Monday, November 08, 2010

The Non-Profit Marketing Dance: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

Every non-profit has a story. But is anyone listening? There’s a great pair of opening lines from the Chairs of the AMAHouston Non-Profit Marketing SIG…part of the announcement about its special seminar coming up on November 16. That would be, “Say It Strong: How to Tell Your Non-Profit Story.”

Some non-profits have more socially compelling stories to tell: quite important ones about hungry children or entire hurricane-whipped populations.

But what about the non-profits whose operations and goals are not “difficult social problems?”

I asked Leigh McBurnett, Executive Director of Dominic Walsh Dance Theater (DWDT). This is a Houston-based contemporary ballet company that aims to “inspire and entertain audiences and artists with visually stunning performances.” It offers innovative, even thought-provoking modern work by founder Walsh and other leading US and international choreographers – but not exactly world peace.

We’re in a different situation – we not only have to tell an engaging story, but we have to build the vocabulary. “Contemporary ballet” is a new term. We want to explain dance and the choreography that supports it. Using this kind of story, we’re trying hard to reach out to non-dance audiences, well beyond our own supportive core group.

Is anyone listening to the Dominic Walsh story?

We worked inside our little bubble – how do we go about bursting out of that? We know we have to get beyond ourselves, to focus more on engaging the fun.

Part of what’s driving DWDT today is market research. Surprise! People go to the performing arts for entertainment…not because it’s socially correct, or they’re supporting the arts, or even a particular organization.

These days we story-tell diversion. We know we need to engage the public with fun pieces and witty headlines, like “Not a tutu in sight!” We’re making small but significant steps.

We made a real leap – no pun intended – by forming a marketing committee, which automatically increased our number of community advocates. Our marketing Chair has kept after us to keep telling a cohesive story. And we’ve boosted our use of social media because we couldn’t afford to get louder. We got smarter instead.

So even though we know we’re still only reaching a quite small percentage of the population, we’re focusing on trying to tell those more engaging stories, with new audience-reaching methods.

Whether the story involves an art form or a social challenge, generating audiences and raising funds have never been exactly easy. Even when an organization makes real progress, it can slip backward when the next recession comes along.

Well, the AMAHouston Non-Profit Marketing SIG aims to help sharpen the tool set with “Five secrets to creating an engaging narrative.” Our five-member panel includes the founder and CEO of Recipe for Success, Gracie Cavner; and one of her leading Board members,  Monica Pope, executive chef and owner of t'afia Restaurant.

You will also learn from Ashley Latham Dennis, development associate at the Houston Zoo; Living Forward Alliance’s CEO/founder Maria Francis; and Eric Roland, senior director of marketing for Legacy Community Health.

Join us by clicking here to reserve a spot for Tuesday, November 16. I say “our” and “us” because I will be the event moderator, thanks – I promise there’ll be no dancing around the tough parts of this subject.

Thank you: Photo by Amitava Sarkar, InSight Photography. All rights reserved.

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