Unless you’ve been circling the earth on the International Space Station for the past six months, you know that President Barack Obama signed the 407-page American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, better known as the Stimulus Plan, into law on February 17.

We all know about the huge cost of the act – $787 billion dollars in spending (16) and tax and related provisions (7), the political wrangling before and after its passage and signing, and the large number of funding opportunities (34).

Nonprofits Need to Act Now

All stimulus funding is scheduled to expire in fiscal year 2011 – as stimulus funds are, as the name suggests, intended to be temporary, one-time injections of cash aimed at reviving the economy as quickly and efficiently as possible. The funds have been allocated to help people through the current economic meltdown and are not intended to morph into ongoing governmental assistance programs.

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I’m in the thick of creating a 2008-2009 annual report, and the question I pose to other nonprofit communications professionals is, Why do we keep producing these things, and does anyone bother to read them anymore anyway?

Why do I pose the question? Well. if you enter the question, Does anyone still read nonprofit annual reports? in a Yahoo or Google search, some of the items that come up suggest that annual reports  are so last century. BUT, and this is a big but, the writers of these posts tell us that donors still care about what you are doing, who you are serving and your impact.

So, the question is, How do you provide this critical information to funders in a way that keeps the information lively and informative.

My colleagues tell me to consider a video annual report. Or you can try the four-page, keep it short and only discuss impact report. I also saw a report earlier this year that chronicled one young man’s journey thanks to the help he received from a nonprofit.

What advice can you folks give me and each other on the best way to create a relevant annual report in the “keep it simple and short” era? I’d love your help!

So, Larry King and company have proclaimed, “It’s in to be Black.”  He explained, laughingly (and that’s the part that really got me), on one of his recent shows that his eight-year-old son wants to be Black.

When did it become appropriate for people in the news business to joke about race like bad comedians on cable networks?

So, I guess I wasn’t in before?

First, King is suggesting that being Black was out until he decreed otherwise. As a Black American, I’ve always thought that being Black was in. I either felt sorry for or angry at those pathetic people who acted otherwise — the people that unwittingly helped to galvanize the Civil Rights movement and the centuries-long activism (most of it left out of the history books) that came before it.

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A Respected Brand Can Get You Through Tough Times

When friends, coworkers and even family members find out that I went to Washington, D.C. for the Inauguration of President Barack H. Obama, they ask, What was it like? In their usually hushed voices, you hear one part awe, one part envy and two parts reverence. Even one of my husband’s friends, who mostly just nods when he sees me, asked to speak with me –  during their sacred weekly call about football – when he heard that I was on the National Mall for the swearing in.

Certainly, everyone from my mom to Rupert Murdoch and from the Guardian to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News (and how often do they all agree?) have called Barack Obama a rock star. Even rival John McCain pejoratively referred to then-Senator Obama during the presidential campaign as a celebrity.

So of course, everyone assumes that my experience witnessing the inauguration in person must have been amazing. And it was.

But it was also cold and windy and amazingly frustrating. I walked for nearly two hours from one check point to another between nine city blocks, and then was subjected to a body search in the frigid weather, before I finally got onto the mall to witness the event. And I, a member of the ticket-less lumpen proletariat, did better than hundreds of ticket holders who never made it in at all due to some kind of security breach.

But in the midst of all of the confusion, all of the waiting, and all of the pushing and shoving in and out of the Metro station and on the streets, two million people kept smiling – broadly – and greeting each other with such a positive spirit. And that is a testament to President Obama and all that he stands for.

And it is also a result, for those of us who try to practice such things, of successful branding and effective social marketing.

Social Marketing and Building a Respected Brand

Now before you suggest that I’m reducing President Obama’s accomplishments to a good brand, hear me out. The Obama campaign can teach nonprofits a lot about branding, messaging and social marketing.

Few people believed just a year ago at the beginning of 2008, that then-Senator Obama had a chance at the U.S. presidency. Even his wife has admitted to questioning his belief that he could be U.S. Commander-in-Chief. In addition to being a black man, our current president was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia and has a name that is anything but U.S.-traditional. His parents were not married when he was born, and his father was not American.

So how did he make it, and how can nonprofit organizations use some of the lessons from his campaign?

Six Steps to Borrow from Candidate Obama’s Brand Playbook

1) Be clear about purpose: First and foremost, candidate Obama was clear about what he wanted to achieve. Not only did he want to be the president for change, but he was clear about what that change would mean: transparent government, inclusive decision-making based on solid facts, citizen empowerment, progressive national and international policies, stewardship of our economy and ecology, and using technology to improve lives and strengthen communication.

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Have you noticed that the phrase “executive experience” is being used to answer questions about a certain politician who has taken center stage in the last few weeks? No matter what the question is, inserted into the response (since often there is no actual “answer”) is the phrase “executive experience” — whether it is provided by the politician or by a supporter or spokesperson.

The phrase “executive experience” is even being used by detractors, as they dispute what is implied by the statement.

This is a real-world, real-time example of the art of staying “on message.” And by doing so, the general public is picking up the phrase — and the intended message behind it — with many taking that message as fact.

While I don’t suggest that nonprofit staff should practice “truthiness,” I do think that we can learn a lot from this process about getting our message across to the media while answering their questions honestly.

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You need 360 degree feedback when managing communications projects.

I’ve been a PR flack for three decades.* I know this work inside and out, and I’m even getting up to speed when it comes to some of the newer communications technologies being embraced by our field (because they are being embraced by our stakeholders).

But I have to admit that sometimes I realize during a communications campaign that the most basic communications — that with the internal stakeholders — has been insufficiently nurtured.

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NPOs need to know SEO

August 29, 2008

While crafting interview questions for a new position at TSNE, the online communications associate, I added a question asking candidates how much experience they had with SEO (search engine optimization). Of course, SEO means, according to Wikipedia, the process of improving the volume and quality of traffic to your website from search engines via “natural” (“organic” or “algorithmic“) search results for targeted keywords.

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