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If you've been to GuideStar's home page over the last couple of days, you've probably noticed the handsome image featuring a sea turtle, individuals representing several causes, and text inviting you to "Take Action Guided by expert opinions & user reviews."

Stakeholder Reviews: The Arts Are "Nourishment for the Mind and Spirit"

Social media are fundamentally changing nonprofit work.

Whether it's via Twitter, Facebook, or another channel, finding ways to engage your community in the work of your organization is increasingly critical to your success.

One of the most effective ways to do this is to gather user reviews.

Over the past year, thousands of such user-generated reviews of nonprofit organizations have been appearing on both the GuideStar and GreatNonprofits Web sites.

Many of them come in during special month-long, interactive campaigns co-sponsored by our organizations. Each campaign focuses attention on a particular segment of the nonprofit community.

Recently, for example, we waged our first-ever "Arts Appreciation Campaign," which we co-sponsored with Intersection for the Arts.

The response was dramatic, triggering the largest outpouring of reviews we have ever logged in one month.

A total of 186 community arts organizations across the country qualified for our Top-Rated Arts Nonprofits List, which consists of groups that attracted 10 or more positive reviews.

Over the course of the campaign, more than 60,000 people visited the GreatNonprofits site, posting more than 4,000 reviews of 472 separate nonprofit organizations.

"This response of the arts community is unprecedented and speaks to the importance of funding and supporting the arts," says Perla Ni, CEO of GreatNonprofits, "even during periods of economic downturn and in the face of natural disasters."

As one donor to the Colored Pencil Project, which fosters art by poor children, explained, "Poverty stricken communities need many basic necessities—[but] it is easy to forget that children need nourishment not only for the body but also for the mind and spirit."

Reviews like this one not only offer community members a way to support nonprofits but also provide organizations with a meaningful method of gathering feedback.

As Jessica Robinson Love, executive director of CounterPULSE (one of the top-rated charities), put it, "We're used to hearing from our patrons, but it's rarer for us to solicit public feedback from the community we serve—artists! Partnering with GreatNonprofits has given us the opportunity to solicit feedback from our clients about what works and doesn't work for them.

"It's been a great experience to share this feedback with the public, and to demonstrate our impact to our funders and supporters."

Amy Saidman, the executive director of SpeakeasyDC, a small organization with one full-time staff member that gathered 18 glowing reviews in just a few days, stated, "We've never had a good channel for feedback and suggestions before, and the outpouring of enthusiasm and constructive ideas has been priceless. A fringe benefit is that I now have quotes I can use in my next grant proposal."

The results of the arts campaign provide further evidence that the reviews we are hosting on GuideStar and GreatNonprofits make it easier for people to discover the important work that community groups are doing.

User reviews provide a vivid, emotionally engaging, and authentic perspective on what nonprofit work is all about. After all, every nonprofit has a story to tell—about the clients it's served, policy reforms that it's influenced, and communities where it's made a difference.

Reviews are a great new way to get those stories out, which—in the age of social media—is increasingly vital to your organization's success going forward.

See the entire list of top-rated arts nonprofits

David Weir, GreatNonprofits
© 2010, GreatNonprofits

David Weir is vice president of communications for GreatNonprofits. GreatNonprofits is a Web site where people who have firsthand knowledge of a nonprofit—board members, volunteers, donors, recipients of services—can tell others about their experiences with the organization.

Any Organization Can Win High Visibility and Build a Strong Brand by Using Smart but Inexpensive Public Relations Tactics!

Even if you don't have a big marketing or public relations budget, you can still raise your organization's profile and build a strong brand among customers, members, potential members, the news media, and other opinion leaders if you use a few proven—and inexpensive—PR tactics to raise your visibility.

When It Comes to Your Brand, Details Matter

I was just about to make a positive remark about the attractive design on the cover of the document, when a colleague of the person whose department was responsible for putting the piece together blurted out, "Hey, Jim, the county's name is spelled wrong on the cover of your report."

You could have heard a pin drop as Jim (not his real name) flinched with embarrassment.

This scene unfolded during one of my branding workshops to a group of 20 county government leaders. It was at the point in my presentation when I gathered everyone around a large conference table to peer-review each other's printed materials. The purpose: To determine how well the materials reflected their respective departments' brands.

Was the error that was pointed out on the document a mere typo? Hardly. The document in question happened to be a financial report that was scheduled to be released to the public.

I saw a teachable moment.

Reassuring Jim that I wasn't trying to embarrass anyone but rather attempting to make a point, I asked the group, "If the county's name is misspelled on the cover of this document, how can we be guaranteed that the page after page of dollar figures inside are correct?"

In effect, the typo represented a breach in the trust Jim's department was trying so hard to restore under new leadership.

The episode reaffirmed what I had been telling the group from the outset; that there is nothing an organization can say or do that isn't a reflection on its brand, everything from how courteously its phones are answered, to whether or not staff is dressed appropriately, and, yes, even typos—especially if you're responsible for financial figures.

What the Public Perceives

The fact is the public picks up on all kinds of cues that provide them with insights—be they right or wrong—about who you are, what you do, how you do it, and why they should care, which I believe are the key questions any good brand must address.

Here's an example that demonstrates the other side of this coin.

The local affiliates of a former national client of mine operate thrift shops, which represent a significant portion of their annual local revenue streams. I had the good fortune to be asked to tour several of these facilities located in different parts of the country and to give my impression of what I saw.

In short, I was truly astounded by how neat, orderly, and well organized all of the thrifts were.

Things weren't piled on the floor, and shoppers weren't forced to rummage through boxes to find what they were looking for, as one might expect in a thrift shop. Rather, floor space was divided into attractive departments, some using iconic art work to let customers know which department they were in; the clothes were all neatly stacked or on racks, some attractively placed on mannequins; the furniture had all been restored and laid out as it might be in a high-end department store; the jewelry was all sorted and neatly displayed.

The message these shops implicitly conveyed to me was "If this organization is such a good steward of donated used clothing and furniture, it just might be paying the same kind of attention to detail with respect to the funds these thrifts bring in and the services it provides to its clients. This may be an organization I'd like to support."

Rightly or wrongly, perception is reality. And the perception this organization was tacitly conveying was "Trust us. We know what we're doing." A powerful—and desirable—brand message any organization would be happy to have.

The lesson: Pay attention to details. They matter when it comes to how people perceive your brand—namely who you are, what you do, how you do it, and why they should care!

Larry Checco, Checco Communications
© 2010, Checco Communications

Larry Checco is president of Checco Communications and author of Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization. Larry is a nationally recognized public speaker, workshop presenter, and consultant on branding.