Monday, February 23, 2009

Are Nonprofit Email Newsletters a Waste of Time? Social Media - the Way to Go? What about Baby Boomers?...All This in One Post

This week, Thomas Gensemer, the online campaign strategist for the Obama campaign raised an uproar in the Nonprofit world when speaking in London he advised charities to ditch e-mail newsletters, calling them a waste of time. He said that short, personalized e-mail messages to supporters that offer clean instructions for participation are a more effective online strategy.

Third Sector and Philanthropy Today reported on this, Twitter is aflutter with posts about the subject and it is a topic for popular discussions on LinkedIn. Social Media and nonprofit bloggers are writing about the topic just as I am doing right now. Comments at Philanthropy Today from nonprofits state strongly that email newsletters are especially effective for small and locally based nonprofits.
Philanthropy Today Article and Comments

So which is it? I think the answer is both. Let’s start by looking at some objective data. Convio recently completed its second annual benchmarks study. It did find that web usage and revenue continue to grow. However, it also found that email open rates have declined from 22% in just one year to 14%. “Email fatigue” is causing people to seek new techniques to connect with supporters.. A few years ago I opened almost every email newsletter I received. Now I get so many that I open a small percentage - hmmm… maybe about 14% - and most of those I skim rather than really read.

Sean Stannard-Stockton at Tactical Philanthropy had a great blog post last week - which was being retweeted like mad on Twitter - on using Twitter as a “filter.” I was surprised and honored to be listed as one of the people on his filter that he reads all the time. Ah, but I digress….. The point being that today we all are on information overload, and a good way to handle this is to have your own filtering system. Some social Media tools, especially Twitter, are excellent filtering tools.
Tactical Philanthropy on Information Filtering

I think that Thomas Gensemer was too quick to dismiss email newsletters but I also agree that we should be conscious of changing trends. Short, one topic emails can supplement the longer multi-topic one. Titles like “Nonprofit A Monthly Newsletter” are more likely to be deleted than “Nonprofit A Receives Award for Outstanding Program” or “Join Us in for an Evening to Remember.”

I’ve been thinking about this as it pertains to my own newsletter. I used to feature a long two page article on one subject as a pdf attachment. I get great feedback on these articles and I know that some people appreciate them. But I now try to alternate with shorter, newsier emails for those people who respond better to that format.

It is not time yet to throw out the email newsletter but it is time to update your whole online approach. Integrating the enewsletter with Social Media and introducing short, focused emails may be a good start.

Both Forrester Research and Pew Research have recently released studies which show that Baby Boomers are very active consumers of socially created content. They leave their opinions on Web sites and join social networks. If you think that this Social Media stuff is for reaching people in their 20’s, think again. It is becoming the way to reach that all important Boomer generation too.

For a great article with additional great links on this subject, visit Beth’s Blog:
Beth's Blog: How Your Nonprofit Can Reach Baby Boomers with Social Media

I hope you'll leave you comments on this subject. It will make for a great discussion.

Consider my Social Networking for Nonprofits workshop on March 20th. I’ll post on that soon.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Economic Impact on and Trends in Grantmaking Foundations

Nonprofits are struggling to cope with the new economic reality – not just a temporary downturn – but with a long term, if not permanent change. My most visited blog posts are those that I wrote in the Fall about nonprofits and coping with the economy and I recommend them too you – I have gotten great feedback about them. A major resource for nonprofits, has picked up this post for its database:
How Can We Possibly Stay Afloat in These Tumultuous Times?

Today I am writing about the economy and the other side.... grantmaking foundations.
Most foundations have been seriously hurt by the economy. Some, like those invested with Bernie Madoff or associated with out of business companies, have had to close their doors. The Council on Foundations reported in its survey results last week that foundations had a 28% decrease in assets in 2008. The Foundation Center has set up a special page on its website “Focus on the Economic Crisis” with statistics and articles about its impact on the nonprofit sector.
Focus on the Economic Crisis - Foundation Center Site

Here are some trends happening with foundations:

Many have had staff cuts and are taking other measures to reduce their costs. This may mean less access to a program officer or other benefits such as workshops being offered.

Most major foundations have stated that they will meet all of their outstanding commitments and some have committed to increased funding in critical need areas in the social sector to deal with crisis issues such as homelessness and hunger. The GE Foundation announced that it would redirect $20 Million in grants to basic needs. Foundations are increasing their percentage giving to make this happen but they are also making plans for long term adjustments if needed.

Foundations are taking a harder look at what organizations they support and making sure that those organizations are clearly in line with the foundation’s mission. They will be weeding out support for organizations that don’t fit in 100%.

Foundations, more so than ever, are examining outcomes and results. They will be eliminating or greatly reducing support for the weakest links. Nonprofits need more than ever to be focused on achieving results.

Foundations are taking a look at how they do business and they are streamlining and modernizing their operations to become more user friendly, have less paperwork – but not less accountability, making multiple year grants – but contingent on results, and shortening their internal processes so that there is significantly less time between application, grants awarded and grant money released. All of this is part of a philosophical change as foundations are embracing that the are partners with nonprofits not just funders.

It’s a good idea these days for nonprofits to stay in tune with your major funders. Have an understanding of their economic situation and what is their stated policy to deal with it. Keep in touch and keep them informed about your programs, events, awards and results – don’t wait for a grant ending report. Invite them for a site visit.

This is what Paul Best, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation had to say to Philanthropy News Digest, “This is a moment when individuals and foundations need to be very focused and intentional in what they do. If ever there were a time when strategy and clarity about goals was important, this is the time.
It starts with goals, because if you don't know where you're going, there is little possibility of focusing your resources. Given the limited resources that any foundation has, we make the argument that doing too many things will strain those resources. In other words, you're probably better off doing a few things well than spreading yourself too thin. But regardless of how many goals you have, each one needs to be clearly articulated. If they are not, then it's hard to know where the money is going or whether you've succeeded in achieving the change you want. Clarity of definition is the starting point, and strategy follows from that.”
Maybe its a good time to take a serious look at strategic isn’t a discretionary activity...its core to what you should be doing right now.

Please leave your comments about your own experience with changes and foundations. I know everyone who visits this blog would be interested.