What are you doing on Valentine's Day?

February 14th is coming up. That means it's time to think of ways to share the love that flows from your cause with your organization's community, its donors, volunteers, leaders. 

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I'm not talking about sending chocolates or flowers to your donors. On Cupid's day, that would border on being inappropriate. I am suggesting that you have an opportunity to show impact, to show how gifts of money, time and leadership are changing lives. If that's not a message of love, I don't know what is.  

Look to your case to guide your message, and look to social media to deliver it.

Tweet short impact testimonials under the banner, feel the love. Create a one-day, red-rose campaign. Send a message of thanks from your ED. Take a video camera with you and capture a few moments. (Remember the release form).

Have fun. Keep it simple. Be creative. Share the love, and by all means share your ideas on this blog.

Some things don't change.

That's me in the middle flanked by my mom and my older sister. We are in the family car, a PV Volvo. I grew up on a small farm in south-central Sweden. In 1965, when the picture was taken, we had two channels on our television: TV1 and TV2. Turning the TV on and off was easy, even for a three year old. The television in my home today has umpteen number of channels and it takes four remotes to operate it and its add ons. It's is crazy complicated. 

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For a nonprofit, its vital to pay attention to new communication tools, and to the changes they usher into society. It's true that a good case for support is in sync with the times and relevant to its audience. It's it's also true that it is easy to become enamored with the latest. 

Communication styles and fads and tools sweep in and out of fashion, but the underlying themes of an outstanding case for charitable support remain constant. They include our need for connection, for relevance, for meaning, and our propensity to be compassionate and to be a channel for good.     

Pay attention first to the message and then look for a way to deliver it to its audience.

I woke up this morning, thinking...

…did I write forward or foreword? And wouldn't you know it, I had written one when I had meant the other. The blunder happened in an email to Amanda, a colleague and friend who is an amazing editor. Horrified, I followed up with a note to her. This kind of thing keeps me humble.

Writers bring different skills and strengths to projects. Some writers are the embodiment of The Elements of Style. They can spot and fix a misplaced modifier as easily most people can spot a piece of spinach in someone's teeth. They know where a stronger verb and a re-worked sentence structure will make a paragraph sing. Let's call them the engineers. Some writers shine in their ability to think, analyze and give logical form and flow to their work. They know how to build an argument. Let's call them the lawyers. Others totally get the human condition. They have their fingers smack dab on the pulse of cultural and human behaviour. They are the people who can walk into a room and instantly pick up on the emotional undercurrents. Let's call them the psychologists.  

Which kind of writer are you? Engineer. Lawyer. Psychologist. My list, in order of strengths: lawyer/psychologist and engineer. Being aware of my strengths help me to know where to pay attention. I am vigilant about the less dominant side, which means my published and my client work pass through an editor/proofreader before they are released. This is so that I don't end up with forward and I mean foreword. Colleagues with technical vigor tend to seek feedback on the strength of their argument.

The case for supports exists in the realm of rhetoric. Rhetoric is defined as the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing. In a me-and-consumer-centered society the case for support has a challenging job to do. It needs to persuade people to part with their hard-earned money, money they can give to their children or grandchildren, spend on a vacation, or direct to the charity down the street. When I think of rhetoric at its finest, I think of Martin Luther King Jr. and his defining speech, I have a dream. His words moved a nation and changed the world. Like King's speech, a case for charitable support presents a vision, which at its best moves people to action and changes the world for good, be it for a few or many.    

If you are assigning a case project to a writer or training someone for the role, look for his or her writing strengths in light of the areas defined here. Steer away from someone with strong technical skills who can't make a convincing argument. Steer toward someone who can make a full and complete heartfelt argument, and send the draft to an excellent editor/proofreader.  [I'd be happy to make a recommendation.] 

St. Nicholas was a Mother Teresa

I read a blog by Peter Enns, a Christian scholar. A recent post of his helped me understand St. Nicholas as a philanthropist and the individual who likely inspired gift giving at Christmas. Pretty cool. This is from Peter Enns' post: 

Image from   Wikipedia

Image from  Wikipedia

Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in Asia Minor. He used his entire inheritance to help the poor, sick, and children in need. He gave in secret, expecting nothing in return. He attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325. Greatly loved for his faith, compassion and care, he is venerated in both East and West.

Let that sink in. He gave his entire inheritance to help the sick and the pool. He was on mission. He was a Mother Teresa and then some. Imagine what he would think of what his name now stands for? 

I love that Christmas is a time when charities are visible in the community. Let's hope our Christmas appeals, and what they stand for, restore luster to this good saint's name. 

The Commander's Intent: Find clarity, fast

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Here's a concept that can help you find clarity, fast. Developed by the US Army, the notion of the Commander's Intent has useful application for fundraisers, and is working its way into the cases for support that I develop. I came across the concept this spring when I read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Health.  

As I mentioned, the concept has its origin in the US Army. Imagine planning for combat situations. If this happens, do that. But it that happens, do this. Yikes.  (Not unlike fundraising in an unpredictable environment.)  Colonel Tom Kolditz, head of behavioural sciences division at West Point, says that "No plan survives contact with the enemy." Unpredictability in itself is an enemy. Things like weather, enemy response, breakdown of communication, etc., can render a plan entirely useless.

The US Army started to look to higher-level, framework thinking, turning away from the prescriptive and the specific. And the notion of the Commander's Intent was birthed.  The CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan's goal and desired end-state. For example, a Commander's Intent can be to complete the operation without civilian or military loss of life. With that information, plans can be formulated or adjusted quickly and swiftly on the ground or in the air. Staff are free to improvise, and because they know the CI, they are all pulling in the same direction. Brilliant. 

There is significant application for the CI within the nonprofit sector. As individuals we have a natural bias toward a Commander's Intent, a way to operate that feels comfortable. The point here is to be intentional. That may mean overriding the natural bias. Know your desired end goal. State it. Live it. Communicate it. Boil it down to a crisp, plain-talk statement. When it becomes your true North, every conversation, every action will bring you closer to the goal. 

Here's how it can play out, organization A has a CI to raise as much money as possible, while organization B has a CI to grow and protect relationships. Apply these philosophies to a situation where a donor is unhappy about a commitment made at fundraiser. Organizations A and B will handle the ensuing conversations vastly differently. One will be about the commitment, the money; the other will be about the relationship.  One is sure to have a damaging outcome; the other is sure to make the donor feel valued and appreciated. 

The Commander's Intent is a powerful concept. It simplifies, empowers, enables and helps find clarity, fast. It's a concept I now apply to my work, my AFP* involvement, my interaction with family and friends. It's how I roll.  

*Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Three questions to help your cause stand out

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In the nonprofit sector we typically don't think of other nonprofits as competitors, or at least we don't like to admit that we do. Am I right?

The reality is that nonprofits compete for support, and the competition for volunteers and dollars is increasing. According to Canada Revenue Agency there are about 80,000 registered charities in Canada. Not counted in that number is the recent internet-enabled phenomenon of donors responding directly - without the charity in the middle - to personal appeals. For an example of donor-direct fundraising take a look at www.loveforlilee.com. 

As with any competition, there are winners and losers. Some organizations excel and others stagnate. If you think you're not differentiated enough from the competition, take a look at your case for support. A strong, compelling case can help you attract the leaders, volunteers, dollars, friends, sponsors and media attention that you need to succeed. 

Before people give, they want to understand, among other things, the vision they will help enable, the impact their donation will have, and they want to have faith in the organization's leadership and ability to deliver on its mission. 

Your case for support needs to satisfy three central questions:

  1. Why give to this sector? Why support healthcare over education over faith over community-development? What impact will the donation make?
  2. Why give to this organization and its vision? There are lots of good organizations in your sector, why is your organization worthy or support? How are you different? Given the recent donor-direct trend, your case should address how you as an organization add value. 
  3. Why now? What's the urgency? Why is this initiative moving forward now, and not five years ago or in five years?

Address these questions fully and strategically and you will be on your way to making a case. 

The 30-second case. Do you have one / need one?

You're waiting for the elevator and notice a potential donor standing next to you. This is someone who has shown interest in your organization's cause, and has the potential to make a significant difference. You greet each other. The conversation turns to the cause that connects the two of you. You have a few seconds to chat. What do you say?

When I started to write cases for support over a decade ago, the deliverable was a narrative supported by appendices with facts and figures. Today, I like to include, what I call, the elevator pitch. It is a short, best-foot-forward  distillation of the case. It is designed to maximize the opportunities staff, board members and key volunteers come across in the hustle and bustle of life.

What's in the elevator pitch? Each one is different. Generally, it delivers a highly positive message. The focus is on the promise, the impact and the role of philanthropy to enable the outcome you are working to achieve. Stay away from facts and figures and steer toward stories. People remember stories, while numbers vanish quickly.

What you say is important and how you say it is equally important.

Delivering the very short version of the case takes some skill. Be sure to make the message personal and authentic. Share and exude your own passion for the work. You don't want to be the one that does all the talking. That will work against you every time. You want the donor to run toward you - not away from you -  next time she see you.  

Try to end the conversation with an invitation to reconnect. Invite her for a tour, to meet for lunch, whatever works, given the kind of work you do and what feels right. Read the signs the donor is sending you, and trust your gut.   

The point here is to distill your case for support to its essence - why is it a mission and vision worthy of support. Think ahead of time about what you would say if you had 30 unexpected seconds with someone who could seriously advance your cause. Keep the message in your backpocket (share it with board numbers and staff) and pull it out when you need it. It will come in handy when you talk to the media, when you mingle at a party, and maybe when you step into an elevator. 

Clearing up a misconception about the Case

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I want to clear up a misconception about the case for support. It could be that we fully comprehend the case but have become lackadaisical in how we speak about it. Or it could be that over time some of us have let our thinking slide and have reduced the case to something less than it is. 

I hear some people speak of the case as the thing that they are raising funds for. For example, someone might say, "Our case this year is an MRI." Really? The case is an MRI? What the individual means is clear: the organization is raising funds to purchase an MRI. But the case is not an MRI. The case is something entirely different. 

The philanthropic case for support is a full and complete argument for. Period. Full stop. 

Why does it matter if our reference is a little off the mark?

It matters because the power of the case rests in the argument. Your case needs to fully and completely convince the donor that your organization and your cause are worthy of their support. We know that the way we speak affects the way we think. If we move 'the case as an argument' off centre stage and replace it with 'the case as a piece of equipment' (an MRI), we are selling hardware to donors. 

In much the same way the legal profession relies on making a case that is argued before a judge and jury, our sector relies on a case that's argued before donors and would-be supporters to advance social change. If we think of the case as a compelling argument for your cause, an argument that can take various forms (a conversation, a document, a video clip) and speaks to the hearts and minds of donors, we are on the right track.

Try this next time you sit down to write

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I do my best work when I erase, these words were written in freestyle on a painting I saw last year in an art gallery. The work featured an old-fashioned yellow pencil. The eraser cap, darkened with pencil lead was mostly worn down and the eraser dust had collected at the bottom of the page next to the text.

What was the artist trying to get across? I think her message was about margin and freedom to explore.  She was encouraging us to  allow ourselves the time and the freedom to try on ideas, perspectives, and if you are working on a case for support, to try different lines of argumentation. To me, she was saying that it's okay -- even desirable -- to start a case, an appeal, an article or proposal many times over, and to contrast and compare to see which is stronger and better.

Anne Lamott is a celebrated American writer. I am a fan of her work. I especially like her book on writing, called Bird By Bird. In it she shares that she labels the first draft of her work, A shitty first draft. Can you feel the pressure lift? With that header you are free to dabble with words and ideas. Free to explore. You can stop worrying about producing something brilliant and sparkling.  When you do, you are  more likely to produce work that's brilliant and sparkling. 

This writing process takes time. The thing is, if you don't allow for the process you may end up with a less-than appeal or a less-than case statement.  And that would be a shame. 

Is your case stirring hearts and minds?

I met a colleague for a glass of wine at ULounge in South Surrey after work on Tuesday. She shared an illuminating story.

My colleague serves on the finance committee of local nonprofit whose giving is down. At a recent meeting, a committee member had suggested that the younger generation was not as committed to the cause as he thought it could be or should be. He believed that educating that donor group would result in increased revenue.  My colleague turned the mirror away from the donor toward the charity, as she shared that her 19-year-old daughter is pumped about being a micro lender. This young woman comes home from work and logs on to her computer to follow her investment, which is helping families work their way out of poverty. My colleague suggested that the problem the committee was grappling with was not about the donor but rather a less-than-inspiring case - or presentation of the case - and perhaps antiquated means of engagement.

About 10 years ago, I was part of a consulting team that was working on a planning study in Abbotsford, BC. We were testing support for a major building project. Sitting across from me was a financially successful, middle-aged businessman. When we came to the part of the interview that probed into the level of support for the vision, he said (and I remember it clearly): Present me with a vision I can get excited about and I'll give you my money.  

I leave you with this to chew on: How compelling is the case you are presenting? Is it stirring hearts and minds? 

Five things that stuck at Stanford

I was one of 350 people who attended the Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford University on Sept. 11 and 12, 2012. I met inspiring, passionate, intelligent people from the Lower Mainland and from around the world. I heard respected thinkers speak about things that made my head spin. I came away refreshed and refocused. 

Eight weeks later, I asked myself: What were the top three things that stuck at Stanford? That list of three things became a list four things and then a list of five things. That says something. Here is the final list. 

  1. Brand is nested in the mission of the organization. Brand, says Nathalie Kylander, is a promise and an idea that lives in a person's mind. Not to be mistaken for a logo or set of graphic standards, a brand carries an organization's meaning, and has been constructed by the organization and increasingly by the people who share an affinity with the organization. She sees the sector moving from brand policing to brand democracy with organizational boundaries becoming increasingly pores. 
  2. Challenge assumptions by asking disaffirming questions. This topic was raised by several speakers. People tend to ask questions that support their biases. When we do that, we are likely missing opportunities. For example, let's say I want to take that course, but I think it's too expensive. A bias affirming question would be: Can you really afford to spend $500 on a course? Disaffirming questions would be: What's the cost of not taking the course? Is it really that expensive when you compare it to a software upgrade or paying for the use of a cellphone? Asking questions that don't support your natural conclusion opens your thinking to a wider range of possibilities. 
  3. Our sector is becoming an economy. Presenters Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich spoke about the growth of the sector, but more importantly about the changing mindset that is contributing to the sector becoming an economy. Reich, who is an associate professor of political science at Stanford University, said that 20 years ago, university lecture theatres were populated with kids in two camps: the 'do gooders' who would one day work in the nonprofit sector and the majority who would one day work in the for-profit sector. Today, students are in one camp. They all want to improve the world, somehow. Which sector they affect change through matters little, if at all to them. With this and other factors in mind, Reich sees the mingling of capital streams and more donor choice for social change. Additionally, the speakers foresee a future in which nonprofits will be more regulated and held more accountable. The presenters believe that this in turn will lead to differentiation within the sector, where a church, a university, and a make-a-wish foundation, for example, will be held to differing levels of mandatory accountability. 
  4. Strategic plans are being replaced by a flexible, direction-setting process. With the rate of change being what it is, plans that look three or four years out are often outdated before they are even operationalized, leaving the organization directionless. External forces impacting these plans include natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, world markets and political change -- things that  impact donor behaviour and revenue streams. Taking the place of the strategic plan is a flexible, direction-setting process.   
  5. To be specific and authentic about things that matter. Akaya Windwood is president of Rockwood Leadership Institute. In her presentation on leadership, trust and collaboration she touched briefly on validating people by meeting them authentically and speaking specifically and meaningfully to them. That spoke to me. In the past eight weeks I have revisited what may have accounted for one or two minutes of Akaya's one-hour-long presentation. In those minutes, she singled out a woman out in the room, asked for her name and said, "Nathalie, that's a great scarf you're wearing. The colour looks terrific on you." She contrasted that exchange with one that sounded like this: "Nathalie, I want you to know that I noticed how you handled the situation with Peter. That was a difficult conversation, and I really respect your honesty and your diplomacy." We make choice about the things we draw attention to. The point here is to be specific and authentic about things that matter.  Pick people (personal attributes) over things (scarves) every time. 

Make a promise to a donor.

Consider communicating a promise to your donor. Not just any promise, but one that your donor values, because people give to what they value. 

A text can express two kinds of values: concrete and abstract values. The former refers to tangible things like love of country, something you can touch. The latter refers to intangible things like excellence, prosperity, honour, justice, the latter being the stronger motivator to action. The point here is to know what the donor values and to align your appeal accordingly, paying particular attention to the abstract values.

When asking for support, ask yourself what return on investment am I promising the donor? Take education and scholarships, for example. What's the donor's prime motivator: helping a student excel or producing talent for the workforce? With a clear sense of which message will resonate more, you can communicate more effectively with your donor. 

What's the most important part of the Case?

Hands down, the lead is the most important part of a Case for Support, be it the internal, source document or the Case expression. When I write a Case for Support I can spend as much as 50 per cent of my writing time on the first few paragraphs. Why? Because if I lose the reader in the lead, it's over.

As the developer of the Case, those first few sentences are my opportunity to prove to the readers that what I have to say is important and relevant to them. If I achieve that, then the reader and I are on the same team.

The theory goes like this: launch your argument from a premise that your audience already supports. In other words, find common ground and begin your argument there. Sound simple? It is and it isn’t.

Finding a strong, strategic place from which to build your case can be tricky and often calls for communication that’s highly tailored to the audience.

In our everyday, we launch our interaction from a place of common ground all the time. We meet an acquaintance in the grocery store and we strike up a conversation about the weather, common ground.  We pick up the kids at school and we talk about the upcoming track and field meet, common ground.

Finding common ground when we engage with people one on one, face to face is part of our social protocol and it isn't difficult for most people. It's more complicated and complex when you are building a Case for Support for a venture that will significant implications.

There are many potential launch points for any conversation. So how do you choosing the best, most strategic, compelling place to begin? Begin to ask the why questions. (A why, incidentally, can never be satisfied. There is always another why waiting to be addressed.) It will lead you in the direction of the bedrock of your case. 

Once you think you've hit bedrock, I suggest you write three, four, five versions of the lead paragraphs. Put yourself in a donor's place. To which argument what would you respond most favourably? Test the leads with trusted board members. Test them on colleagues, family and friends.

Your Case has a big job to do. Don't lose the reader on the first page.