Illinois budget crisis impacting non-profit organizations — Part 4

When I started this blog series two weeks ago, I thought it might be a good idea to invite a few of my local elected officials (as well as former policy-makers) to weigh-in on the subject. Unfortunately, everyone has either declined or not responded except for Michael Noland, who is my state senator. I want to thank Senator Noland for taking the time to be thoughtful and responsive. (A copy of the senator’s guest blog can be found in the space below.)
For those of you who are coming to the party a little late, here is a quick summary. In Part 1 of this series, I shared survey results provided by United Way of Illinois along with other insights and perspectives . In Part 2, I talked to a non-profit executive director whose organization lost significant funding as a result of Illinois’ budget impasse and shared some surprising developments. In Part 3, I offered a few suggestions for Illinois non-profit leaders on how to tackle this issue inside their organizations as the crisis deepens.
I hope this four part series on the Illinois budget impasse and its effect on non-profit organizations has been information and engaging. Please share your thoughts in the comment box below. Here’s to your health! ~Erik

In February of 2015, the governor proposed his first budget to the General Assembly, a budget that would make harsh cuts to important services in our state. His message was a call to cut waste where at all possible. In 2015, I was hopeful that we would be able to work with the Governor to establish both a source of revenue and make responsible cuts to balance the state budget.
The Governor also submitted for the General Assembly’s approval what he referred to as his “Turnaround Agenda”.  The agenda was one that called for creating Right to Work Zones; an end to collective bargaining for teachers and state workers; reduced funding for education and health care and tax breaks for large corporations and the wealthy; all, clear non-starters for Democrats.
A year has passed and it has become clear to me that the Governor wants nothing more than to continue his standoff to push a “turnaround agenda” that is harmful to the people of Illinois and specifically to the working-class families I swore to represent.  And so, since June 1st 2015 Illinois has operated without a budget.
Over this time I have received numerus emails from citizens, heads of social service organizations, small business owners and others over the lack of a state budget and I continue to share in the anxiety and hardships that this places on my constituents and on our state. The result of this delay and uncertainty over the funding for our vital programs and services in Illinois is an inexcusable disaster that I do not go a single day without standing at the ready to negotiate a solution with the Governor and Republicans in the General Assembly.
The truth is, in Springfield, in the senate, we have passed numerous budget proposals since June 1st in attempts to address the budget impasse. The senate has fought for a budget for K-12, worked to secure the appropriation of federal funds, battled for funding for the Monetary Award Program to support our college students, attempted to grant funding to human services programs not covered by consent decrees and more. Most recently, the senate approved SB2059, which would appropriate 3.8 billion dollars in funds to various agencies, including social service programs and higher education. The fact remains that the Governor is simply unwilling to negotiate a budget that does not include multiple aspects of his harmful agenda.
Through all these legislative proposals the public must understand something very important that is often forgotten: the General Assembly does not have the power to distribute these funds. All we can do is grant the Governor the ability to do so. The Governor, as chief executive, directs staff to write the checks we have allowed him to write. This budget impasse is shaped by two main causes. The first and foremost is the Governor’s unwillingness to compromise and listen to the angry voices coming to him with legitimate concerns and crises.  These angry voices, our social services, colleges and universities and health care providers are asking to be paid for their services and the Governor, quite simply, refuses to write the checks for the money the state owes them.
However, the Governor is right about something that is impossible not to acknowledge.  We have a lack of revenue in Illinois. Elected officials that ignore this are simply kicking the can down the road, something I personally refuse to do. There are social service programs that simply cannot be cut, there are educational services and public safety programs that need more funding and to do this the state requires more revenue.  There is ample evidence that we, as a state, are more than capable of providing that revenue.  This is a discussion that needs to be happening in Springfield now and not later when the state is in even greater crisis than it already is.  As we now return for the second half of the spring session in the Illinois General Assembly, I look forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle to craft a state budget that meets the just demands of the good people we are sworn to represent.
Sincerely, State Senator Michael Noland (D-22nd)
noland sig

What’s in your mailbox? Part 2

We started a conversation yesterday about direct mail when I posted “What’s in your mailbox? Part 1“. We looked at a political fundraising piece that showed up in my mailbox from Michelle Obama and dissected it. Today, we’re going to my mailbox and pulling out a newsletter that I recently received from Michael Noland, who is my state senator.

As I said yesterday, I believe “the average American can become educated about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to direct mail if they only pay attention to what is being sent to them, what they are opening (or not opening), and how and what they’re reading (or not reading).”

So, let’s open this newsletter and see what we’ve got.

The front page is actually quite simple. It contains a two paragraph letter from the senator explaining that the legislative session that just ended was busy. It essentially invites me to open the newsletter for an update on “what’s happened, the legislation he sponsored, and what he’s done to fight for me.”

Hmmm . . . the feel and tone of the letter makes this newsletter seem more like campaign literature. To be honest, I am hesitant to turn to page two; however, I will do so for you, my dear reader.  😉

This is a four page newsletter. So, when I turn the page I am looking at the middle of the newsletter — pages two and three. Here is what I am starting to notice:

  • Lots of pictures (four to be exact)
  • 18 point font headlines and 14 point news copy
  • Headlines are in color

I suspect the senator is concerned about senior citizens not being able to read his newsletter, which is why everything is so big.

You’ve heard it a million times . . . a picture is worth a thousand words. All of the pictures are of the senator doing something. He is talking to a concerned older couple. He is delivering the commencement speech at Elgin Community College (ECC). Since most people won’t spend more than as few seconds with this mail piece, pictures become very important in conveying quick information. In this instance, the senator obviously is trying to send the message that he is working hard on your behalf.

In a previous life, when I ran a weekly newspaper, we learned from reader surveys that big pictures and headlines were the first thing to which people paid attention. If the picture or headline was interesting, then they would make the decision to read the article. It is obvious that this newsletter is designed with thatsame principle in mind.

I don’t believe people read much anymore, which is an ironic observation for a blogger like myself to make. What I do believe is that people skim, and I suspect the senator believes the same thing when I look at his newsletter copy.

There are seven mini-articles with topics ranging from public employee pension costs and healthcare to child welfare and veterans. Nothing is more than one paragraph in length. It is written in the first person and very action oriented with phrases like:

  • “I co-sponsored . . .”
  • “I fought . . .”
  • “I believe . . .”

To translate all of this into non-profit terms, the senator is demonstrating to the voting public the return on investment for your vote. This is simply the senator stewarding voters in much the same way you steward your donors. The only difference is that you want your donors to renew their financial support and the senator wants people to vote for him again.

Let’s turn the page and look at the back of the newsletter.

I am invited to stay informed and encouraged to routinely visit the senator’s webpage for updates, news and email access. There is a monstrously large QR code on the page that I can scan with my cell phone, and it will take me to his website instantly.

Here are a few best practices that we can take away from our dissection of the senator’s newsletter today:

  1. Be mindful of font size, especially if your donors are older.
  2. Use lots of pictures to communicate information quickly.
  3. Use color and big headlines to make things pop off the page and generate interest in reading the newsletter copy.
  4. People skim . . . so keep stgories short and snappy. Short sentences and very few paragraphs.
  5. Cross-channel marketing . . . use the newsletter to drive people to your website where you can spend more time with them and go into more detail.

Personally speaking, I really dislike newsletters like this one. I believe that the typical slick/glossy, one color, four page newsletter is a thing of the past. I really liked the previous piece sent out by the senator. It was a one page bulletin that looked like what Penelope Burk describes in her book “Donor Centered Fundraising“.

If you are interested in learning more about what donor bulletins looks like and why they are more preferred by your donors, then I suggest that you go back and read the following three blog posts from last year:

If you want to see a copy of Senator Noland’s most recent newsletter so that you can compare it to what you read in these three donor-centered newsletter posts, then click here.

Does your non-profit organization use a newsletter to steward supporters and donors? Are you happy with it? What have you found in your experience works or doesn’t work? Please use the comment box below to share with your fellow non-profit professionals.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847