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From Magnificent Intentions to Reality at the Nonprofit Technology Conference

 My fellow speakers and audience members at the 2018 Nonprofit Technology Conference session "How to MacGyver Your Way to Digital Success as a Small/Mid-Sized Nonprofit."

My fellow speakers and audience members at the 2018 Nonprofit Technology Conference session "How to MacGyver Your Way to Digital Success as a Small/Mid-Sized Nonprofit."

A few weeks ago I attended the 2018 Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), which is an annual gathering hosted by the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN). Though it was my 5th NTC overall, it was my first as an independent strategic communications consultant and my first conference in New Orleans. As if that wasn't enough to make for a memorable (and musical) experience, Sachin Doshi and Jessica Kennedy from Mental Health America asked me to join their panel (along with Ananda Leeke) on achieving digital success for small to mid-sized nonprofits. The following is an edited transcript of my remarks.

When my new friends at Mental Health America asked me to join this session, I thought about the diversity of experience I’ve had working with all shapes and sizes of nonprofits and nonprofit initiatives -- and organizations in general -- and I thought, "it isn’t just the small and medium-size groups who are limited by their technology and communications budgets and staff capacity. It’s everyone, right?"

For example, I recently completed a project for a national nonprofit with more than $1 billion in assets. One might assume this organization has almost unrestrained potential to pursue its objectives. However, this specific project was for a niche initiative within the organization that had more in common with a small nonprofit than a behemoth NGO. Therefore, I had to ultimately recommend communications solutions that were tailored for a lean team with finite time and resources.

All organizations are limited to some degree by budgets and capacity, but smaller organizations and initiatives have two key benefits: the need to be selective and the ability to be nimble. When digital ambitions are bigger than budgets, nonprofits are forced to prioritize the strategies and technologies that will yield the most positive impact on their missions. And this focus on ROI can help cut out the fat, increase efficiency, and ultimately position the organization for success. Embracing these attributes is critical. What if you started viewing your relatively smaller stature as a strength?

What if you started viewing your relatively smaller stature as a strength?

And that got me thinking about the Story of David and Goliath.

If you haven’t heard Malcolm Gladwell’s take on the story, I recommend you listen to his Ted talk. Essentially, he says that David wasn’t ever really at a disadvantage because he had a sling in his pocket and he knew how to use it.

I thought I'd share a brief example from my work to illustrate this point, and I tried to come up with a story from the smallest, most cash strapped not-for-profit organization I’ve ever worked with. Then I realized, it’s actually one I helped establish.

One day a few years ago my dear friend Ryan had a good idea, as he often does. But "idea people" usually need help from someone who, for example, has an affinity for spreadsheets and can coax an idea to life.

Ryan said something to the effect of, “We know a lot of great songwriters and musicians. I think we should start our own music festival. But I don’t want to make any money off of it.” To which I replied, “well the second part shouldn’t be too hard.”

If you’ve followed the trends of music festivals recently, many don’t succeed on any number of metrics, including financial goals. These Goliath music festivals have some common weaknesses, including greed and fraud, and often don’t end up supporting the communities or communities of artists where they are hosted.

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We wanted to avoid disaster and prove that a smaller scale music festival could be a success. And, like David, we had a sling: incredible local talent. Justin Jones. Olivia Mancini. Jasmine Gillison. Vandaveer. The Cowards Choir. These are not household names, but they should be. 

So we borrowed a phrase that Charles Dickens once used to describe Washington, DC, and set off to create the "Magnificent Intentions" Music Festival. We figured that way if it didn’t work out, we could always fall back on our branding (“Well, we did say our intentions were magnificent…”).

Our specific goals were to:

  • Pull off a 3-day, independent festival featuring only DC-area artists performing original music
  • Fairly compensate all performers for their efforts
  • Ensure it is well attended and covered to increase chances for sustainability

And we also had some barriers to overcome:

  • Lack of funding and small staff to implement on our plan
  • Need to overcome image of DC as anything but an arts mecca
  • Secure performance commitments and schedule artists

In order to use our sling and expose these great artists to a wider community, we had significant technology needs:

  • An official email account to appear professional in our outreach
    • Solution: GSuite
  • A custom website for festival promotion and information
    • Solution: WordPress
  • Social media profiles to build buzz and share announcements
    • Solution: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
  • Online ticketing software to manage transactions
    • Solution: Brown Paper Tickets

Thanks to largely open source and free software and volunteer design, web development, and marketing expertise, we only had to spend $200 out of pocket to run our operation for the inaugural festival.

One lesson here that can apply to any organization: people with expertise are willing to donate their time and talents to your cause. Be open to what they can offer (with some common sense vetting). It could be worth much more than they would be willing or able to contribute monetarily. In our case, we estimate volunteers provided about $10,000 of skilled labor to help us pull off this festival.

People with expertise are willing to donate their time and talents to your cause. Be open to what they can offer (with some common sense vetting).

We also knew we couldn’t only rely on our own money, networks, and word of mouth to make this festival a success, so we planned and implemented a multichannel campaign to boost awareness and ticket sales. Our campaign included:

  • Grant Funding & Sponsorship Outreach
    • We secured $1,000 from CRAVE, a community arts micro-granting dinner
  • DC Music Blog Outreach
  • DC Music Podcast Outreach
  • Traditional Media Outreach
  • National Music Organization Outreach
    • The Kennedy Center hosted and live streamed two promotional performances for the festival, and the festival was covered by major music publications with global audiences such as No Depression
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In the end, the campaign and event was a success. More than 20 original artists performed their music over 3 days, all artists were promptly and fairly compensated based on our agreements, and the festival attracted hundreds of music fans over the weekend. We may not have conquered any Goliaths, but we met our goals and our David lived on for a second festival.

Ryan and I are currently planning the third installment of the festival. If you have questions about Magnificent Intentions, or the communications strategy that powered it, contact me at brian@brianpagels.com