Dream a Little Dream: Get the Attention Your Organization Deserves

Why is it that so many leaders of small nonprofit organizations buy into this idea that it's okay to think small? Why is it that so many of the people who come to me say "my organization is the best kept secret in town." And in some cases present that information as some sort of badge of honor.

If this describes you and your feelings about your organization, then I have a message for you:

It doesn't do any favors for anyone for you to continue to think small, to continue to stay out of the lime light, to be a martyr for your cause. All it does is burn out your board and volunteers, disengage your donors and keep people from getting the help they need.

If I had a dream for 2012, it would be that fewer nonprofit leaders would allow themselves to think small.

So what happens when you start to look at the bigger picture? Let's take the idea of a soup kitchen. It is very important that people have access to food. But if you only look at feeding people physically, your story is very limited. What if you expanded your vision to talk about the hope that people receive when they see that others really care for them. What if there were a way to easily build on the programs you offer to insure that people you are serving are also helping them become self sufficient. What if you could encourage your recipients to formally organize to see how they could help each other? Teach leadership skills, help to really provide a hand up?

And what happens to your organization when you start to look at the bigger picture?

Board and staff members are reconnected with, and inspired by, the vision of the organization. You can more easily identify groups, people and companies who benefit from the work that you do (hint: these are your potential donors). When you approach people who are interested in your cause, they can more easily see how their community is being transformed by your work (hint: the materials you use are telling stories about lives being transformed, rather than just talking about some number of people who are receiving meals). As more people are engaged in the work you are doing, more funds are available to support your cause.

Yes, I hear you. It's not always that easy. But I have seen this work with organizations. And no, it doesn't happen overnight. If you're looking for a get-rich-quick scheme or an overnight success plan this will not do it for you. However if you're willing to invest some hard work up front (yes, I understand that you're probably already burning the candle at the both ends, but a change of approach will yield different results), then this approach could transform your organization.

Here's a summary of the steps you'll need to take:

Get in touch with your 'big idea.' Work together with your board to identify your vision (that is, how you see the community you serve changing as a result of the work you are going).
Rework your communications materials (talks, website, fliers, Facebook page, email messaging) to reflect this big idea.
Start inviting people to be a part of your organization - and build new opportunities for engagement. Not sure how you can add managing volunteers to your job description? In the short-term, you might be able to find a volunteer or intern to help get things started for you.
Get out there. Offer to speak at local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, to congregations and any other groups in your community that are looking for speakers. Consider setting up your own monthly 'get-to-know-us' events.
Meet with community leaders. Share your story with them - and ask for their help (not money, at least not right away, but ask what ideas they have that would help you get your story out). There are very few people who will say no to a short meting if you are genuinely asking for help.
Send out press releases. Of course making sure that they are timely, relevant and newsworthy (but do this on a regular basis, I recommend monthly). Reporters have less and less time to do research, so having a resource they can contact with questions about the issue in the community that you address is valuable for them. This press release can also be sent out by email to major donors, community leaders, elected officials, etc. as a way to ensure that they are kept up-to-date about your organization.
Continue to invite people to engage with your organization.

That's my dream. More organizations getting out there in a big way, transforming our communities and creating a better world.