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Last week, two members of our team (Shannon, Director of Digital + Innovation and Leah, Fletcher Fellow) went to the Create Good Conference in search of inspiration, connection, and ideas for improving our communications work. Like last year’s gathering, this year’s did not disappoint!  

Create Good was designed to inspire nonprofit communicators to spark and try new ideas for their work. The spectrum of talks/discussions was wide — everything from the value of good design to building creative cultures to telling good stories. We gained insight that will certainly inform our communications and our work supporting partners’ communications efforts, but we thought it may be helpful to share some key takeaways with you too. Feel free to reach out to us, read our collaborative notes from the day, or check out Create Good’s recap for more information. 

Here are some of the things we learned or had reinforced:


Take risks.

It’s hard to put ourselves out there, so we sometimes stick to what we know works or what lies squarely in the “safe zone.” It’s even more tempting to stay there when you have an organizational culture or leadership or board that’s risk averse. We get it. We’ve been there far too often. But a lot of what keynote speaker Anastasia Khoo said stuck with us as she urged us to take more risk and “go… do… see what happens.” We all want our messages to spread and stick. We want to grow our audience. We want people to connect and engage with us. Anastasia convinced us, in describing her success with “making the internet red” in her role as HRC’s Chief Marketing Officer, that we can putter around for years with steady improvement or we can step outside the safe zone and think differently and be creative. And embrace the learning that comes from failure or disappointment. Kivi Leroux Miller, in her half-day workshop on day 1, reminded us to take initiative, to step up and lead, and to experiment with new practices and learn from them. Meg Buckingham of Triangle Community Foundation reminded us that it’s okay to stick out from the crowd and do things differently from our peers. She dispelled the myth that as a nonprofit we must be humble and safe. Rather, she encouraged us to strive to be cutting edge, a leader in our field, and bold enough to fight for the design/marketing line item in the budget, because it matters.



You need support for that risk taking? Fight for the budget line item!


Share stories, not facts.

In his session, Peter Fryer, Senior Manager, Marketing and Brand Development at the National MS Society, reinforced that, above all else, emotion and feeling is intrinsic to telling nonprofits’ stories. For-profit companies often must work to create an emotional connection between their audience and their product, but in our sector, our missions often evoke emotions. Peter reminded us that how we express and tap into our targeted audience’s emotions matters — and the absolute best way is through storytelling. This reinforced earlier lessons for us — “facts don’t lead to action” — despite our desire to scream statistics and data points on problems we face from the rooftops. It just doesn’t work. Storytelling does. Heather Yandow of Third Space Studio, in her session, offered great advice on how to structure and shape stories, and encouraged us to always consider the audience, goals, and desired message when crafting these stories. Sometimes, we don’t quite know what story it is that should be shared. Or haven’t taken the time to reflect. Heather encouraged us to step back and plan.  



Know who you are first. 

Peter, Heather, and Kivi all reminded us in their sessions that we tell stories all the time and sometimes don’t recognize it. Our websites, branding, our style/culture, how we talk to people offline and online. It’s all communicating a story. Taking into account your organization’s history, goals, resources, audience, network, etc., it’s important to state clearly and openly what your voice, tone, and style is. Kivi has a great worksheet that our team has used to do this work.  It doesn’t take a lot of time and the reward is immense. Your team will all have a clear understanding of how you communicate stories so everyone can be on the same page. Meg Buckingham shared a brand guide that she created with a team of students that she has distributed to everyone on her staff. It has logo usage guidelines, boiler plate language, colors to use in creating collateral, etc. It is an iterative but critical process to make sure that your communications, the stories your staff and board tell, your social media, your design, and what your partners and community members think of your organization align in a consistent and authentic way.



Identify shared values and make a meaningful connection. 

Many speakers emphasized the importance of being authentic and finding the right entry point to best connect with audiences. When designing her strategy for Human Rights Campaign, Anastasia asked, “how do we share voices in a way that people can hear it?” and set out to identify shared values that would lead to connection. For one campaign, these values were love, family, commitment — things that everyone could connect to — and it sparked many meaningful conversations between parents and LGBTQ children because the messages struck with parents. ‘Your life may be different than my expectations of it, but I love you all the same.’ Cramming a message of tolerance down a reluctant parent’s mouth would not have gone over so well. So what is the shared ground with the audience you’re trying to reach? Could it be the desire to help or serve others? The fact that we all need the same basic human needs like food and shelter? Regardless, don’t expect your audience to come to you on their own. Find what connection already exists between you. 



Foster a creative culture.

We think we have a pretty fun, creative culture here at AJF but boy did Sally Edwards of Marbles Kids Museum put us in our place. So much room to grow! They clearly infuse creative energy and collaboration in pretty much everything they do. But as she pointed out, collaboration (either internal to your organization or with outside groups) is hard. It takes resources, time, energy. But people aren’t curing cancer on their own. We waste so much brainpower and great ideas by keeping everything to ourselves. So we’re brainstorming ways we can amp up the fun factor and creative mo-jo around here. We love the creative ideas around highlighting your team members who have done a wonderful job on a project and are thinking through more ways we can work with our grantees and other funders to have more brainstorming power in our planning sessions.

So there we are. The two of us came back fired up to try new things, take risks, and learn to let go of the strategy sometimes and just see what happens when we experiment. We’re undergoing a communications strategy update over the next month so it’s fertile ground for putting these great ideas to work! 

Check out our notes on the conference for a more detailed play-by-play of what we learned. 

Photo cred: Create Good and Joshua Vaughn at Blue Barn Design

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