As technology continues to evolve according to the changing demands of users, organizations must learn to go with the flow to stay relevant and visible. And this boils down into two primary focuses: innovation and engagement. Douglas Nelson sits down with Jan Kaderly of A Line Strategy to discuss how organizations can utilize technology and the internet to cause significant shifts in their processes and operations while maintaining the ability to differentiate themselves from the rest. She also goes deep into the right way to drive engagement with a target market, particularly on why it is better to focus on a small number of people that you can truly resonate with rather than aimlessly targeting a huge population.
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A Line Strategy With Jan Kaderly
Our guest is Jan Kaderly. She’s the Principal of A Line Strategy. She’s a leader in the social cause and cultural sector, dealing with scaling constituent growth, revenue, and advocacy campaigns. She’s also based in New York City. Welcome, Jan.
Thank you, Doug, for having me. This is going to be great fun. I have no doubt.
Before we started, you said at least I have the 212 area code. Most of our readers are in Canada. We have about a third of our readers that are in the United States, so they may be more familiar. How’s life in New York City?
New York City and the 212 area code. Just really quick, if times get hard, it is a very old telephone number that I had that only New Yorkers could have. You can sell them and make money because we’ve since gone to 646, etc. We have blue sky, Doug. We have had more snow than I think we’ve had in years. We’re at the tail end of snow where it gets gross, brown and yellow. We’ve got blue sky and sun. It’s one of those days that you take it.
In the social profit sector, if you keep your eye on the horizon, it looks great. If you look down and deal with the dirty stuff in front of you, it gets a little harder. Tell us a little bit about what you do there at A Line Strategy.
I founded the business years ago. My experience was in combination. I was the Head of Marketing for the Wildlife Conservation Society, both a global cause saving elephants, tigers, key wildlife. We also ran five attractions, the Bronx Zoo here in the New York City area. My background is this interesting combination of running what is essentially a for-profit attraction and then a global cause. Most of my adult life was spent doing the hard work of building audience. The ground war of acquisition is what I spent a lot of time doing.
A lot of social profit organizations spend a lot of their time as well. In that space, one of the buzzwords that I hear often and clients that we’re working or dealing with, they put all of that work under innovation. What does innovation look like particularly in 2020? What does innovation look like in that audience-building sector?Innovation typically involves technology. Click To Tweet
Let’s unpack it. Let’s break into the conversation. I love the definitions of things. I feel like I should have been born in the 17th century when everything needed a name. Innovation can mean different things to different people. The common denominator would be it’s something that you’re not doing now and that you want to do in the future. I would say it represents a different way of operating, a different way of working together, and an organization possibly to achieve the same goal you’ve always wanted but it’s doing it differently. For my clients, especially in the cultural sector and here in New York City, it’s everywhere. They got hit hard.
When the pandemic started back in March of 2020, we were early to shut down. Once you close the doors to your museums and your attractions, then all of the value that you created in your membership products and in your membership programs became obsolete. You needed to create a new way of being relevant to those people. Innovation in that context would be how do we create relevancy? How do we create new relationships based on a new type of value? In order to do that, we are certainly going to have to operate differently than we did.
You’re sharing the perspective of working with multiple organizations. How often do you see in your work where innovation means more or more of the same thing? We’re going to do these three tactics. We need to be able to do them more quickly or do that to a broader audience.
If you do a scan of the mission, vision, values of various organizations and their top priorities, typically scale is one. We need to get to 5 million people. For some reason, different CEOs, 5 million seems to be a good threshold. One is about scale. Innovation typically involves the technology. There is working together better. Those things become an audience scale, a technology thrown in, and then working seamlessly or whatever seems to be the triad that most organizations seem to follow.
You need to work well together because the technology so rarely does work. You have to at least get along with the people you’re dealing with as the technology undermines your strategy.
Possibly for the readers, I’m guessing it’s not the first time.
If you talk to someone who’s leading an organization or as chief marketing officer of a larger organization, chief operating officer, and they tell you they’re about to do a database change, they’re going to move to one platform over another. You know that person’s life is going to be held for the next months and it’s probably not going to work. I can’t get past, why doesn’t it work, Jan?
Not only is their life going to be hell during the implementation. Afterwards, it’s going to be hell after that. They will have spent not only is their own experience absolutely crappy but they have spent every ounce of political capital that they have in that organization, possibly leading this whole change management effort to have nothing left. They’ve got no juice left in that organization. They’ve got nothing left. I do a lot of technology work. In the audience space, customer acquisition, and engagement, you do heavily rely on technology. There’s a reason you change technology. You can be sold hard on some stuff that sounds great. If everything goes brilliantly, it’s going to be easy and effective. It’s not unlike to sales.
Let’s take CRM because that’s the technology I’m most familiar with. Let’s take the Salesforce value proposition, 360 data, it’s all in one place for any constituent. You can know everything about them and you can automate and personalize its scale. What’s not to like? You can be relevant with millions of people. It is a strong value proposition and a head-nodder that the sales can be powerful. In the sales, this is the other thing about technology. It’s not unlike sales of any professional service. You can easily imagine becoming your ideal self with that technology solution. If we had this technology to drive the change, that will be the thing that makes us change. We all align around that. It is through this effort that we’ll all get better and smarter.
That’s the Peloton business model, right?
Yes. We imagine the ideal self and yet the mechanics from where you are to where you want to be, it’s so complex from a data perspective. The technology is incredibly complex. What I have seen, and I’ll be interested to hear you do this, a lot of medium size organizations, unless you’re big with an immense amount of resources to put behind it, there is no way are you ready for that effort. You don’t have the IT staff. If you do, they’re on an older technology. They’re not ready to engineer the change. You don’t have the capability. The implementation partners aren’t built for it to help you dig in. The companies are there for the product sales. You’re on your own in a lot of respects. That’s going to go poorly if you’re not set up for it. If you haven’t engineered your own change, the human change on top of the technology change, then that’s not going to work either. It’s amazing that it ever goes well.
Is it the humans that can make the difference here? If you’ve got the right mindset, if you’ve got the right strategy laid out for, “Here’s how we’re going to do this,” can it be successful?
I think it can. I’m not a technologist. I’m a strategist that works with technology. Let’s assume that the piping and the wiring and all the engineering is right. Let’s take a CRM-like salesforce. This is something I think a lot about. I’d be curious to get your take on this, Doug. Let’s take engagement strategy. You’ve got people on a database and they’re doing this level of thing, this baseline level of engagement with you now, you make this multimillion-dollar investment, and you want to take them plus 30% engagement. Baseline, you’re going to increase it by 30% more. You potentially haven’t. Our way of doing strategy is much caught and it has been informed by old technologies. Wealth mining, let’s append data so that we know that we can take them from a $5,000 to a $50,000 gift, so that we know how much the ask should be and other causes that they’re giving to. A lot of our strategy has been limited to that demographic profiling and an optimization. You would probably say, “That sounds successful.” I don’t even say that.
An optimization of giving when we could be doing something much more interesting from the constituent’s point of view, relevant and motivating beyond giving. A lot of how we think about engaging with people using technology has not been recalibrated to what we can do with them. We’re not well disposed to think about personalization at scale. That gets so complex so quickly that it’s almost impossible to do in an organization where you have to align a lot of people around some concepts that everybody understands. In an organization you can align around stuff that’s simplified, makes sense, a good theory of change. If we do it, something will happen, some efficacy but technology doesn’t lend itself to that.A lot of how we think about engaging with people using technology has not been recalibrated to what we can do with them. Click To Tweet
The challenge is that organizations, as difficult as this is, and you’ve given a great sketch of why it’s so difficult, they can’t opt-out. They cannot do it. I think that’s where we see organizations struggling. You used a phrase there and I want to come back.
I’m going to go back to opting out because that’s powerful too.
They can’t opt-out. Why not, Jan?
It’s something that drives me crazy. Michael Porter, the business thinker, he talks a lot about uncompetitive convergence. There’s this whole suite of activities that we all have to replicate in order to be meet minimal thresholds of effectiveness in our sector. It used to be back in the ’80s when Japan was doing a lot of quality assurance programs. Everybody started to replicate the quality assurance programs that Japan started. They lost their competitive advantage. Everybody was doing it. Same with technology. Everybody needs to have the seamless donation form, the one click, the mobile payment. As a consequence, everybody starts using the same platforms. Everybody’s appeals and engagements start looking alike. What we have is this convergence around best practice. I think this happens a lot in our sector. We’re hard to differentiate, especially in the environmental space. It’s hard to differentiate in that space.
You started with defining innovation. I want you to define engagement. Engagement is a word and engage is a word that we caution organizations from using without defining what it is. I want to engage you. It can be positive. It could be negative. It could be creepy. It could mean a whole bunch of things. Unless you define what that engagement looks like, what it means, you’re putting people on the defensive when you’re talking about building engagement. We want to increase engagement by 30%.
Who gets on the defensive, the constituent or the employee of the organization?
The person that’s being engaged. The constituents say, “We want to engage you. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want for me.” It’s a way of putting a barrier in place. You can use the concept of engagement.
It’s because there’s an expectation of a return. Is that why they’re like, “You’re expecting something now?”
It’s a gloved way of asking or a hidden way of asking for a gift without asking for it too soon. People step back. That’s the use of the word. The concept I think has a real value. When an organization says, “We want to increase engagement by 30%. Jan, helped us do it,” what are they trying to do?
They’re trying to do exactly what you say, which is, “Give us more money.” I often use the word customer instead of constituent. It’s not great for business development. I’m not McDonald’s. I think it fits the nonprofit sector well because I think the customer has, at its core, the idea of value exchange. I think getting organizations who think about their relationships as an exchange of value with people that are giving and then they expect to get, thinking about what the gift is, is as important as the give. Engagement has underneath it a foundational principle below the idea of value exchange.
Below the value exchange conceptually is the motivation. Engagement in my schema is always built a top of a motivation for what it is, why they come to you, what it is they’re trying to achieve in their life, and how you can help them satisfy that need. That’s different from the beneficiary. The business model of nonprofits is complex because you’ve got beneficiaries and supporters. Even on the supporter side, there’s a need that they have. Understanding that need in human terms is what I think of as engagement.
A lot of your work is constituent-centered. Let’s start with the constituent, the donor, or the member first and work from there. In your conversations with organizations, how challenging is it for them to see the organization through the eyes of the constituent?
It’s very challenging.
How do we get this? We are organizations. We are a sector that exists to serve to make a positive change in the world. We’re talking to people who, it may not be their main passion. It maybe be something that they’re casually supportive of. Somewhere in that spectrum, they want to see that positive change too. Why is it so hard to see our organizations through their eyes?You can't be everything to everyone, and you won't be able to satisfy all motivations equally. Click To Tweet
I read enough both business literature and then non-profit strategy stuff. It seems like all organizations suffer from the same problem. It’s a human nature problem when across all sectors organizations work like this. They get so attached to the thing that they do. For a for-profit company, they get attached to the product. If we were having this conversation on a different show, it would be, “Don’t sell the benefits of your product. Sell the solution you’re delivering in their life.” Same here, we get caught up with the thing that we do assuming that it has inherent value and it probably does. Let’s take that as a given. Let’s say the thing that you do has inherent value but that is still different from how doing that thing in the world, whether we’re brokering peace in Asia or we’re trying to save elephants. What it is that’s delivering for people?
Let’s take elephants. For elephants, it is, “I can engage you on a sense of there is hope.” Certainly, in the environmentalist space, it’s so easy to imagine. “There’s nothing I can do.” I fall into that despair readily. It’s too late. We’re rummaging for parts. You’re delivering hope. You’re delivering a connection to a cause that’s greater than yourself. You’re delivering a sense that there is a future like hope. You can start to break what it is that you do down into a thing that you’re delivering on that motivational level. You get caught up. This seems to be the human thing. You’re caught up with the thing that is right in front of you that you are doing day in, day out. It’s maybe the proximity effect.
One of the challenges is we know in the sector that we’re not to sell need. Not to say, “I need you to give me money so that we can keep doing our work.” We’ve seen in 2020 with the pandemic organizations that have gone to that critical need have been largely disappointed by the response of donors and predictably. Organizations need to believe in that opportunity, that hope, and in that future, not using it as a code word for neat. I think that you can achieve something great if only you give to us. What we think is we need to move this donor from $35 to $55 a month on average over this file. That’s not hope. That’s a need. It has to be consistent throughout the whole organization. Donors are smarter than that.
Are you saying that you need to build that into the organizational DNA somehow?
In a lot of your work and I’ve heard you talk about this before is moving people from that transactional lens to a more comprehensive relationship with the organization. That means being ready for it and being consistent. You can undermine that we don’t see you as a transaction. We’re not only contacting you because we want money. You can undermine that quickly and it takes a long time to build.
Engagement is also a stone’s throw away from your strategy. You can’t be everything to everyone and you’re not going to be able to satisfy all motivations equally. Let’s say there are enough people that care about the environment, that care about kids with cancer, it’s not a matter of, “Do you have a large enough pool?” There are enough people. The question is, who has a need that you can uniquely satisfy authentically given who you are as an organization?
Jan, are you saying that awareness is not the primary goal of reaching out to the community generally?
It’s not at all.
There are boards of directors that minds have exploded around the virtual Zoom table. We’re not doing this necessarily to raise money but to raise awareness. It blows me away. Awareness is not the issue no matter how small your cause is.
It’s about going, “There are enough people.” It’s about speaking strongly enough to those that it will resonate deeply with having that loud voice in that subset and that smaller pool, and to your point, being authentic. Are you delivering on hope or are you delivering on impact? That’s an organizational choice. Which one of those deliveries can you knock out of the park? That’s the choice. Don’t think you can do both equally well because it’s more than messaging and it’s more than marketing. That needs to be built into how you operate. If you’re going to do impact, then you better be able to measure and communicate impact. That needs to be worked through every part of your information system. If it’s hope, then you don’t need to make that investment so much. Yes, there are marketing choices and CRM choices but those are strategic choices. They’re all part of an integrated set of considerations.
As we’re coming to the end of our conversation here, Jan, it’s my favorite segment on the show that I’m inventing for you. It’s magic wand time. There’s one thing you can do to change the way all of the sector or all of your clients are approaching building their constituent base. What is it that you would change? What would you use your magic wand on?
Stop simply optimizing transactions. Stop going from that 30 to 50 threshold. Much of the industry is about what is the optimization industrial complex. If we didn’t do that, what else would we do? What else would we do that would be a fun thing to see happen?
That optimization, certainly maybe that’s something you need to do for many organizations. That’s a good place to start but that’s not an end in itself. It is certainly not sustainable growth but it’s not sustainable over the long-term. To try that maximum extraction from your donor base is the road to ruin for a lot of organizations.
It will get you through the nail-biter of the end-of-year results may be but it’s going to be one year after another. “Are we going to make the goal? It’s ramp up the optimization.” That’s a hard way to live. Who wants to live like that though?If you scan the mission, vision, and values of various organizations and their top priorities, typically, scaling is one of those. Click To Tweet
Jan, you mentioned the snow melting in New York. Having a New York guest on will be our first explicit label for the show so thank you for that. What are you looking forward to as we move deeper into 2021?
I’m trying to figure that out. I was looking forward to talking to you, Doug. It’s literally week by week. It’s usually dinner. “What’s dinner going to be?” If we’re talking about the sector overall, I look forward to people emerging from the panic of, are they going to survive? I think that kind of mindset maybe helps people of that phenomenal pivot. For most people, getting out of that fear-based mindset, I think it’s going to be liberating and hopefully, more human enjoyment with everybody that we work with. It’s been hard. I look forward to people not having to work under hard conditions.
That scarcity mindset is a hard one to shake and we see it. I’m sure you do too. Before the pandemic, that was an issue in organizations. It certainly is a big issue now. Jan, thank you so much for making time to be on the show. I’ve enjoyed our conversations as always. Thanks for pulling a few punches as we went through there. I appreciated you cleaning up the language a bit.
It is always so much fun talking to you, Doug. This was the highlight of my day, actually week and possibly the month.
Thank you so much. I’ll talk to you soon. Thanks, Jan.
Take care, Doug.