Monday, December 12, 2005

SEARCH FOR COMMON GROUND: A Well Written Word From The President

I had to return to the "top" of this article and rewrite it because I got so carried away writing about Search For Common Ground's excellent web site, that I was halfway through the article before I realized that I had still not given its full name, or explained what it does.

Search For Common Ground (SFCG) is a U.S. based 501(c)(3) whose Mission is "to transform the way the world deals with conflict: away from adversarial approaches, toward cooperative solutions." Now, as those of you who are regular readers know, at this point usually I continue on with an "unpacking" of the Mission Statement and a review of the statement of the organization's vision. But in an effort to do all that I can to get you to view their web site, I am not going to restate the information that is found on their web site and instead, I am going to talk about their web site, because I believe that it is a good example to follow.

When I first looked at SFCG's "About" page at its web site, I was a bit astonished. I am not sure that I have seen such a readable and organized "About" page for a non-profit organization before. Too many organizations load up that page with lots of graphics and data not necessarily helpful to the reader who is trying to get information about the non-profit and its projects. Among the separate links that take you to the specific area of this web site, there are:

"Letter from the President,
Our Mission and Vision,
Our Core Principles,
Our Operating Practices,
Our Toolbox and

And these are just the topics under the heading "About SFCG" on the page. Other headings include:

"What Difference DoesSFCG Make?"
"SFCG Awards"

along with a
"Contact SFCG link"

Now don't get me wrong, most non-profit organizations have this information on their web sites, it's just that SFCG has this information organized and laid out in such an accessible manner, that it makes the surfer/visitor eager to go deeper into the site. (Take a look at their "SFCG Home Page" and you will see what I mean. (And yes I do know that there is another page that could be considered a "Home" page, but I believe it is their "Index Page." )

Using their links on their "About" page I go first to the "Letter from the President" which gives a brief history of the organization; "We began in 1982 at the height of the Cold War, and we focused on building bridges between East and West." It then goes on to describe their humble beginnings. (Okay, so every denizen of the non-profit world has heard the "We grew from a mere acorn to a mighty oak" story before. But remember, the President's Letter is written to the general public and potential donors, and they may not have heard it so many times before.) Now, it's important to note that a letter from the President should not be a substitute for the Statements of the organization's Mission, Vision and Core Principles and this one is not. It is, however, a clear, coherent and warm communication from the President to the public. It is very important that your non-profit organization have a human face for the public, and the media. This does not mean that the President is the sole persona of the organization, but rather this warm and personal letter is like the friendly handshake one expects when being first introduced.

For over thirty years I have been consulted by the presidents of non-profit corporations who want to introduce their organizations - and their work - to the general public. Most of these organizations are truly engaged in "good works." And most of the presidents of these organizations are genuine and sincere about what they are trying to do. But too many of these organizations present a president's letter that is about as "warm and fuzzy" as Richard Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow.

I understand that that many organizations do not have the revenues to recruit a president who is a good "Out Front" man. But it is also the case that many organizations are in thrall to a founder who may have been a good person to initiate a charitable project, but may not be the best person to carry the work forward. If your efforts to create "Buzz" seem to always fail, it might be that your "Out Front" person is deadly boring or just does not have the necessary communication skills. There are, however, alternative ways of addressing this problem without busting your budget. One approach is to find an individual who is a good communicator to be the Chair of the Board of Trustees, or recruit a good communicator onto the board and have that person become the "public face" of the organization. (In the case of SFCG, it turns out that the founder is also the president; but he is a good communicator, or he is getting very good advice on how to communicate.)

Well, it looks like I am going to have to write more than one article about SFCG because I am getting close to my self-imposed word limit for this articles, and I am still on the President's Letter. But this topic is important, because like they say: "You only get one chance to make a First Impression."

SFCG's President's Letter is a Great example of how a non-profit can introduce itself in an effective way. Many presidents want to fill their letters with statistics and data that will make your eyes water and drive you to search out extra-strength aspirin for your headache. SFCG's President's Letter has only three numbers in it. John Marks, the President and Founder states in his letter that the organization was founded in 1982 (that's one number), that the organization has a staff of 400 (that's the second number) and that looters destroyed their a radio station in Liberia in 2003 (that's the third number). And if you think I'm going to tell you more about the radio station in Liberia, you're mistaken. I'm going to make you go to the web site to read about it.

Finally, there are three things I want to point about the SFCG's President's Letter:

1. The letter is written in plain, straightforward language.

Nobody wants to have to plow through a letter with a lot of technical terms that send you to the dictionary (and remember, people are now using "Babel Fish" and other translation programs that need reasonably clear language.

2. The letter is warm and not self-congratulatory.

Using an introduction letter to perform some "chest pounding" or "auto- congratulatory" (see, I just broke my own rule about plain language) exercise to massage one's own ego is a sure way to drive away potentially interested persons. SFCG even discusses its "setbacks" briefly.

3. Be gracious but not overly solicitous

No one wants to feel like they are being "buttered-up." Too much praise lavished upon the reader makes the writer sound like a sycophant.

Well, I apologize for running out of time, but I promise to return to Search For Common Ground to analyze their very well produced and instructive web site. And for those of you who think that I tend to "gush" a bit too much when I find a non-profit organization that is well organized, or has a particularly well constructed board of directors or a well produced web site; I only want to say this: There are so many non-profit organizations that exist that do not do well because they are poorly organized, have less than stellar board members or have web sites that you can not bear to look at for more than ten seconds. And those non-profits that have problems tend to be a burden upon the community of non-profit organizations because they tend to make the general public less confident in non-profits in general. So, for those of you non-profits out there having problems - and you know who you are - consider taking notes from an organization that is certainly worth emulating.

Search For Common Ground

About SFCG

Letter from the President of SFCG

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