In this webinar, Sarah Durham will focus on identifying who your audiences are, how to prioritize them, and other elements key to developing a smart communications strategy.

Full Transcript:

Steven: Okay, Sarah, I got 3:00 Eastern. Is it okay if I go ahead and get this party started? All right, awesome. Well, good afternoon everybody. If you’re joining us live, if you’re watching the recording, no matter when and where you are, I hope you’re having a good day. We are here to talk about how to build your nonprofit’s engagement engine. I love that “engagement” word, it’s in my job title after all, so this is a good one. I’m so glad to see you all here. I’m Steven, I’m over here at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion as always.

And just a couple of quick housekeeping items, I just want to let everyone know that we are recording today’s session. So, if you have to leave early or get interrupted or just want to watch it again, share it with a friend, don’t worry, we’ll get that to you, we’ll get you the slides. You should already have the slides but, just in case I missed you earlier, we will send all that out again this afternoon. I promise.

But, most importantly, use the chat bot . . . or the chat box, I should say, on your Zoom screen. We’re going to save some time for Q&A. So don’t be shy, we’d love to hear from you. There’s also a Q&A box. Use either/or, it’s cool. We’ll see them. We’ll save some time for questions but, most importantly, we would love to hear from you. We’d love for these to be interactive.

You can even send us a tweet, I’ll keep, you know, half an eye on the Twitter feed as well. But do reach out because we’ll have some time for your questions at the end.

If this is your first Bloomerang webinar, I just want to say an extra special welcome to you first timers. We do these webinars every Thursday, for the past 9 years. We’re getting close to 1,000 sessions actually. It’ll be exciting when we get to that.

But, if you’ve never heard of Bloomerang beyond the webinars, we are also a provider, primarily a provider, of donor-management software. So, if you’re interested in that or maybe you’re thinking about switching software soon, check us out. You can go to our website, there’s all kinds of videos and resources you can check out there to get to know us a little bit more.

But don’t do that right now, wait at least an hour because we got Sarah Durham, one of my favorites joining us from Massachusetts. Hey, Sarah, how are you doing?

Sarah: Hi, Steven, thanks for having me. Always fun.

Steven: I love it. It would not be a webinar season here, our annual season, without having you. We love Sarah. We love Big Duck. You guys got to check out Big Duck. It’s a great agency. She has been the founder since 1994 helping nonprofits with branding, websites. Really Sarah’s like my go-to for all things branding. Wrote a book on brandraising, which is really awesome, and has got kind of a newish book right here, “Nonprofit Communications Engine,” which is you’re going to get a little bit of the book information today too. So buy those books. You’re going to want to after the presentation’s over. And she’s been all over. She speaks at conferences. She’s on, you know, all the leading blogs. And I think you’ll probably notice her name, if Sarah’s new to you, after this session.

So this is awesome. I’m going to let you share your screen, Sarah, because they don’t want to hear from me, they want to hear from you. So let’s see if we can go.

Sarah: So thank you. Thank you, Steven. This is always fun to be here with the smart crowd at Bloomerang. And I’m going to share my screen. I’m going to go off camera. And also just in terms of our format and our approach today, Steven’s going to be keeping an eye on . . . oops, no, I don’t want to share that one, I’ll share my Google slides. Steven’s going to be keeping an eye on the Q&A. We’re going to leave time for that.

If you have ever heard me present, you probably know I’m actually a native New Yorker, I talk real fast and I move fast. And that’s what I’m going to do today, I’m going to try to cover a lot of ground but leave some time at the end for Q&A and conversation and all of that. I cannot see your chat right now or your comments, so please do chat things in. But Steven will either bring up questions and things as we go or, if there’s anything very exciting going on in the middle of the webinar, he’ll interrupt me, which is also great. Steven, you can see my screen okay? We’re good to go?

Steven: Yeah, it looks great. Go for it.

Sarah: Okay, great. Great, okay. So, for those of you who don’t know Big Duck, we are a communications firm that works exclusively with nonprofits. We’ve been around since 1994, you can just check us out on And a lot of what I’m going to talk to you about today is the outgrowth of my 27, or almost 30 years, in nonprofit communications. And we have a sister agency called Advomatic. Advomatic builds and supports websites for nonprofits and also works with a lot of great organizations, some of whom are in the room. So shout out to you, Advomatic clients.

And, as Steven mentioned today, we’re going to be talking a bit about some of the things in my new book, “The Nonprofit Communications Engine.” You can find it on Amazon, but I’m going to sort of give you a cheat sheet today and share some of the principles in it with you so you don’t have to buy the book. Hopefully, you’ll get some good value from this.

And this is also a really great time to say that, if you haven’t read Steven’s book, I suggest you do. And, Steven, please chat out the link to your book for everybody too. I interviewed Steven on my podcast, Smart Communications Podcast, about his book. And it’s really awesome, so check out the podcast or Steven’s book.

So one of my great passions is nonprofit communications as sort of an academic study. What is it? You know, why is it that, when we talk to people about communications in their organization, we hear so many different things? There really isn’t a clear definition that is universally accepted in the sector. And when I started researching this book, one of my goals was to do that, was to come up with a definition that the nonprofit sector might embrace and use to answer the question, “What is communications in a nonprofit?” And my definition is that nonprofit communications is the practice of creating and sustaining mindshare and engagement that advances the mission.

And today, we’re going to talk really about the mindshare and the engagement piece. But I want to emphasize, in this definition, that the whole thing hinges on advancing the mission. If your communications are not actually advancing your mission, then they’re not necessarily doing you a lot of good. And one of the most important ways to advance that mission is to get on people’s radar and get them to take action.

And, in the book, I talk about the three things that a nonprofit can generate when it does this well. And they are, number one, engagement, that the right people should know, remember, and connect with your organization and work and then take meaningful action on its behalf. Again, that’s where we’re going to focus today.

But it’s also important that your organization communicates with a clear credible and compelling voice, that you communicate with consistently at all points of contact. And that’s where that brandraising piece, Steven talked about earlier, comes in. A lot of the work we do at Big Duck is about helping organizations articulate their voice.

And the third outcome that a great communications engine can generate is sustainable momentum. And that means that your organization’s communications are not dependent on your executive director, on your founder, or on that really smart person in the communications team who seems to know how to do all the things.

So that’s a kind of a quick overview of what your engine can generate. But again, today we’re going to go deep into the engagement piece and focus on mindshare and engagement. And if you want more information or the deeper dive into those other sections, on the Big Duck website, which is, under Insights, you’ll find a lot of other content.

So let’s talk about mindshare. Mindshare is a word you don’t hear a lot but I think it’s a word that nonprofits should focus on a bit more because it’s really about answering this question, “Why are we a best-kept secret?” or, “How can we get better known?” I mean, if I had a dollar for every time, over the last 30 years, I’ve heard an organization say something like, you know, “We’re this hidden gem, we’re this best kept secret,” that is, for most organizations, something that is an ongoing struggle.

So what does it mean to generate mindshare? What is mindshare? Well, it’s the level of awareness and understanding that a product, a program, a service, or your organization has in people’s minds. So, when I think of your organization, you know, or hear the name of your organization, how well do I understand what you do? How much is it front of mind for me?

And one of the things that often occurs to me about mindshare that I think we lose sight of in nonprofits is that mindshare has a shelf life. So think, for instance, about a time where perhaps you got invited to somebody else’s organization’s gala. Like you got invited to a fundraiser or you said to your friend you’d go and sit at their table at an event. And you go to this event, and the organization puts on this incredible event and there are moving speakers and an incredible video. And you talk to people at your table and you really feel a connection to the mission, you feel inspired, maybe you make a donation. Well, in that moment, and probably when you go home and tell your significant other about it, maybe even the next day or the day after, that organization is very top of mind. You’re clear who they are, what they do, it’s very resonant.

But then, as time goes on, maybe a week later, two weeks later, as things get busy, you start to forget. It starts to slip away and recede. And the other things that you’re doing throughout your day start to come to the forefront. And actually, two months later, six months later, a year later, when that organization’s name comes up, you may be only vaguely familiar, it’s sort of receded for you. So the idea in building and sustaining mindshare is to keep this idea about who your organization is and what you do, which has a whole branding component too, but keep it top of mind, stay on people’s radar, don’t let them . . . first, have them learn about you but then don’t let them forget about you.

And one of Big Duck’s clients, Vince Warren, who’s the executive director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said this really well in a way that I think is really beautiful, he said, you know, “The mission of communications at the Center for Constitutional Rights is to explode our base of support and make those people love us.” And I think that’s a great way to embody what building mindshare can do for an organization.

Now, mindshare is only good if it generates action. It’s not okay if people have heard about you, if people are aware of you, but they never do anything on your behalf. Because, as you remember from that definition I gave you earlier, actually, communication is about advancing the mission. So, if people don’t participate in your programs, donate, sign that petition, you know, vote differently, we’re not actually advancing the mission. So mindshare on its own is not enough, we want to partner mindshare with engagement.

And I would argue that engagement is probably where 75% or 80% of your communication’s energy should be investment. Because engagement means getting people to take actions that advance the mission. This is really where that awareness of who you are or that, you know, email you just sent them, that direct-mail piece you just sent them, that webinar you just hosted for your constituents, where that turns into action and people do something. They write a check, they sign up, they advocate.

And engagement can happen in all kinds of different areas. I often think of engagement as crossing over all of these areas, from fundraising to your programs to, you know, community-based advocacy, government relations. But, in the book, one of the things that I talk about is a piece of marketing theory that has been used in a lot of different sectors called the ladder of engagement. And, in the ladder of engagement, what we think about is, you know, what kind of engagement is appropriate or what kind of action somebody is willing to take to advance your mission really depends on where they are in their mindshare, how comfortable or familiar they are with your organization.

So, if I’ve never heard of your organization, if I’m unaware of who you are and what you do, probably the kind of engagement you’re going to get me to do is going to be pretty low-bar. You might get me, for instance, to click on a URL in a tweet and visit your website. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get me to show up for a free event like an open house or something on Zoom. But it’s not very likely that somebody who is unaware is going to go from being unaware of your organization to, all of a sudden, making a big gift, let’s say, or taking an action that involves like a deep commitment.

So, as we think about engagement in communications, we want to match the type of action we are asking people to take with their level of engagement or familiarity or mindshare with the organization. And generally, we think of people moving from being unaware to observing in fairly low-bar ways, through email, through social media, by visiting your website. And these are the kinds of places where, typically, your marketing and communications team has oversight or ownership. They are the people who often control and direct your email marketing or your website or your social media.

But as people take actions that are a little bit higher-stakes, maybe more personalized, maybe involve a bigger level of commitment, we start to move from these sort of mass-communications tactics into more personalized-communications tactics. For instance, when somebody makes a gift, they might get a phone call from a board member thanking them for the gift. Or they might get a personal email from somebody on staff or a letter that has been customized a bit. And typically, when things get more personalized, they tend to be actions that are managed by the department, by the fundraising team, or the programs team that actually is responsible for that aspect of the mission.

So your marketing and communications team and the other departments in your organization have to really be good collaborators because the marketing and communications team is actually helping raise the mindshare and helping spark the engagement that leads to the kind of support and advocacy and success that other departments want to have, as people get more and more engaged with your organization.

So what are some hallmarks of smart engagement for a nonprofit? Well, first of all, in order to do engagement work, you have to have a clear and compelling organizational strategy. I mean your vision, your mission, your organizational objectives, the stuff of strategic planning. It needs to be clear because, if your organization is not clear what your vision and mission is all about, it’s going to be very hard to figure out what communications activities are going to spark the advancement of that mission. People who are great at engagement also have a nuanced understanding of the audiences they’re trying to reach. They know, for instance, “Are these people likely to be on Facebook or TikTok or Instagram or Twitter?” What’s the best sort of bang for the buck in terms of where we reach and engage people?

They also have a deliberate approach to connecting with specific audiences and managing their experience. So they don’t just blast out a lot of communications and hope that people take action, they think about the ladder of engagement and how each step has to help move somebody up the ladder of engagement so they become more aware and more likely to take action.

And all of these things are done cohesively and strategically so that the limited time that communications people have . . . because, even in very large organizations, there are never enough people, there’s never enough money, there’s never enough time, you’ve got to spend those resources really, really, really strategically.

So, as you think about the type of communications that you want to build to build engagement, I would encourage you to start by asking what are the actions that people can take that advance your mission. Do you want them to donate? Volunteer? Join? Make a change in their behavior? Advocate for something? Because that action is really the key to it all.

So let’s talk a little bit more about how you do all those things. And, if building this successful communications engine is a cake, which, you know, I like to think of things in cake terms, what are the ingredients that help you bake that cake? What are the ingredients that you’re going to need in order to build a communications team and an engine that can successfully generate successful mindshare and engagement outcomes? Well, in the book, I define six elements that power successful communications outcomes. And the book is structured in a way where each of these elements is given its own chapter with a whole bunch of stuff in it. But today what we’re going to do is we’re going to look at these six elements specifically with an eye towards how they can be used to build engagement.

And actually, in the book, one of the things that . . . you can download it for free on the Big Duck website, if you like, under Insights, if you go to . . . I think it’s /quiz, you will get this. But there’s a little self-assessment tool you can use to assess your organization’s capacity across each of these six things.

So, to get started, everything begins with strategy in nonprofit communications. And you always want to start with a strategy anchored in an understanding of your audiences, the actions you want them to take, and what’s in it for them. And that sounds kind of self-evident but it is often the case that sometimes tactics lead in communications. Nonprofit communicators spend so much time producing newsletters and getting emails out and managing social media that sometimes you get into this routine of just producing the things, doing the tactics without stopping to remember, “Okay, this is the specific audience we want to reach. This is the specific action we want them to take. How are these emails I’m generating, or newsletters or other tools I’m working with, actually inspiring people to act?”

So, when we talk about strategy, what we’re talking about is that your organization should be clear who its target audiences are and it should have a strategy to reach and engage them with specific plans. And one of the exercises you can use to figure that out is this kind of bullseye graphic, which is in the book but you can easily draw it on a piece of paper. If your organization internally talks about wanting to be, you know, known by everybody, that every man, woman, and child on the street should be familiar with your work, you’re trying to reach everybody and, therefore, you’re basically reaching nobody. Because there is no such thing as an organization that has enough resources to be well known by everybody. Nor, I would argue, should most organizations even be known by everybody in the first place.

So start by asking the question, who must you engage with to achieve your mission? If you are a community-based organization, who are the people in your community who might benefit from your programs or should support your programs. Then, outside of that core, who are the people you should engage with? Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of organizations in the health and wellness space. And you might say that the people at the center are the people who are directly affected by whatever disease or disorder a health organization might be addressing, but those organizations should also engage with people who might be researchers or clinicians in that space. Or maybe even policy makers who have influence over government, you know, budgets, you know, for the CDC or things like that.

Who could you engage with? Well, that’s sort of the outer tier. People who might care about the issue but it may not be a primary priority for them, either programmatically or philanthropically. It is good to reach and engage those people but you want to start with the core and work your way out. So, if you have limited budget or resources, start by focusing those energies, first and foremost, on the must audience in the center and think about building out that ladder of engagement for them specifically. How are you going to move people who you must engage with from being unaware to observing to supporting you by taking action to becoming an advocate on your behalf?

And one of the best ways to do that, or to get the ball rolling, is to write a brief that defines your audience, your engagement goals, your objectives, your strategies, and tactics. And this is a step that I think a lot of organizations sometimes don’t take because it’s sort of, you know, again, you have to stop the tactics day-to-day machine and take time out to write that brief. But it is such a useful thing to do because it gives you a framework for all the things you’re doing and helps you stay really focused. And if you’ve never done that or even if you’re sitting here saying, “Yeah, you know, strategies, goals, objectives . . . How are those things really different?” Big Duck has a free ebook that will help you with this. This is the URL on the bottom right. And this actually even has, I think, a worksheet in it. It defines what a goal, an objective, a strategy, a tactic is and it gives you some context.

So start by writing a brief that is very simple. Your brief can even be a sentence or two. You could say, “We want to reach,” you know, “major donors and get them to make a gift of $5,000 or more.” “We will know we are successful if we raise $500,000 by Thanksgiving.” So your brief can be very simple. But the more you pin down the details in the brief, the more likely you will be to be able to make a decision about which tactics are going to be more or less appropriate.

So these are a couple of examples of the kinds of things that might go in your brief. And with these sorts of goals written down as backdrop, the next step, strategically, is to design maybe some finite or some evergreen mindshare and engagement campaigns. By “finite” what I mean is they have a short shelf life. Maybe you’re just going to do your campaign for a brief period of time, if your goal suggests that. By “evergreen” I mean campaigns that are ongoing, that maybe every year you can use to reach and engage people in the same kinds of ways so that they keep you top of mind.

And, as you design your campaigns, I encourage you to think about both what the individual wants and what your organization wants. I see this, you know, at Big Duck, we do a lot of capital-campaign communications work where we’re developing case statements and collateral and things that are used to ask major donors to make significant gifts. And sometimes, when people write their organization’s case statement, the impulse is to write about what the money will be used to fund. So, “We want to raise,” you know, “$200 million. We will use it to build a new building. That new building will contain these awesome new programs, etc.” That’s what the organization wants. But what does the donor want or what does the individual you’re trying to reach and engage want? And how can you write and create campaigns that don’t just talk about what your need is but talk about their role or participation and how they can partner with you in supportive ways that make it come to life, where they can see themselves engaging in more meaningful ways?

And with that in mind, you can start to turn your plan into a calendar with clear accountabilities and clear actions. This is where you sort of say, “Okay, this is how we’re going to use all the tactics. This is when we’re going to use them. And this is who’s responsible for all of them.”

The next element that will help you build mindshare and engagement is having the right team in place, so the right people who are directing, managing, and implementing your organization’s communications structured in a way that makes sense. And actually, before we got started with this webinar, Steven and I were both reflecting on one of our shared favorite people, who’s Kivi Leroux Miller at the Nonprofit Marketing Guide. Kivi and her colleagues at the Nonprofit Marketing Guide put out this terrific report every . . . I think it’s in February every year, called the Nonprofit Trends Report. And this year’s trends report, and you can download it for free at the URL at the bottom, has some really interesting stats about the effectiveness of communications teams.

And one of the things they identified this year is that actually having three full-time employees in communications seems to be the sweet spot for most organizations. That those are the teams that self-identify as the most effective and have really the right level of skill, and maybe advanced or expert skills, to be really effective communicators. So you definitely, if you have the budget and the size, you know, it’s great to have in-house people, but let’s talk about, you know, what needs to happen in-house versus what could theoretically be outsourced if you don’t have all those people.

So you can see, on this list, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s going to go into creating those finite or evergreen marketing campaigns. You’ve got to set your strategy and plans, make sure everything’s moving forward, coordinate all the details, create all the things, that means like writing and designing, maybe writing emails, designing, you know, new graphics, posting content on your website, tracking the results, and making sure that everything that has happened has been captured and learned from and maybe helps you refine things so that, in the future, you do it even better.

Well, the three things I’ve put in bold here are actually the things that are the most important to do in-house. The other three things, setting strategy, creating the things, and tracking results are the easier things to outsource. So, if you are working with maybe some volunteers or freelancers or external consultants, you will find that it’s still, as talented as they may be, probably going to be really hard for those external people to coordinate your team to make sure that, you know, everybody on your team who should be involved in reviewing or approving something gives feedback, that that feedback is integrated and that whatever the results are get, you know, informed for future work.

But it’s quite possible that you can have freelancers or pro-bono consultants or other people help you by setting strategies, making plans, making calendars, writing or designing, even doing the analytics on your campaign. So one of the things I’ve become a big advocate for is, if you’re building a communications team and your focus is on building engagement, start by hiring people who are great project managers and great people persons. People people. Because those communications people need to really collaborate well with their colleagues in the development team and the programs team, you know, throughout your organization. Just as I showed you earlier in that ladder of engagement, the work that they do and the work that their colleagues and other departments do has to seamlessly integrate as we move people towards increased levels of mindshare and engagement.

The third element in your nonprofit communications engine, when you’re trying to build engagement, is having a culture in your organization that inspires positive experiences for staff collaboration and behavior. And this is one of those things that I think we don’t talk about enough in communications. I think it gets talked about sort of around the edges sometimes. But definitely you want to have a culture of collaboration because, again, your comms people really need to be able to get input from their colleagues, understand their colleagues’ goals and objectives, and be trusted.

You know, if the programs team needs communications people’s help to reach and recruit people to come in for a new program, let’s say, they need to feel confident that the comms people really understand what the program’s about and who’s going to be a good fit for it. So that, when they’re producing flyers or postcards or they’re manning a table, you know, at an event, which I hope people will be able to do again soon, that they are recruiting people because they really understand the program. So having a culture where people collaborate and play well together is really, really important for communications because, if you’re not communicating well internally, it’s going to be really, really hard to communicate well externally.

And implementing your plan along the way means capturing lessons and data as you go. And having a culture that sort of documents things and keeps track of things can also be very helpful too because that’s how you become a learning organization, not just an organization that kind of does all these tactics but never actually learns from them.

The next element in our communications engine are the tools you can use to communicate. And that means sometimes people are tools and that they are communications assets, or representatives of the organization. You might have brand elements, not just your logo but even your organization’s name or messaging or ways that you use imagery, content, media, campaigns software, there are all kinds of resources your organization is going to need to use to communicate effectively. And I think one of the great challenges sometimes, when you’re hiring your first communications people, is making sure that they have the right tools at their disposal to be able to do their job well.

And one way that I think it’s helpful to think about engagement and the types of tools people need to build it is to remember that, at the end of the day, despite all the different ways we think about communications, it boils down to three types of media. You have owned media, earned media, and paid media. Owned media are the things that you control. So you control your website, your social media, your email. These are all channels that your organization can direct and basically do whatever you want with, within reason and the law, at your own discretion.

Earned media is when you get press or coverage by somebody else. So you have less control over earned media. But sometimes earned media comes with great increased mindshare-building capacity. If your executive director is able to get an op-ed in a major newspaper, let’s say, that’s terrific coverage for building mindshare. If you get, you know, covered on some CNN story about your mission, you can reach people in profound ways with earned media. But in my experience, earned media is actually really good for mindshare, not always great for engagement and, usually, most effective and most powerful for organizations that do advocacy work. Because earned media can be a great way to change somebody’s mind but it doesn’t necessarily always get them to take a specific action.

Paid media is when you buy ads, and a lot of organizations have access to free Google AdWords. That is actually a form of paid media, even if you’re getting it donated by Google or another source. Many organizations pay for either things like GEO targeting, like when I walk in my neighborhood near the botanic garden, maybe on my phone, I see ads for the botanic garden. That’s a type of paid media. So paid media is a really great type of media if you need to do the kind of marketing where you’re trying to get people to take an action, like “Sign up for a program” or “show up for something.” But paid media on its own is going to be expensive because you’re going to have to make a real sustained commitment to it.

So owned, earned, and paid media are the mix. And most organizations, particularly smaller organizations, tend to invest most heavily or focus most of their time on their own media.

Now, a couple of examples, just to put this into context and show you a little bit of how this comes to life, is, you know, here we are, we’re looking . . . I’ll show you a little bit more of this case study I think later. But, on the right, we see an ad for an organization called Math for America. This is a campaign trying to reach and engage science teachers and math teachers to sign up for a fellowship. And this is a paid media ad on WNYC, you know, NPR’s website. So that’s an example of paid media.

This is an example of owned media. This is a campaign for an organization called the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice. They did an abortion advocacy campaign called Yo Te Apoyo, that we worked with them on a few years ago. And that included a call to action where people could go to the website and talk about why they supported their loved ones who were considering having an abortion and people could take action to engage there by posting something. Posting a reason, which would then be populated on this website.

Another example of a campaign I mentioned earlier is a capital campaign. So this is a case statement for a capital campaign that’s used to reach and engage major donors and get them to become more aware of this organization’s strategic plan and, hopefully, make a significant gift to advance research.

So common mindshare and engagement tactics. Again, you know, your website, your newsletter, social media, that’s all owned media. But you also have things like mailers, flyers, postcards, brochure. All of those things are the tactical mix that we’re going to use to build mindshare and engagement.

Okay. So two more to go. We’ll do a quick case study and then we’ll pivot over into Q&A in just a few minutes. So the fifth element in our nonprofit communications that helps us build mindshare is great processes. And this is pretty straightforward, it just basically means having things written down so that you can achieve predictable outcomes without relying on memory. And this is one of the most important ways to build sustainable momentum. If I work in your comms team and I’m the only employee, or maybe I’m one of many employees but I’m the only person who actually knows how to use the email system and, you know, I’m the only person who knows how to log into MailChimp, set up a newsletter, and send it out, then I should write that down. I should write it down as a written workflow or a checklist so that, if I’m out sick or I leave the organization, other people can do that and we don’t just have to reinvent the wheel or forget how things are done every time we do it.

And I would really encourage you, as you are launching new campaigns and initiatives, to check in along the way and assess the progress on the campaign and refine how you’re going mid-stream, use that brief, to see, you know, “Is it strategically, are we heading in the right direction?” and also to write it down. To say, “Okay, we’ve made some progress, we’ve got our brief, we’ve got,” you know, “the things set up in the different owned and earned media we’re going to use. Have we written down all the steps we’re taking so that next time, when we do this campaign again, we remember how to do it?”

And all of these things are going to be key to starting up our campaign’s initiatives that build mindshare and engagement. But also a really key step is to take a moment to step back and reflect a bit and take a look at how you’re using data and insights to get smarter and communicate more effectively. And there’s a really easy way to do that, which is just to debrief at the end. And what I mean by that is sit down with the people who worked on the campaign in your organization, or the partners or volunteers you worked with, and debrief with them at the end. Capture data and lessons learned so that the next time you do a campaign, whether it’s the same thing that you’re going to do again year over year or whether a new campaign is going to get launched, you can learn and grow.

Debriefing is really easy to do, it’s actually really fun to do. We do it at Big Duck after every project. And it’s a great way to establish a culture of being a learning organization. So I encourage you to save the time to do that, just as you save the time to write a brief at the start. It will just make you smarter and more efficient for the time you invest in it.

So let’s take a look at a quick case study which weaves together a lot of these things. I think I showed you a preview of this earlier. This is an organization called Math for America and they have a program that is a fellowship program for public-school math and science teachers in New York City. And one of the things that they have to do . . . I mean this is an awesome program, it’s a fellowship, and it is free to participate in. And, in fact, there’s a lot of benefits to participating. But it is also a fair amount of work to apply for this fellowship, get approved to participate and to do it. So they needed to raise awareness, build mindshare for this program, and they also needed to reach and engage more public-school math and science teachers in New York City.

And so, when we worked with them, many years ago, to craft this campaign, what we were trying to do was come up with a theme or a concept that could be used to build mindshare and engagement for this over many years. And we did some research and learned a lot about what public-school math and science teachers thought about the program and we came up with a theme called “Practice what you teach.” It was the idea that you’re a teacher, you want people to learn. Well, you should be learning too. You should practice what you teach, which is, you know, be open and learn and grow.

And we developed a campaign that we tested with public-school math and science teachers and we found they were very responsive too. And we used it to do a whole bunch of earned, owned, and paid media. So here’s some paid media, this is a New York City subway ad, I think they actually got a lot of this donated pro bono, but some of it may have been paid. And these were ads that use that theme of “Practice what you teach” and featured real teachers.

And the same campaign was played out in paid media, I already showed you this ad but, you know, these different paid-media places where, you can see on this GIF, there is a call to action. It’s always really important to make sure that, when you’re trying to build engagement, you tell people what the action is you want them to take. So, in this case, it’s “Get started applying for your fellowship.”

There might also be print pieces in a campaign like this. The kind of thing that you could drop off at a school, so you could leave it in the teacher’s lounge or something like that and teachers could just pick it up. And this is how we’re reaching people who might be unaware or observing, and giving them a way to kind of privately, without having to engage with the organization, learn a bit about the program and reflect on if it’s appropriate.

So you get the point. There’s a lot of different ways you can take a campaign and bring it to life. And something like this, like a pocket folder, is really more effective, as we talked about at the top of the ladder of engagement, when people . . . when you’re actually sitting down to talk to somebody one-on-one, you need different tools than you do when you are reaching people who’ve never heard of you.

So I’m just going to share a couple of quick resources, we’ve got 15 or 20 minutes left to go. And, after I get through these resources, I’m going to stop sharing, I’ll come back on camera, maybe Steven will too, and we will get to your questions. So, if you haven’t chat . . . it looks like we got a few questions, but, if you haven’t chatted in your questions, or even your comments and stories, your successes, we want to hear them.

So resources. If you are interested in getting some help with a big campaign to reach and engage your target audiences and you are looking for resources, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Big Duck or poke around our website. We have lots of case studies which might serve as inspiration and a lot of free resources on the Insights page of our website.

I mentioned earlier also we took the communication self-assessment tool in my book and we turned it into a free one-page PDF. You can get that at So, if you’re trying to assess how your communications engine is humming along, I encourage you to do this and maybe use this quiz with some colleagues, like have three or four people on your team fill out the quiz separately and then get together and talk about how your results, you know, aligned or contrasted. And that might help you determine where you should spend energy in 2021 as you try to boost your communications engine.

My book, “The nonprofit Communications Engine,” is available on Amazon. And, I think I mentioned this earlier, but I host a podcast called “The Smart Communications Podcast.” Steven was a guest on it not that long ago. The podcast comes out every couple of weeks. Each episode is 10 or 15-minutes long and it’s kind of a snackable size bit of communications inspiration and learning for nonprofit communicators. So it’s designed to be the kind of thing you can listen to while you walk your dog or on a quick run to the grocery store. Something like that, it’s not a big commitment but, hopefully, you will find it helpful.

So thank you for bearing with me so far on this conversation. I’m just going to come on camera and stop sharing. And now I can see the chat, I can see my pal Steven. So, yeah, do we have any questions for us?

Steven: Yeah, there’s some good ones in here. But yeah, we’ve got about 15 minutes, like you said. But first, thank you, Sarah, that was awesome.

Sarah: Thank you.

Steven: You all should get the book because, if you like the presentation, you’ll really like the book because it goes into more detail about a bunch of this stuff.

There’s a lot of good ones here but one from Victor just stood out to me, “Has COVID changed any of this?”

Sarah: Yeah.

Steven: I know you wrote the book kind of in the middle or maybe right towards the beginning of things. But any maybe color you would add based on the last year we’ve gone through?

Sarah: Yeah. My book and your book both came out right before COVID. I mean I think my book came out . . .

Steven: Right. It’s great. Great timing by us.

Sarah: . . . and your book came out in January. Yeah. And actually the recommendations in my book really wouldn’t change based on COVID because I was trying very hard when I wrote it and edited it to have it be kind of like very flexible and very scalable. It’s not specific about tactics, so it doesn’t talk about Facebook, for instance, it doesn’t talk about in-person events. It talks about strategies and approaches that, hopefully, are applicable for any organization of any size.

But certainly COVID has changed things enormously for nonprofits in terms of how they communicate. And the big shift is towards the utter reliance that everybody has had on digital in the past year. And, over at Advomatic, one of the things we’ve seen a lot is organizations who’d kind of treated their website as like a little bit of an afterthought or a secondary thing really, last year, said, “Wow. Our website is not putting our best foot forward and it is right now the primary place people are engaging with us. We need to really fix that.”

Most so with events. You know, we actually recorded a webinar, over at Advomatic, that you can watch for free, with a client of ours who used to do a great in-person very fancy fundraising gala and they shifted to a 3-day digital gala format with great success, raised a lot of money. But I think those are the kinds of things we’re seeing with COVID. We’re seeing people thinking about how to do the things they used to do in person online, investing in their websites, and really fighting for the limited energy people have to give to screens at the end of their day.

Steven: That sounds like kind of, foundationally, that’s rock-solid but maybe the tactical stuff being a little different . . .

Sarah: Exactly, exactly.

Steven: It make sense.

Sarah: Yes.

Steven: I love it. So in the engagement ladder that you talked about, I think it was kind of earlier on in the presentation, but Jay was wondering if maybe you’ve seen certain rungs of that ladder where people maybe get tripped up versus others? Or there are some things that maybe people should look out for there? Maybe it’s like observers to supporters, or supporters to advocates. Are there any steps of that that are particularly maybe perilous?

Sarah: Yeah. I think that the places that the communications team will often invest the most time in is the bottom of the ladder of engagement. You know, social media, sending things out, you know, maybe email, things like that, because that’s where the sort of mass communications happens. The place that often gets overlooked is the middle, between that and where the other departments are. Because . . . like let’s take fundraising, for instance, as an example. You know, your fundraisers are going to be very focused on important relationships with important donors. That’s the top of the ladder of engagement, so that’s great. At the bottom of the ladder of engagement, you might have comms people who are very focused on using channels and tools to reach new potential donors, maybe do some acquisitions or events or emails. But I think the place that gets lost is that middle. Like, if I visit the website having maybe made an initial gift, how, on the website, do you reach and engage me? How do you get people to start to raise their hand and take low-bar actions that draw them into the organization?

And actually, Steven, you talk about this. And I think it’d be great to hear your take on this because, when I interviewed you for the podcast, you talked about the idea that, you know, oftentimes, when somebody signs up for a newsletter, let’s say, they get dropped into the stream of communications. It kind of presumes they know all this stuff when maybe they don’t. So what would you say about that?

Steven: Yeah, I totally agree. I think, you know, when you think of people as audiences, right, usually it’s like audience rather than audiences, and yeah, they get thrown in to kind of a one-size-fits-all. But, if you use the plural version, like in your model, I think you’re okay because then you can start delivering, you know, different content to different types of people, you know, truly different audiences. So, yeah, I totally agree.

Sarah: Yeah. And segmentation, you know, that’s another thing what I think does get a little lost in the shuffle, and I’ve talked to you about this a bit too. But segmentation is really challenging because, if you’re a smaller organization with not a lot of staff or not a lot of time, even if you’re clear what all the different segments of your audiences are and you’re clear what actions you want to take, actually having the capacity to write different emails or post different content for different audiences can be a real challenge for a lot of organizations.

Steven: Well, you must have eyeballed the chat because there were a bunch of questions kind of around that. I mean, you know, the Bloomerang crowd here, a lot of small shops, a lot of one-person shops. What do you say to those people then maybe do differently or where should they prioritize things?

Sarah: Yeah. I would say don’t feel that because you’re a small shop, and potentially a shop with no communication staff or few full-time employees, that that automatically . . . don’t assume that that means you can’t be great at communications. One of the best communicating organizations I ever saw was . . . I was in Florida for a workshop, and there was somebody in this workshop who worked for a local farmer’s market. It was a one full-time employee organization with one volunteer full-time, like, you know, sort of a board member volunteer, great at communicating. And the reason they were great at communicating came down to two things. The first was that they were very ruthless and strategic about who they were trying to reach and what they wanted them to do. So they did not waste time or energy on anything other than just one audience taking a specific action.

The other reason they were great is that they did a terrific job leveraging volunteer power. And they did that by having board members give them access to people on their marketing team or getting volunteers in the community to help out with different aspects of the communications that they were trying to do. So I think it probably worked because the one full-time employee was really terrific at wrangling volunteers. And that is certainly not easy to do. But if you have the capacity to be really focused and then to harness resources in that way, you can do awesome things as a small organization.

Steven: I love it. There were a few questions, Sarah, about earned media, specifically the timing. And I know it’s hard to kind of control when somebody’s going to write about you or say things about you but, to the extent that you can maybe encourage or prompt that coverage, when should that occur in a campaign? Is it the beginning? Is it in the middle? What do you think there? Have you seen things that work maybe better than others?

Sarah: I think it depends a lot on what the campaign is. And I should say that I am not an earned-media expert. There are firms that specialize in PR and earned media in a really deep way. And we did do that work, at Big Duck, for a lot of years and we actually backed away from it because we saw so many organizations spending a lot of energy and spending a lot of money to get earned media. And whether they got it or not, it didn’t actually do much. So I’ve become a little bit of a Debbie Downer about the value of earned media.

You know, I think the question is, first, what’s your campaign about and is earned media really going to help? Like is earned media . . . if, for instance, the point of doing earned media is to get people who’ve never heard of you to hear about you, is that the best way to do it? Could you do it better by doing a list swap with another organization or doing social media or, you know, using some Google grant money to reach a target audience? So I would really think about that. But if you’ve got the potential to get earned media, oftentimes, it’s earlier that it helps raise awareness. So I think one of the things earned media is best at is building mindshare and it also makes board members and donors feel great. They love to see your name in “The New York Times.”

Steven: Yeah. And sometimes it makes maybe the CEO or ED kind of feel good or the board to see the coverage but . . .

Sarah: I mean that’s real, that’s a real thing. But it doesn’t drive engagement with the mission. It’s not going to advance the mission, it’s really a secondary or tertiary thing. So, you know, I wouldn’t over invest in it.

Steven: I’m with you. I’ll be a Debbie Downer with you. Okay. So here’s an interesting one. Thinking of your engagement ladder again, is there a place where you shouldn’t make an ask, in other words, is it kind of too early in the relationship? Or should you maybe be a little bit bolder with your ask there?

Sarah: Well, I think it depends on who the audience is and how well they know you. But one of the examples I often give, which feels a little dated in the COVID time, but I’ve spent a lot of my life in New York City. And, in New York City, one of the things that happens when the weather gets warm is you start to walk down the street and get intercepts. You know, these like young people, for instance, who are recruited in the summer when they get out of college and they walk around and they stop you on the street and they say, “Sarah,” you know, well, they don’t say Sarah because they don’t know my name but they just say, “Hey, you, can we take a minute to talk about X organization?” And if you stop and you start to talk to them, oftentimes, that conversation will lead to an ask.

Well, if the person stops you on the street and they say, you know, “Hey, Steven, thank you for stopping to talk to me. I want to talk to you a bit about Greenpeace. Have you ever heard of Greenpeace?” odds are good you’ve heard about Greenpeace. And when they talk to you about Greenpeace’s new program and they say to you, “Steven, would you like to make a donation today to Greenpeace?” you might actually be more likely to make that donation because you already have some established mindshare and understanding of that organization.

But if they stop you on the street and they talk to you about an organization you’ve never heard of, you know, the Lead Pencil Lovers Association of America and then they ask you to make a donation to support that organization, you’re probably not going to support it. Because you’re going to be a little dubious, you’ve just heard of this organization, they have no mindshare with you.

Steven: It’s too soon.

Sarah: Why are you going to pull out your check on the street and write a check? So I would encourage you to think about who’s on the receiving end of these communications you’re sending and how are they perceiving you. When your email with an ask hits their inbox, whether you’re asking them to sign a pledge or make a donation, you know, do you have the credibility, do you have the mindshare to make that ask? And if you do, maybe go bold. But oftentimes it just feels a little bit presumptuous. It feels, you know, it’s like asking somebody to get married on the first date.

Steven: Yeah, that makes sense. I love that analogy. I mean that can be a good litmus test for so many things. Yeah. And I’m left-handed, so the left pencil . . .

Sarah: Me too.

Steven: So I’m out. It’s way too early and I’m the wrong audience. That’s perfect. What about this idea of . . . you know, it seems like a lot of this is kind of geared towards individuals but should any of it change if maybe you’re going after like a corporate sponsor or maybe institutional funding in that way?

Sarah: Yeah. Definitely B2B can be quite different than B2C. And I definitely . . . you know, if you’re doing a B2B campaign, odds are good the number of people you’re going to reach is going to be smaller and you’re going to be reaching them in more personalized ways potentially. So kind of you’re entering the ladder of engagement potentially higher up. You’re not trying to reach, you know, 100,000 people in order to get a 1% response rate, you’re trying to reach 20 people in order to get, you know, 1% response rate. So definitely the strategies and tactics you’re going to use are going to be different in B2B. And oftentimes it makes sense to go bold.

But it also depends, in a B2B environment, whether what you’re asking about is directly aligned with the corporation’s mission too. I mean, if you’re reaching out to a corporate, you know, CSR program at a corporation where what you do and their stated CSR objectives are clearly aligned, you actually already have mindshare there. Even if they’ve never heard of your organization, they understand the mission, they have skin in that game too. And that is probably going to, you know, predispose them to collaborate with you in some better ways.

Steven: I love it. Here’s maybe a good one to end on from my buddy David here. A small organization thinking about maybe hiring their first marketing person, PR person, agency. And you know agencies better than anyone, Sarah. What are maybe some things they should do to prep or to vet some of those potential partners when they’ve never done it before? Maybe give some inside tips there?

Sarah: Yeah. I wrote a blog, a long time ago, that I don’t know if it’s still on the Big Duck website. But it was called something like “Beyond RFPs. Better, Stronger, Faster.” You know, one of the things I encourage people who are looking to hire agencies to do is don’t start with an RFP. That what makes for a great partner is not necessarily understood in a proposal. There are people out there who can write a great proposal who you would hate to work with and would be a terrible fit for your organization. And also people could be great for your organization who are going to write a terrible proposal because they’re too busy or something else.

So, when you’re thinking about hiring an agency, what I encourage you to do is do your homework first. Talk to your colleagues who’ve done things that you admire, ask them who they work with, look online for examples, you know, do some searches, look for case studies. Look at what inspires you and try to find, just by looking at websites and word of mouth and referrals, try to find some examples of work that inspires you, that you’d be proud to have representing your organization. Then call those people up and talk to them. And, you know, connect with them, learn about what they do. How do they price? How do they work? How would they interact with your team? Does that feel like a good fit?

If that feels like a good fit, great. Hopefully, if you go through that process with a few organizations or agencies, you’re going to narrow it down. And, if you’re lucky, you’re going to end up with two or three good choices and those are going to be pre-vetted. You’re going to know you love their work and you’re going to be pretty confident you can afford them and they’re going to be a good culture fit. At that stage, maybe you issue an RFP or maybe you just ask them to write a proposal and submit something to you based on what they understand of you, at that point.

I’m going through this process right now with a large national organization that has pre-vetted Advomatic and gotten to know us and really knows us well and invited us and two other organizations, two other agencies, to respond and put a proposal together. And that’s a great use of my time because I know they’re a good fit for us. And it’s a great use of their time because they know that these are three firms they’d be, you know, happy to work with. So that’s a great way to do it.

When it comes to hiring, again, I would encourage you to start by prioritizing people skills and great project-management skills. And the chapter in my book about teams we actually adapted into a free ebook. So, if you’re thinking about hiring your first comms staff person, I would encourage you to download that ebook. And also look at the Nonprofit Marketing Guide Trends Report because there’s some great information, in the last few years, about hiring communications people. That’s a real expertise that they . . . like a contribution they’ve made to the sector that’s great.

Steven: That’s a really good one. I completely forgot, that’s a great one. And I love your advice because it seems like the RFP would be better having done that prior to putting it together. So that makes total sense.

Sarah: Yeah, RFPs, you know, the goal of an RFP is often to do an apples-to-apples comparison. And there’s no such thing as apples to apples. It doesn’t really work.

Steven: Especially with agencies, yeah. Right.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s often a lot more work for you and for the agencies. So, if you can weave it in later in the process, I think you’ll get more value out of it.

Steven: I love it. Sarah, this is awesome. I know you got to run but how can folks get a hold of you if we didn’t get to their questions?

Sarah: Well, Advomatic is Big Duck is You can find me spending part of my time in both places. It’s busy life but a fun one. And so I’m Sarah, with an H, Or, and you can, you know . . . or just google me, you’ll find me.

Steven: She’s pretty easy to find on LinkedIn, Twitter.

Sarah: I’m easy to find.

Steven: Great podcast, good newsletter. Yeah, connect with her, you won’t regret it. Sarah, this was awesome. Thanks for being here.

Sarah: Thank you. Thank you, thank you. Thanks everybody who took the time to join in. I know you’re all screen-fatigued, zoom-fatigued. And, Steven, it’s always a pleasure to be here with you. And I always really learn a lot from everybody who communicates with me. So don’t hesitate to drop me a line, I want to learn from you too.

Steven: Yeah, please do. And if you’re free next week, we got a great session coming up. My buddy Dominique, fellow Boston sports fan, so it might get a little spicy. But she’s here to talk about one of my favorite subjects, Gen-Y and Z donors. We’re getting older folks. I’m Gen-Y, I’m almost 40. I got a mortgage. I got the 401k. You know, it won’t be long here until we’re like real people. So check it out, she is a great fundraiser in the YWCA system. She’s awesome, it’s going to be a really good presentation. So next week, same time, same place, totally free. And we’ll record it, if you can’t make it. So register anyway.

But, speaking of recordings, I will send out this recording, as well as the slides, later on here, just in a couple hours. You’ll have them before dinner. And, hopefully, we’ll see you next week. So have a good rest of your Thursday. Stay safe, stay warm, and we’ll talk to you again soon.

Sarah: Thanks, Steven. Thanks everybody.

Steven: See you.

Sarah: Bye.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.