Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

You Were There…or You Missed It!!

As Alaskans we sometimes can’t find the words to describe what we experience – like the pastels in an Alaskan sunset, standing in a stream with a Coho on the line, the color blue in a glacier, or seeing the wisdom on the face of an Alaskan Native elder. We may need to add another to that list – how we felt when we left the last Foraker Leadership Summit.

The third biennial gathering of Alaska’s nonprofit sector was a great success! Telling Our Stories: As Leaders-As Organizations-As a Sector convened 500 Alaska nonprofit leaders, 40 percent from outside Anchorage, to learn from a dynamic group of national and local communication experts, as well as from each other. If you have spoken with anyone who was there, I bet they said, “you missed it – you should have been there.” Even with the summit’s focus on telling stories and great presentations on how to do that, I have witnessed people lose the ability to describe the impact the summit had on them. Our hope is that as the dust settles, the elation is maintained and a newly energized group of leaders take what they learned and transform how the sector lets this state know who we are, what we do, and how to join with us to build an even better place to live today and in the future.

I was honored to kick off the summit by sharing The Foraker Group’s founding story. And then, I got to share one more – the story of our new book, Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey. Thanks to the always generous Rasmuson Foundation, everyone at the summit received a free copy of the book. We also will work with Rasmuson to ensure that public libraries across Alaska receive a copy of the book! The book took ten years to complete, but should take you not much more than an hour to read. We wanted to make sure that the concepts we presented were valid and, more important, communicated with the clearest possible language. Now you can be the judge if we succeeded.

Once the theme of the summit was defined, the Foraker organizing committee and staff began to identify the issues to be addressed and by whom. One of the first requests was for me to find a nationally known nonprofit CEO who “walked the talk” when it came to embracing the role of CEO as “Chief Communications Officer.” I immediately thought of Steve Culbertson, the CEO of Youth Service America (now called YSA) the world’s largest youth community service engagement organization. The weekend after the summit, YSA held the world’s largest international youth service day, “Global Youth Service Day” – this year conducted in all 50 states, in 103 countries, involving over 2,300 projects!

Steve inspired us to re-think engagement of youth. He reminded us that when we tell youth they are tomorrow’s leaders, we need to ask ourselves what we are saying about who they are today. Youth are ready and able to lead now. He urged us to engage them now, the younger the better, since research shows that when we give or volunteer as young kids, we give back all our lives. Another impact from Steve’s presentation was a simple message, “Yes, you must Tweet!” We witnessed over 100 new Tweeters in the room after his call to action and so much Tweeting was going on we overwhelmed the Internet connection at the Hotel Captain Cook!

After Steve, another friend ramped up the energy in the room. Michael Balaoing, the former CEO of the Motion Picture Industry Foundation and now an internationally recognized speaker on public presentations, took center stage. His message was clear – know your audience, know your content, and when you speak, leave out what he called the “weak” words. Weak words are the “uh’s” or “so’s” or any other words we use mindlessly when we speak. For every weak word in a presentation, we lose audience attention. Many were self-conscious the rest of the summit whenever they spoke – thanks to Michael.

The last speaker on Monday was Kivi Leroux Miller. She let us know that our supporters need us to emphasize feelings and not just facts. With so much emphasis on outcomes, it can be easy to forget that while such information is important to some audiences, a majority of supporters are influenced more through emotion, than logic. She had everyone working with each other on how to best take the messages they use now and adapt them to become more evocative – touching hearts, not just heads. She also asked us to “share” our stories, not just tell them. She provided 6 R’s for effective messages – rewarding, realistic, real time, responsive, revealing, and refreshing. When we put our messaging through a thoughtful process, reflecting on meeting the intention of these words, our messages will resonate with the audience.

Tuesday began with a half-day marathon with one of America’s leading story telling experts, Thaler Pekar. Her presentation on “Why Your Stories Matter” combined the great learning from the first sessions and transported the summit to a new level of comfort with sharing stories in a way that truly connects to others. She asked us when we begin our story, “to know the destination.” She said that oxytocin, a hormone associated with the sense of calm a mother experiences during beast feeding, begins to flow when we know we are listened to – when we connect through conversation. Thaler’s message was to help the audience use their imagination to experience the story. Imagine, 500 people in a crowded ballroom and all but a few standing and sharing stories. That’s what Thaler was able to do through her engaging process.

The last plenary session on Tuesday afternoon was Tom Ahern, a master copywriter who has been published and internationally recognized as a leading expert in helping nonprofits develop their case for giving. This was not Tom’s first trip to Alaska. He knew his audience and was able to deliver a message with impact – “shorter is better.” He said, “there never was an elevator,” so an initial contact with someone about what we want has to be in a few seconds. I had never seen Tom, nor read his work until the summit. But his message reminded me of the only newsletter article I’ve submitted twice, Keep it Short and Sweet.

While the selection of each plenary speaker was intentional, the alignment of each of their messages seemed eerily coordinated. It was as if we had rehearsed them to build on each other’s message and each took us to the next level.

Both afternoons were also packed with many great options to continue learning and sharing – perhaps too many great options. One of Alaska’s best journalistic storytellers, Julia O’Malley of the Anchorage Daily News, inspired people in her session to share stories with the media. Travis Gilmour from Alaska Public Media, Town Square 49, provided useful insight on how to communicate using all forms of social media. Steve Marshall the Chair of The Foraker Group Governance Board led a session for board chairs on effective communications within and outside the boardroom. And rounding out the Alaskan presenters, Apayo Moore and Jonella Larson White helped us see how to leave a visual impression through graphic harvesting.

We also had many outstanding national speakers in the afternoon sessions. Rachael Gibson, the CEO of Mosaica, a nonprofit capacity building organization in Washington DC that specializes in work with communities of color, helped her group better understand cross-cultural communication. Zan McColloch-Lussier conducted a session on social media and then returned with Kivi to analyze a series of participant websites. And David Thompson, the VP of the National Council of Nonprofits and one of the sector’s leading experts on public policy, helped us find new ways to use stories to impact elected officials.

Pick.Click.Give. had a video booth where participants could record a message for their donors. This year, too, the organizing committee offered incentives to encourage organizations to promote their participation in PCG. The winners of several cash awards were announced and you will find their names later in this newsletter. We also celebrated the tremendous success of the first five years of Pick.Click.Give. and laid the groundwork with a newly energized, storytelling crowd to raise even more money in coming years.

In closing, as Alaska’s nonprofit association, it is our duty to convene the sector. With the cost and logistical challenges in Alaska, holding one of these summits every two years is what we think the sector has the capacity to do. We were overjoyed with the response to this gathering. We were beyond sold out three weeks before the event. While there are a few larger venues that may have accommodated more people, to keep costs as low as possible we chose the best place to hold a conference and did what we could to squeeze people in.

Within 48 hours of sending an electronic survey to everyone who came, almost 1/4 had responded! Ninety percent gave the summit the highest level of satisfaction for their experience. The remaining 10% found it rewarding. Maybe some of their comments can better tell the story:

  • Wonderful conference. Life changing in several ways. Thank you, thank you, and thank you.
  • I wanted to take almost all of the breakout sessions and it was disappointing (not to be able to do that.) So much good information.
  • I learned so much that would help our organization!!!
  • It was really meaningful to have so many TFG governance and operations board members there for the bulk of the two days – very telling about how much they value Alaska’s nonprofits and want them to be good.
  • Great Summit!
  • I would like to hear the creative ways that other organizations implemented what they learned (over the next few months).
  • My first summit – what an excellent opportunity!
  • Fascinating topic, out of the box! Continue to bring in great speakers. This was the best format yet.
  • Excellent speakers. Great to have sponsors recognized. Really liked my conversations with Foraker staff.
  • It was THE best conference I have ever attended. Thank you.
  • Standing ovation for the 2013 Summit.

The rest of the comments were similar. The only suggestions for improvement were to not have so many great options in the afternoon breakout sessions, and to make sure there is protein in the room for breakfast.