Tag Archives: crisis

A plea to USA nonprofits for the next four years (& beyond):

speak upAttention nonprofits: stop believing that you automatically have some kind of magical, wonderful reputation because you “do good.”

Your organization’s future over the next four years depends on your organization rapidly becoming a much, much better advocate for its work as well as the work of the entire mission-based sector.

Over the next four years (and beyond):

Please dramatically improve how you communicate why your organization is necessary. Define it well, and say it repeatedly, in a variety of ways – in press releases, on your web site, in every speech you make, on your Facebook page, etc. Ask the spouses and partners of people that work and volunteer for your organization, people who have NOT volunteered or worked there themselves, to come in for coffee and donuts and a short discussion – and ask them why your organization exists, why it is necessary. Be prepared for them to have no specifics, just a possible, general idea. Use their feedback to create a plan to improve your communications, internally and externally, and to make sure it is clear to anyone and everyone why your organization is necessary. Make it a priority for the next four years to constantly and dramatically improve communication about what your organization does and WHY it exists.

Please dramatically improve how you communicate as to why there is poverty, or domestic violence, or homelessness, or unemployment, or a need for live theater, or whatever it is your nonprofit is concerned with addressing. Please don’t just ask for help for an issue without explicitly saying why the issue exists. And please say so more than once. This is another good opportunity for a focus group to find out just how much you need to improve regarding your messaging. This should also be a top priority.

If your organization does not address a critical humanitarian issue, then you must be even more explicit about why your mission is important. You cannot assume people know why a theater organization, a dance organization, a community choir, an art museum, a history museum, a chalk art festival, a historical society, a cultural festival, etc. is important to a community. Have hard numbers ready, in terms of economic impact, on what your organization contributes to your city or county. Have data on the impact of performing arts on health, school grades, crime, and any other quality of life issue and think of ways to get that data out there, repeatedly, via your web site, social media, press interviews, and on and on.

Make sure your volunteers know why your organization is necessary, even volunteers doing just one-time gigs or micro volunteering, and including your board of directors. Every volunteer, even those coming in for just a few hours as part of a group effort, must be given at least a short introduction to why your organization exists. All volunteers, past and present, microtasking volunteers and long-term volunteers, should be invited to public events. You must turn volunteers into advocates for your organization and nonprofits in general to their friends, family and colleagues.

Please correct volunteers and donors, even very large donors, who misspeak about your mission, or why the issue exists that you are trying to address. For instance, if your nonprofit helps the homeless, and a donor says that people are homeless because they are lazy and do not want to work, correct him and her. Make a list of myths about the issue you address, and the counters to those myths, and go over those myths with all staff, all board members, all leadership volunteers, and all long-term volunteers, at the very least.

If your budget is going to be cut because of actions by the President and Congress, you owe it to your community and to all you serve to say so. And you owe it to those same people to say how these cuts are going to affect your programs and, in turn, the community and those you serve. If cuts are going to hurt your clients, say so. This isn’t being political – this is being factual.

Stop talking about volunteer value primarily in terms of their hourly monetary value. When you do that, you justify a government saying, “Cut your paid staff and just get volunteers to do that work.” Governments HAVE done this, and it’s very likely the incoming USA federal government will do it too, and that this thinking will trickle down to state governments as well. When you talk about volunteer value primarily in terms of an hourly monetary value, you are saying that their PRIMARY value is that they work for free.

Use your web site to be absolutely transparent about who runs your organization, what it does, how much money is in its budget, where the money comes from and how it spends the money it gets. AND KEEP IT UPDATED. And be proud of it – no apologies for paying competitive salaries, for having offices that have adequate parking and lighting, for having clean offices, etc.

Make sure politicians know and appreciate your organization. Have a representative from your organization at every local public meeting by your state’s US Congressional Representatives and US Senators, and send those officials press releases about your organization’s accomplishments and impact. Invite representatives from their offices to every public event you have. Here is more advice on how to get a Congressperson to listen to you, which notes that posts to social media are largely ineffective because they are so easy to ignore, that paper letters are more effective than email, and that phone calls RULE. You need to do similar outreach with your state legislative representatives and senators – in fact, they should be much easier to meet with, in-person. Go in front of your local city council at least once a year to speak during the public comment: announce a new program, remind the council of something you are doing, tell them what a budget cut is going to do in terms of how it will affect your clients, etc. You have about two minutes: use it.

Make sure the nearest weekly and daily newspapers, and the nearest CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox affiliate TV stations know why your organization exists, what it accomplishes, and the underlying issues it addresses. And when they get a story wrong about the causes of homelessness, addiction, unemployment, domestic violence, poverty, etc., CALL THEM and SAY SO. Volunteers can help you monitor the media and look for opportunities for correction.

During the 2016 election, a worldwide audience, not just the USA, heard repeated disparaging remarks by the two main Presidential candidates about each other’s philanthropic bodies. Regardless of the truth or not of their attacks, many people have been left with the impression that all philanthropy – all nonprofits, all charities, all NGOs – is corrupt and conducted primarily with the goal of achieving more power and a good public image, rather than a genuine desire to improve people’s lives, improve communities or help the environment. Every nonprofit has to keep that in mind as it looks at the financial information on its web site and annual report, as well as in addressing the aforementioned communication issues.

Henry Berman said, in an article for an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “We must tell our stories and the stories of those who benefit from our philanthropy, lest we allow the unchecked rhetoric of the campaign trail to define who we are, what we accomplish, and how we operate.” I couldn’t agree more.

You will not have your nonprofit status revoked for doing any of the above. Do not let anyone threaten such a thing. The aforementioned is all mission-based work. You aren’t endorsing a politician or a political party, and you are not directing people on how to vote, things that are strictly forbidden for 501 (c) (3) nonprofits.

Also see

“Every nonprofit organization and nonprofit cause or mission that relies on federal regulation, executive orders, or other non-legislative approaches to implementation is at risk of profound change or elimination when Donald Trump takes office in January.” An excellent warning from the Nonprofit Quarterly.

It’s Day One of the Trump Era: Let’s Defend Philanthropy

How Will Trump Presidency Affect Humanitarian Aid & Development?

My consulting services (I can help you with your communications strategies!)

January 6, 2017 update: Forbes has this excellent article on how corporations should have a crisis communications response in case Trump attacks them. It is a step-by-step guide on what that planning should look like. Have a look and think about how your nonprofit or government agency should create a similar guide for your mission-based initiative. If your mission has a focus on LBGTQ people, on helping immigrants, or helping women access abortion services, or is affiliated in any way with the Clinton Foundation, or has any Islamic affiliation, or works to help refugees, or has any other focus “relevant to the president elect’s hobbyhorses,” your organization REALLY needs to read this Forbes article.

February 27, 2017 update: With aid under attack, we need stories of development progress more than ever – from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

Also see:

Survival Strategies for Nonprofits

A PR disaster that has me outraged

Which is worse: founding a company and giving it a name without doing any check on the name or phrase, and then finding out later that the name is associated with a horrible time in history and is deeply hurtful to many people, OR, knowing the name is associated with a horrible time in history and is deeply hurtful to many people and using it anyway?

I really can’t decide.

I know I’m late to the outcry over the reprehensible public relations firm founders in Austin, Texas who decided to call their company Strange Fruit PR – they recently changed the name to something else, after the outcry over the last 48 hours. But I only just found out about it today, and I have to comment. I have to.

When I thought this was a case of people naming a company without doing any background check, I was nonetheless outraged. Trembling with outrage, in fact. One of the things any public relations person knows is that, before you name any project, initiative, program, company, WHATEVER, you research what the name, phrase and any acronyms might already mean. You type it into Google and Bing and Wikipedia. Then you type in the name again along with words like racist and sexist and criminal and scam, just to see what comes up. You get a group of employees or volunteers or clients together and ask them their reaction to the name. If these two people hadn’t done all of the aforementioned, how in the WORLD were they in the public relations business?!

But it turns out the founders of Strange Fruit PR knew exactly what the name meant – and still used it for TWO years. They dismissed the people that brought up the inappropriateness of the name to them. It was only after a recent and widespread outcry online that they decided to change their name.

Here’s what the founders of this PR firm learned when they looked up the name online, and they still chose the name for their company: Strange Fruit means lynched Black Americans hanging from trees. It’s the title of a song made famous after it was recorded by Billie Holiday.

They knew that, and still chose to name their company “Strange Fruit PR.”

And then there is this non-apology from the founders of this PR company – note that they are not apologizing for their mistake but, rather, that you might have been offended.

We sincerely apologize to those offended by the former name of our firm. As of today, we have renamed our firm to Perennial Public Relations. We have always prided ourselves as open-minded individuals and we remain committed to serving our clientele and community. In no way did we ever intend for the name of our firm to offend nor infer any implication of racism. We are grateful for and appreciate the ongoing support of our clients and community.

Cringe-worthy, I know. I shuddered the first time I read it.

I’m a PR consultant. Here’s the apology that this firm should have written:

We sincerely apologize for the profoundly inappropriate name we have been using for our firm. There is no excuse for our choosing that name, let alone using it for as long as we did. It should not have taken this national outcry for us to change our name – we should never have named it that in the first place. While we can assure everyone that we did not choose the name to imply any support of racism or for one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history, to offer any explanation as to why we chose that name would contribute to the perception so many people now have of us: that we are thoughtless and uncaring. And that perception is, at this point, justified.

We have a great deal of work to do: to continue to provide quality services to our clients, to repair our reputation, and most importantly, to educate ourselves about racial and historical sensitivities and to demonstrate that we have learned, and that we do care, deeply, about all people. We welcome your contributions to help us on this journey.

We are so grateful for and appreciate the ongoing support of our clientele and community. Thank you.

And then this agency should call every organization in Austin, Texas that addresses racial inequalities or black American culture, apologize, and ask each if they would be willing to meet and help this agency start its journey to reconciliation, realization and forgiveness. And it should regularly blog about that journey.

Followup: an example of how to apologize.

Also see:

My job: reading the consequences of war

A lot of my current job is reading large volumes of text and then trying to synthesize them down to something smaller, easier to understand and quicker to read, for various reports, web pages, etc.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been reading a lot about what’s happening to people that have fled the violence in Eastern Ukraine, and people who have remained behind, as well as what life is like for Crimean Tatars and others that have had to flee Crimea. I haven’t cited all of my sources below – there are just too many. There’s no one comprehensive report on this crisis – yet. But all of the following is easily verifiable using news and humanitarian reports, all publicly available online:

In the areas of armed conflict, homes, buildings, roads and bridges, electricity, and water systems and other basic infrastructure are often severely wrecked. Heating systems are needed and sanitation is poor, access to medical and social services is inadequate, and access to food remains a concern. Many of those that have stayed behind are the elderly or people with disabilities. And winter is coming… many of those who have stayed behind, regardless of their politics, are experiencing not only the threat of violence, but also abduction, extortion and harassment. Many people, especially men, have disappeared without a word to family, and it’s not known if they’ve are being held somewhere or if they have been killed.

And that’s for the people that dare to try to stay in areas affected by war. Around 15,000 Crimeans of mainly Crimean Tatar ethnicity (80%) are now internally-displaced people (IDPs) and have sought refuge in the Ukraine mainland, mainly in the west. As of 8 August 2014, UNHCR reported a total of 125,032 from Eastern Ukraine, but this is probably way too low – there’s no widespread systemic way right now to register IDPs. A needs assessment conducted by OCHA in June 2014 indicates that a total of 1.52 million people may leave the Eastern regions of Ukraine, should armed conflict and violence continue, let alone escalate. Some IDPs are living in collective shelters, which were built for youth summer camps, and their numbers in those shelters are far beyond what buildings were constructed for. These shelters often do not have heating systems. And winter is coming…

IDPs usually do not have the appropriate paperwork they need to register for government services or to get a job in their new location. They can’t access their bank accounts because such have been frozen by the government here or in Russia, depending on where they have their money. IDPs have great difficulties to get legal services for protection from civil and criminal issues. Gender-based violence is on the increase, and largely unreported. There is a HUGE need to provide services to those IDPs who are suffering from psychological disorientation, alienation and stress. Communities where IDPs are living are starting to become wary of them, as any community does of people they perceive as outsiders: misunderstandings and misinformation about IDPs abound, and there is a growing need to promote respect and tolerance among everyone, through deliberate, facilitated community dialogue and communication – the stuff some people call touchy feel-y, but that I think prevents violence, even civil war.

And all of these problems are growing, every day, as conflict continues.

There are a lot of reasons the United Nations has been in Ukraine for so long – but this new, more urgent reason, is why I’m here, albeit oh-so-briefly. Such a huge challenge… so huge…

If you are saying, “I want to help Ukraine! How do I do that?” I think donating financially to any UN agency that accepts financial donations, such as the World Food Programme or UNICEF or UNFPA, and saying you are doing so for Ukraine, would be awesome. These agencies provide both direct service through their own staff and through local Ukrainian nonprofit/civil society organizations. Just please don’t send stuff – don’t collect t-shirts or baby supplies or what not if you are outside of Ukraine – it’s cheaper, more efficient, and better for local economies to buy things right here in country.

mobile devices, mobile apps, texting & volunteers

A recent blog post by VolunteerMatch on 5 Ways to Use Your Mobile Device for Your Volunteer Program, which has some good, basic advice as well as some comments regarding how to send a text to multiple people at once, reminded me of how often that this topic has come up on the TechSoup community forum in some shape or form.

So I have done my best to compile these previous TechSoup threads here:

mobile time tracking – for volunteers to track service hours?

What mobile apps do you promote to clients, volunteers, supporters, staff?

Mobile apps: what do managers of volunteers *want*

anyone using these mobile apps as part of their work?

Sending text messages to 50 non-smart phones

FrontlineSMS – FOSS management for text messages

Texting from a computer

Planning for handheld tech

Handheld Computer Tech in Community Service/Volunteering/Advocacy

Feel free to comment on any of these threads over on TechSoup with additional questions, experiences or comments!

People not following-through on volunteering in disasters

The state of Queensland, Australia suffered from horrific floods in December 2010 and January 2011. Thousands of Australians expressed interest in volunteering, inundating volunteer centers and online message boards.

Recently, Volunteering Queensland offered this Submission to Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry, which said, in part:

QUEENSLAND’S peak volunteer organisation says the vast majority of people who registered to help clean up following the floods and cyclone Yasi backed off at the last minute.

Some people backed out because they realized this was a real commitment of time, and they couldn’t make that real commitment. Some dropped out because they could not donate a significant amount of time – an hour or two when you might have some time eventually is usually not enough for such a situation. Some backed out because they really were not prepared to volunteer (they hadn’t set up child care, time off from work, transportation, etc.).

Seasoned volunteer managers, of course, aren’t surprised. Even in a non-disaster situation, we have come to expect at least 50 percent of people who express interest in volunteering to drop out. That’s why many volunteer managers, including myself, insist on at least a bit of screening before a volunteer is placed into an assignment, so that drop outs happen in the screening process, not after the assignment is given and we’re counting on those volunteers.

Martin Cowling has done a great blog about this Queensland report, and I encourage you to head over to it, read it, read the comments (yes, I’ve commented there) and respond yourself.

Here is a resource I created following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters, which I’ve regularly updated at least monthly every since, per the over-whelming number of posts to places like YahooAnswers by people who want to volunteer following a disaster (earthquake, hurricane, tornado, tropical storm, flood, tsunami, oil spill, zombies, etc.). It’s become one of the most popular pages on my web site, despite being posted as almost an after-thought and being focused on people that the majority of my web site is not focused on (it’s not even linked from my home page!).

Tags: volunteering, volunteers, relief, disaster, response, spontaneous, episodic, microvolunteer, microvolunteering. communications, public relations, engagement, engage, community, nonprofit, NGO, not-for-profit, government, outreach, staff, employees, civil society, floods, tornadoes


Handling a social media faux pax

I love this! Not the faux pax (actually, the faux pax is hilarious), but the brilliant way it was handled:

In February 2011, someone mistakenly tweeted from the American Red Cross account something that was meant to come from that person’s personal Twitter account. The tweet involved beer.

The American Red Cross said in their blog about the event:

We realized our honest mistake (the Tweeter was not drunk) and deleted the above Tweet. We all know that it’s impossible to really delete a tweet like this, so we acknowledged our mistake

And they acknowledged it with both a humorous tweet and this blog.

And here’s the kicker: the Twittersphere immediately embraced the mix-up and many pledged donations to the Red Cross! The beer brand that was named in the accidental tweet, as well as the micro brew community, jumped on board and further encouraged donations to the Red Cross.

Kudos to the American Red Cross for not putting together a crisis communications response committee, spending hours / days in meetings on developing a response strategy and then issuing formal apologies written in corporate-ease. No, instead, you handled it immediately, with humor and common sense, and knowing your supporters would do the same. You have cultivated meaningful relationships with the public and supporters for many years, and that cultivation paid off. That’s the kind of resilient, responsive, dynamic approach that will keep the American Red Cross around for another 130 or so years.

Other national organizations… they aren’t even reading this blog right now but, instead, are in a communications meeting to discuss if, perhaps, they might want to start posting to Facebook, or if, instead, they want to ban on use of such by their employees and volunteers – their fourth meeting about such in the last 12 months…

Red Cross – you are full of win!

What triggers humanitarian action?

What constitutes humanitarian action, or triggers a humanitarian response? The obvious answers: a devastating natural event, like a flood or earthquake, or a devastating war, civil or otherwise, or a widespread illness outbreak, like HIV/AIDs.

But a staff member at ALNAP asks in a recent blog: what about urban violence? What about an ongoing cycle of violence that leaves local people and communities just as devastated and insecure as any of the aforementioned conditions that usually trigger a humanitarian response? What about, for instance, the unfolding violence in Rio de Janeiro, as government forces confront the drug gangs that have for years terrorized individuals and communities and wreaked havoc every bit as devastating as a series of tornados? (I realize a lot of people in the USA may not be aware of what’s happening in Rio right now, as its the violence in Mexico that dominates what little international news we get).

The author points out that, in such violent situations, large-scale involvement of international agencies would probably NOT be welcomed by local governments. But are there approaches from the humanitarian world that the local government and donors might undertake? He asks further:

How can humanitarian agencies engage with these issues, and maintain the flexibility to respond to needs in ways that are both principled and pragmatic, wherever they may arise? And how will programming need to change to ensure agencies provide timely and relevant assistance which delivers durable humanitarian outcomes in challenging urban contexts?

It’s a fascinating blog! If you are an aid or development worker, or a government person who might face such a situation, its worth your time to read.

(ALNAP is the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action).