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From the President's Office, December 2008

Dear Friend:

Usually at this time of year we are in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the "Giving Season," a time when many nonprofits receive the majority of their donations, and are wistfully looking forward to some free time when we can reflect on the activities of the past year and craft our goals for the coming year.

But this year, we have a new concern—the global financial meltdown and the impact it will have on the nonprofit sector. I have been telling reporters that it is too early to tell if nonprofits will be adversely affected this year. It seems unlikely that we won't. In our last issue we reported that our latest survey had found that nearly half of nonprofits that rely on end-of-year contributions expect donations to decline during the 2008 giving season.

Effective On-line Donation Pages: Five Short Tips

Excerpt from Perfecting Your Page: Can Donation Page Optimization Boost Online Giving?

On-line fundraising has become a growing source of income for many nonprofits over the past 10 years. But while organizations typically spend lots of time developing clever, creative, and inspirational on-line content, they often overlook more mundane aspects of on-line appeals that can make a big difference in converting advocates, subscribers, and other supporters into donors. Specifically, while e-mail and Web page copy may persuade people to "click to donate now," less than half of those who click through to the donation page (and often just a few percent) typically complete the donation transaction.

Marketers are increasingly turning their attention and resources to landing page optimization. For example, both Marketing Sherpa and Marketing Experiments have published reports recommending increasing donate button size and using more eye-catching colors to increase conversion rates (i.e., the percentage of people who complete an action after navigating to the landing page). However, as most case studies have focused on e-commerce sites, Amnesty International USA decided to find out whether similar changes to donation landing pages could increase conversion to donate as well.

Don't Bite Off Your Nose

Times are tough. Many nonprofits are hunkering down, trying to weather the economic storm that is dramatically reducing their revenues yet increasing demand for their services. Often one of the first functions to go is communications.

Despite the awful economic conditions we are all facing, this is no time to pare back on getting your messages out to the public. In fact it's more important now than ever before to let people know how and why you exist.

You have no money for marketing and advertising, you say. Well, here are some cost-effective ways for getting your name and mission out to people during these tough times:

Five Questions Every Candidate Should Ask

Adapted from smorgasBoard

If you find yourself in front of a search committee, what are the key questions you want to be sure to raise?

Our suggested questions assume that you have done your homework. You have scoured the nonprofit's Web site, you have digested the 990, you have read a solid sample of their published materials (annual reports, solicitation letters, program reviews, and the like). You know the backgrounds, bios, and interconnections of the search committee members, and you've studied key stakeholders, constituencies, and competitors.

You've also read the other articles in our "Five Questions Every Search Committee Should Ask—Of Itself" and "Five Questions Every Search Committee Should Ask of Its Candidates." Your candidacy will profit from having anticipated the answers.

There are several questions, however, that should be of special interest to candidates. Here are our top five.

The Five Questions Every Candidate Should Ask

  1. What do you like best about the incumbent? This first question may feel like a softball, but it offers a nonthreatening way for you to steer the conversation into what might be delicate territory.

    There are several reasons to ask about your potential predecessor. You will learn a good deal about the culture and values the organization holds dear. You will develop a picture of the deficiencies or gaps the board hopes to correct with its next CEO. You may begin to sense how comfortably the board moves from conflict to consensus.

    Even a CEO whose performance has been disappointing will have admirable qualities and key supporters, and our experience suggests that search committees welcome the opportunity to say nice things about someone they may have just nudged out or even fired.

    If the CEO you would be succeeding is highly regarded or leaving after a long tenure of treasured service, you will get an earful about things you will not want to mess up. Here, candidates would do well to follow that part of the Hippocratic Oath usually paraphrased as "First, do no harm."

  2. What unfinished business would I inherit? Even the most beloved CEOs don't get everything right. After all, the reason balance sheets balance is that every asset has an offsetting liability. In a wide-ranging discussion, search committees inevitably drop lots of subtle clues about priorities left unaddressed, issues unresolved, and goals unachieved; your goal is to make sure you don't mistake subtlety for unimportance.

    Typically, we ask a similar question of incumbent CEOs at the outset of a search for their successor. The best and most self-aware of the lot are quite secure talking about their unfinished business, and the incumbent CEO's viewpoint can be enormously useful. Even so, the board's perspective is the one you want to be sure to capture at this stage, since that's who you will be working for.

  3. How will we define success? It is critical for you and the search committee (and, ultimately, the full board) to have as much clarity as possible around expectations.

    If you and your new board have not set out expectations with some degree of specificity, then you cannot be held accountable for missing those expectations, right? Wrong!

    In our view, shortfall in performance is rarely about competence and often about expectations. The trick is to convert expectations from a hidden agenda to an open agenda. We recommend taking the discussion in steps, moving from the strategic to the tactical:

    1. "What do we need to have accomplished together five years from now?"
    2. "What three or four things do we need to achieve, resolve, or demonstrate by this time next year?"
    3. "What needs to be addressed right away?"

    If you listen well, questions on the definition of success will help accomplish several things:

    • First, they reinforce the importance of strategic alignment; that is, the alignment of the nonprofit's resources and leadership around the big goals.
    • Second, these questions reinforce your expectation of working in full partnership with the board.
    • Third, despite a few requests to the contrary, you really cannot address every priority all the time (although juggling is a much-appreciated skill!). Ideally, priorities flow from the strategic plan. Priority setting is a key responsibility of the CEO, but it's far easier to set priorities if you're working in tandem with the board.

  4. Where are the potholes? Both you and the organization will be charting new maps and setting new directions, even if everyone swears your principal challenge is to maintain the strength and momentum that greet you upon arrival (rarely the real case, incidentally). To be maximally effective, you want to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible about the hurdles and potholes you might face. There are at least two sorts of issues you want to know about: structural and cultural.

    Structural issues tend to respond to "What if?" sorts of questions: What if this donor goes away, what if this program exceeds goal, what if these assumptions are off by 20 percent? The structural potholes can be somewhat arcane, as in "Which footnote to the financial statements concerns you the most?"

    The cultural issues tend to be about people, heritage, and legacy. Every organization has its operating norms and protocols; you want to know which issues/styles/approaches everyone takes for granted—especially if the existing norms and protocols represent barriers to progress.

    Even if change is exactly what the board is after, the body can still reject the transplant. If you hear some version of "That's not the way we do things here," you may be simply stirring things up in a healthy way. (A Navy captain of our acquaintance used to say, "When the sailors stop complaining, I start worrying.") If you hear it more than once or from more than one quarter, you may be at risk. According to an Army friend of ours, "If you're a step ahead of the troops, you're a leader. If you're a mile ahead, you're a martyr!"

    There are several ways to get at these cultural norms. What issues have other senior hires stumbled up against? What gets applauded in the hallways? What's being talked about in the break room and in the parking lot? The more you understand these topics and the culture that promotes them, the sooner you will develop a map that your new colleagues can embrace.

  5. How can I add the most value? The organization you are interviewing with is already on a certain trajectory. This trend line is based on specific assumptions regarding direction and momentum, all of which are critical for you to understand. Even more critical, we suggest, is the need to understand how the exceptional candidate—hopefully, that's you—can add real value beyond that available from the merely well qualified.

    Consequently, this question, like many of the others, deserves to be asked in stages. As a candidate, you first want to know what added value the board desires most from its next CEO. Second, as you develop a deeper understanding of the organization, its opportunities, and its challenges, you want to confirm for the search committee—and for yourself—that the special assets you offer are in fact of real value in this particular circumstance.

Every encounter you have with the search committee and its fellow board members helps set a precedent for the way you will deal with each other once you're the CEO. The value of questions from a candidate can be exceptional, and they provide an excellent way for a superior contender to stand out from a slate. If you complement these thought starters with your own research, life experience, and natural curiosity, you can be assured of a provocative, informative, and rewarding discussion—and a subsequent interview.

Sam Pettway, Kathy Bremer, Kim Anderson, and Margaret Reiser
© 2008, BoardWalk Consulting

Sam Pettway, Kathy Bremer, Kim Anderson, and Margaret Reiser are colleagues at BoardWalk Consulting, committed to "building strong foundations for nonprofits"® through executive search, board enrichment, and strategic facilitation.

Managing in Tough Times: Seven Steps

Reprinted from

Tough times force hard choices. And these are rapidly becoming the toughest times most of us have ever seen. Even for nonprofit leaders who are accustomed to "making much of little," the repercussions of the unfolding economic downturn are likely to pose unprecedented challenges. It's hard to imagine that many (if any) of us in the sector will escape unscathed.

So what to do? Not surprisingly, there are no easy, or even particularly novel, answers to that question. But learning from what others have done before in the face of less severe financial crises can be extremely useful. To that end, The Bridgespan Group has begun collecting insights and advice from our clients, from other nonprofit leaders and experts, and from our own leadership. The results are sketched below. We'll be adding to and complementing them over the coming weeks and months, as we all learn more about what it takes to manage successfully through tough times.

It's Not Too Late to Be Ready for the Most Charitable Time of the Year

It's never too early to tweak or fine-tune your year-end campaign (and with the Internet, it's not yet too late to start planning and executing it). A new study from JupiterResearch and Convio shows that not being ready to engage donors on-line would be a huge mistake: more than 89 million on-line consumers plan to use the Internet to give to charity this holiday season.

You can take advantage of this season's high-volume on-line giving and make it easier for your donors to give when time and funds are short by building an on-line year-end or holiday campaign. Here are a few fail-safe strategies to get you going.