On Organizational Communication to the Previously Disenfranchised

We’re being deluged with announcements from organizations about their new programs to benefit people they have previously underserved, ignored, or outright disenfranchised. Many of these announcements are problematic. Here’s why.

You can’t open your email this month without seeing a dozen announcements from organizations about their new programs to benefit people they have previously underserved, ignored, or outright disenfranchised.

And you can’t get onto social media without seeing comments about how tone-deaf, clueless, rote, and even offensive some of those announcements are.

This is sad. Why is it happening? Because, in their rush to look like good, enlightened organizations, very few of these groups have thought hard about what they were “giving” and even less about what the recipients might think of it. Often it looks as though the privileged organizational leadership threw together a program to make their (mostly privileged) members read the email and think “Thank God, they’re saying something and doing something. Whew, that’s over.”

This so does not work.

First of all, few of these organizations are consulting their historically underserved, ignored, and disenfranchised members to find out what, exactly, they would like from the organization. Which is, of course, once again ignoring these folks. And it’s resulting in “do good” programs that are poorly conceived and even some that are described using language that offends the proposed recipients. (If you’ve been ignoring people for years, how on earth would you know how to speak their language or how to craft a statement on a hugely complex and sensitive topic?)

Second, these announcements often turn out to be all about the beneficent organization and how much it has learned. Which may be true and worth saying, but the effect is that the leaders look like they are wildly patting themselves on the back. A synopsis of the email would read “Organization X is thrilled that they are going to do something enlightened!” O…K…

If your organization is absolutely intent on forging ahead with an announcement of a program that has been crafted quickly, with no involvement of the recipients (and this has you worried), there is a great way to find out how it will be received. Ask one of your members who is also a member of a recipient community to review the program and your announcement. (If you don’t feel comfortable asking for that feedback, that is a very serious sign you need to back up and start over.)

Obtaining some feedback may well send you back to the drawing board, but your next version of the program, and any announcements about it, will be far less likely to result in embarrassment.

The ideal announcement of a genuinely appropriate program will be one that a respected member of a recipient community would be comfortable making themselves. Which brings me to my final point: Why not ask a member of one of your recipient communities be the one to make your announcement? If that works out, instead of showing your organization’s leaders smugly patting themselves on the back, you’ll have a stakeholder publicly thanking your organization for taking a first step in the right direction.

Which do you think looks better?

The Headless Donor of Sleepy Hollow

Jack was the third executive director the Sleepy Hollow Nonprofit had hired in as many years. No one was sure what fate befell them each year on All Hallow’s Eve. Louise liked to think that they’d simply left town and changed careers.

A Halloween short story dedicated to my friends and clients who serve on the boards of nonprofit organizations (or work for them).

Halloween dark scenery with naked trees, full moon and clouds“I’ve never much liked Halloween,” confessed Louise Van-Tassel, board chair of the Sleepy Hollow Nonprofit. “It’s not like Christmas and New Year’s, when people are filled with the spirit of giving or excited about making a new start. It’s more about stumbling around in the dark and having things frighten you.”

“And eating candy,” said Jack Crane, Sleepy Hollow’s new executive director. He pushed a bowl of candy corn across his cluttered desk to Louise. “Have some. It’ll help when you read our latest profit-and-loss statement.”

Louise sighed and picked a kernel of candy corn from the bowl, rationalizing that she had, after all, skipped the dressing on her salad at dinner. Now she wished she hadn’t. She needed some energy. Despite her best efforts, Sleepy Hollow’s board meetings tended to drag on into the night. She’d be lucky to be lugging her L.L. Bean tote bag full of files out to the dark parking lot by midnight.

“Which reminds me,” she said to Jack, who looked up from his laptop, “is there any way we could afford to install some more lighting in the parking lot?”

“Not if we’re going to stick with this new budget!”

“But over there by that big oak tree? It’s so dark and…creepy,” Louise protested. “Isn’t it a liability issue?”

“We’re insured.” Jack gave a dry laugh. “Are you another one of those board members who’s afraid you’ll run into the old Headless Donor in the parking lot? Board members have been trying to scare me with stories about him ever since I came to Sleepy Hollow. Louise, this organization will never get anywhere if it makes decisions based on the whims of some Headless Donor instead of on the actual needs of the people we’re chartered to serve.”

Louise shifted nervously in her chair and cleared her throat.

“Some of us have seen him, Jack.” She leaned over the desk and whispered. “He’s awfully big. And he carries that enormous…checkbook.”

Jack regarded her sternly over his dorky glasses. “Louise, you aren’t going to tell me about that old legend about the fundraising event he threw during Woodrow Wilson’s administration? When a board member he disagreed with was found on the front lawn, bludgeoned to death with copy of the proposed bylaws revisions the Headless Donor had opposed? For heavens sake, if this guy threw a party in 1914, he’d be…well, he’d be a ghost by now!”

Louise nodded unhappily and muttered, “Exactly.”

She could hear the voices of the board members out in the hall. People were arriving for the evening meeting. Jack had closed his laptop and picked up his papers. Louise followed him out of his office and into the boardroom, forcing a smile onto her face. She had a bad feeling about this Halloween meeting.

In fact, things got off to a bad start. Toni Brunt and another board member interrupted the agenda to enthuse about ideas for expanding Sleepy Hollow’s existing programs and starting new ones — including a program Toni dreamed up while she was talking.

“These are great ideas,” she said. “The board needs to act on them immediately!”

Jack’s plans for program cuts, staff cuts, and general fiscal austerity (which Toni and the other board member didn’t know about because they hadn’t read their pre-meeting materials) infuriated them. They were even angrier when they discovered that the majority of the board members, including the whole Finance Committee, enthusiastically supported Jack’s plans.

As the meeting progressed, the philosophical chasm between the two groups grew wider and deeper.  Louise wished she could just throw herself into it. The room heated up, and someone opened a window, letting in cold air along with the shrieks and screams of children making their Halloween rounds. Fueled by bowls of candy corn and the sugary supermarket cupcakes Toni had brought, the discussion raged into the night.

The board meeting ended just before midnight. Jack and the members of board majority shook hands and congratulated each other. Toni and the other dissatisfied board member gathered their papers and swept out.

As usual, Louise and Jack were the last to leave the building. To their surprise, Toni Brunt leaped out at them from behind a shrub. She struck a pose, her gray hair wild in the moonlight and her heavy black cloak flapping in the wind.

“You’ll be sorry,” Toni threatened. “Wait until the Headless Donor hears about this! I’ll tell him you’re ruining Sleepy Hollow!”

With a cackle, she swooped off into the night.

Jack just shook his head, and escorted Louise to her car at the far end of the parking lot. He assured her that the board minority would soon see reason about the finances.

“It’s simply a matter of standing our ground,” he told her. “Really, I can’t imagine why all of your previous executive directors couldn’t get a grip on this.”

As Louise drove off, she looked back and saw Jack, standing beneath the oak tree, waving. She also saw behind him a large, dark, headless figure, silhouetted by the moonlight. It was lumbering down the hill toward the parking lot.

“Oh, no, not again!” she wailed. Jack was the third executive director Sleepy Hollow had hired in as many years. No one was sure what fate befell them each year on All Hallow’s Eve. Louise liked to think that they’d simply left town and changed careers.

But she made a mental note of something to add to the next Executive Director’s job description:

“Must believe in ghosts.”

Ignite Seattle — 15 talks and one wedding

Karen Anderson ignite talkThe videos of the May 22 Ignite Seattle talks are up on YouTube — 15 5-minute talks (including mine) and one 5-minute wedding.

I’ve created a page about my talk on “What You’ll Wish You’d Known Before You Joined that Nonprofit Board” with the YouTube video and information about longer versions of the talk that I have developed for conferences and trainings.

The talk has been getting tremendous buzz on Facebook.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ignite: It began in Seattle in 2006 with an evening of 5-minute talks at a community theater space. The motto is “enlighten us, but keep it quick.” Topics range from urban bee-keeping to finding the right school for your kid to songwriting. There’s a definite “how-to” theme.

The gatekeepers are careful to discourage anyone from making a thinly disguised sales pitch for their business or organization.

There are now Ignite events all over the world. I spoke at an early Ignite Seattle (2007) on “Ten Tips for Survival in the High-Tech Workplace” and realized about a year ago that I wanted to share some of my more recent experiences with nonprofit boards.

The big problem with nonprofits’ websites

Many nonprofit websites are doomed to crumminess because, no matter how much time the organization spends moaning about it, the website remains at the absolute bottom of the organization’s priority list.

A sizeable chunk of my business is the development of content for websites. I write websites from scratch and I work on redesigns.

A few months ago I realized that, while all web design projects have their frustrations, there were some telling differences between the redesign projects for nonprofits and those for businesses. A few examples:

• Businesses typically want redesigns because an existing site doesn’t meet certain performance goals; nonprofits want redesigns because their sites are confusing, out of date, or unattractive.

• Business site redesigns are led by someone at the company’s director level; nonprofit site redesigns are usually led by committees made up of line staff from different departments.

• Business site redesigns are top priority, and take less than three months; nonprofit site redesigns often take more than a year.

• Business site redesigns usually start with the director presenting a list of goals and features, and asking the consultants to work from those; nonprofit redesigns began with the consultants being asked to explain what is wrong with the current site.

At this point, anyone who knows about organizational effectiveness should be seeing the red flags.

As a consultant and contractor, the difference that concerns me the most is client satisfaction when the redesign work is complete. The businesses are generally happy with their sites, which have new features that solve the old problems. The nonprofits, however, are often disappointed with their sites, which for some reason still look old-fashioned and still sound stilted and confused.

Seth Godin has some brilliant, and very troubling, observations on the topic of nonprofits today in his post “The problem with non.”

I read his post with great interest because I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something in the nature of nonprofits that leads them to have websites that appear flabby, undistinguished, and ineffective.

Let me be clear: This problem nonprofits have with their websites is not lack of money to spend on website design — although that’s the factor some of them chose to blame. Consider that some of the most attractive and effective websites around are small-business sites that were done for less than three thousand dollars — including full graphic design.

No, what I think hampers nonprofits’ websites is a lack of organizational commitment to communication. Many nonprofit websites are doomed to crumminess because, no matter how much time the organization spends moaning about it, the website remains at the absolute bottom of the organization’s priority list. That’s evident when you see that the person assigned to be in charge of the site is likely to be either someone at a level where she has very little organization-wide authority or someone who is so busy doing her “real job” that she has no time to devote to fripperies like managing the site.

Watch how this plays out. (Warning: It’s not pretty.)

Over at the business website, the director of communications or marketing is deluged with requests from all over the company (HR, sales, the board of directors) to put new material up on the website. Often it’s a request to feature something on the front page of the site. The director of communications weighs how much value each item has to the company. Then she firmly tells people whose requests don’t substantively help the company’s bottom line or public image that their stuff isn’t going to make it onto the website. Material that is in the company’s best interests gets written up in the correct style, edited, and posted on the site — but rarely on the carefully designed and carefully maintained front page.

At the nonprofit website, the staff member who “does” the website is also deluged with requests to put material up on the site. But in this case, the individual has no authority to say “no” to anything — a problem when most of the requests are coming from the managers of other departments. And, to be fair to the individual, most nonprofits have no easy way of quantifying the value to the organization of any particular piece of communication or information. After all, the agency isn’t booking appointments, or selling widgets, from the site.

As a result, the nonprofit’s homepage is soon cluttered information that has more meaning to internal stakeholders than to any web visitor. You’ll find a client interview, a new slogan, a video of a United Way commercial, blurry snapshots from the company picnic, and a teeny graphic that no one can tell is the cover of the annual report. And the rest of the site gets cluttered with pages and pages of dry material that quickly go out of date. Once something goes up on the site, it never comes down. Because nobody has any authority — or any time — to remove it.

Is the solution to hire another couple of freelancers to do yet another web redesign? I don’t think so. Read “The problem with non” first.