Self-Care Triage

Recently, I experienced one of those tragedies that has the potential to undo a person. It’s the sort of thing that lands like a fog, inhabiting every empty space in one’s life. Clients said things like, “How are you still working?” and friends said things like “How are you still functioning?” And the honest answer was that I had no idea.  


A few times in this process, a health care professional or good friend would say, “What are you doing to take care of you?” To be honest, this daunting question was even more irritating. To me, self-care has always had an undertone of pedicures and bubble baths. I haven’t run a bath for myself in at least a year, and the idea of parting with a full hour of a working day for something as silly as my pores was horrifying.  


But I did emerge into a new routine, my life and my family in a completely new shape. As my daughter and I attempt to find our sea legs in these new waters, I’ve found that self-care is often about the tourniquet you place on the wound, so you can have time to heal later.  


That means that sometimes self-care is the shower you spend in tears. Sometimes self-care is deciding to check your bank account and make sure it still reads positive. Sometimes self-care is deciding to do a load of laundry so you feel great tomorrow.  


Certainly, there’s long term self-care, serving to help a mostly-well person not lose their energy and passion. But sometimes you’ve already lost it, and crawling out of that hole can be terrifying. Here are some things I did to survive, that can help you too:  


1) Choose one thing. What one simple thing could you do today to save you time and energy and worry? Do you spend countless time sorting through you file cabinet looking for a particular file? Maybe spend ten minutes organizing your folders. 


2) Be kind to future-you. It’s easy to sink deeply into the big, awful hurt. But if you do nothing tonight, you’ll wake up to an empty fridge tomorrow. That won’t make future-you happy. So take a moment to think about future-you as someone worth your care and concern. You are, after all.  


3) Be honest with someone. If you’re like me, there are few spaces where you don’t want to feel confident and in control. But you need advocates right now. You need people to check in. You need people to drop off soup and offer hugs. Go ahead; you’ll be that person for them next time they need it. 


4) Be honest with a professional. Sometimes counseling, medication, or another therapy may be needed to push over the hump. There’s no glory in avoidance and there’s not heroism in silence. Reach out.  


5) Do one nice thing. Do you love tea? Make a cup. Make it, and then just sit down and drink it. Don’t drink tea? Pour wine, water, beer, juice, coffee, or (my fave) a Pellegrino. Remember you deserve nice things. Remember you deserve the pause. Steel yourself. This isn’t getting easier just yet, but you’re tough, and you’ll survive. 

Cultivating a Bountiful Harvest

Last winter, I decided I’d like to have some ripe, fresh garden produce. Sun-kissed, gorgeous, state-fair winning produce.  

I wasn’t able to start my seeds in January, because the time got away from me. I threw them in, with a heating pad, sometime in March. Then I promptly forgot about them and let them wither.  

I restarted in April, but then I over watered them and they grew a fuzzy but amicable seeming mold. 

At last, in May, I succeeded with my sprouts. They were finally perking up and ready to be transplanted. Only I forgot about the transplant until they were root-bound and I lost many of them. The ones that survived seemed to struggle with my infrequent weeding and watering, but they did flower.  

One July day, I really, really needed a tomato. In particular? I wanted a tomato-cucumber salad with feta. I went out to my garden, which the internet swore should be beginning to fruit and found nothing.  

I did the only logical thing. I hollered, ‘FRUIT! FRUIT!” I harvested anyway! I began picking off the closest thing the plant had to offer. Stems, buds, tiny fruit. How infuriating that it refused to be delicious and exactly what I needed.  

Ridiculous, right? Of course!  

But every single day, I watch social change makers do the same thing. They fail to cultivate effective relationships with supporters until they critically need their support.  

How do you know if this is you? Are you: 

  • Using social media only when you have something to promote? 

  • Networking and coalition-building only when an action is required? 

  • Grant writing only when facing acute needs? 

These are just a few of the common symptoms, but there are many flavors.  

Focusing on what needs doing immediately, and not what we’ll need in six months, prevents us from being all we can be. To focus on putting one step in front of the other, without your eyes on your destination, is sure to cause disaster.  

Instead, think about who you want to be a few months from now. Well supported? With a strong audience? A responsive donor base? Then make a plan. It may mean slowing down, but that’s better than burning out.  

Hard Lessons in Self Care

A few years ago, I was hit by a car. I was surprisingly okay, considering what happened, but I was left with a lingering back issue that I maintained mostly with exercise, massage, and chiropractic care. Until I wasn’t.

You see, what I do is really important. I work for nonprofits as their behind-the-scenes, fixer-of-all-problems consultant. Something like an organizational McGuyver. And on top of that, I’m a mother of an almost-two-year old. Between my constantly urgent work and my commitment to my daughter, I found myself taking care of me less and less.

And then I was taking care of me none. Absolutely none. And then? I woke up yesterday with an arm I couldn’t completely feel and a neck I couldn’t move.

Unable to comfortably sit to type or to focus through my pain, I was useless to my clients. But more importantly? My daughter was suddenly aware I couldn’t hold her, and the absence of this affection made her crave it even more vehemently. Talk about a heartbreaking moment? She asked me, “Mama, please pick me up to cuddle?” And I had to say no. I said no, to a delicious baby snuggle. I was failing everything I cared most about, because I failed myself first.

We do this so often. We overextend. We see our tanks emptying and assume we’ll be ok for a few more days, a few more weeks. We pretend not to notice as we slip from 100% to 80% to 60%. And suddenly we’re at 0%, and all must stop to accommodate it, rather than planning breaks well in the first place.

Not to go all “life coach” on you, but here’s the thing: The world needs you in working order. Every obligation you have? It requires the version of you that functions fully.

I’m learning, through this, to give myself permission. There’s nothing selfish about it. I’m a worse mother and a worse consultant and a worse wife and a worse friend when I am literally deteriorating from lack of self-care.

This is not about spa days or meditation retreats. It’s not about green smoothies or sweat lodges. It’s about knowing what works for you and doing that thing.

Personally, I know I need to take care of my body, especially the site of my injuries. I know I am more creative when I take time to enjoy other people’s creativity through visual art, fiction, and even poetry. And I know I crave time learning. Each of those things keeps me vibrant and whole for all that I do that’s so important.

So what keeps you whole, change maker?


The Congress Effect

This is not a post about politics. Instead, it’s a post about occupying the space that belongs to you, doubting yourself less, and being an amazing communicator because of it.  

 Confession time: I was one of those women whose tone in every conversation started out sending a message, “I’m sorry you have to put up with me speaking. I’ll be done soon!” The specific tone that is associated with a sense that you have no right to be where you are, saying what you’re saying, no matter what it is.  

 This would come out all the time, but I noticed it when I had to give my address. You see, I live on Congress Street. It’s a word most American people know. And it isn’t hard to spell. And it’s for precisely this reason that I realized my tendency.  

Whenever I needed my address to sign up for something, to mail something, to record something, I’d always be asked to spell it. Every time. Why was it happening? It is annoying! It didn’t happen to my husband.  And then it clicked. Here’s why: I was walking up to every person in America with the sense that I didn’t deserve their time. Even when they were being paid to help me. Even when they were paying me to help them. At the beginning of every relationship, I’d be offering myself to each new person as if I didn’t have the right to be there.  

And when you are asked your address and you almost whisper, “Congress….?” Well, that’s just hard to hear. And it’s ridiculous. I know where I live. I have a right to speak out. I have a right to confident annunciation.  

How often are you asked to spell your address?  (If it’s not some obscure Gaelic spelling, that is.)   

You have a right to be where you are. Without apologizing. Without folding inward. Without the tentativeness that can come from feeling like you don’t fit. Love and approve of yourself, plant your feet firmly and say it. Like you know it. Because you DO know it.   

Instead of whispering a plea for validation, lean in and announce as though you’ve never doubted it, “I live on Congress.” (Except use your address. Pro-tip.)  


A Million Ways to Play a Tiny Keyboard

There’s almost nothing I like more than a good rock show.1 Even in my thirties, there’s no better way to spend an even than dancing watching a great band. Motion City Soundtrack is a favorite. Their live show is always amazing, their music is fun and gritty and honest, and their fans are usually awesome people. But the thing I love most about Motion City Soundtrack is Jesse Johnson.  

The synth (which is a keyboard kinda, but not played much like a piano) is the thing that distinguishes MCS from other bands with similar sound from the same music community. And when you watch someone play synth live it’s usually… well… kind of awkward. They slink into the background. They feel unimportant. They don’t really participate.  

Not Jesse-synth-heart-throb-Johnson.  

This man plays a tiny keyboard in a way that says to the world, “Hell, yes, I play keyboard in a rock band!” Which is more than many men could comfortably do, for reasons that I find ridiculous. 

He’s known for doing hand stands on his keyboard, leading the crowd in singing along when he doesn’t have something to play, and he is more active in one show than I am in a week of gym-Zumba. He’s so important to the cause that he’s on the flyer for their farewell tour. There is not MCS without Jesse, and we all know it and love it. 

I wish I could adopt him as my spirit animal. He’s completely excited about the band, the music, the songs, and interacting with the crowd, and in spite of his contribution being atypical to other rock music from the era, and the fact that he seems to have wasted zero time wondering if he should enjoy every minute of it. I wish I had one ounce of that “Hell yes!”  

The fact of the matter is, there’s just no better advocate for anything than someone who is totally in love, totally excited, with no room for doubt. I’ve seen it in lots of places. From professional yo-yoers to Bikram yoga.  

You don’t even need to say anything. There’s no debating involved. The most incredible ambassador for your work is someone who is totally in love with it. And that can be you. So take a second to bask in the amazing thing you’re doing. Dispel doubt. Work really hard and do it like there’s nothing else that even makes sense.   

Your organization’s mission, you know it best. Never ever apologize for it. Make it amazing, by being its number one cheerleader. 

 There are a million ways to play a tiny keyboard at a rock show, but only one is infectious. Go forth, and do likewise.  

The Transmission Error (or How to Fail at Logos: Lesson One)

When you do what I do for a living, you start to get an eye for the weird communication quirks that seem to go unquestioned by others. My mental catalog of ridiculous branding decisions is ever growing. Tiny things like utilizing happy pig cartoons to sell barbecue, they just stick with me and make me giggle.  

Here’s the best example of how not to do a logo that I can ever imagine: Transmissions. Yep, transmissions. Whenever I see a transmission-specific mechanic shop, without fail, the logo for the business is an accurate drawing of a real transmission. Sometimes, they sweeten this weird decision, by actually using transmissions in their decoration of their office, which is, by far, the worst decision I can imagine. 

There are many reasons why this is a terrible idea. The primary one is this: the people you are selling your services to are coming to you precisely because they have no idea what a transmission is, what it looks like, or where to find it. There are many hurdles they will have to overcome in choosing your business over others, and the logo is bridging precisely none of them.  

When I choose a mechanic, I look for a few things. They include:  

  • Does this person seem trustworthy? 

  • Do they seem like they will communicate well with me? 

  • Am I going to feel silly talking to these people about the noises my car is making? 

The logo, which originated as a way to establish trust in an era when we began doing business without face-to-face meetings, is there to help answer some of these questions. On the flip side, using a transmission says:  

  • It hasn’t occurred to me how you may feel about coming to see me. 

  • I don’t talk to people outside my peer group in a way that is relevant.  

  • Don’t count on me to be approachable.  

  • Or probably even nice.  

That could very well not be the case. They may be totally nice guys, with polite children, who love quinoa and roller skating. But that is the power of the Transmission Error.  

 When you design without thinking of how your audience will see you, when you design from a you-centric place, you say things you don’t mean. What’s logical to you, as a person who knows your industry, is most likely the least important thing to someone who does not.  



Star Wars and Nonprofit Marketing: Learning to Use the Force

I am not ashamed to admit it.  In Middle School, whenever I was feeling low, I would watch the last 15 minutes of the Return of the Jedi to pump myself up. I had the digitally re-mastered VHS box set at the ready. It was a huge part of surviving an awkward, rough tween life. So when the prequels were set to arrive I was beyond excited. I found a way to watch them on their opening days, even when I was outside the USAEach one failed to deliver. So, in spite of the incredible hype around The Force Awakens, I was honestly worried it wouldn’t be worth hiring a babysitter.  

I was wrong. It was amazing. And I'm not alone in believing that. It's blown away every expectation. Having grossed almost two billion dollars globally, there’s really nothing to stop it from growing. But why? I mean what did Disney do with The Force Awakens that George Lucas was unable to do with the prequels?  

It comes down to a few pretty amazing lessons that can be applied in lots of other arenas. From marketing to strategic planning, watching Disney massage a storyline back into public favor has a few lessons to teach us. What did Disney do differently? 

  1. Disney listened. 
    They listened really well. If you watch the movie like a true Star Wars nerd, you can see flashes of every criticism of the prequels, intentionally (almost lovingly) corrected.  

  2. Disney remembered. 
    There’s a scene in The Force Awakens when Finn is manning the weapons on the Millennium Falcon. He makes a shot, and turns toward the camera, offering a “Woohoo!” And it is the exact angle and tone of the moment Han Solo did the same thing in A New Hope. That’s the kind of artistry that sells to your existing base while growing forward. They didn’t use glitzy technology that changed the feel of the movie. They remembered their roots.  

  3. Disney grew. 
    Instead of being a static moment, or
    the retelling of a stale story, Disney moved forward in time, allowing real characters to progress in ways that seemed real and true to the feel of the original trilogy. The technology progressed in ways that were realistic for the time that had passedThe characters had realistic lives, with sad and happy stories. Some matured, some regressed.  

  4. Disney included. 
    While the prequels were loaded with moderately racist and sexist undertones, Episode 7 was age, gender, and race inclusive. It passes the Bechdel test and then some. It even allowed its actors the opportunity to age realistically. Rather than creating an “other,” Disney’s Star Wars allows us all to be a part of the story.

These steps aren't hard, but they are deliberate. If you can made them a part of your organization's culture, there's nothing standing between you and your goal. There’s nothing left to say other than: “May the Force be with you.” 


Email Like a Boss: Owning the Digital Age through Communication

It's the digital age, people: Time to step up your email game! Emails have replaced phone calls, faxes, letters, and meetings. So let's start doing it right. 

    1.     Have a branded email address.

Gmail is pretty great, but if your organization is using personal email addresses, you’re sending the message that you don’t take your work seriously. Even though setting up a branded email takes time, it is definitely worth the effort. A branded email says to the world, “I took this venture seriously and I invested in its infrastructure.”

2.     CC like you've been there.

At least once a day, I get an email that is completely irrelevant to my role in a particular venture. For the sender, I believe the decision to CC goes something like, “Hm, who may ever become mildly curious about this program?” and from there, the CC train goes off the rails. CCing has to be handled responsibly. No one likes to have their time wasted. If a long train of emails will lead up to a decision that someone should know about eventually, do the considerate thing and send an FYI email once the call is made.

3.     No, for real, grammar.

This should go without saying, but grammar and spelling are still important in emails. Opening up an email formatted like a business letter is definitely awkward, but when I see an email that’s written like a text it’s worse. Spelling and grammar checks exist for email. It may be worth checking them out!

4.     Reply skills.

Oh, the pain of that email lost in the ether, unacknowledged. No one thinks it went to your spam folder. We all know you just ignored it and haven’t circled back. So give emails a 48-hour reply window, at an absolute max. If you’re waiting on additional info to reply, say so.

5.     Archive.

Your inbox is a direct reflection of your soul. Something you stare at every day, sometimes for hours a day, should not feel chaotic and stressful. Develop a system and stick to it. For me, this means leaving emails in my inbox only when they require follow-up. Once the job is done, I archive them. Nothing looks better than a clean inbox! And when that one undone thing lingers eternally? I notice!  

6.     Subject for searching.

One of the sad drizzles that rains on my email parade? Messages that I can’t search for, because the subject is unclear or the message is lost in an eternal email chain about something else. In the land of infinite inboxes, this is like a carton of milk with no date stamped on it. When I need to reference that note you shared with feedback on a project, searching for it is really important. So reference the project. A quick “Logo for Tim” or “Draft for Sarah” changes the search game and generates a ton of goodwill for you. The joy will be felt by those you work with in the late hours of finishing up their next project. And who couldn’t use some karmic love?

Go ahead people! Go take over the email universe! 



Why Not to Hate Zuckerberg: A Quick and Dirty Guide to Billionaire's Giving Cash

I sensed a disturbance in the fundraising force at about noon today, when I got three emails from clients asking about how to apply for Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation. I’m usually on top of such things, but I had been briefly driving when the announcement was made public. As a consulting firm that manages grant writing (among other things), I’m used to these emails. Someone’s giving away a few billion all of a sudden, and a pool that size seems big enough for everyone to swim in.

But it wasn’t more than a few hours later that the criticism started to pour in. The Zuckerbergs have set up an LLC to manage their charitable contributions, where traditionally, billionaires have established a private foundation, a type of 501(c)(3).  The bloggers were a-twittering. The newscasters were chiding. And a bunch of people doing really good work in the world were, once again, hopeful.  All the while, the big points were misunderstood.

Here’s what you need to know about the distinction, so you can make the call on your own:

1)   No matter how Mark set up his charitable fund, he was going to have tax benefits. We work with private foundations on a daily basis. A majority of the family foundations that we work with are set up to do good while benefiting from the tax incentives. An LLC may be unconventional where charitable work is concerned, but the tax argument is a silly one. Because the amount is so large, the implications seem enormous, but if you had an extra few dollars, you have the very same ability.

2)   LLC’s definitely lack the accountability that private foundations have. Private foundations are mandated to file tax documents, called 990s, reporting on their financials and their activities each year. Mark will not need to file these same types of reports. Even if he does develop his own type of reporting for transparency’s sake, we will not have the opportunity to compare apples-to-apples.

 3)   Social entrepreneurship is not new. There are many, many LLC’s out there doing good work in the world. Social entrepreneurship (or using business wisdom to do social good) is growing in popularity over the last few decades. The model is responsible for huge advances in public health and renewable energy, for example. Mark’s idea is not that crazy; it’s just getting more attention because of the huge dollar amount and the celebrity figure involved.

 4)   Private foundations are already doing almost whatever they want. Even though foundations need to file 990s, their activities outside of their financial management are pretty much up to the whimsy of their founders and board members. For example, I once came across a foundation interested in supporting youth kickboxing, a regional opera house, and bee keeping. So if we’re worried Mark will do something odd, being a private charity would hardly have changed that.

 5)   Sometimes the most good will be accomplished by the nimble giver. Lots of social good is being accomplished in ways that are not good fits for the traditional model of writing grants. For-profit social entrepreneurship, for example, is not an easy fit for foundation funding. Even nonprofits who easily fit the bill can wait six months to a year to hear back. For great social impact, quick intervention will be necessary. When Ebola broke out, funneling money into vaccine development and sanitation tools at nonprofits would have been more effective than sending it to a regional Red Cross. Leaner models will be faster moving models, and sometimes that means bypassing the infrastructure in place.

So Mark and Priscilla, we’re excited to see what you’re capable of and how much you accomplish. Don’t let us down!





The Real Reason Marissa Mayer Is Wrong

A few weeks ago, Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer was criticized for her decision to forgo a standard maternity leave. Instead, Mayer is choosing to take a brief working leave, as she did when her last child was born. In the wake of her announcement, she’s been criticized by the Internet in general. Certain circles accuse Mayer of not leading by example, paving the way for other women to demand greater respect for maternity leave. Others point out that she is exercising privilege afforded only to the very wealthy. Still others point out that Mayer should never have felt obligated to share about her maternity plans to anyone.

It’s true that the CEO owes us no explanation. Mayer has never stated that her mission is to even the playing field for women. But as a founder of a small company that’s recently been met with a similar challenge, I have my own bone to pick with Mayer. And while there are discussions about class structure and gender relations to be considered, my question is about the efficacy of leadership.

In July, I went into a typical prenatal visit to find that my health and the health of my baby were in danger. I had severe preeclampsia and would be hospitalized for the next three weeks. Afterward, my daughter would spend three more weeks in the NICU, making my total time in the hospital over a month and a half. The suddenness of this diagnosis completely shut down my plans for the summer. But while it did cancel a few baby showers, it did not shut down this firm. I have learned the amazing value of hiring well, developing those people, and then letting them succeed.  

Mayer has been criticized for her decision as a woman and a mother. But I have not seen much written about her leadership. Speculators consider that this move was meant to keep investors feeling confident. However, I’d like to put this out there: If a CEO hasn’t developed her team enough that she can take a decent maternity leave, investors have more to fear than they realize. If a corporation needs a CEO’s constant presence to function, it’s a poorly built and poorly trained team. The CEO being on deck is only serving to keep the inevitable at bay. She becomes a manager more than a leader.

City of Light Consulting is not a billion-dollar business. It has never had an IPO, and it never will. But what it does have is an amazing team. That team was developed with intention. As a leader, I think as much about making growing CLC’s people and advancing our mission as I do about developing client relationships. If we are not growing in our strengths and continuing strong communication each day, then I’m failing. But, when a crisis hit, it showed that we had done well, that we’d trained successfully, and that we’d been able to withstand because of it.  

Learning From Rejection: What a Rejection Letter Can Tell You About How To Get Funding

Rejection letters are a part of the grant writing process, and it’s natural to be disappointed when you receive one. Very often, though, developing a relationship with a funder may take a few rounds of rejection—and they may be telling you how to succeed in their rejection letters.

Instead of throwing those letters in the garbage, you can take some notes and prepare for the next funding round.  Here are three common reasons for rejection you may hear from funders, and the lessons you can learn from them. For starters, here’s what to learn from three of the most common rejection statements.

“We received so many great applications, and we couldn’t fund them all!”

This is the most common reason grantmakers give for rejection in their letters—and the vaguest. It tells you that you had a lot of competition in this funding round, and not much else.

LESSON LEARNED: A lot of competition means your application needs to be compelling. It should grab attention, tell a story, as well as communicate the need for your programs and the effectiveness of your solution. Polish that application until it gleams—add good data if it’s not there already, and edit it for persuasiveness and clarity. When it’s time to submit again, make sure you’re submitting the best possible version of your application, with the highest chance of standing up to the competition.

 “Your project doesn’t align with our grantmaking priorities.”

Most of the time, this indicates that the grantmaker didn’t see clear alignment between your project and their organization’s own priorities or strategic plan. This can get confusing, because you applied specifically because you thought your project did align with their priorities and strategic plan. You may review the documentation and see that they had a focus area you may have interpreted as an interest, when it was really a requirement.

LESSON LEARNED: You’ll need to evaluate if you have program needs that do align better with the funder’s stated interests. If you do, write an application for the next round that focuses on those program needs, and use plenty of language from the grantmaker’s website and RFP to show that you understand what they’re looking for. If you don’t have program needs that align better with their stated interests, consider taking your proposal to another grantmaker who is looking to fund programs like yours.

“We would need more information on your ____________ (project model, funding structure, target population…) to be able to fund you.”

This is a great rejection, because it tells you exactly what you need to do to be successful. Take a look at the specific thing the grantmaker wants more information about, and flesh it out in full detail for the next round.

LESSON LEARNED: If a grantmaker tells you they need more information to fund you, believe them! Provide as much detail as possible in the area they indicated they needed to know more about. You may also want to take a look at the applications you’re developing for other grantmakers, and see if those applications could also benefit from additional detail in that area.

One final note: the best rejection letters are personalized. If a grantmaker has taken the time to tell you specifically what they want to see from your application, rather than sending you a form letter, they are indicating major interest in your project. Pay attention, and give them what they’re asking for the next time around.

Finding Our Strengths and Getting Stronger

Last week, the core members of the City of Light team completed the Clifton StrengthsFinder Top Five Strengths Assessment. We love it because it’s so easy to apply its concepts at any organization, no matter what size.

Through their 80+ years of research, Gallup has identified 34 strengths, or ways that people lead. The StrengthsFinder Top Five Assessment gave us a detailed report of each of our team members’ top strengths, which fall into four categories: Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking.

You can see from our results that the City of Light team is pretty heavily oriented toward Strategic Thinking! That made a lot of sense to us, given our field. All of the things we do, from grant writing to strategic planning to crowdfunding campaigns, require these kinds of analytical and goal-oriented strengths.

We each have one top five strength in the category of Relationship Building, which helps keep us glued together as a team, and Nikki and I both have Executing top five strengths that help keep the team focused and on-task. Nikki has the Influencing strengths that help us reach a broader audience and make sure our ideas are heard—both inside the organization and outside of it.

Now that we know our leading strengths, we’re working to ensure that each of us doing what we do best every day and leverage our biggest strengths for the firm and for our clients. We also have a pretty good handle on the strengths we’ll want to look for as we bring on new team members.

Small nonprofit groups can use this tool in a variety of ways, and as the City of Light team discussed our results we got excited about the ways StrengthsFinder could help nonprofit boards as they develop. Boards need to be able to work together as a team, and StrengthsFinder can help them figure out where they currently have strengths, and how to use those strengths—plus what strengths to look for in new members. At $9.99, the Top Five Assessment is an affordable way for small organizations to approach board development.

Check out the team’s Strengths Profiles below, and let us know if you’re using StrengthsFinder!

Nikki’s Top 5: WooStrategicMaximizerArrangerIndividualization 

Alex's Top 5: InputFuturisticIdeationIntellectionConnectedness

Laura's Top 5: StrategicIdeationAnalytical, RelatorAchiever                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

To Tweet, or Not To Tweet: Picking the Right Social Media Platform For Your Organization

First impressions are important. If you’ve ever been to a job interview or on a first date, I’m sure you know this. Mothers everywhere have reiterated these values for ages. An improperly tucked shirt could mean the difference between getting a call back or not. A rogue piece of parsley in your teeth could send your date running. You get the picture.

What moms have been trying to communicate all along is this: portraying yourself in a composed and professional manner is important when making a first impression.  These values translate to the organizational world through the medium of branding, and are particularly important in the developmental stages of an organization.

We’ve discussed branding a lot in older posts. In the content-driven, web-based world that we live in, it’s important to think about branding strategies in advance, rather than generating content willy-nilly in order to build solid relationships with your clients via social media.

Social media can be a great tool in establishing your brand and getting your name out there. User-friendly formats and high engagement rates of people all across the board make this medium a great tool in reaching broad audiences with relative ease. However, it’s wise to consider your branding, as well as your audience and organizational values, when considering which social media platform fits you best. Missteps in social media management can leave familiar and new audience members alike shaking or scratching their heads; it can impart organizational parsley-teeth. Let’s take a look at what social media platforms are available and which fit your organization the best.


1.     Facebook

This is a pretty easy one. Chances are, you’ve heard of Facebook and probably even use it. This platform is a great fit for most organizations, offering you a place to display your general information, photos, and updates. Facebook can be a fantastic resource for community-based organizations, allowing you to connect to constituents and supporters, and spark local interest. Giving people ways to get involved, share your content, and supply feedback can be a useful tool in creating connections to your target audience.

While Facebook can be a powerful social media tool, there are a few do’s and don’ts that you should be aware of:

·      DO create a Facebook business page for your organization. DO NOT use a personal page for your organization. Business pages are tailored to businesses (surprise!) and allow you to present your information in an easily accessible way and makes for easy navigation. Business pages also have the option of advertising, which can come in handy. They also offer you a chance to see the data of the traffic you are generating-another handy tool. Plus, if you choose a personal page for your business or organization, milennials will laugh at you.

·      DO NOT treat your business page as a personal page. Post only content that is relevant to your organization’s mission. Be conscientious of consistent and cohesive posting. Avoid divisive topics to prevent an all-out troll-fest.

·      DO NOT overpost. Followers will become overwhelmed, exhausted, or just plain mad. Scheduling posts can be a good way to avoid this in the event that you do have a lot of good content that you’d like to get out.


2.     Twitter

With 140-character posts, Twitter allows you to communicate in small, bite-sized messages. Twitter revolves around sharing small blurbs called tweets and connecting to others. It can be a great tool for organizations looking to get their name out and connect to other agencies, government representatives,  clients and constituents.  This platform can be especially impactful for promotions and fundraisers, particularly when branded with a popular or unique hashtag. This takes lots planning in advance.


3.     Instagram

Instagram is a photo-based platform, allowing users to share pictures and accompanying captions. Like Twitter, it utilizes a short-form style. This platform can be great for organizations looking to share visuals of their work. Pictures can speak volumes, and when coupled with hashtags, make a huge impact on Instagram. Such an example can be seen here, where one woman’s post about domestic violence sparked important conversations around the world.

With its visual focus, Instagram is not a good fit for all organizations. Those without a steady stream of good content might reconsider before joining. Floppy or forced content can fall flat the hardest on this platform.


So there you have it: A brief intro to the most popular social media outlets today.  Making the most of these will take some advanced planning, but its worth it to help support your mission. If you need help planning in advance, consider reaching out to CLC to establish a social media strategy to get you started! 

3 Easy Tips to Improve Communication in the Office

One of the things that I’ve always loved about yoga is the emphasis on your breath. Each move is associated with an inhale or exhale and every movement should be supported and enhanced by deep breathing. Breath also serves as a safety for the practitioner. If a certain pretzel-y twist is too challenging to breath easily, then that is a sign that something is wrong- maybe that’s not the best pose for the person involved.

I’d invite you to view communication as the vital component that serves as an indicator of your organizational health. Just as if you were bent into a challenging yoga pose, you would find yourself holding your breath uncomfortably, when you are in an uncomfortable place in your organization, it can be easy for communication to become stunted or short. If resources are sparse or new projects require attention, it can take make it hard to communicate with excellence. Here’s a few ways we can work to improve communication, even when times are tough.

1.    Make the best use of technology.

Communication doesn’t need to be face-to-face meetings to be effective. So many tools exist to help your team be more productive through communication. Cloud-based tools like Google Calendar can help your team plan meetings, set goals, and keep in touch with each other’s projects. Asana and Trello are task management platforms that allow you to assign tasks and track their completion. Nonprofits can access resources like Google Apps for free and there are usually low-cost options via vendors like Tech Soup. If everyone is held accountable, this could be a staple in your communication.

Our team checks in via a 15 minute G-Chat twice a week and we’re working on incorporating a task management software to keep us up to speed in between. This helps me, as a manager, to know what is accomplished and who needs help without gathering everyone into one room.

2.    Make meetings sacred time.

How do you do that, exactly?  Well, the first thing is to make sure that meetings are productive. No one wants to come to a meeting that feels as though it rambles on eternally or accomplishes nothing. Leave brief time for catch up, because team building is important, but try to tie that time to something tangible like sharing coffee at the beginning of the meeting. Make sure the agenda is published in advance so everyone can contribute.

Next, make sure that your meetings are safe spaces where everyone’s contributions are important. If a dominant voice talks over shy team members or a certain staffer seems to slink back instead of project forward, consider some facilitation methods to help everyone feel included.

Lastly, make sure that your meetings are regular enough that nothing gets missed in between, and that each one doesn’t need to stretch on for hours. If a meeting goes longer than an hour regularly, it is either discombobulated or poorly planned, or needs to happen more frequently. Since no one’s attention span can really span much longer than an hour, why not consider breaking it up or assigning some items to online tools?

3.    Utilize the power of one-on-one.

If your board members, volunteers, and/or staff don’t hear from you often, they may begin to feel disconnected. But that doesn’t mean that every single meeting needs to happen in a large group. It can feel easier to get it all out at once, but it can be hard to plan. Why not schedule a quick call or face-to-face just to check in? You’d be surprised what people think is not worth reaching out to you about. Your team’s next big success could be a concept they are imagining and dismissing as impossible. A small hiccup that plagues a volunteer could be cleared up in a ten-minute call. The power of one-on-one gives people a safe space to ask questions or pitch ideas they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in a group. Because it’s so much easier to plan a meeting with two people, or even to just make a call or pop by their office, it can be a big help in keeping teams connected.

Transmission Failure: Some Signs That Your Web Presence May Be in the Wrong Gear

We’ve been talking about Spring Cleaning for the last few weeks at the CLC blog. One of the places we’ve noticed organizations can usually use a bit of sprucing up is their web presence.

You know how every home has a junk drawer, an unkempt closet, and a funky corner of an attic or basement? You know how you’re always promising yourself that you’ll do a better job keeping your own funky corner organized? Well, working with small- and medium-sized nonprofits, we’ve found some things to be similarly universal - and forgotten web clutter is among them. Here are some pretty good indicators that your web presence needs attention. 

1.     Your social media has become stale.

Let’s be honest, it can be easy to forget that social media is about now.  If you aren’t sharing regularly, you’re missing the major strength of the medium- the connection, essentially the social element. Your Facebook and Twitter are not newsletters. Instead, they are a pathway to connect to your supporters-current and potential- reminding them of your values and commitments. 

Social media posts don’t necessarily need to list accomplishments. For example, if your organization rescues dogs from euthanasia, sharing news stories about the valuable role dogs in our society. Heart warming stories of animals overcoming adversity always warms hearts. Those stories will remind your supporters of your organization’s important work and encourage them to share content from your page- helping you spread the word.

2.     Your website is out-of-date or doesn’t exist.

“I don’t even have a website. Do people even use those anymore?” We hear this question about every two weeks. It’s true that people don’t use websites in the way that they used to. The majority of brand interactions will come through platforms like social media and email marketing. But that doesn’t mean you can get away without one. A website gives critical opportunities to your organization that you may not have considered, but the most important thing it offers is legitimacy.

In a world where more and more small businesses are opting to forgo websites, having one lends you legitimacy similar to how having a business card may have 20 years ago. There’s also the benefit of being able to be easily found and able to sort information for your potential client’s or donor’s best accessibility. And don’t forget how important recognizing your logo and colors will be for clients getting to know you. It may seem silly, but in a world lacking face-to-face contact, this will be critical to establishing your organization’s identity.

3.     No one looks forward to your newsletter.

If you’re using an email tool like MailChimp, you can easily check and see what percent of your base is opening your emails. As a general rule, if you’re email is opened less than 25% of the time, something is amiss. There are three areas of improvement and they go in order.

First, examine your subject line. If it says something like “Newsletter Volume 8” or “April Newsletter”, there’s your answer. By sending an email by edition or date, you are essentially saying, “I am obligated to post this because of the date. There’s nothing exciting to report.” Certainly not the way to remind your clients of how many incredible things you are doing or how great your needs may be. Instead, post something celebratory or intriguing as your subject and watch the number of opens climb. Why not a title that speaks to your accomplishments like “25 Domestic Violence Victims Found Shelter” or that talks about your needs like “What We Could Do with 100 Blankets”.

Also, make sure that your newsletter is attractive and that your articles are the right length for the forum. In general, email newsletters should not need much scrolling to be read. Knowing your newsletter may be hard to read or incredibly long may prevent your readers from opening the next one.

Looking in the Mirror: Does Your Brand Need a Makeover?

If you can remember back to high school, I’m guessing you can recall the economics lesson about design and branding. It probably went something like “blah blah blah, McDonald’s, yadda yadda, Coca-Cola,” and emphasized the boldness and omnipresence of multi-national brand titans, all harkening back to brand loyalty and the importance of good design. While there are some pertinent tidbits to take from these lessons, the rules of the game are a little different for nonprofit organizations without million-dollar marketing budgets.

Good design and strong branding are paramount to succeeding in any field. Particularly in the digital age, these elements represent the “face” of your organization and imply your values and mission—whether you plan on it or not.  And just as you may shave your winter beard or rethink a hairstyle, it may be time to take a second look at your organization’s design and branding.

First, it’s important to clarify the difference between the two. Design is the physical element of your organization, such as a logo and the accompanying aesthetics. These aesthetics include color scheme, font face, and so on. Branding is a more esoteric concept, imparting your organizational mission, values, and unique persona through a multi-tiered approach that includes design. Your branding influences your design, which in turn informs your branding. To ensure that your design and branding are both top-notch, let’s start by taking a look at branding concept.

When you first conceptualized your organization, what did you set out to do? If you’re having trouble remembering, take a look at your organizational mission statement. Your branding concept and mission statement should go hand in hand, with both emphasizing who you are, what you stand for, and what you aim to accomplish. As Laura stated in our prior Spring Cleaning article, your brand allows you to invite people to an emotional connection with your organization and is critical for partnerships, so careful thought should be put into this step. Once you’ve imagined your brand identity, the next step is to develop your design and graphics. The logo you choose, the colors and fonts you use, and the look and feel of your website should all express your mission, vision, and core values.

There are a few things to think about when considering the design elements of your organization. A good design will be unique, inspired, and refined. A one-of-a-kind logo with character will draw people in, while a refined design will be inviting and easy on the eyes. If you’re an establishment with an older logo and graphics, be sure that they are relevant and contemporary.

Advances in technology have left out-of-date graphics in the dust, along with the organizations that sport them. As the representational element of your organization, dated graphics speak volumes. Just as you might be apprehensive doing business with a dude decked out in a 1970’s leisure suit, funders may be similarly dissuaded from supporting an organization with ClipArt-esque design sensibilities. It may be worth reaching out to a professional designer. The expense may seem inaccessible at first, but making sure you stand out for all the right reasons will help you succeed in the long term.

Once you’ve settled on your branding concept and design elements, it’s time to do some serious branding. I’m talking letterheads, envelopes, stationery—you can even consider shirts and pens if you’re feeling crazy. While this may seem a little overemphatic, I’m not the only one jazzed on solid branding efforts. Your brand identity speaks to the integrity and viability of your organization. Whereas successful branding has a monetary value and institutes brand loyalty in the for-profit sector, cohesive and well-engineered branding can facilitate a sense of professionalism, inclusion, and trust for non-profits—both of which come in handy when asking for support. 

Find Your Values, Find Your Brand

Using core values as a guidepost, every nonprofit can have an effective brand-no matter its size or budget.

It’s easy for organizations to lose track of their branding efforts over time, or fail to establish a solid brand identity to begin with. We figured Spring might be just the time to do some organizational soul searching and solidify your unique brand.

Imagine you want to donate to a community-based organization in your city. You know of two—Main  Street Community Services and Broadway Community Services—and you need to decide who you’d like to support.

You call Main Street Community Services and ask the receptionist to tell you a little bit about the organization. She is warm and friendly, and she tells you that Main Street Community Services is responsive to community needs and provides innovative solutions to meeting them, then gives you several specific examples of their programs that illustrate how the organization is responsive and innovative. When you visit the Main Street Community Services website, it is well designed and professional, and you see more examples of how they have been responsive to community needs and innovative in their approach to solving them.

When you call Broadway Community Services, the receptionist is also friendly, but he simply lists the organization’s programs for you, which are similar to Main Street Community Services programs. When you visit the Broadway Community Services website, you see a list of their programs and general information, but the information is a bit disorganized and comes off as unprofessional.

You decide to contribute to Main Street Community Services. But why did these two organizations seem different, when their mission and services are the same? How did Main Street Community Services make these straightforward interactions so motivating?

Main Street Community Services had identified its core values through strategic planning and had committed to communicating this core feature of their identity in every interaction.  They discussed these values frequently and at every level of the organization, from their staff to their board to their volunteers, and used them to make decisions and stay focused on their mission. Broadway Community Services may have identified very similar values if they had completed a strategic planning process—but because they didn’t, they couldn’t communicate them clearly to someone who wanted to support them.

The Big Bad Branding Discussion

Your organization’s brand is its personality. You are communicating that personality all of the time, in every interaction, whether you intend to or not. When someone visits your website, interacts with your social media, receives a letter from you or talks to someone who represents your organization, they experience your brand.

Small nonprofits can sometimes be overwhelmed by the idea that they need to intentionally communicate their brand. In the fairly recent past, the concept of a brand was mainly associated with big corporations with large marketing budgets. In the online era, however, when the people who may support your organization often find it through a search engine, every organization, no matter how small, needs to know their brand and how to communicate it intentionally.

Fortunately, branding is actually pretty simple.

If you have planned strategically, people will walk away from interactions with your organization with perceptions that are in line with your core values—for example, Integrity, Compassion, Effectiveness. If you have not planned to communicate it, you may be presenting a personality that is way out of line with your organizational values. At worst: Disorganized, Inconsistent, Unprofessional.

When a donor, funder, or volunteer’s first interaction with your organization will often be online, inconsistent branding is a killer. By dedicating just a day to understanding your core values, you can have a foundation for branding that will allow you to communicate clearly to these supporters exactly who you are as an organization.

6 Steps To Branding Your Small Nonprofit (in a one-day workshop)


Step 1: Put together your team

A brand development team should consist of five to fifteen people who represent every level of your organization. If you’re very small and running on volunteer hours, your brand development team should include members of your board and representatives from volunteer programs who are deeply engaged with your organization. If you’re larger, you should have board members, executive leadership, and line staff represented on your team. The more someone interacts with constituents (that is: funders, donors, or the people who use your services), the more important it is to have their voices at the table.

Designate a facilitator, and plan a full day meeting. Make sure you have a place to write your ideas, like a large paper pad with an easel, and bring snacks—or even lunch--to keep your team’s energy up. They are doing very important work!

Step 2: Make sure the team knows the definition of a brand

The discussion at the beginning of this article may be enough. If you think they need more, try “Nonprofit Brands In The Age of Supporter Shift,” or “Creating A Brand For Your Nonprofit,” for brief primers on the work they’ll be doing in this meeting.

Step 3: List your target audiences

Who are the people who help you meet your mission? Are they donors? Volunteers? Government agencies? People who use your services? In a group discussion, identify the top three groups of people who most need to understand and identify with your brand for you to successfully meet your mission.

For some organizations, the people who use their services are a key audience that deeply impacts their ability to meet their mission. Other organizations may rely more on the perceptions of donors, volunteers, or other audiences to be able to meet their mission.

Step 4: List every single one of your values, then narrow the list.

Have everyone at the table individually list the top five values they think drive or should drive the organization. Then, go around the table and say them out loud. Have your facilitator list all of them. If values come up more than once (and they probably will), the facilitator should note how many times they are mentioned.

Once you have every single value listed, start narrowing them down. Have the facilitator help you agree on which listed values go together, which are the most important, and what words best articulate the concepts you’ve all identified. End with a list of about five—but no more than ten—values.

Step 5: Find your points of interaction, and create an action plan

What are the primary ways your target audiences interact with your brand, or encounter you for the first time? If this happens mostly online, you may need to redesign your website to reflect your values and brand promise, or develop a social media strategy that aligns with them. If you regularly communicate with audiences through phone calls, you may ask your receptionist to consider her greeting and communication style in light of the brand platform.

In almost all cases, you’ll need your logo to serve as an anchor for your brand values and promise—to make sure that, when people see your logo, they can attach your brand identity to it. If you don’t know how to do that, a graphic designer does! And you now have exactly the tools he or she will need to give you a logo and visual identity that communicates—wordlessly—what you value as an organization, and what makes you special.

Step 6: Take action!

Make sure your branding work doesn’t end at the meeting. You want these values and this promise to be communicated consistently, throughout the organization. Make sure every member of the organization has a copy of the brand values and brand promise. Keep talking about your brand. Keep thinking about your brand. Ask your constituents what they think about your brand. If you stay engaged with it, you’ll be in control of how you’re perceived as an organization