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Is Your Nonprofit Ready to Play a Leading Role?

July 14, 2014

Feldmann-headshotIs our organization relevant?

If you work for a nonprofit, you've probably asked yourself that question more than once. Concerns about relevancy stem from the most challenging aspect of organizational sustainability. Unfortunately, even when your cause is viewed as "relevant," your organization may not be viewed in the same way. And while the activist in you may feel that relevancy is overrated and that you didn't dedicate your life to a cause so that you could spend your days worrying about who's "hot" – and who’s not – the fact of the matter is that organizations perceived as "relevant" typically are the ones that receive the most attention, the most financial support, and the most acclaim.

Relevancy, by definition, means being closely associated with a topical cause or issue. A relevant nonprofit is a nonprofit that can speak to an issue with authority and has its thumb on the pulse of activities around that issue.

In other words, an organization is relevant if:

  1. it is a leading voice in the ongoing conversation/debate around its issue or cause
  2. it is recognized as a connector/convener with respect to its issue or cause.

I often tell my clients to think about their particular issue or cause as if it were a play, complete with actors in lead roles and a supporting cast. If an organization wants to be relevant, it needs to do whatever it can to ensure that it has a lead role in the play.

Playing the Lead

There's no shortage of nonprofit organizations or causes worth donating to in the world – a fact that goes a long way toward explaining the fierce competition that exists among organizations in the social sector.

With so many organizations vying for dollars and attention, it's to be expected that a few will emerge from the crowd and be recognized as the leading voice on their respective issue or cause. How do you know who they are? When funders convene, those organizations are usually in the room and/or a part of the conversation. They're the ones new donors are most likely to be familiar with and trust. They're the ones other organizations look to for their cues and people expect to be persuaded and moved to action by. They lead and others follow.

And if an organization has the chops to play the leading role, it usually has at least two or three people in roles that are critical to projecting its competence and capacity:

A CEO with personality. For an organization that aims to lead the way on an issue, nothing is more beneficial than a dynamic CEO. The most effective CEOs have first-hand experience with an issue and a compelling story that illustrates the human aspects of that issue. He or she has a unique ability to make people listen, laugh, and cry. He or she is  a connector par excellence and has an unrivaled ability to bring resources and people to bear on an organization's mission.

The expert. Leading organizations have at least one expert on staff, someone who is equipped to deliver the organization's message(s) with unquestioned authority and credibility. Experts are also critical in terms of attracting sophisticated and institutional donors, and to formulating a response when a would-be funder asks a question that goes beyond the talking points he or she has already been exposed to. This is where leading organizations distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. Your expert(s) should be the authority on the issue and be setting the agenda for research, discussion, and finding a solution to the problem.

Passionate volunteers. Every leading nonprofit has a group of key volunteers who are deeply passionate about and committed to solving its issue. They want to see the organization succeed and are happy to attach their names to and advocate on behalf of its cause. In the case of the most effective organizations, they will stop at nothing to get publicity for its issue or cause and to share that with their networks.

Connecting the Issue

You know your organization is losing its battle for relevancy when you hear things like this:

"We're the best-kept secret in the city – and someday people are going to realize that."

"We do great work but people don't care."

"Our revenues were down, but it's not our fault; there's just too much competition out there."

Sound familiar? Don't despair; you're not alone. Awareness in today's noisy, message-saturated environment is less a function of branding and more about connecting your content expertise to the conversations and chatter that are happening around your issue or cause. Many nonprofits struggle with this, in part because it is a process that takes time, patience, and a willingness to try new things. For the uninitiated, here are a few suggestions to get your started:

Develop connecting points. Your organization needs to create what I call "connecting points" – places where its issue or cause are connected to conversations that are taking place on social media. The trick is to get in the habit of creating these points of connection not just once in a while but on a regular basis. Every week brings a new wave of trending topics on social media – and fresh opportunities for your organization to connect with trending stories related to its cause. Take the ONE Campaign, which is constantly working to connect its efforts to end extreme poverty and preventable disease in the developing world with the latest "happenings" in pop culture. In advance of this year's Academy Award ceremony, the folks at ONE created the Honesty Oscars, a week-long event that honored groundbreaking organizations, activists and "creatives" working to make the world more transparent and hold governments and corporations more accountable.

Create conversations. You've got a dynamic CEO at the top of your organization and at least one or two experts on staff. Now you've got to figure out how to use those resources to start and develop conversations about your issue that also tie into the broader national conversation. Through social media and other digital platforms, starting and engaging others in conversations has never been easier. Not as easy, of course, as posing a question on Facebook, crossing your fingers, and waiting for people to find you. No, you need to give your audiences content that reflects their concerns and values – and that they'll want to share with others. National Geographic is an excellent example. It makes a point of sharing content that is both visually and editorially compelling and, at the same time, strikes a nice balance between exotic travel characterized by themes of adventure and exploration and more topical posts that address serious issues such as food security and biodiversity conservation.

Focus on the right audience. I see this all the time: Organizations that would like to believe they are relevant but aren't because they focus on the wrong audience. In terms of relevance, only one audience matters: the people who are willing to support you, either financially or with sweat equity, or both. Has your organization developed a following that sees it as the go-to organization for your issue or cause? Don't waste your time and energy on persuading "thought leaders" that you're great. If your supporters and potential supporters don't think of you as the go-to organization for a particular issue or cause, you are in trouble. It doesn't matter how many experts love your "show"; if your own donors and supporters aren't willing to champion your issue or cause, you and your colleagues are not going to have a long run.

In the end, whether your nonprofit is "relevant" or not does matter; it’s a concern for every organization. In a play, it's the full cast and crew working together that make the production. In the social sector, an organization that aspires to be relevant needs to have a dynamic CEO, experts who can articulate its message, and supporters who believe in its mission. It's a tricky formula, but organizations that figure it out are likely to stay around and make a difference.

Derrick Feldmann is president of Achieve, a creative research and campaigns agency based in Indianapolis. In his previous post, he asked the question, Has the word "impact" lost its impact.

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Organizations need true leaders in order to take a leading role. Real leaders are hard to find.

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