Is It Time For Charities to Converge?

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons CC
Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons CC


Spurred by downsizing, rightsizing and god forbid, supersizing, organizations large and small are trimming resources and hooking up to maximize their market share. Not a day goes by without hearing about layoff notices followed by inevitable consolidation or merger.

We get it. This is today’s business reality where shareholders pressure their boards to reap greater dividends per share, feeding an economic evolution towards increased profits.

As charity giving is quickly approaching, what about not-for-profit and cause-based organizations? As their for-profit cousins, they both share an empirical need for capital. Are they following this trend?

The need to increase capital can often lead to reorganizing. A modern austerity practice showing its invasive nature within the charity industry.

Some have questioned, “Is this merely to keep ‘business face?'” Or, is the time right for charitable organizations to be more accountable through deeper business practices – as reorganizing or merging?

Have charities embraced the teachings of for-profit businesses?

Mark Brown of MoneySense just released his list of top-rated charities in Canada. Accompanying his list of who to give to, and who not to, Mark assesses the four pillars of (charitable) business accountability: charity efficiency, fundraising costs, governance/transparency, and most importantly, cash reserves.  Each accountability showing its suspected pain-points with talent retention, marketing disclosure, and ethical governance. Exposed through the media or by external audits, many charities continue to show little to no improvement in these areas. Especially with building cash reserves. Insolvency can strike at any time and having the cash to sustain a restructure should be part of any business strategy. Nothing too big, as to draw ethical ire.

A reasonable Cash reserve is good planning.

Consolidating Charities

If we look at non-direct charities, charities with no attachment to institutional governance, navigating a competitive business climate can be tremendously difficult. Large institutional charities with massive multi-million dollar budgets command a larger space across all channels of marketing. Calendars continue to be jam-packed with many causes occupying the same date. How do you compete? Is it time for smaller and mid-size charities to merge?

Is it that crazy to start thinking about combined charities?

On a gigantic scale, last week we saw Anheuser-Bush InBev absorb SABMiller. Yes, beer is beer, but look at the product delineations: lagers, ales, stouts, light, low-carb, etc. Is this simply just diversifying its brand, or building market share?

You bet it’s all about market share. Charities should be no different.

For example, let’s transpose this ‘type’ of a merger with two large charities. Say, Canadian Cancer Society, and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. Yes, one wide-scoped on their strategic direction and health responsibilities and the other entirely focused on one type of cancer.  Not to disrespect or undermine these two well-regarded organizations, but at the end of the day, we are talking about the eradication of cancer. This means more money is needed for research and programs.

By merging charities, the public would be offered a one-stop shop for gifting. Plus, stakeholders and partner acquisitions from both organizations would come together and increase market share for procuring capital.

As a benefactor, you want to choose how your money is used. Is it education, outreach or research? The opportunity to self-direct your donation can still happen if two charities with the same mission combine. Convergence will command more market share and provide more charitable dollars to the cause.

Not being a tax expert, one thing is very clear to me. Charity giving is deeply personal. How that charity is run is not. It’s a business. With very few dollars available, it’s time for charities to remake/remodel their business strategies by joining forces. After all, it’s your money.

Not the ‘Last Chance Texaco’

Photo Courtesy of Robbie Cantrell

Photo Courtesy of Robbie Cantrell

There are instances in life where we are either voluntarily, or involuntarily brought to a juncture where we pause, take a breath and look back. Our jobs and home lives can be overwhelming at the best of times, so taking the required time to blow off the dust and mentally reconstruct these many years can be dicey – yet alone suspect. Especially for anyone that survived the 70’s as a young adult where the abuse of grey cells was sport.

Now that my tenure working for Canadian Blood Services (CBS) has come to an end, there have been many signposts and road-stops marking this journey. Working for an institution that believed in my vision to help build both an international blood stem cell network and a national public cord blood bank, was both empowering and humbling. I can confidently say that these past five years telling both these business stories, represent key milestones on my communications pilgrimage.  Diversity stakeholder work being a premium asset coming from this good work. But in order to bring it all home it is imperative to tell a small story about one patient years ago. After all it is all about the patients when you work in healthcare.

Picture a budding Communications Specialist in the late 1990’s (no grey hair or glasses please). One of my first duties was to arrange a photo opportunity with the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club Alumni, Sick Kids Hospital and CBS. Slam dunk as any communications professional will know once you involve a sports franchise, ‘If you promote it, they will come.’

Everything went swimmingly and as I was cleaning up a 16-year old leukemia patient came to me thanking me for being able to meet the likes of Alumni Kelly Gruber, Mark Eichhorn and starter Kelvim Escobar. He was a huge Jays fan and revelled in owning signed baseballs from his idols to cherish on his own. I wished him a quick recovery and shook his hand and his parents and continued to pack up. I quickly went back to the office and hammered out an Adobe Illustrator card wishing him well with pictures of his idols too boot. I immediately mailed it to his parents.

About 10 months later I received a call from his mother saying their son had passed away from the disease but wanted me to know how important the media event was to him on that day months ago. Through a quivering voice she also said, ‘But it was the card you took time to make that lifted his spirits and will always be on our mantle as a reminder.’

And yes, this was the first patient I worked with that died.

On Monday as I choose life’s new passage, I can honestly and unequivocally say this one road-stop CBS made me the not just the professional communicator I am today, but the kind of person that understands clearly; what we do in our lives is also marked by the persons we ask to join us.


Plant the Tree First

Plant the Tree First

Strategy = Growth

Embedding Strong Social Media Roots

On Monday I was fortunate enough to be part of IABC Foundation’s ‘Gift of Communications.’ A warranted and rewarding program offered during the IABC World Conference in cooperation with United Way, Toronto. Pro bono consulting can be immensely helpful to many not-for-profits that struggle to keep up with limited dollars and resources.

‘Keeping up’ with communications and publicity can be daunting to small and large organizations as it represents a vast landscape of anything from harvesting latest trends, to getting your executives more engaged in communication strategies. This is especially true for small not-for-profits struggling to stay alive in a reduced government funding environment.

Today, and certainly tomorrow, this struggle will continue; but hands-down the number one issue facing these institutions is how to manage their presence in social media.

Granted, each explicitly recognizes social media as the vanguard that will help them reach new business goals and objectives vital to both their funding and program delivery; but on the other hand, they have no knowledge how to lay-out a strategic plan that will ‘tie-back’ to their Vision, Mission, Core Values and corporate strategy.

So with bated breath they latch onto the low lying fruit of ‘getting a Twitter channel up.’

During the Monday session, this gap was much bigger than anyone in the room thought imaginable. Easily 85% of the agencies were in some ways struggling with this weakness in their overall corporate strategy. Most had very little understanding of basic social media fundamentals when utilizing this medium for business goals and objectives.

Is this really surprising?

We are all human and have an inherent need for what is ‘the latest and greatest’ panacea to either fix our leaky basements or build more aggressive investment portfolios. We hear of great gadgets, programs or solutions and want them now!

Not-for-profits struggle with smaller and smaller government stipends forcing an urgent response towards finding not the right solution, but an immediate solution. Many board meetings will recite,

The next government is looking to slash 40% of all public monies for community outreach. How can we survive? What about this Twitter thing. Everyone’s using it, let’s get on board. Heck if the CIA has one, why not us!”

Other than who would have thought the CIA would give credibility to the use of social media, what has happened here is a large gap within many not-for-profits online communication strategy. In fact, in most cases there isn’t one.

Building a strategic online communications strategy starts with each board member clearly understanding the importance of a well planned and executed approach. Even in cash-strapped organizations, it is crucial to allocating a few precious shared promotional dollars to developing an online strategy. A practical online approach will increase your organization’s credibility, innovation, transparency and other core values that many institutions hold near and dear to their success.

So, for all those not-for-profits and causes out there, let’s look at building the tree first before the nest. If you do, there are many branches that will help your online presence grow, including – of course – Twitter.

A strong well rooted online communication strategy will help your organization cultivate an effective stakeholder audience, advance your mission, live your vision and core values and if you use the right ‘fertilizer,’ tie-back to your overall corporate plan.