Mailbag: Cultivating journalists to find donors

Q: My board is complaining that no one in our community has  heard of our organization, and that if we want to raise more money we have to raise our visibility.  They aren’t wrong, but I don’t know how to fix the problem.  My communications staff have written a gazillion press releases, sent out pictures of all our events, etc. – but nothing has worked.  A peer told me to think of it like fundraising, that I have to build relationships with journalists if I want them to write about our work, but I don’t know what that actually means.  Is he right? How do you do that?

Q: He’s right.  Look – press releases are not going to be enough to get you a ton of press.  They’re necessary (and shouldn’t be hard to produce) for other reasons, but they’re not enough to crank out (even if you agonize over them) and call it a communications strategy.

Building relationships with journalists is a good idea, and it’s not unlike fundraising, which is, at its core, all about relationships if you’re doing it well…but clearly that isn’t a stand alone insight for you.  Let me see if I can help.

I used to teach SAT prep classes, a gazillion years ago when scores only went up to 1600 and I didn’t feel cheated by getting paid less than 1/6th of what my students were paying per hour…one of the things that stuck with me was a bit of the opening class that tried to put the kids at ease and make them feel they could tackle the test: the SAT is not written by geniuses, it’s written by plain old people trying to do a job.  To understand how to answer SAT questions, you learn how to write them, which involves putting yourself in the mind of a perfectly average person who wants to clock in, write some questions, get paid, and go home.

Journalists probably have a different set of dreams and ambitions than your average SAT question writer, so it’s not a perfect analogy, but if you want to figure out how to get better press, you need to put yourself in the mind of a journalist-as-journeyman…whatever their dreams of Pulitzers and Peabodys, for right now, the writers you need are just trying to be successful at writing things that will make their editors happy.  They can’t afford to just turn around glorified event listings, they can’t reprint your press release verbatim, and if there’s no actual NEWS in the news story you pitch to them, you should thank them for being polite when you waste their time.  But, on the other hand, they probably aren’t looking for their own personal Deep Throat – if you’re talking to people on the local events or nonprofits/mission driven beat, they don’t need Snowden magnitude leaks to write a story.


  1. Be respectful.  When you look for folks to pitch a story to about your fundraising gala, make sure you’ve thought about why it’s news.  If you want a feature on one of your volunteers, or one of your core programs (or a new one), or your organization in general, make sure you’ve thought beyond press release: know why this is news, know who would want to read about it, and have a realistic sense of whether the story you’re pitching is going to fit in with the normal collection of stories at whatever outlet you’re talking to.  It’s tacky (and unproductive) to try to get a writer to write something on your behalf that would stick out like a sore thumb in their publication – whether it’s the little town circular or a national magazine with great circulation, you’re not going to be the exception.  Don’t put the burden on the poor journalist to break it to you that your 14th annual golf tournament isn’t worthy of a feature in the New York Times…
  2. Pay attention to what people write.  You have an organization with a mission.  Who’s writing, locally or nationally, about that mission or related topics?  If you have a program or event you’d love to see covered, same question.  To go to the fundraising analogy, you’d never meet someone, learn that they’ve made philanthropic donations in the past and then, without knowing anything more about them, say “oh, you make donations?  You should give us $5 million for our capital campaign.”  Now, you might well say “I hear you’re a philanthropist?  I’d love to tell you about our organization…when can we grab lunch so we can get to know each other?”  Similarly, you’re OK to meet folks and say “oh, you’re a writer?  I’d love to hear more…”  But just as you’d never presume to know what ask to make to a perfect stranger, you really shouldn’t be presuming to know what ask to make of a journalist before you know what they write.
  3. But eventually, you’re going to make that ask…so just like you build a portfolio of prospective donors, each of whom has capacity and specific thoughts on how they want to be supportive of your organization, you’re going to build a portfolio of journalists so that you can make the right ask to the right person when the time comes.  You’ll look for local people, you’ll look for people who cover your mission directly or tangentially, etc.  Start making connections.
  4. How?  Twitter is awesome for connecting to journalists, also many folks will have public/newspaper hosted email accounts so you can get in touch directly.  Start by complimenting folks whose articles you like.  Obviously, this involves an element of truth…don’t be obsequious, don’t blow smoke…but it’s not deceitful or wrong to actively look for folks doing great work, or to let them know you appreciate their writing.  Ask questions, if you have them.  Engage with them.  DO NOT MAKE ANY PITCHES unless you’re pretty sure it’s a good idea…like fundraising, there’s no single checklist or marker for that.  You have a risk tolerance, you have your own idea of how well you need/want to know someone, you have your own sense of urgency about a particular project or pitch, you have an understanding of where you stand in a competitive landscape…you’re balancing all these and more, so I can’t tell you exactly when it’s write to make a pitch, just like I couldn’t tell you exactly when it’s OK to make a major solicitation.  It’s your relationship, you make the call.  What I’m saying is that you need to treat it as seriously as a big solicitation – don’t jump the gun because you figure it’s not a personal relationship with the journalist.  It is.
  5. In the same vein, if you’ve got good relationships with a portfolio of writers, you can ask their advice on getting more stories written.  Use them to help you shape and direct pitches.  Get them to brainstorm with you.  Like donors, actual, meaningful involvement means greater connection to you and your organization.  Greater connection means greater willingness to help out one way or another.
  6. Think outside the box.  We no longer live in a world where TV news and print newspapers/magazines are how you get the word out about something, whether it’s an event or a mission.  Bloggers can be amazing when it comes to substantive pieces directed at a very specific audience.  Every town, it seems, has a slew of push-out event bloggers (people/companies that send weekly or other regular calendar write-ups about what’s going on in the community, via email, social media, text…).  Hyperlocal news sites are exploding.  Social media in general shouldn’t be overlooked – the right re-tweet or Facebook share to thousands of followers might be worth way more than an article in the local paper.
  7. Visibility isn’t necessarily just about getting articles written about you.  Think about ways for you and  your program folks to become visible experts in your field.  HARO (help a reporter out) is a hit-or-miss service, but keeping an eye out for ways to get quoted/featured as an expert is a good basic practice.
  8. Get your board involved.  We so often focus on “ambassadorship” as a function of board members that directly relates to fundraising…general publicity is an obvious part of ambassadorship.  Make sure you give your board recommendations for doing that effectively – should they send potential PR contacts to you?  How much should they butter them up first?  What are the key points they should be hitting if they get the chance?  What do you expect them to do on their own social media accounts?  Hmmm….very much like fundraising – you’ll get what you want more often if you break it down into manageable steps and explicit requests, and having a conversation about communications strategy at the board level at least once a year is a good idea.  They are, after all, responsible for maintaining institutional ideals, and image is at least halfway to identity, n’est pas?

Hope that helps…

Mailbag: A Woman in China

Q:  How do I answer questions in an interview that are about my personal life?  As a young woman, I am always asked two questions: am I married? Do I plan to have children?  And some of my friends are often asked about where their parents live, how old they are, etc.

A:  I feel I have to provide some context for this question.  I have several coaching clients who are Chinese, have come to the US to study and intend to return to their own country immediately or within a few years of receiving their degree.  This question comes from one of them…and the sad thing is that it could have come from any one of them (now or future).

These kinds of questions are illegal in the US, but that hardly makes them extinct so I’m going to answer this question for two reasons: first, because the approach I suggest for my coaching clients is good general advice for anyone who expects and fears a particular question in interviewing, and second, because whether it’s a calculated (or blundering) risk during hiring or a political minefield once you’ve been hired, many Americans will still have to face some similar question at some point (or several) in their professional lives.  It’s worth thinking about and preparing for.  Read more

Mailbag: The Question of Cupcakes

Q: I just joined a board for a local nonprofit.  I’m a great baker and want to make a good impression on my fellow board members.  Can I bring cupcakes to a meeting?  We’re not talking sloppy homemade stuff – it’ll be homemade, but Martha Stewart quality, which is why I think it’ll add to my superwoman credibility, but my roommate disagrees.

A:  What are you trying to say with these cupcakes?  Sadly, a nice gesture of bringing food to a board meeting (or work in general) is far from harmless or innocent…though your pastry snobbery doesn’t make me feel like you’ve got pure and innocent intentions in the first place.

Cupcakes.  When a woman bakes for a group of professionals, it’s overshadowed by decades of passive and subservient women being forced to fetch coffee or tend to a home instead of being respected as professionals.  It doesn’t matter who you are, that history comes into the room with you like an uninvited guest.  When you make the decision to bake – or not – for your colleagues, at work or on a board, you have to stare that guest in the face and decide how you will co-exist with him. Read more

Mailbag: My Board has social media ADHD

Q:  In general, my board is full of great, smart, very accomplished people.  But they are fixated on whatever new social media platform or app they read about last week.  They don’t use them, they don’t understand the difference between Facebook and Pinterest and Tumblr and Vine (and sometimes get the names wrong…I’m not kidding, one woman told me I was behind the times for not using “Pee – Interest” in my development strategy.)  How do I get them to realize that I’m already overworked and when I’m having a hard time getting our basic materials together, I can’t run a dozen separate social media accounts too?

A:  Kudos to you for standing your ground, which it sounds like you’ve done.  Too many folks find it easier to simply yield to their board member’s desires and create institutional profiles and accounts.  I’m waiting for someone to be brilliant enough to create an actual dating profile for their organization in hopes of turning OK Cupid into their next great fundraiser…because that’s probably more useful than throwing together yet another cut and paste social media identity without understanding how that particular platform is going to fit into your brand and overall visibility strategy.  And oh, yeah – you’re probably not going to be able to raise a lot of money through Facebook.

You know all that already.  Here are some tips for convincing your board that there’s no magic bullet to be found on instagram or twitter.  Read more

Mailbag: First Quarter Blues

Q: I just worked my behind off in December.  While everyone else in the nonprofit was enjoying tons of time off with their family for the holidays, I was killing myself trying to bring in every last penny before the end of the year.  And now everyone else is energized and excited about getting back to work after their vacations, and I’m exhausted.  I’m totally burnt out, and want to cry every time we schedule a team meeting to talk about gaining some new momentum as we start the year.

A: Oh, I hear you.  Welcome to one of the least rewarding parts of life as a fundraiser.  If you’re not killing yourself in December, you’re leaving money on the table.  But then what?

I’ve got some truth to lay on you, something that hopefully will help you shift your own perspective, and then some tips for how to be productive when you’re brain dead and struggling with the internal motivation of a comatose sloth.  Read more

Mailbag: Donors at Parties (part 1)

Q: I’m about to go through the annual December holiday party marathon.  13 of them this year, and I already feel unlucky.  I’m a development officer for an organization in a pretty small town, and there are only so many major donors, so I’m going to run into a lot of folks that I have urgent donor business with…what’s the etiquette here?  I don’t want to upset my hosts or my prospects, but I don’t want to pretend that I don’t need to talk to these people about giving my organization money.  I don’t know how to talk to MY donors at someone else’s party, and it’s sort of a separate question, but I don’t really know how to balance the party we’re throwing between a nice thank you celebration for the folks who support us year round and reminding some donors that we want their money before the end of the month.

A: Two good questions.  Let’s take them separately…First, Other People’s Parties.

Read more

Help! How do you work a room, anyway?

Q: I am going to about a million holiday cocktail parties and receptions in the next month, and I have a horrible secret that keeps me up at night every time I have to go to one of these: I don’t know what I’m doing.  All I want to do is stand on the sidelines, watching everyone else from my hiding place near the bar, until I get enough courage to say hi to the person who invited me so they know I came and then run away as quickly as possible.  How does everyone else do it?

The dreaded cocktail party.  They make it look so easy on TV…what’s the secret?
The dreaded cocktail party.  They make it look so easy on TV…what’s the secret?

A:Stupidly, the first thing that pops into my mind as an answer is that corny Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ad campaign (though clearly I’m not the only person to internalize this marketing) where they showed you a series of how different people ate their product.  It’s interesting to know how other people attack the cocktail party scenario, but ultimately, you need to know how YOU are going to work the room. Read more

Mailbag: Using a Donor Ladder

Q: I have a new boss, and even though I’ve been on the job for three years, she’s tossing around terms I’ve never heard.  She’s always talking about donor lifecycle and awareness ladders.  Now she wants us to go through our entire database and categorize people according to their solicitation readiness.  She’s terrifying and judgmental and I’m scared to ask her to explain what she wants.  What does she want???

A: First things first, let’s talk about your fear of asking for further direction.  You have to.  I’ve got your back, and I’m going to explain the concepts that she’s talking about, but I want to be really clear: Development isn’t a science.  There’s no universally agreed set of terminology, and there’s no single way to format or categorize or rank or parse anything.  If you want to give your boss what she wants, you have to ask her about it.

But we can make sure that you’re asking intelligent, informed questions.  Here’s MY version of thinking through donor evolution (which is a modification of the marketing concept of an “awareness ladder.”) Read more

Mailbag: 11 Steps to a Case Statement

Q: I work for a pretty small organization.  We’ve been able to get started on government and foundation grants, and after two years working hard to build an Annual Fund, my board thinks we’re ready to add a major giving program.  I have never done this before.  I’m willing to try it, and I’m reading everything I can on how to do major gift fundraising, but I’m scared and I’m stuck.  I know I need a case statement, but I don’t know how to write one, and I have no idea what to say.  Do you have a template you recommend?

A: I don’t recommend a lot of templates.  They can be very very useful, don’t get me wrong, but templates too often give people implicit permission to literally think inside the box.  You’re so focused on properly filling in the blanks in your form (sorry – template) that you’re no longer thinking about what you actually need: what makes your story unique, what makes the way you tell your story unique, and what makes your audience unique.
So I’m going to do two things: first, congratulate you on asking for help, and two, encourage you to keep doing it.
Oh, and since I’m not totally heartless, I’m going to explain that, and give you a worksheet for how to create a case statement.   Read more