By Jane Porter | Summer 2010

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Classic Nonprofits Look for Fresh Approaches to Reach Their Audiences

They have lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, Vietnam, a century of struggle and change across the country. They’ve helped their neighbors most in need—troubled families, abandoned children, veterans scarred by war, addicts and the feeble elderly. And yet they’ve got their own kinks to work out.

Some of the oldest and largest nonprofit organizations in America today are faced with their own fresh set of challenges that come with changing times, tightening belts and a growing need to find effective means of funding.

"Even though they’ve been around for 100 years, they have to keep learning how to tell their story," says Tom Harvey, director of Nonprofit Professional Development at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. "Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s a highly competitive environment."

Organizations like the YMCA—a staple in American culture with its 2,687 Ys across the country—are seeing the wave of retiring baby-boomer CEOs slowly approaching, which makes filling the leadership pipeline all the more critical. Others, like Volunteers of America, have been working in local communities nationwide but have little-to-no national name recognition because of a long-time Christian work ethic that’s kept them out of the spotlight. Still other organizations like Catholic Church Extension Society are watching their donor base age and facing the fact that their marketing efforts are vastly outmoded.

We’ve talked to Mendoza experts and nonprofit leaders in the trenches for their insights, as nationwide nonprofit leaders and board members in the sector struggle with issues of staying relevant.

When Nicole Driebe stood in front of a room full of 38 Volunteers of America CEOs and senior staff last winter to introduce the new Aging with Options™ initiative, a photo of her 98-year-old grandmother hung on the projector behind her. "Every time I give a presentation," she told the audience, "I start with what I know."

To help her audience understand the struggle of keeping the elderly safe while preserving their independence, she talked about the difficulty of keeping her own grandparents in their home and of taking her grandfather’s car keys away. For Driebe, vice president of strategic development, and the 16,000-person staff, it’s this very storytelling that’s become increasingly important to help get the organization’s name out there. In recent years, recognizing that Volunteers of America is little known outside the local communities it serves, they have begun teaching those kinds of story-telling techniques to employees.

It’s All In a Good Story

Volunteers of America, founded in 1896, is a nondenominational faith-based organization that offers support to the most vulnerable populations including at-risk youth, the elderly, people released from prison, the homeless, veterans, the disabled, recovering addicts, and people with HIV and AIDS. They offer support such as after-school programs, transportation for the elderly, homeless shelters, senior centers and affordable housing. It’s an organization filled with stories, and yet people often know little about it. "Our folks are so busy doing their job that they forget to tell anyone what they are doing," says Driebe.

To help get its name out, Volunteers of America has hosted story-telling training sessions to encourage employees, many of whom are steeped in the Christian work ethic of "keep your head down and work," says Driebe. Last spring, they also published a book called Tales From the Field, comprised of stories written by employees working across the country. Jane Cohen, head of human resources, has used the book as a recruiting tool for high-potential hires and board member recruiting.

From operating alternative prisons to developing detox programs, the fact that Volunteers of America is working with some of the most troubled populations presents its own set of challenges, says Harvey. "Many potential donors have prejudices and stereotypes about why someone is unemployed, or addicted, or pregnant too early," he says. Showing the importance of helping such people gain self-sufficiency isn’t an easy task. "Statistical reports do not touch the heart, but stories do," he says. "And it takes a careful art to tell the stories in ways that do not compromise confidentiality." What’s more, this anecdotal approach is also important when it comes to building employee morale and nonprofit accountability, an increasingly thorny and relevant issue as donors and regulators raise demands on where, how and why money is being spent. "The educated donor today wants to see the outcomes," says Harvey. "Stories are a very viable way to show success."

Training Leaders Top to Bottom

It’s certainly not name recognition that the YMCA is challenged with as it looks to bolster its local leadership. With 2,687 community centers across the country, the Y is made up of a network of 926 corporate YMCAs, each run by its own CEO with its own set of local issues and agendas. Making sure that a far-spread community of key leaders is getting the right training is no small feat.

"Top of mind right now is maintaining that relevancy in the courses that we are designing," says Duane German, leadership development manager at YMCA of USA.

While one YMCA might be focused on working with charter schools, another might be working with young offenders, each of which requires its own set of training and skills. To help make sure the organization’s central office is addressing this range of needs, German stays in close contact with local CEOs.

And he has had his hands full. With roughly 30 percent of CEOs 55 years or older at the YMCA, German trains 60 new CEOs a year. While the YMCA has had its own central training office since its beginnings and a CEO on-boarding program for at least 20 years, this year, the Y is also turning to Notre Dame for a new custom program to help prepare its leadership pipeline.

While upper-level managers in any nonprofit no doubt have exposure to hands-on management and critical decision making, says Marc Hardy, director of Notre Dame’s Nonprofit Executive Programs, there are certain responsibilities particular to being CEO that must be mastered when stepping into the role.

Namely, in the role of CEO, understanding how to deal with the media and connect with donors publicly is a critical skill that often requires training. "You are connected to membership in a bigger, more public way," says Hardy.

On the financial side, the CEO must be far more involved in making recommendations about IRS filings and nonprofit reporting.

What’s more, while it may seem that a CEO has greater organizational power, he or she is going from working for one boss to being accountable to an entire board of directors, a complicated relationship to develop and maintain. "How do you go from working for one person to answering to 12 or 18?" says Hardy. "As a CEO you have to have a bigger vision and [handle] another set of issues."

Rebranding For Better Outreach

The Rev. Jack Wall has been traveling the country this year telling stories. He tells the story of a small Catholic parish in Camden, Miss., where youth and senior citizen programs are thriving. He tells the story of a Native American reservation in Montana where Catholics are educating young people and using the power of faith to pull others from addiction. He tells the stories of small, poor church communities around the country struggling to find the means to survive that his organization, Catholic Church Extension Society, has been able to support.

Catholic Extension raises money to give to parishes and dioceses around the country where the Church cannot sustain itself either because it’s too poor or too thinly spread. Dioceses apply for funds to address needs ranging from construction and repair of churches to subsidizing seminarian education, to paying religious and lay worker salaries, to providing portable Mass kits for traveling priests. The organization doesn’t receive government funding as many faith-based humanitarian organizations do. That makes reaching and building a strong donor base all the more necessary.

With a rapidly aging donor base that averages 65 years and older, the not-for-profit is busy seeking out new donors these days and reaching across as many Catholic communities as they can to do it. "Our job in terms of communication and marketing is to get these compelling stories of the transforming power of faith in front of as many people in as many ways as we can," says Father Wall.

Led by one donor’s pledge to give $500,000 to the organization if they get 500 donors to give $1,000 or more this year, Father Wall has been meeting with small groups of potential donors from California to Chicago, to Connecticut, traveling the country in an effort to put a face and story to the name of the 105-year-old nonprofit. The trips are also a way to connect communities of major donors—those giving $1,000 or more.

Making face-to-face contact becomes critical when asking donors for substantial contributions. "Who’s going to give to something if they don’t know the people?" says Harvey. "People give on a more substantial level to things they feel a part of … They become your inner circle." By maintaining close contact with your donor base over the years, says Harvey, you build a pipeline for greater donations in the future, as individuals build their assets and loyalty to your organization.

In an effort to reach more donors, Catholic Extension is also in the process of rebranding, developing the language and visual design and logo that give donors a clearer understanding of what the organization does.

To help, last year the group brought in a public relations firm to hold focus groups and figure out how donors view the organization and what demographics and resources were being untapped. Katie Seigenthaler, chief marketing officer of Seigenthaler Public Relations, is helping in the efforts. This year, the Catholic calendar that the organization has been putting out for 90 years without its name on it will be redesigned to more prominently feature the Catholic Extension name and message. The calendar has wide distribution through individual parishes. Catholic Extension also hopes to expand its outreach to the growing U.S. Hispanic Catholic population by working closely with Hispanic church leaders to develop a Spanish-language calendar, which fully incorporates the religious traditions of this audience.

The organization is also realizing that various donor groups differ in their priorities and preferences, particularly when it comes to age. "Older people still are more prone to help an institution," says Harvey. "Younger donors are more tied to the activity and less to the institution."

For this reason, Catholic Extension is also working on giving donors more autonomy in determining where their donations go, so that they know just how their money is being spent. In further efforts to target younger donors, a Web site redesign with more interactive features is also in the works.

Most critical in this kind of rebranding effort, says Seigenthaler, is researching the market and developing a message that differentiates the organization from others doing similar work. "That core message is that Catholic Extension ignites transformative faith across the country," she says.