How political can a nonprofit get?

We are not lawyers, so this is not to be construed as legal advice, but many nonprofits find themselves tempted to side with a political candidate or cause. They do this for obvious reasons. First, nonprofits have missions and often those missions cross over into the political arena. Sometimes laws will either allow or disallow a nonprofit from carrying on their work.

But any 501 c 3 organization knows, or should know, that it is prohibited from being a political vehicle. Because it takes advantage of tax-exempt status, it is mandated to function for the “public good.” And they are not permitted to determine what the public good is or what it means.

Hence the quandry. We have had many nonprofit clients hold galas and all of a sudden a political candidate will pop in to meet the crowd and some even want to say a few words. Even gala attendees are voters, and if a candidate can align him or herself with a cause, they will go for it.

On the line is not the candidate, but the organization. If an organization invites a candidate to express their political positions, they are smart to also give their opponent the same opportunity.

It is also important to remember that there is a difference between a tax-exempt organization from giving a candidate a platform, and endorsing a candidate. Once there is an endorsement, then it becomes an entirely different situation.

Most nonprofits are aware of this IRS rule and play it smart and legal. Some, on the other hand, believe nobody will know and they are so small nobody will care, even the government.

We say, why take a chance. Regardless of how close an executive director or CEO of a not for profit organization is, when election season comes, run it by your lawyers and play it safe.

Press at nonprofit galas

Every nonprofit does events. Events are a great way to show your supporters what you do and how you are changing the world for the better.

At the same time, every nonprofit believes what they do is so newsworthy that the press will come out in the evening and cover their event.

Often they do, particularly if celebrities are involved.

While we have an enviable track record for press turnout at our client galas, we at the same time know that press is not, and should not, be the primary objective of a fundraising event.

Your target audience is people who are engaged with your organization, and your financial supporters. Those are the people who will attend your event and write checks. Having camera crews there adds to the glitz, but in a media world where news items are 15 seconds long at best, in more cases than not you are not going to grab attention from viewers who won’t remember your organization’s name, and who probably get most of their news from social media anyway.

Keep your eye on the end game. That’s raising money and deepening the involvement of your core supporters who will spread the word to others with similar values and with the financial means to lend a hand.

Promote your events on social media which is just as effective, if not more because it is so targeted. If you get on the evening news that’s great to repost, but should not be the primary focus of your fundraiser.

Nonprofit public relations and marketing

Is it possible to attract media coverage for a nonprofit fundraiser event? I ask the question because every nonprofit holds fundraisers, whether in-person or online, and everybody wants media coverage.

The harsh reality is that media turnout in a large market like Los Angeles for an evening fundraising event is difficult unless it has one or more critical elements. Foremost, nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles need to understand that the city is showbiz oriented. For the media to send a crew, or a reporter and photographer, they want to show pictures that will catch their readers’ attention — and in L.A. that usually means A-list actors.

As a PR firm that has managed dozens of events for nonprofits, we speak from experience. We also believe that every nonprofit does great work. So while promoting the work of a nonprofit is admirable and what we do, that alone is not what will make the media come out.

There simply are too many nonprofits holding too many events for them all to be covered. And this is especially true in the post-pandemic era.

So if your event can’t turn out Brad Pitt, there are other ways to get media attention by creating a strategy that ties your work to current events in the news. Also, don’t forget post-event coverage. While media may not spend the money to send out a crew (yes it costs a station money to cover events) sending them video and photos after the event, which costs them nothing to run is something to consider.

And there are other techniques. Working with a firm that has put on numerous events, that comes with a fresh perspective and creative ideas, can be invaluable.

When is a crisis a crisis?

Crisis public relations firms are often retained to do two things. Either keep their client out of the news, or help their client respond to negative allegations.

The key to an effective crisis PR strategy is timing. If an organization believes there is a threat to their reputation, they want to be ready. We’ve all heard the phrase, “get ahead of the story.” But in reality, many impending crises never happen.

So it becomes a bit of a dilemma. Do you go out there are defend yourself before anything happens, or do you wait? Talking too quickly can put you in the position of creating a story that hasn’t — and perhaps won’t occur. Obviously, nobody wants that.

Having a solid PR strategy that takes all scenarios into account is step one. Finding the right balance of being ready and moving forward when the need becomes apparent is the best strategy unless a legal case has been filed and you know for certain it will blow up.

That’s what PR firms do. Bring a clear perspective and vision to a situation and formulate the right PR strategy that protects their clients’ reputations while not inadvertently creating a crisis that never would have happened.

Nonprofit events: in-person or virtual?

Now that the world is coming out of the pandemic, so are nonprofit events. After two years when all events by charity organizations were moved online due to COVID, does it make sense to make them in person again?

While most organizations bemoaned having to cancel their events and doing them on Zoom, many are noticing the advantages they enjoyed as well. Let’s face it. Serving dinner at a fancy hotel is expensive. A good percentage of ticket prices and sponsorship money always went to the venue and the caterer. Then there were the many other costs — decorations, video, programs, flowers, music, staffing, parking. Too many well-meaning nonprofits did annual gala after annual gala only to find that after six months of planning, they were left with much less than they need or want.

This is not to say there isn’t a time and place for real life galas. There is something warm and special about an organization’s supporters, friends and staff getting together, meeting, talking and sharing an evening together. No Zoom event can replace that. But what virtual fundraisers taught us is nonprofits can do a great job putting on a fundraising gala while raising more money. If you knock out all the costs, and extend the reach by going virtual there is a place for an online gala as well.

What is important to remember is supporters don’t attend a gala for the chicken dinner. In fact, many hate it and avoid galas. There are just too many. Instead, focus on your organization’s mission and message. That’s what will being in the money.

And your supporters may surprise you by giving more because they can do it from the comfort of their living room and don’t have to put on a necktie or gown.

Raising your nonprofit’s voice

We hear quite a bit about making your voice heard. But that’s on a personal level. Your nonprofit also has a voice and it can be heard through your public relations (PR) and marketing strategy.

What does this mean? It means not only telling the world what it is your nonprofit does, but how your nonprofit is making life better for the people it serves.

This is especially true if one of your main objectives is fundraising. Donors support nonprofits for many different reasons. One is the mission resonates with them. The other is they see their dollars at work; not in nice office space or lots of staff, but in the community.

Decide what it is you want your nonprofit’s voice to say, and then create a PR plan that says it effectively and loudly.

Nonprofit PR checklist

If your nonprofit wants to win the public relations/marketing game as you compete with other nonprofits that essentially serve the same audiences, there are some must-haves.

Here they are:

  1. Spokesperson — The ideal spokesperson is the CEO of executive director. Assure he/she is trained in media relations and can think quickly.
  2. Visionary — Every nonprofit needs a visionary. They often are those who start the nonprofit. If your nonprofit wants to grow, it needs someone to articulate where it is going.
  3. Engagement — Nonprofits flourish when they engage those whom they serve as well as donors.
  4. Success — Studies have shown that people donate to organizations that are succesful. Craft your image as a nonprofit that is making a change for the better. Donors want their dollars going to make a difference, not getting an organization out of debt.
  5. Relevance — Be relevant. Operating a nonprofit as it did 10 years ago does not attract donors or media attention. Keep up with technology and the rapidly changing world.

Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial: A lesson in crisis/litigation management

For those following the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial, it is difficult to distinguish whether it is a trial or a circus. Not since the O.J. case has there been so much interest and chatter about a celebrity legal case.

And it’s not an accident.

We know that all “A” list celebrities have PR publicists working the media to spin their side of the story. Now that we live in an age of social media where everybody has a voice, it is even more visible.

When it was Johnny’s turn on the stand, the social media chatter was clearly on his side. Hashtags and nasty comments about Amber were everywhere. People called her crazy. Depp’s PR team had the upper hand.

So what was Heard’s response? She fired her PR firm.

According to online sources, she was furious at the bad headlines she was getting. So she switched publicists. However, she did it right before she took the stand and had a chance to tell her side of the story.

Whether the new PR people have done any better getting her side of the story out is debatable. The anti-Heard damage was deep and widespread.

The lesson to be learned is you don’t get much by killing the messenger. The trial was broadcast live, and people were able to make their own decisions and post their own thoughts without going through the filter of Amber’s PR team.

There is only so much a PR team can do to spin an image when courtroom testimony brights out craziness. But it was a move that Heard should have thought about before dumping the publicists who had been following the trial since its beginning. She never gave them a chance to help tell her side of the story.

And judging from the headlines and social media that continue to favor Depp, her kneejerk reaction to switch publicists before they had a chance, was simply foolish.

A PR crisis requires waiting and knowing the facts

The Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX in which 19 fourth-grade students were massacred, is a textbook example of how not to properly handle a PR crisis.

Two days after the tragedy, law enforcement were in front of cameras fielding questions and attempting to explain what happened. The only problem is their story kept changing.

This event can hardly be called a PR crisis. It is beyond imagination that 11-year-old kids would be brutally killed. But the intense media attention pressured law enforcement to feed their desires for information. They were pressured by the media for an explanation and answers as to what happened.

The parents deserve nothing less.

Instead of law enforcement — which has the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the world — were pressured if not bullied into meeting with media to explain the details and timeline of what they did. They first said the gunman was met outside the school by a School Resource Officer who was shot. Then, officials said that never happened. Then, they said they could not find the key to the classroom. That explanation went away. At this writing the story now is police locked the gunman in the classroom with the children and waited an hour for SWAT.

There is no doubt other explanations will emerge.

It takes a special kind of person to run toward gunfire to save lives. Not many people can do it, and nobody should unless they are trained and have extraordinary bravery.

But if law enforcement is making up the series of events day by day without knowing what really happened, they are doing a disservice not only to themselves, but the millions of other parents who rely on schools to keep their children safe.

It is easy to second guess law enforcement. We weren’t there. We were not navigating the chaos. But law enforcement only makes matters worse by trying to satisfy the media without knowing all the facts.

How your nonprofit can stand out

Nonprofit organizations typically hire public relations and marketing firms to help them stand out. It is obvious why a corporation with the objective of profit wants to become better known, but why does a nonprofit with a mission need to stand out?

The answer is simple. Nonprofits compete in the marketplace just like corporations do.

They compete for attention. And they compete for dollars.

So how does a nonprofit present itself as unique when there are literally thousands of other causes in the marketplace like Los Angeles and dozens that do the same thing?

Having represented upwards of 100 nonprofits, we can say with certainty that it is not simple. But it can be done with a solid PR / marketing plan and consistency.

When creating your PR messaging, it is not enough to simply say on your website what you do. Too many nonprofits do the same thing, and most do them well. What you need to do is engage your audience. You need to have a conversation with them about what you do. In addition to outlining your services, the nonprofits that stand out also speak to their audiences via social media and events about what is currently happening in the space you are operating.

The world changes rapidly. We all know this. If your organization is not communicating with your audiences about issues relevant today, then you risk being just another organization that does the same thing your competitors do.

It takes work. It takes time. But it will yield results.