there's enormous pressure to get something out the door as quick as possible. However, many times you don't have enough information to respond. It takes time to find out what happened and figure out how to deal with it. So, either keep silent until you are sure or say that you're "looking into it" and will make an announcement shortly. Many times the way an organization responds gets more attention than what they say. Don't make the mistake of saying som thing that turns out to be wrong.

The biggest issue is what to say. Obviously, you must respond to each situation differently. However, there are some things you need to keep in mind. You must always express empathy, especially for those who are or appear to be "victims". Not expressing some emotion makes you look cold and unfeeling. You must also keep control. Don't speculate. Don't guess. Don't make a joke. The CEO of BP made one stupid remark about "getting his life back" after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and he was fast fried by the media and politicians alike. Stick to the issue. And you must let people know what you will do moving forward. Tell the media when you will get back to them. Tell the public where they can go for more information. Don't make them guess or search for information.

Finally, you need to think now about the ways you will deliver your message in a crisis. If your website sucks right now, it will suck even more in a crisis. If you have a low profile now, your profile will sink even lower. If you can't communicate directly with your stakeholders now, they won't be listening by the time you get around to doing so. In short, if your communications infrastructure isn't the best it can be right now, a crisis will break it.

So, when should you respond in a crisis? The answer is simple. Respond before the crisis ever happens with a plan.