What non profits can learn from reality TV

reality TV, lessons, bachelorette, top chef, secret millionaire

[ Reality or not, we can learn from reality shows.

Yesterday, Microsoft launched their first reality show, Be the Next Microsoft Employee. It’s five weeks long and, at the end, one of the four contestants will be picked as the next Microsoft employee. It’s like Top Chef for geeks. (Full disclosure, I worked on this show…and, no, I won’t tell you who wins.)

Then there’s Secret Millionaire, ABC’s showcase of big-hearted millionaires who change the lives of others and, along the way, their own.

[Obviously, there are some bigger name reality shows. We could throw those into the mix, but I’m opting to focus on the two that have some “do goodness” to them.]

Be the Next and Secret Millionaire are very different shows, partially because one is web-based and one is a full-blown TV show and one is about employment and the other redemption.

But they have many things in common–as do all reality shows–and this is where there’s some transferable tidbits for DIY marketers.

Here are three take-away’s worth noting:

  1. People like drama. This is why the highs are so high and the lows so low on reality shows.
  2. People want to relate. Reality shows editors look at how to bring out the human element whenever possible.
  3. People get attached to people. They have their fav contestant and they are miffed when he or she gets booted off.

How do you, the non profit marketers of the world, parlay these into your marketing?

  1. Tell a good story. Make it interesting. Don’t water it down. You can tell a story that is both respectful and yet very, very interesting.
  2. Focus on individual people. We relate on an individual level. Tell your supporters about one person who exemplifies why you do your work and how you do it.
  3. Be mindful when someone who your clients, donors, and volunteers are attached to is leaving. It may just be staff turn-over to you, but can evoke the same “don’t vote my person off” emotions from others.

Any other lessons we can learn from all these reality shows?

Canada, the US, Independence Days & Brand

4th of July, Canada Day, United States, brandI’m Camerican–born in Canada to American parents. Comparing and contrasting the two countries is inevitable.

Take, for instance, how we celebrate our respective Independence days.

Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate the 4th of July–a day of fun, festivities and fireworks. It’s a big deal.

Meanwhile, Canadians celebrated their Independence day on July 1–lovingly referred to as Canada Day or Canada’s birthday. It’s kind of a big deal. But it doesn’t hold a Roman candle to the hooplah that goes on in the U.S.

If both holidays are about the exact same thing–independence from Great Britain–why are they so different? Brand and history.

An exceptionally brief history lesson: Whereas the United States fought for its independence, Canada came into being because Great Britain decided to create a new country out of three existing colonies. <end history lesson>

Just like organizations, many elements inform a country’s brand. History is one of them.

Canada’s brand is understated. It is the mosaic to the American melting pot. Courtesy is currency.

Rabble-rousing and a serious independent streak are what got the United States its independence, so it’s no surprise its brand is more boisterous and extroverted.

Had the United States and Canada been formed in the same way, they might be more similar in terms of their brand. But, contrary to popular opinion, they’re really very different. (If you’d like a more exhaustive list of how they differ, email me and I’d be happy to enumerate.)

History matters. Why and how your organization came into existence matters. It’s where the story of your organization begins.

If you were going to have an independence day for your organization, when would it be? What makes that date significant?

Event donors: more than a one night stand

event360, fundraising event, donor communicationsEvent 360 recently released a new white paper: 4 steps to converting event donors to organizational donors. I will leave the in-depth commentary on whether these are the “right” 4 steps to event pros like Shanon Doolittle but will say that the event donor segmentation and sample engagement plan for major donors alone are worth giving over your email address for (which you have to do to download it).

Here’s the thing: Event donors often get stuck in the one night stand camp because we try to go too far, too fast.

Unlike most other forms of fundraising where there is a longer lead up to the ask, event participants go from ‘I don’t know you at all’ to ‘going all the way’ (i.e. making a donation) very quickly.

Even after the event, event attendees barely know you! You’ve had a fling. Even if it was a great fling, it was still just a fling. That’s very different than a courtship.

From a messaging perspective, this means you have to properly introduce them to your organization after the event. In the event follow-up, don’t make the mistake of leaping to the middle of your story. Reinforce what they learned–and felt–at the event. Reiterate the key points from the event. Reinforce why they should like you. Cement their basic knowledge of your cause, your mission, what makes you unique and how they can engage.

This may sound incredibly, painfully obvious. But I’m always surprised how clunky post-event communications tend to be. Take it slow and your event donors can turn into much more than a one night stand.



Yesterday, I got a great piece of feedback from someone working at a food program in New York. He had watched this week’s Tune Up Tuesday video. The video advocates for using relativity and specificity so that your supporters can connect with your cause. This is based on research about making issues ‘human scale’, and is articulately explained in Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers. (They’re so dang smart!)

As this viewer explained, he can tell a variation of the following story…

Jennifer hadn’t eaten in three days. She struggles with multiple chronic diseases that prevent her from leaving her house. This lack of food was not uncommon for Jennifer and the level of weight loss was significantly damaging her health. Our program brought food right to her doorstep and now she’s eating healthy and getting healthy!

…and it might be an effective way to connect with some individual donors. However, this viewer’s point was that for many funders, especially foundations, he has to then draw the connection to the bigger issue and show broad, measurable impact. In the case of Jennifer, for instance, he would go on to say that 75% of their clients show progress toward achieving a healthy weight after being in the program, i.e. Jennifer represents an overall trend they see in their work, which is that it works.

It comes down to audience and sequencing. (Yes, yes, I know you all know that I don’t like the term ‘audience’, but sometimes you just gotta use it.)

Human beings are hard-wired to understand and relate to stories. That’s why starting with a story works. In order for some donors to make a connection–or make the case–for supporting your organization, they will also need the facts and figures to back it up. It all comes back to one of the cornerstones of effective nonprofit marketing: Know Thy Audience.

Thanks to this viewer for bringing up a REALLY important point!

What have you found with your supporters? Is storytelling an effective way to inspire action for your organization or do you need the facts and figures?

The Story of Lance

When you tell your story, or the story of your organization, your believers see themselves as part of it. Honor that because you might just be someone’s story of hope.

Here’s what I mean.

In July 2000, my mum was bald. She had just gone through chemo for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She now has all her hair and is happy and healthy–thank goodness!

At the time, however, we didn’t know if the chemo would be successful. I was training for a marathon with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team-in-Training. I needed a little hope to keep me going.

And so, when we found ourselves a few kilometres away from the Tour de France that summer, we trekked to see it. I didn’t know the first thing about cycling. That didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to see the peloton. I was going to see what cancer could look like on the other side of chemo. I was going to see hope on a bike. I was going to see Lance Armstrong.

Ever since that fated day, I have been one of Lance’s biggest fans. He is wowerful to watch on a bike and he has created an awareness about cancer that is rivaled only by Komen. His name has become synonymous with cancer, hope and living strong.

Lance’s story of hope became my story of hope. It was a story about being able to not just survive cancer, but to thrive in its wake.  It was a story about coming back from cancer and conquering mountains–both literally and figuratively–on sheer will, hard work and determination.

Then came last night’s 60 Minutes with its allegations and testimonials about doping. This is not the first time Lance has been accused of doping. Not by a long shot. (Skewering Lance has practically become a national sport in France.) The allegations have always been part of the story. As a believer, however, I simply convinced myself that the allegations couldn’t possible be true. There was no room for doping in a story whose power was predicated on its epic nature.

Now it seems undeniable that the story of Lance includes doping, drugs and EPO. It may still be a story of hope, but it is no longer my story of hope.

How Lance handles these latest accusations will determine his legacy because they will be some of the most critical chapters in his story. Lance is a masterful marketer. Can he be an honest storyteller?

With the Greg Mortenson scandal in full swing, Lance would not be alone in the “fallen philanthropic hero” category. What will that do for the cancer community? If he hadn’t done the drugs, would he have won anyway? If he hadn’t won, would he have been able to raise as much awareness and money for the cause? Impossible to know.

What I know is that I probably need to start looking for another story of hope. If you have one, please let me know. You’ll make my day… and probably the day of a lot of folks whose story of hope was the story of Lance.