Posted At: April 13, 2012 10:00 AM
by Rachel Childers
For many budding PR pros the thought of nonprofit communications is frightening. They hear the word “nonprofit” and think of hot, crowded offices with barely enough money to buy toner, or they think about changing opinions on hope alone. To some, this endeavor is a nightmare come true, but to others the challenge of nonprofit PR is like Christmas every day.
People who work in nonprofits are soldiers who live for the rush of helping another. They love the difficulty in going from beginning to end with little money or resources. They thrive on the smile they receive from helping a child succeed and the joyful gaze a family gets when it welcomes a new four-footed member. For the people brave enough to take on challenges like these, reaching the final goal requires an extra kick to the creativity generator.
While not for everyone, nonprofit PR can teach valuable lessons that lend themselves to other areas of the field. Nonprofits stand out, motivate people and are attuned to their publics in ways that should make all practitioners take note.
Make yourself stand out
Nonprofit organizations are spread all over the world. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S., including public charities, private foundations, chambers of commerce, civic leagues and fraternal organizations.
This means nonprofits often find themselves competing against other nonprofits, as well as businesses in the private sector, and now, online. Organizations who work primarily through online means find themselves competing with everything else on the Web. That includes user-generated content like personal blogs and Facebook pages as well as businesses and news.
For a practitioner, either of these situations can be problematic, but Sam Davidson, president of Cool People Care in Nashville, suggests a solution: find a way to make yourself stand out.
“Before we put something out there, we think ‘How do we craft this message in a way that stands out and makes people want to do something?’” Davidson said.
Cool People Care seeks to save the world, five minutes at a time. It connects people with ways they can make a difference by providing small changes to their everyday habits. Davidson said that as an Internet-based business, he often finds himself competing with everything else online, including organizations similar to his. To succeed, Cool People Care has to transcend the online clutter to connect its public with volunteer opportunities.
Just like saving the world, standing out can be tough, but it can be done through small, incremental steps. To do this, Davidson said his team asks themselves three things:
1. Is it going to make a difference by educating, informing, connecting or inspiring?
2. Is it relevant to the people the organization is trying to reach? Meaning, does it meet them where they are? Can the organization afford it?
3. Can we make it interesting?
When the answer to all of these is yes, Cool People Care produces the content. However, this formula for standing out is not for nonprofits only; it can be adapted for any company looking to make an impression. The first question should be what is the company goal. For Cool People Care, the goal is to make a difference.
A company should determine its goals and then craft the first question. It can then test possible content based on those objectives. If the possible content agrees with the goal, then the company can proceed to the next two questions.
Atlanta-based animal shelter Furkids differentiates itself from the competition by highlighting features that set it apart. It highlights its unique opportunities to children, which no other shelter offers. Furkids offers pet therapy for emotionally challenged and physically disabled people. It also stresses the family aspect involved in being a volunteer, donor or adopter in the Furkids community.
However, standing out is only the first step. After they notice you, you have to motivate them to action.
For a nonprofit, the support of the community and the acquisition of volunteers and donors are crucial. In order to achieve these things, a company must create an engaging message that makes people want to get up and do something. Most nonprofits can easily tug on people’s heart strings, but when it comes to making them act on that emotion, it takes more.
For the Birmingham Education Foundation, creating an effective message is about battling a lack of belief in inner-city students. Often, inner-city students are negatively stereotyped, but the reality is when given the right opportunities these students can do just as much as others. To change the negative perception, the Birmingham Education Foundation created Ed.
Ed’s character comes to life through images, bright colors, positive language and the tagline, “I am Ed.” The foundation even sends home his “report card” for the community to sign.
“Ed is about getting the whole community in,” Executive Director Michael Froning, Ed. D said. “Poverty is not destiny. Every student should graduate ready for college or ready for a career.”
Ed’s report card shows community members the impact the Birmingham Education Foundation is making in the Birmingham City Schools, and allows them the opportunity to be active participants in the progress. Most importantly, community members can relate to Ed on a more personal level, which is a key to getting them involved.
The Nashville Adult Literacy Council also has to battle a negative stereotype.
“Because we are dealing with adults, it makes it more of an obstacle. People are more willing to help programs with children,” said Executive Director Meg Nugent.
People do not understand why adults do not not learn to read in the first place, but one in eight adults in Nashville cannot read. Nugent and her team inform people of the complexity of the problem, as well as tell stories about the people whom NALC has helped.
“We tell what it was like before they could read and what it is like now that they can read,” she said.
These stories and facts motivate people to commit to volunteering for six months. Last year NALC served 1,800 learners with 600 volunteers.
Facts, stories and other interesting content are great motivators, but Atlanta nonprofit Furkids has found that the best motivator can be one that PR people know well — the deadline.
“We find success when we tie our solicitations to an event, an urgent need or something with a deadline. It seems that a ticking clock is a powerful motivator,” said Furkids Executive Director Samantha Shelton in an email.
Shelton also said they do not offer 2-for-1 deals with their pets.
“We work hard to develop strong relationships with our adopters and donors, and we want people to know that we strive for the best in customer service satisfaction,” Shelton said. “Word of mouth and our relationships within the community help promote our good work.”
Working so closely with donors and adopters allows Furkids to do something that is important for every company: getting to know and listening to the people you are targeting.
Know and listen to your public
“The community you serve has a voice that needs to be listened to. Good needs to be done, but it needs to be done in cooperation with those you are trying to do good for,” Froning said.
An important part of succeeding for any company is knowing who your public is and listening to their feedback.
Froning said the Birmingham Education Foundation held 127 community meetings city-wide. The staff then used this data to design the program, which they took back to parents and teachers for approval.
“We took what the people in the community wanted and translated that into our program. We are only doing what the community told us to do,” Froning said.
Nugent said, oftentimes, people will suggest that her organization should recruit retired teachers. Nugent, who speaks to community groups, noted that this approach has been unsuccessful because retired teachers have generally had their fill of teaching.
Instead, her organization emphasizes that you do not have to be a teacher to teach someone to read, and asserts that, with this program, you get to see the results of your labor.
Another huge part in knowing and interacting with the community is social media. NALC promotes its events through Facebook and Twitter, as well as hosts Twitter chats with followers.
Furkids also credits social media with allowing its staff to reach more people. They show the organization’s thrift store items as well as adoptable pets through social media platforms.
When Cool People Care began, it was immediately working through social media and has evolved with the platforms. As Davidson said, social media allows them to share ideas in measurable ways and connect organizations to people.
“When we started we were going after young people and that is what they were on. Now everyone is on Twitter and Facebook so we go after everybody,” Davidson said.
He said they have constantly experimented with the way they reach people. Most of that experimentation is in their daily tip email. Davidson said they have changed the amount of content from a small amount to a large amount and back again.
“We are still trying to figure out the best way to reach people,” Davidson said.
While some people may not look to nonprofits for lessons in business, these four nonprofits stand out as business leaders. They have made a difference because of their triumphs in creativity, ability to motivate and undying commitment to their communities. These organizations portray that the best campaigns are not always the most expensive ones.