Curb Your Enthusiasm…Before it Kills Your Nonprofit

Enthusiasm is great to have, until it’s not.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to sit in on a transition meeting of the outgoing and incoming boards of a local nonprofit organization to advise on some projects the organization was implementing, one of them being the dwindling number of actively involved members, particularly senior members of the organization. The new board wanted to focus specifically on creating value for those longtime members, to keep them involved and accessible to newer members as mentors in the organization. I left convinced that the group was going to dissolve within the next few years because they completely overlooked the dangers of their enthusiasm, and I just heard that I was right: the group finally dissolved this year after more than a half-decade of steadily declining involvement from its members. It died in part because it had an enthusiasm problem.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” and he was right. But “great” can be good OR bad. Great enthusiasm can carry nonprofit organizations to success or disaster, depending on how it is harnessed. As I sat in this meeting, I watched a good organization begin to die through improperly channeled enthusiasm.

Picture the scene: A new president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and several directors are gathered around a restaurant table. Also present are the outgoing president and the couple of officers who chose not to continue in different board positions. After the official handover of authority (signing new banking forms, the transfer of files, etc.), the two groups begin to discuss plans for the upcoming year. The enthusiasm of the newly elected board is palpable as they discuss their hopes and dreams for the organization, and how they plan to achieve their goals. None of them see their dreams begin to wither in front of them as the outgoing board gradually moves from supportive to silent to completely disengaged right in front of them. The organization has begun to slowly die from unbridled enthusiasm.

In the excitement of finally starting on their year in office, what the incoming board didn’t realize was that in their excited discussion of plans, they were criticizing the outgoing board at the worst possible time: what for the outgoing board was the end of a long, tiring journey. Yes, the organization had issues that need to be fixed, and the opinions and ideas I heard discussed were necessary to develop plans for the year. The problem lay in the analysis of issues that needed to be dealt with. Not one person took into account how the discussion would be received by those whose terms had come to an end – those who had give their time, expertise and in some cases their money to keep the organization going. As the critique grew, the outgoing board gradually stopped participating in the discussion because the incoming board failed acknowledge the successes of the previous year’s board, just the things that didn’t work. The new board continuously criticized the failures and not-quite-successes of the prior year right in front of the people who had been putting in the work on these efforts the previous year.

In their enthusiasm for the work that lay ahead, the new board damaged the relationship with the very senior members they wanted to keep involved in the organization – all because they didn’t curb their enthusiasm where it mattered. During a follow up call with the new president several months later, I checked on the success of the plans to keep senior members involved, and not too surprising, none of the former board members had been actively involved in the organization’s events. And just a few years later, the organization is now gone.

The experience led me to come up with a list of tips for nonprofits as they transition from one board to the next:

  1. Make sure the vision for the future is shared by both incoming and outgoing boards.

    Your transition meeting is just that: a transition, not a complete change, especially if you have some board members who were re-elected to the board for another term, or whose term carries over for multiple years. It is a process, not an abrupt change, so plan your process accordingly.
  2. Treat the outgoing board as you want to be treated.

    The Golden Rule applies to almost absolutely everything, doesn’t it? Put yourself in the place of the outgoing board members, because one day you will be in that position. How would you feel if, after dedicating much of your free time and energy to a nonprofit, all you heard was how nothing you did worked, how the new board is going to solve problems that most likely existed before your board service, and how many problem you created (because they appeared during your term, so the implications are that it’s your fault)? Perhaps you are inheriting a mess, perhaps it is the fault of the outgoing president. Nothing is going to be achieved by saying so, even by implying it. Let it go – for now. There will be time later for a blunt assessment of the situation, but not now.
  3. Emphasize what worked before analyzing what didn’t.

    It may sound simplistic, but praise before plans. Look at the who situation and focus on what worked first. Talking about what worked first sets the tone and perspective of what you need to do as a board leader. Also, the lessons about what worked may have applications for the things that need work.

  4. Do the nuts-and-bolts planning for your term in a separate meeting with just the new board.

    This is the time to dig deep into what didn’t work and what needs to be fixed – just keep in mind the impact critiquing past efforts can have if members of the prior year’s board are continuing to serve on this current board.
  5. Harness the enthusiasm of your board to give it focus.

    Enthusiasm can give your board the energy needed to tackle the issues facing you during the year, if you harness it effectively. People who are enthused about what they are doing will stick with it when things slow down. They will take on what needs doing and enjoy the process, instead of ending the year burnt out and dispirited.

Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing, if harnessed to move your organization forward. Use it to get people passionate about achieving the things your organization needs. Use it to get people to work together, and you’ll have a successful year. Let it cause friction and hurt feelings, and your organization will fail. So curb your enthusiasm, and make it take you to a successful year!

Are You Ready for a PR Agency?

So your business is growing, along with the demands on your time. You’re finding it harder to manage the day-to-day operations of the business itself, much less handle the promotional side that is crucial to reaching new customers. Your website hasn’t been updated in weeks, or worse, is barely functional. Meanwhile, your competitors seem to be everywhere, appearing on Instagram, Facebook and even being featured on the evening news. You’re getting emails almost daily from companies trying to sell you sales, lists, SEO updates to your website, prospect lists, and countless other services promising to double your sales. You’ve considered getting outside help, but aren’t sure it’s right for you, so you’ve searched online for information, only to read articles either insisting that PR is the cure-all for your business, or something you can easily do yourself at no additional cost – except you’ve already decided you need some sort of help. So which is it? Do you or don’t you?

Deciding the time is right to hire an outside PR firm is not easy. It’s a major step forward for you that takes time and commitment – and is a significant investment in the future of your business. Knowing when it’s time is just as important as knowing what to look for (and what not to) in a PR firm. Here are a few things that are crucial to know before making the decision:

  1. Know what you don’t know – then ask.

The biggest hurdle is knowing what to ask. When I was starting my firm, I invested significant time and money talking to industry consultants about what I needed to know before launching my business. I wanted to know what I didn’t know – the pitfalls that I didn’t know I was going to face, and how to prepare for them. The daily business of public relations is difficult enough. It’s always nice to have some idea of what to look for in order to avoid common pitfalls. The first place to start is to ask yourself if you know what PR actually is, and do you really need it at this point in your business.

  1. Do you really need a PR firm?

It’s not always the right time to hire a PR firm. You need to assess your readiness and know what you’re trying to achieve before you decide to hire a PR firm. Are you planning to launch a brand new company or product? Are you an entrepreneur, or an established business needing a boost to reach that next level? Are you repositioning or rebranding your company/product? PR is not a short term, one-off event (that would be publicity). At this point, is what you need large enough to actually need a firm, or can you hire PR services on a project basis?

  1. Know what you’re trying to achieve in advance.

Before you start contacting PR agencies, save yourself – and them – time and decide what you are trying to accomplish. Having a clear, specific, measurable goals will make the decision much simpler (more on that later). Just “getting the word out” is all well and good, but how will you know if the money you spent on that was worth the results? I can spend $10,000 of your money to “get the word out” about your product, but if it doesn’t bring you any new customers or increase your sales, was it worth it? Now’s the time to get specific about what you want from a PR firm before you invest time and money in sending out RFPs. How will you define PR success? Knowing that will make all the difference.

PR is not just throwing news releases up on a website. You need to be able to clearly define your target audience, your market and what differentiates you from the competition. What can your customers get from you that they can’t get from your competitors? That’s what PR can tell your audiences. Are you ready for the time commitment it will take? You have to have executives, including yourself, customers or others for media interviews, as bloggers, and other communication activities. Do you have the financial and informational budget to invest in a long-standing PR effort? If not, it may be best to wait until you’re better prepared to work with an agency. PR is not instant gratification: to see results you must be willing to invest in a comprehensive program that lasts beyond a few weeks.

  1. Success by the numbers.

One of the biggest challenges for PR firms is defining what success looks like. This is probably the most important question you can ask yourself and any prospective firm: How will you measure “success?” Do you have a formal measurement process with actual numbers? You’ll see the phrase “increase awareness” constantly in the PR industry, but what does it mean for your business? You and any PR firm you hire need to agree on what that is, and how that generates revenue. Impressions and Facebook likes are all well and good as interim measures, especially if you’re attempting to build a social media presence, but they have to be tied directly to what you are trying to achieve with your business to have any meaning. Compare sales results to the previous year at this time. Or previous months. What about prospects? Has the number of inquiries increased? Or website metrics such as unique visits, downloads, etc.? Figure out how to tie bottom line business results to PR activities.

  1. Size matters – to a degree.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the size of the agency you are considering will affect everything from how much it will cost to the number and experience level of the people working on your account. PR firms come in all sizes and specialties, from the worldwide agencies and mid-size firms to smaller boutique firms like Quicksilver all the way down to solo professionals. You need to find a firm that is a good fit for you and what you need. Large agencies offer a wide range of services and tend to attract large clients, and unless you’re similarly sized, you could get lost in the crowd. The smaller the agency, the more likely you are to work with more experienced professionals. The most important thing is to find an agency that offers services that make the most sense for your business. If you’re a restaurant company, you wouldn’t need the services a B2B agency provides, or a firm specializing in pharmaceutical corporations.

  1. What’s it going to cost?

As with so much in life, the answer is, “It depends.” There is no one size fits all, so the cost is going to depend on what you need. PR firms charge on a per project basis or on retainer. If you choose to work with an agency on individual projects, keep in mind that you don’t have the flexibility to respond to opportunities that arise without going through the whole estimating process all over again. With a retainer, you have increased flexibility with the work, as well as predictable expenses. There’s no hard and fast rule for how much to spend, but expect to spend a minimum of $75 on up to $500 per hour, depending on the firm and the specialty – crisis communication specialists will be much more expensive than a regular publicist. For a retainer, you can start anywhere from $2,000 – $5,000 a month and go on up from there.

You want to find an agency that offers a wide range of services and can customize your program as your goals and the business climate change. Look for a firm that is flexible and open to adjusting the scope of their services over time. At Quicksilver, we roll over unused hours for up to six months. If we find that you’re consistently underutilizing your retained hours, we review your program to see if either the scope of work or your retainer level needs to be adjusted. Each agency has its own way of addressing this issue, and you can negotiate something similar into your agreement. You want to find an agency that will work with you as you – and your communication needs – grow.

  1. Location, location, location.

In today’s digital world, unless you require frequent in-person meetings, location shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to working with a PR firm. It mostly boils down to your personal preference. Do you need a firm located near your office, a firm located in a specific market, or one that specializes in your industry? What’s much more important is that you have one person at your company designated to manage the work with the firm. Your firm should be an extension of your in-house team, but as such, they need someone responsible for the integration of their work with your business. Make sure they have the information they need on a prompt basis, keep them current on what’s happening and what’s coming down the pipeline, and it won’t matter where in the country they’re located.

  1. Trust your firm, and make sure they can trust you.

For the client-agency relationship to work, there has to be trust, just as there would be in any other relationship. Be honest and transparent when communicating with your firm. You hired your agency for a reason. Trust them when they make a recommendation, and don’t undercut them and the work they’re doing on your behalf. When they contact you with a request for information, or to get you to do an interview with a reporter, respond promptly. Reporters can’t wait on you to get around to it and will move on to someone else – possibly one of your competitors. Make sure you understand what your firm is planning to do to communicate on your behalf, and what their needs and expectations are for you to respond to requests for information before an opportunity arises.

  1. Your firm is not your cheering section.

If you’re looking for a firm that says nothing but great things to you, you’re already in trouble. One mistake that executives often make is to assume PR is all about fluff and end up offended when their agency points out problems. A good PR account executive will explain why your competitors are landing in the news (they’re considered more “newsworthy”), why holding an open house isn’t going to get you coverage (it’s boring), and why just because you buy ads doesn’t mean you automatically get news coverage (there’s a firewall between advertising and editorial, and has been since forever). Conversely, a good PR account executive will find interesting things about your company and product that you haven’t thought of before, because they have that outsider perspective that you lack.

  1. And finally, remember that PR has to be integrated into your company.

In order to get the best return on your PR investment, it needs to be fully integrated into your overall marketing strategy. PR, marketing, advertising – all have to work together toward your business goals. Otherwise at best it’s going to be a waste of time and money. At worst, there will be confusion and contradictory messages going out to your target audiences that will damage your brand.

Need more information, or are looking for a PR firm? Let us know. If it’s not an area that we handle, we know firms that do.

The Democracy of Choosing Marketing Channels

One of the most frustrating aspects of democracy is that there’s no requirement to do research before casting a vote. I could spend hours studying candidates’ positions, histories and promises only to have my vote cancelled out by someone who picked their guy by the signs on their neighbor’s lawn. Yet any solution to this would in itself be undemocratic; quizzing voters at the booths, giving weight to votes based on education or otherwise hindering uninformed voting would skew representation toward the educated middle class and away from those who need it most.

Our partner Debra Bethard-Caplick and I were talking about this at lunch the other day when an idea popped into my head for five seconds before I bit my tongue. “Voter turnout is at an all-time low, but the government is spending lots of money on ads to fix this. Why don’t they just choose their marketing channels based on who is likely to do research before voting?”Obviously I took this back as it would have the same skewed effects as my earlier examples. But it still led to a long discussion about the ethics of a publicly funded campaign for anything electoral. Continue Reading