I was recently part of a small group offering advice and counsel to a young nonprofit trying to improve its visibility and develop new sources of financial support, as a large grant that has carried them will be expiring.

Here’s a summary of my advice to them:

  • Broaden the population you serve.  That means more stakeholders, and more people motivated to tell your story.
  • Seek media coverage.
  • Create tools top tell your story — articles, white papers, audio podcasts, short videos, etc.
  • Become a thought leader.  Offer authoritative opinions, clear professional advice, quotable quotes that the media can use.
  • Encourage other thought leaders to use and recommend your program.  They will then help tell your story.
  • It will be hard for your program staff to focus on such public relations work at the same time that they are passionately involved in program activity.  Seek earmarked funds to hire a full time (or maybe part time) professional publicist.

When asked what should be included in an Executive Director’s report to the board, I responded with this model of “OARS” to help the board be aware of the steering environment:

  • 
O = Opportunities . . . that the organization can (and perhaps should) pursue
  • 
A = Accomplishments . . . both little and big successes
  • 
R = Risk factors . . . things that look like they might go wrong, including action taken to 
mitigate these.
  • 
S = Surprises . . . that the ED encountered. Yes — even in a well run organization, with 
very professional staff, there are surprises

This model was inspired by the “Significant events” report I had file each week when I was a mid-level manager at General Electric. Each of my staff had to write such a report to me, and I distilled and condensed these, along with my own list, in my report to senior management.  Our “significant events” were named differently, but functioned in the same way to alert our managers about situations that would likely develop — either into more mature problems, or into inspiring successes.

The underlying value here is truth telling.  I knew it was easy for my staff to report great successes, or opportunities that seemed to be developing.  It was much harder to report those out of control situations that could get worse, those stakeholders whose dismay was escalating, those situations that seemed only to work against us.  But my job was to know of such situations, and to organize appropriate responses.  Were I kept in the dark, I couldn’t really do my job.

I’m often asked the difference between three kinds of external helpers that a business or individual might need — coach, consultant, and contractor. Just as often, I’m not asked how to make good use of these important helpers — even though I often hear from my colleagues how many clients don’t know how to work well with and get real value from these often highly paid individuals or firms.  Since I can and do function in all of these three roles, I need to maintain constant clarity about the kind of assignment I’m working under.

Here how I distinguish these three “C’s”:

  • As a coach, I help my clients find their own clarity, their own strength, their own resourcefulness.  Rarely will I offer advice, or take on a task that they could and should be doing.  I think of myself holding a flexible mirror in front of them, helping them see themselves in a new way.

I had one client who was great at maintaining accountability, budget controls, a good work environment, and other such aspects of the present situation.  But he told me that he had trouble planning, visioning, and otherwise getting beyond his organization’s present situation.  I gave him no advice, but simply asked him to imagine that his organization was going to hire a director of planning and visioning, and to bring me a job description for that role.  I also asked for an initial work plan.  What he brought back to his next coaching session was stellar.  Clearly, and despite his negative self-appraisal, he had quite a command of how to envision and plan possible futures for his group. The real challenge, it turned out, was figuring out which of his tasks he could and should give away, and which tasks might not be needed at all.

  • As a consultant, I do offer advice — extending the client’s knowledge and vision.  I might be called upon to review a client’s action plan, facilitate a meeting, interview stakeholders, map out possible strategies.  I will make recommendations to the client, that make include some surprises.

One consulting client hired me to review some technology work that was very poorly done, in the expectation that I could serve as an expert witness in a lawsuit against the technology provider.  Indeed, the work was seriously deficient, and I could easily have provided a legally correct statement of that assessment.  But my advice to the client was to step aside from the potentially consuming legal process, and to use all their resources to get enough of the technology working that they could get back to their core business.  This was not the advice they expected or wanted, but they took it and it served them well.

  • As a contractor, I take on tasks that my client might have handled themselves, but for whatever reason choose to out-source to another.  My role is not to offer advice, and not to catalyze their growth, but simply to perform the tasks they have assigned.

One software company used to regularly contract with me to teach their training classes.  I followed their course outline, used their other training materials. and represented myself to the students as somebody working on my client’s behalf.

After teaching a number of these classes, I expected that I might then be hired as a consultant to design improvements to the classes, drawing on my in depth experience delivering the material to a wide range of students.  However, that never happened.

When hiring a coach, an individual or organizations needs clarity about what change outcomes are desired.  A speech coach might help somebody speak clearly and forcefully before large groups, where that person might already have had a great mastery of the material but only felt comfortable sharing in small informal settings. But that same coach would probably not be helpful when the challenge is to develop an inspirational message that requires a new definition of the organization’s mission.  Bringing in a coach will generally increase the workload for the individual or group, as the coach will prescribe exercises and activities that engage  the whole team but require real effort.  Prior to hiring the coach, there needs to be a commitment to the learning process.

I’d offer similar comments about hiring a consultant — the need to have a well defined problem (or, perhaps, an agenda that starts with defining the problem), the commitment to staffing the consultant with access to the right information, insight, data, and experience, and the need to work with the consultant throughout the process.

A contractor needs an even more detailed job description, but, in return, should require less staff time for support, supervision, evaluation, and collaboration.

I’d strongly suggest that before hiring any of these helpers, the organization develop the evaluation tools to assess the success of the engagement.  Knowing how evaluation will take place means really knowing what’s expected and what’s important.

Coach, consultant, and contractor — They are all important helpers.  But know what kind of help you need, what you expect to receive, and what commitment you have towards reaching that end.

I’d offer these thoughts:

1. Few nonprofits engage in a real conversation with the donor. Ask me to support your group, when my funds feel slim, and I might resist. But ask me which of your programs excites me most, I’d be inclined to think some, perhaps review your web site or reports to see what your group is doing, and give something.

2. Donors need permission to give less. This may seem counter-intuitive, when your group needs more rather than less. But the message is that giving less still makes a difference. Many donors will postpone any donation, rather than give less than they gave last year. Getting them to give something brings in some funds, and keeps donors active.

3. You can present your appeal as a request for funds . . . or as an opportunity to make a difference (by supporting your group). That positive slant may be more effective.

4. Tell it like it is. I’ve NEVER gotten an appeal that said, “We spend $34.25 to get you included in our donor community . . . hope that money will not be spent in vain”. (I’m not sure what the cost per donor is, and the figure you use may reflect cost of getting donors in a particular giving bracket.)

5. You may just not be telling your story in ways that are vivid, compelling, and encouraging. I’ve been running workshops helping nonprofits find and tell their story. If you’re not sharing great stories with your donors, they may not feel motivated to give (even though they may have been loyal supporters for years).