guidestarblog_header.png

From the President's Office, April 2006

Dear Friend:

I received a lot of mail on my column last month about how the power of "sunshine"—voluntary disclosure and on-line transparency—may be the best solution to address the questions about the nonprofit sector that occasionally surface. Here at GuideStar, we have seen how the power of sunshine has effected a dramatic change in organizations' willingness to share information about their activities, the impact of their work, and the efficiency of their operations. We have also seen how making nonprofit data available to the public, the media, the government, and others via the Internet has raised the bar for exempt organizations. The public now expects nonprofits to disclose information readily.

But we believe we're still in the early stages of developing better reporting on the nonprofit sector. GuideStar has a number of plans underway to deliver new services that will improve the quality and types of data we collect, better ways of displaying information, and more effective tools and services to help use GuideStar data for important decision making. At GuideStar, we say that good decisions require good data.

But as powerful as on-line transparency is, is it enough? As sector leaders, we should hold accountable a poorly run organization with programs that have little impact on community problems by promoting best practices for nonprofit management. In order to have programs that have real impact on community needs, a nonprofit organization must be well managed. That's one reason that we created our edu@GuideStar program to work with nonprofit academic centers to help train the next generation of nonprofit leaders and why many organizations are doing good work to improve program effectiveness.

So what is the role of government in promoting nonprofit accountability? We see two primary functions: (1) establishing the basic standards for entry and operations and (2) punishing those that abuse the system—creating consequences for those who are involved in inappropriate and illegal behavior.

IRS commissioner Mark Everson has made strengthening oversight of exempt organizations one of the IRS's top four priorities. The IRS hired 105 new revenue agents for this purpose in FY 2005, recently issued a report and new guidelines on political activity by charities, and is in the midst of examining compensation practices at 2,000 501(c)(3) organizations. The compensation initiative is looking not only at compensation levels but also at how nonprofits report compensation on their 990s.

Although I have no doubt that there may be some legitimate nonprofit organizations engaged in inappropriate activity, I think a more troubling issue is those who take advantage of the tax-exempt status for personal and corporate gain. Legitimate nonprofits need help from the IRS in protecting us from wrongdoers who give the entire sector a bad name.

As these interesting developments for the sector continue, we at GuideStar will continue to promote nonprofit transparency, not only to expose the actions of wrongdoers but also to highlight the activities of the thousands of organizations that work ethically and effectively.

Sincerely,

Bob Ottenhoff
President and CEO

Creating a Theme Line That Works


I was recently privileged to be involved in developing a new theme line (tag line, slogan, whatever you prefer) for a world-renowned annual aviation event for a nonprofit association. The exercise provided some valuable lessons about tag line development that you can use in your organization.

The Backstory

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh is a gathering of Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) members and guests—aviation enthusiasts from all walks of life—that takes place for one week each year in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The event is the annual convention of EAA members as well as a world-renown fly-in and air show. It's a weeklong celebration packed with superlatives: 700,000 attendees, 10,000 airplanes, 5,000 volunteers, 2,000 show planes, 700 exhibitors, 500 forums and seminars, incredible daily air shows, evening entertainment, and much more.

Packaging an event as large and diverse as AirVenture (and explaining it to the many target audiences) is a complex task. For the past decade or so, the event depended on "annual themes" to create interest, build media buzz, and give members and visitors a reason to come back year after year. Sometimes, these themes played off of historical events, such as the centennial of powered flight in 2003, but in most cases, the themes were simply contrived, with attractions developed to tie into those themes. In the year 2000, for example, the theme was "speed," and air racers and other speedy innovations took center stage.

These contrived themes, however, were not building equity in AirVenture—a sub-brand of EAA. Further, they required that marketing efforts essentially start from scratch each year with a fresh expression of the new theme. The branding team at EAA explored the options. The lessons resulting from this process can be applied to any organization or branding exercise.

  1. Don't be afraid to change—even if it doesn't seem "broken."
    Although the annual themes were working—people seemed to like the special events built around them, and it gave the media something "new" to talk about each year—the branding team believed that a perennial theme line would help define the event for the uninitiated, help describe the breadth and scope of the event, and convey that this was not just a run-of-the-mill air show. A new theme line could help provide continuity to the AirVenture brand and differentiate the event.

  2. If it's possible, mirror what the market is already saying. We discovered that when the media, EAA members, the exhibitors, and performers at the event talked about it, several consistent themes kept popping up: "world's biggest," "greatest," "family reunion," "premier event." Although the team agreed that we wanted the new theme line to express passion, participation, immersion, innovation, and fun, it was helpful to see and hear what others were already saying about AirVenture. These themes were factored into our thinking.

  3. Ground it in truth, believability, and relevance.
    Like any tag line (see the box below), we knew that the new theme line had to be believable—based on truth, not puffery. In addition, our core markets had to care about what we were saying. It had to matter ... to them. Thankfully, AirVenture already had a reputation as a world-class event, attracting high-level politicians, Hollywood stars, famous sports personalities, and aviation enthusiasts from all over the globe. So in this case, superlatives were descriptive, not just puffery.

  4. Simple is okay; sometimes overly clever or uber-creative can actually hurt.
    As the team discussed and brainstormed these various objectives, we began furiously scribbling ideas. We arrived at more than 100 possible solutions. When we looked at the results and voted on our favorites, we were somewhat underwhelmed. Where was the cutting-edge creativity, the "wow-you-guys-are clever," eureka-type ideas? Then we realized that it didn't matter. One solution resonated with the group. Although simple, it met all our criteria from believability to relevance to descriptive:

    EAA AirVenture Oshkosh
    The World's Greatest Aviation CelebrationTM
Why was this phrase the phrase of the hundred or so developed?

  • "Celebration" speaks to participation and involvement.
  • It provided a simple, memorable definition of the event for newbies and the media.
  • We could begin to build brand equity with consistency.
  • It staked a claim—a true point of differentiation.
  • It's appealing, enticing, and inviting, making members of the association want to be a part of the event.
  • It's broad enough to appeal to diverse target markets.
  • It mirrors attendee perceptions.
The perennial theme was an unequivocal success. This past summer's EAA AirVenture Oshkosh was one of the most successful in the association's half-century history. It truly is The World's Greatest Aviation CelebrationTM.

Some Simple Tag Line Criteria

If your organization—or its various offerings—has no tag line, or you currently have a weak, uninspired, or un-aligned tag line, here are some questions to ask:

  1. Is your tag line memorable? (Think, "Just Do It.")
  2. Is your tag line original, and does it make a confident statement? (Think, "Breakfast of Champions.")
  3. Is your tag line easy to say? (Think, "We try harder.")
  4. Does your tag line allow your prospects to recall your name? (Think, "Always the low price. Always.")
  5. Does your tag line communicate your brand essence? (Think, "Diamonds are forever.")
  6. Will your tag line help move the brand toward its goals? (Think, "The real thing.")

Michael DiFrisco, BrandXcellence
© 2005, BrandXcellence

Michael DiFrisco is president of BrandXcellence, offering self-guided and facilitated brand strategy workshops and brand-driven marketing services to improve the accountability and ROI of your nonprofit's marketing and communications. Visit www.brandxcellence.com.


Writing E-mails for Fundraising: The "Rules" Are a Bit Different from Your Other Communications


Excerpt from Raising Thousands (if Not Tens of Thousands) of Dollars with Email

As far as e-mail copy is concerned, there are two key writing components. The first is the subject line; the second is the body of the e-mail itself. Since readers encounter the subject line first, let's begin there.

The Scoop on Subject Lines

Talk about time being of the essence! To capture your constituents' attention and convince them that of the many e-mails bombarding their in-box, yours is the one they must read, you have a grand total of ...  one to two seconds!

With that in mind, let's address a few subject line fundamentals:

  • Length. E-mail programs vary as to how many characters your reader will see. Be on the safe side and keep yours to about 50 characters.
  • Shouting symbols ($, !, CAPS, *) and words such as: Free, Sale, Teens will land you in the spam filter. Avoid them. (Stay up to date on the "words to avoid" list by visiting www.emailsherpa.com or www.clickz.com.)

Tell, Tease, Take Action

Depending on the situation, you'll speak in different voices with your subject line. For example, if your issue is timely and your relationship with the donor is well-established, your job may simply be to "tell" him or her what is happening. Here's what I mean:

  • A crisis occurs overseas and a relief agency sends an e-mail letting donors know how they can help: "Send a blanket to Bamgarian flood victims."
  • The "telling" approach also holds true for e-mails that help your users take care of business: "Order your Golf Gala tickets now" or "Your membership expires soon—renew today."
  • Messages with time-sensitive content fall into the "telling" category as well: "Six vegan-friendly ways to decorate Easter eggs," delivered a few days before the holiday.
However, you won't always have straightforward opportunities to "tell" the facts. Here's when a little "teasing" is needed to get your reader's attention:

  • An e-mail landed in my box last week with this subject line: "The movie President Bush doesn't want you to see." That provocative approach works for me ... I want to find out just what that movie is.
  • Another way to tease is by being a bit clever. Quick, easy-to-scan clever. "It's beginning to look a lot like justice ..." sent just before the Christmas holidays by Earthjustice.
Lastly, whether you're telling or teasing, it's always important to use your subject line to call your readers to action. After all, nothing happens (i.e., sending you a donation, filling out a petition) until they take the next step.

The best "take action" e-mails are:

  • Specific. Rather than exhort readers to "Tell them no," say instead: "Tell Big Tobacco to stop selling to children."
  • Well-timed. Ideally, the topic is in the news.
  • Local, if possible. "Tell Big Tobacco to stop selling to Boston children."
Once you've motivated your constituents to open your e-mail, it's critical to give them something good to read.

Composing an E-mail—Three Elements

Writing good e-mails starts with the basics of writing good copy, period. You must have a story to tell, offer a compelling reason to give, and use clear and persuasive language. Only a few key elements distinguish e-mail copy from other forms of writing:

  1. Make your e-mail scannable

    How do you read your own e-mail? Do you pore over every word? Of course not. Neither do your constituents. If you're like most people, you tend to scan rather than read your messages.

    Therefore make sure your message is "scannable." That means:

    • Short sentences
    • Short paragraphs
    • Numerous links to your donation page
    • Graphic insets telling your reader what to do
    • Bullets
    • Selective use of bold and italics (reserve underlining for hyperlinks only)

    Using these guidelines, your goal is to create a persuasive message that, in seven seconds or so, tells your constituent exactly what to do.

  2. Keep it simple and short

    In a direct mail fundraising letter, you have pages (sometimes as many as eight!) to let your story unfold. Not so with e-mail!

    Chances are good your constituents are a bit overwhelmed by the volume of e-mail they receive, and a windy e-mail will only add to the deluge. Keeping your message short and to the point is a service to your recipients. That means:

    • Presenting only one or two key points
    • Using as few words a possible to state your case
    • Avoiding the history of your appeal (this is no time for background info)

  3. Keep the medium in mind

    E-mail tends to be more casual than print. That means a more personal, less formal tone is appropriate and even expected. For example:

    • Salutations and closings are typically more relaxed. A letter might begin with "Dear Ms. Stanionis," while an e-mail would start with "Hello Madeline."
    • E-mail copywriters tend to use more colloquial terms. Direct mail copy might say, "We were truly overwhelmed by the generous response to our request." In e-mail, that translates to, "Wow! You overwhelmed us (and that's hard to do)!"
    • An up-to-the-minute style of writing is also appropriate. In direct mail language: "It was lovely to celebrate our anniversary with you last month." In e-mail: "I'm writing this at midnight, just getting home after the anniversary party. Whew! What a night."
In this article I've highlighted a few subtle ways in which writing e-mail is different from other forms of writing. Still, good writing is good writing: specific, clear, and forceful. E-mail hasn't changed that a bit!

Madeline Stanionis, DonorDigital
© 2006, Madeline Stanious. Excerpt from Raising Thousands (if Not Tens of Thousands) of Dollars with Email. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers. All rights reserved.

Madeline Stanionis is president of DonorDigital, a consulting firm with offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., that specializes in on-line fundraising. Her new book is Raising Thousands (if Not Tens of Thousands) of Dollars with Email,  published by Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Recognize Your Donors with Results


Even though most donors will never bring up the topic of recognition, you should assume they want it.

Take a moment to think about yourself. Think of times you have been a donor, a board member, a volunteer, or a staff member. Think of the times you have been recognized in any of these roles. What did the organization say or do to show you that they appreciate you? Did it work? Did it get the job done? How did it feel to you? Think of the very best example of a time you felt fully appreciated and recognized as a donor. What made it feel so right?

In fact, you may be surprised and embarrassed by how petty your responses seem. This is when the little things matter. Although each group may have genuinely tried their very best to recognize and appreciate you, they may have missed the mark.

Federal Lobby Reform Legislation Will Affect Nonprofit Advocacy


Legislation aimed at overhauling lobbying and ethics law is now moving through Congress, and several proposals being debated by the Senate and House will directly affect nonprofit organizations engaged in advocacy at the federal level. The Senate has already approved a bill, and in the House, legislation is still pending, with committee action expected very soon.

The two main bills under consideration (S. 2349, the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act, and H.R. 4975, Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act) would, among other things, amend the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA), which requires organizations and individuals that lobby at the federal level to register with the Senate and the House. The LDA also requires these organizations and individuals to file reports on their activities and sets forth what information must be contained in these reports. This article serves to highlight a few of the proposals that are likely to affect nonprofits that lobby.

Disclosure of Coalition Members. The Senate bill requires public disclosure (by the lobbyist) of organizations that contribute $10,000 or more to a coalition or association that registers under the LDA and plans, supervises, or controls in a substantial way the management of lobbying activities. Such disclosure, however, would not be required for organizations for which the affiliation or funding of the coalition is "publicly available knowledge." There is no provision on disclosure of coalition members in the House bill.

Grassroots Lobbying. The Senate bill also requires—for the first time ever—disclosure of certain grassroots lobbying activities. These activities only include "paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying" at the federal level, and organizations would have to spend more than $25,000 over three months to require registration. In order for nonprofits to determine how much money they are spending on grassroots lobbying, they would be allowed to use the tax code definitions, which some already use to calculate lobbying expenditures for their Forms 990, in place of the new LDA definitions. The House is not likely to include grassroots lobbying disclosure in its bill.

Disclosure of Campaign Contributions. The Senate bill would require any person who registers as a lobbyist to report annually to the secretary of the Senate's office all political contributions they make over $200. The House is considering a similar proposal.

Travel. Under the Senate bill, privately funded travel (such as travel paid for by a nonprofit) would still be permitted but will be subject to new requirements. For example, itineraries would have to be pre-approved by a Senate Committee, and a report on the trip would be required within 30 days of the lawmaker's return and would be posted on the Internet. The House proposal places a moratorium on such travel for the remainder of 2006 while a review is conducted.

Additional provisions specifically targeting nonprofits were also considered in the Senate but ultimately not included in the Senate-passed bill. As a result, the nonprofit sector must stay engaged as a final bill emerges from a Senate-House conference in the coming weeks.

© 2006, The Vivero Group

The Vivero Group is a Washington, D.C.-based government relations and communication firm representing GuideStar and other nonprofits on federal public policy issues. For more information, please visit www.viverogroup.com.

E-philanthropy: Lessons Learned from TouchDC and the D.C. Strengthening Partners Initiative (SPI)


On-line donations increased significantly last year. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, in January 2005, 17 million Americans reported that they had made contributions on-line. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 26 million Americans, or 18 percent of U.S. Internet users, said that they had made an on-line donation during 2005. In just a few short months, the number of Americans making contributions via the Internet had grown 53 percent.

These findings should encourage nonprofits to take advantage of e-philanthropy. Among other things, organizations should take advantage of the opportunity GuideStar offers them to connect with donors who research their charitable giving on-line.

To illustrate further how the Internet can enhance fundraising, consider the lessons learned by emerging nonprofits in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region.

In 2002 Washington Grantmakers launched a regional e-philanthropy Web portal, TouchDC.org, in partnership with GuideStar.org and Network for Good. The site was created to encourage D.C.-area residents to contribute to 1 or more of the 25,000 nonprofit organizations in the greater Washington metropolitan area, either through on-line donations, offering volunteer support, or both.

Washington Grantmakers also wanted to introduce area nonprofits to the growing e-philanthropy trend. In the public awareness campaign statement issued during the launch of TouchDC.org, Washington Grantmakers noted, "The Coalition envisions this as the first phase of a long-term effort to encourage more giving and volunteering in the DC region and to increase the capacity of local nonprofits to fundraise successfully."

Organizations were advised how to take advantage of a powerful fundraising tool:

  • Update your organization's GuideStar listing
  • Equip your own Web site with a free "Donate Now" button
  • Post your volunteer opportunities
  • Send your organization's compelling story
The same year that TouchDC.org was launched, the District of Columbia Office of Partnerships and Grants Development (OPGD) created the Strengthening Partners Initiative (SPI) to improve the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of newly organized community-based and faith-based nonprofit organizations. The SPI is designed as an executive leadership training program. Over the course of one year, up to 25 nonprofit executives participate in structured training workshops, one-on-one mentoring, and an end-of-year final demonstration project. The workshops offer capacity-building instruction in board development, program and strategic planning, human resources management, financial management, and fundraising.

TouchDC.org was launched in November 2002. OPGD included information about TouchDC.org in the December 2, 2002, issue of the agency's weekly funding newsletter, Funding Alert, and organized a special workshop to introduce GuideStar to SPI program participants. The presentation, advertised as "Free Fund-Raising Help," was conducted on December 16, 2002. Nonprofit organizations that attended the workshop followed the guidance offered by GuideStar and Washington Grantmakers. More than one-third of the SPI program participants have a complete report, current financials, and a Web site link at TouchDC.org. Another one-third have some combination of the three.

Organizations with more complete profiles are better positioned to attract the attention of donors. In fact, one SPI participant that updated its information on GuideStar and made enhancements to its Web site was invited almost immediately to submit a grant application to the Kellogg Foundation.

Every year TouchDC.org showcases select nonprofit organizations representing each issue area under the banner heading "Give Where You Live: TouchDC makes it easy to give wisely." Organizations featured during this showcase are positioned to enhance their abilities to receive donations from area residents and to attract larger contributions from foundations and charitable organizations. To date, four organizations from the first two SPI classes have been featured.

TouchDC.org reports that on-line donations tend to be larger than donations by check. The average on-line donation is $125, whereas the average donation made by check is $89. Washington Grantmakers is adding enhancements for tracking and acknowledging donations, features that will help organizations establish relationships with donors. The recent merger of Network for Good and Groundspring will create a more efficient resource for nonprofits, especially the small to mid-size organizations, to obtain affordable, easy to use Web-based tools for fundraising.

An added benefit of TouchDC and the SPI is access to the broader community of national foundations and donor-advised funds. Of special note, the following donor-advised funds are partners with GuideStar, providing an opportunity for individuals and families to make charitable contributions through them: Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, Schwab Fund for Charitable Giving, and T. Rowe Price Program for Charitable Giving.

Jillian Watkins, MW Financial, Inc.
© 2006, MW Financial, Inc.

Jillian Watkins is project coordinator with MW Financial, Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in supporting innovative funding strategies with a focus on advancing the use of technology.

Grant Writing 102: Tips from Successful Grantwriters


Last month, "Grant Writing 101" listed resources recommended for learning grant writing basics. This month, we look at specific tips and words of wisdom from successful grant writers.

Ten Tips

  1. Request guidelines, annual reports, and other pertinent information from the foundation before sending a grant proposal. You may be able to download most of this information from the organization's Web site.

  2. Unless your organization is a national one, try to stay local when looking for funding sources, particularly for operating or program costs. National foundations are more likely to fund capital expenses of programs that can be replicated nationally.

 Don't miss out on donations this Giving Season. Add a Donate button to your GuideStar Nonprofit Profile today.