RADIANCE BLOG

Category: Nonprofit

From engaging to capturing – rethinking business models that stick

As a strategist, I’m frequently looking over the horizon to see what’s next. At other times, you’ll see me scanning side-to-side looking for forces that may be coming together in new or unexpected ways.

Sometimes hindsight puts much of it into perspective.

Looking back at 2008 it occurs me that I was well ahead of the curve when I designed Corona’s Synergistic Business Model. At the time I noticed that nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver and companies like New Belgium Brewery – both former Corona clients I may add – had integrated engagement deep into their respective business models. Each realized that fostering loyalty, connection and contribution required a long-lasting approach to relationships.

They were smartly ahead of the curve.

Since then engagement has become top-of-mind for organizations. The old transactional approaches simply don’t hit the mark when people are searching for meaningful relationships and ways to make a difference.

Perhaps engagement isn’t enough.

We need to enmesh relationships into our business models.

  • How are we using online communication channels to fully engage donors before, during and after a fundraising event? What is the immediate call-to-action waiting for them when they get home? Have we thanked them (enough)?
  • What will define the patron experience from the first email message to the thank you note?
  • How will volunteer love for us be returned in 3 months? 5 months? 1 year?
  • Have we thought about the ways that a board member could entrap that new neighbor or business colleague into adopting our cause as their own?

Maybe it’s time to:

Lure

Ensnare

Capture

Hold onto

We need to activate our language if we want to activate our relationships.

 


Writing an RFP

So you’ve finally reached a point where you feel like you need more information to move forward as an organization, and, even more importantly, you’ve been able to secure some amount of funding to do so. Suddenly you find yourself elbow deep in old request-for-proposals (RFPs), both from your organization and others, trying to craft an RFP for your project. Where do you start?

We write a lot of proposals in response to RFPs at Corona, and based on what we’ve seen, here are a few suggestions for what to include in your next RFP:

  • Decision to be made or problem being faced. One of the most important pieces of information that is often difficult to find, if not missing from an RFP, is what decision an organization is trying to make or what problem an organization is trying to overcome. Instead, we often see RFPs asking for a specific methodology, while not describing what an organization is planning to do with the information. While specifying the methodology can sometimes be important (e.g., you want to replicate an online survey of donors, you need to perform an evaluation as part of a grant, etc.), sometimes specifying it might limit what bidders suggest in their proposals.

Part of the reason why you hire a consultant is to have them suggest the best way to gather the information that your organization needs. With that in mind, it might be most useful to describe the decision or problem that your organization is facing in layman’s terms and let bidders propose different ways to address it.

  • Other sources of data/contacts. Do you have data that might be relevant to the proposals? Did your organization conduct similar research in the past that you want to replicate or build upon? Do you have contact information for people who you might want to gather information from for this project? All these might be useful pieces of information to include in an RFP.
  • Important deadlines. If you have key deadlines that will shape this project, be sure to include them in the RFP. Timelines can impact proposals in many ways. For example, if a bidder wants to propose a survey, a timeline can determine whether to do a mail survey, which takes longer, or a phone survey, which is often more expensive but quicker.
  • Include a budget, even a rough one. I think questions about the budget are the number one question I see people ask about an RFP. While a budget might scare off a more expensive firm, it is more likely that including a budget in an RFP helps firms propose tasks that are financially feasible.

Requesting proposals can be a useful way to get a sense of what a project might cost, which might be useful if you are trying to figure out how much funding to secure. If so, it’s often helpful to just state in your RFP that your considering different options and would like pricing for each recommended task, along with the arguments for why it might be useful.

  • Stakeholders. Who has a stake in the results of the project and who will be involved in decisions about the project?  Do you have a single internal person that the contractor will report to or perhaps a small team?  Are there others in the organization who will be using the results of the project?  Do you have external funders who have goals or reporting needs that you hope to be met by the project?  Clarifying who has a stake in the project and what role they will play in the project, whether providing input on goals, or approving questionnaire design, is very helpful. It is useful for the consultant to know who will need to be involved so they can plan to make sure everyone’s needs are addressed.

Writing RFPs can be daunting, but they can also be a good opportunity for thinking about and synthesizing an important decision or problem into words. Hopefully these suggestions can help with that process!


Is yesterday’s intermediary ready to become the platform of tomorrow?

Living in America’s “it” city in a year of disruptions across the political spectrum nationally and internationally have led me to contemplate evolution in the nonprofit sector. I’m struck by what I’ve observed recently as an emerging trend – the slow decline of the intermediary organization. This may be a heretical statement, I’ll admit, but it is a shift worth watching.

It may be easiest to observe in healthcare as classic intermediary models born in the 1970s and 1980s discover that they cannot withstand disruptive changes in their marketplaces. Healthcare may be the canary in the coalmine of the nonprofit sector given the pace and scale of change. Executives and board members are learning the hard way that forces of this magnitude cannot be overcome by single organizations. They are finding themselves caught off-guard as the strategy they set in 2015 is already obsolete.

Let’s explore an example. The U.S. model of community-based engagement in cancer clinical trials is in the midst of two game-changing trends. One, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain people in clinical trials. Second, healthcare providers are shifting away from collaborative models run by the federal government to in-house options that can adapt more quickly.

Health fairs are another example. Long the staple of communities large and small in states from California to Ohio, these programs were born at a time when people would stand in line to be seen by volunteer health providers after not eating for 12 hours. Today, more people are monitoring their health on a wrist device as technological advances are leapfrogging old screening methods. Add onto that the demographic differences between the oldest Boomers and the oldest Millennials and you’ve realize that OSFA (one-size-fits-all) doesn’t fit most any more.

The emergence of platform-based models such as Uber have changed the competitive landscape for many industries. As entrepreneurs adapt the model to other industries, it’s only a matter of time before platforms are the new normal in the nonprofit sector too. Of course we’ve seen the rise of platforms in fundraising, with crowd-sourced funding and giving days as examples. I’m intrigued by the possibilities of platform-based service delivery.

As described in the April 2016 Harvard Business Review, “a platform provides the infrastructure and rules for a marketplace that brings together producers and consumers.” (Pipelines, Platforms, and the New Rules of Strategy by Marshall W. Van Alstyne, Geoffrey G. Parker, and Sangeet Paul Choudary.)

So, I’m wondering when the definitive nonprofit intermediaries of the 1970s and 1980s – the nonprofit technical assistance provider and trade association – will evolve into the platform model for 2020.

Agility and relevancy are the name of the game. I’ll be watching to see who figures that out the soonest.


Nonprofit Data Heads

Here at Corona, we gather, analyze, and interpret data for all types of nonprofits.  While some of our nonprofit clients are a little data shy, many are data-heads like us!  Indeed, several nonprofits (many of which we have worked for or partnered with) have developed amazing websites full of easy to access datasets.

Here are 4 of my favorite nonprofit data sources…check them out!!

The Data Initiative at the Piton Foundation

Not only do they sponsor Mile High Data Day, but the Piton Foundation produces a variety of user friendly data interfaces.  I really like the creative ways they allow website visitors to explore data–not just static pie and bar charts. Instead, their interface is dynamic and extremely customizable. While their community facts tool pulls most (but not all) of its data from the US Census, this tool is very easy and fun to use.  Further, they have already defined and labeled neighborhoods across the Denver Metro area, making it easy for users to compare geographies without trying to aggregate census tract or block group numbers. This is an invaluable feature for data users who don’t have access to GIS. I also appreciate the option to display margin of error on bar charts when its available.

Highlights:

  • Easy to use from novice to expert data user
  • Data available by labeled neighborhood
  • 7-County Denver Metro focus

Explore

OpenColorado

With over 1,500 datasets, OpenColorado is a treasure trove of raw data.  While this site doesn’t have a fancy user interface, it does provide access to data in many different file types, making it a great website for the intermediate to advanced data user with access to software such as GIS, AutoCAD, or Google Earth.  Most data on OpenColorado is from Front Range cities (e.g., Arvada, Boulder, Denver, Westminster) and counties (e.g., Boulder, Denver, Clear Creek), but unfortunately it is far from a comprehensive list, so you’d need to look elsewhere if your searching for information from Arapahoe County, for example.

There are over 200 datasets specific to the City and County of Denver.  I opened a few that caught my eye, including the City’s “Checkbook” dataset that shows every payment made from the City (by City department) to payees by year.  I give kudos to Denver and OpenColorado for facilitating this type of fiscal transparency.  I also downloaded a dataset (CSV) of all Denver Police pedestrian and vehicle stops for the past four years, which included the outcome of each stop along with the address, latitude and longitude.  For a GIS user, this is especially helpful if you want to search for patterns of police activity compared to other social and geographic factors.  Even without access to spatial software, this dataset is useful because it includes neighborhood labels.  I created a quick pivot table in Excel to see the top ten neighborhoods for cars being towed (so don’t park your car illegally in these neighborhoods).

Highlights:

  • Tons of raw data
  • Various file types, including shapefiles and geodatabases that are compatible with GIS, and KML files that are compatible with GoogleEarth
  • Search for data by geography, tags, or custom search words

Kids Count from the Colorado Children’s Campaign

Kids Count is a well-respected data resource for all things kids.  Each year, the Colorado Children’s Campaign (disclaimer, they are also our neighbor, working just two floors below us) produces the Kids Count in Colorado report, which communicates important child well-being indicators and indices statewide and by county when available.  The neat thing about Kids Count is that it’s also a national program, so you can compare how indicators in a specific county compare to the state and nation. In addition to the full report available as a PDF, you can also interact with a state map and point and click to access a summary of indicators by county.  Mostly, their data is not available in raw form, but their report does explain how they calculated their estimates and provides tons of contextual information that makes their key findings much more insightful.

Highlights:

  • Compare county data to state and national trends
  • Reports include easy to understand analysis and interpretation of data
  • Learn about trends overtime and across demographic groups

Outdoor Foundation

If you’re looking for information about outdoor recreation of any type in any state, there is probably an Outdoor Foundation report that has the data you’re seeking.  Based in Boulder, Colorado, the Outdoor Foundation’s most common reports communicate studies of participation rates by activity type, both at a top level and also by selected activity types such as camping, fishing, and paddle sports (haven’t yet heard of stand-up paddle boarding?  It’s one of the fastest growing in terms of participation).  The top-line reports show trends over the past ten years, while the more detailed Participation Reports break out participation, and other factors such as barriers to participation, by various demographics.  Multiple other special reports, focusing on topics such as youth and technology, round out what’s available from this site.

The participation and special reports are helpful, but I’m most impressed with the Recreation Economy reports, which are available nationwide and within each state.  These reports estimate the economic contribution of outdoor recreation, including jobs supported, tax revenue, and retail sales.  For example, the outdoor recreation economy supported about 107,000 jobs in Colorado in 2013.  Unfortunately, the raw data is not available for further analysis, but the summary results are still interesting and helpful.

Explore:


Building Empathy

In the past year I’ve been involved with a few projects at Corona that involve evaluating programming for teenagers. One commonality across these projects is that the organizations have been interested in building empathy in teenagers. As I’ve been reading through the literature on empathy, I’ve been thinking about how building empathy should be a goal of most nonprofits.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s research demonstrating that people are more likely to donate when they feel empathy for the recipient. This research builds upon the classic psychology research demonstrating that empathy increases the likelihood of altruism, especially when there are costs to being altruistic. It’s clear that empathy can play an important role in motivating people to give altruistically, but how can we build empathy especially for others who are not very similar to ourselves?

One useful way to build empathy in marketing materials is to create stories that allow people to connect to those who need help or to those who are helping. The idea that organizations should be engaging in storytelling to engage and attract stake holders has been recently promoted. Stories are most powerful when people are able to lose themselves in a character.  This is why reading or seeing a story from the first person perspective can be so powerful.

While you don’t necessarily need research to write an empathy-building story to use in marketing materials, research can provide useful information for creating those stories. Any data or information that you have collected about your donors or your recipients can provide a great foundation for creating a story. And if you develop new, empathy-building marketing materials, you might consider testing the impact of those materials.


Making improvements through A/B testing

This one or that oneThis one or that oneDid you know that when you visit Amazon.com the homepage you see may be different than the one someone else sees, even beyond the normal personalized recommendations? It’s been widely reported how Amazon is continually tweaking their homepage by running experiments, or A/B tests (sometimes referred to as split tests), to tease out what makes a meaningful impact on sales. Should this button be here or there? Does this call to action work?

For some research questions, asking people their opinion yields significant insight. For others, people just cannot give you an accurate answer. Would you be more likely to open an email with a question as a subject line or with a bold statement? You don’t really know until you try.

So, how does this work? In essence, you’re running experiments, and with any scientific experiment, you will want your control group (e.g., you don’t change anything) and your experiment group (e.g., the one you’re altering a variable with). Ideally, you randomize people into each so you don’t inadvertently influence your results by how people were selected.

So now, you have two groups. While you may want to test several items, it is easiest to test one item at a time (and run multiple experiments to test each subsequent item). This will help you isolate the impact of your change – change too many things and you won’t know what made the difference or whether if some changes were working against each other.

Finally, launch the tests and measure what happens. Did open rates differ between the two? Did engagement increase? Differences aren’t always dramatic, but even a slight change at scale can have significant impact. For instance, if we increase response on a survey by 2%, that could mean 100 additional responses for essentially no additional cost. If the change costs money – for instance one marketing piece costs more than the other – then a cost benefit analysis will need to be performed. Sure, “B” performed better, but better enough to cover the additional expense of doing it?

A few final quick tips: A/B testing is an ongoing endeavor. Maximum learning will occur over time by running many experiments. Remember, things change, so running even the same experiment over and over can still yield new insights. Finally, you don’t always have to split your groups in half. If you have 2,000 customers, you don’t need to split them into two groups of 1,000. Peeling off just 500 for an experiment may be enough and lower the chance of adverse effects.

Ok, enough with the theoretical. How does this work in real-life?

Take our own company as an example. Corona engages in A/B testing, both for our clients and our own internal learnings. For instance, we may tweak survey invites, incentive options, or other variables to gauge impact on response rates. Through such tests we’ve teased out the ideal placement for the link to the survey within an email, from whom such requests should come from, and many other seemingly insignificant variables (though they are anything but insignificant).

How about your organization? Let’s say you’re a nonprofit, since many of our clients are in the nonprofit sector. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • eNewsletters. Most newsletter platforms have the ability to do A/B testing. Test subject lines, content, colors, everything. Test days and send times.
  • Website. Depending on your platform, this may be easy or more difficult. Test appeals, images, and donate call to actions.
  • Ad testing. Facebook ads, Google ads, etc. Most platforms allow you make tweaks to continually optimize your performance.
  • Mailings. Alter your mailing to change the appeal, call to action, images, or even form of the mailing (e.g., letter vs. postcard).
  • Programming. In addition to marketing and communications, even your services could possibly be tested. What service delivery model works best? Creates the biggest change?

What other ideas would you want to test?


Where are we now? The new next era nonprofit

I spent the other afternoon sitting around a large table chatting with professionals from across the sector about leadership, and the competencies that an effective leader will need in 2025. As we were chatting about today’s realities – and the social, political, technical and economic factors affecting nonprofits – it struck me that we’ve been here before. Or at least I have. Where’s that you may ask? Contemplating the “next era” of the sector.

Nonprofit While our social consciousness is slow to evolve and too slow to change (think social equity and gender identity) we are witnessing change in the form of driver-less cars, “smart” cities, neuroscience, and the record number of Americans not in the workforce. Those topics weren’t showing up on my Facebook feed five years ago. Back then we weren’t contemplating car-free micro-apartments in Denver either.

What else is on the nonprofit leader’s to-do list today? Six recurring topics with new twists.

  1. $ – Figure out what impact investing really is and whether or not we can do it. I know you are secretly wondering if this really is a game changer or simply a spin on the same old, same old. It’s a game changer.
  2. Inclusiveness – Learn how we can create inclusive and accessible organizations that welcome and engage diverse people. We can’t keep kicking this can down the road.
  3. Innovation – Explore the edges of our work, seeking new ideas from unexpected places leveraging tools like design thinking.
  4. Mission impact – Admit to ourselves that we don’t really understand our customers or how to positively impact their lives in a meaningful way and that we may need to toss out some of our favorites.
  5. Engagement – Realize that too often we treat people transactionally. We think of them in buckets – volunteers, Facebook followers, donors, etc. We haven’t optimized our business models to cultivate engagement. Check out my Synergistic Business ModelTM if you’d like to learn more about this all-to-often ignored cornerstone of the nonprofit business model.
  6. Sustainability – Fess up that our business models aren’t really sustainable and that we need thoughtful, committed and generous people to stand by us for the next few years while we invest in figuring things out – or, more bravely, exit the market and let someone new and fresh bring 2025 solutions to the marketplace.

There are no bright, defining lines between the sectors, only smudges that get fainter every time we step on them. Younger generations could care less about your tax status. They want to know you are authentic, relevant, impactful and efficient. They expect you to do good. Period. Gen Y and the boomers are learning from them.

What competencies will a nonprofit leader likely need in 2025? My list begins with “intelligence” and the courage to explore, experiment and collaborate. Higher education is looking at multi-disciplinary learning. Perhaps nonprofits need to consider busting their silo’ed approaches too.

What’s on your list?

2025 will be here before we know it. Are you ready?


Turning Passion into Actionable Data

Nonprofits are among my favorite clients that we work with here at Corona for a variety of reasons, but one of the things that I love most is the passion that surrounds nonprofits.  That passion shines through the most in our work when we do research with internal stakeholders for the nonprofit.  This could include donors, board members, volunteers, staff, and program participants.  These groups of people, who are already invested in the organization are passionate about helping to improve it, which is good news when conducting research, as it often makes them more likely to participate and increase response rates.

Prior to joining the Corona team, I worked in the volunteer department of a local animal shelter.  As a data nerd even then, I wanted to know more about who our volunteers were, and how they felt about the volunteer program.  I put together an informal survey, and while I still dream about what nuggets could have been uncovered if we had gone through a more formal Corona-style process, the data we uncovered was still valuable in helping us determine what we were doing well and what we needed to improve on.

That’s just one example, but the possibilities are endless.  Maybe you want to understand what motivated your donors to contribute to your cause, how likely they are to continue donating in the future, and what would motivate them to donate more.  Perhaps you want to evaluate the effectiveness of your programs.  Or, maybe you want to know how satisfied employees are with working at your organization and brainstorm ideas on how to decrease stress and create a better workplace.

While you want to be careful about being too internally focused and ignoring the environment in which your nonprofit operates, there is huge value in leveraging passion by looking internally at your stakeholders to help move your organization forward.

 


Informal Research for Nonprofit Organizations

While Corona serves all three sectors (private, public, and nonprofit) in our work, we have always had a soft spot for our nonprofit clients.  No other type of organization is asked to do more with less, so we love working with nonprofits to help them refine their strategies to be both more effective at fulfilling their missions and more financially stable at the same time.

However, while we are thrilled for the opportunities to work with dozens of nonprofits every year, we know that there are hundreds of other organizations that we don’t work with, many of which simply don’t have the resources to devote to a formal marketing research effort. I’m a huge fan of the Discovery Channel show MythBusters, so I’ll share one of my favorite quotes:

http://www.tested.com/art/makers/557288-origin-only-difference-between-screwing-around-and-science-writing-it-down/
Image from Tested courtesy of DCL

While few would argue that the results found in an episode of MythBusters would qualify as academically rigorous research, I think most would agree that trying a few things out and seeing what happens is at least better than just trusting your gut instinct alone.  Likewise, here are a few ideas for ways that nonprofits can gather at least some basic information to help guide their strategies through informal “market research.”

Informal Interviews

One-on-one interviews are one of the easiest ways to gather feedback from a wide variety of individuals.  Formal interview research involves a third-party randomly recruiting individuals to participate from the entire universe of people you are trying to understand, but simply talking to people one-on-one about the issues or strategies that you are considering can be very insightful.  Here are a few pointers on getting the most out of informal interviews:

  • Dedicate time for the interview. It may seem easy to just chat with someone informally at dinner or at an event, but the multitude of distractions will reduce the value you get out of the conversation.  Find a time that both parties can really focus on the discussion, and you’ll get much better results.
  • Write your questions down in advance. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole when having a conversation about something you are passionate about, so be sure to think through the questions you need to answer so that you can keep the conversation on track.
  • Record the conversation (or at least take notes). Take the MythBusters’ advice, and document the conversation.  If you’ve talked to a dozen people about your idea, it will be impossible for you to remember it all.  By having documentation of the conversations, you can look back later and have a better understanding of what your interviewees said.

Informal focus groups

Similar to interviews, in an ideal world focus groups should be conducted by a neutral, third-party with an experienced moderator who can effectively guide the group discussion to meet your goals.  However, as with interviews, you can still get a lot of value out of just sitting down with a group and talking through the issues.  In particular, if you have an event or conference where many people are together already, grabbing a few to talk through your ideas can be very informative.  Our suggestions for this type of “research” are similar to those for informal interviews, with slight differences in their implications:

  • Dedicate time for the discussion. As mentioned before, it may be tempting to just say “We’ll talk about this over dinner” or “Maybe if we have time at the end of the day we can get together.”  You’ll get far better results if everyone can plan for the conversation in advance and participate without distractions.
  • Write your questions down in advance. Even more so than for interviews, having a formal plan about what questions you want to ask is imperative.  Group discussions have a tendency of taking on a life of their own, so having a plan can help you to guide the discussion back on topic.
  • Document the results. Again, you may think you can remember everything that was said during a conversation, but a few months down the road, you will be very thankful that you took the time to either record the conversation or take notes about what was said.

Informal Surveys

Surveys are, perhaps, the most difficult of these ideas to implement on an informal basis, but they can nevertheless be very useful.  If you’re just needing some guidance on how members of an organization feel about a topic, asking for a show of hands at a conference is a perfectly viable way of at least getting a general idea of how members feel.  Similarly, if you have a list of email addresses for your constituents, you could simply pose your question in an email and ask people to respond with their “vote.”

The trickiest part is making sure that you understand what the results actually represent.  If your conference is only attended by one type of member, don’t assume that their opinions are the same as other member types.  Likewise, if you only have email addresses for 10 percent of your constituents, be careful with assuming that their opinions reflect those of the other 90 percent.  Even so, these informal types of polling can help you to at least get an idea of how groups feel on the whole.

~

Hopefully these ideas can give your nonprofit organization a place to start when trying to understand reactions to your ideas or strategies.  While these informal ways of gathering data will never be as valuable as going through a formal research process, they can provide at least some guidance as you move forward that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

And if your issues are complex enough that having true, formal research is necessary to ensure that you are making the best possible decisions for your organization, we’ve got a pretty good recommendation on who you can call…


The cautionary tale of 5 scary strategic planning mistakes: Part V – Don’t get too tuckered out

The scariest proposition is creating a strategic plan that inevitably doesn’t get implemented. Strategic plans are worth their weight in gold when they become a blueprint for future progress. As my final word to the wise, I advise leaders undertaking the strategic planning process to hold onto the momentum created by the planning process to carry them through the first years of implementation (the hard part).

I’ve long said that an organization lives in a parallel universe when engaged in strategic planning as you have to remain attentive to the present while you focus on the future. The board’s approval of the completed plan is only the beginning. If there isn’t energy and enthusiasm after the planning process, then you know the next few years of implementation are going to feel l-o-n-g. It is only a matter of time before some combination of pitfalls 1-4 (link) above sneak into the day to day.

This blog concludes my five part series about the scary tales of strategic planning. I encourage every leader to consider these lessons as they devote themselves to being strategic. Avoid these pitfalls and many others by trusting an expert to be your strategic consultant. Years of experience have given me the foresight to help my clients be successful in giving their organization a truly strategic plan.

Miss the first four blogs in this series? Feel free to start at the beginning, or pick the topic that most resonates with you.

 

The cautionary tale of 5 scary strategic planning mistakes.

Part I – Don’t self-sabotage

Part II – Avoid side swipes

Part III – Dismiss unrealistic expectations

Part IV – Be willing to say “no”