How Boston's Top Nonprofits Got Their Butts Kicked & What We Can Learn From Rabbi Chaim

rabbi-chaimTake a good look at the distinguished man in the hat. Rabbi Chaim is the only one among Boston's nonprofit leaders who's wearing one after he handed the rest of us ours in a vote-getting competition sponsored by Virgin America, Boston's newest air carrier, that earned his organization, The Sharon Friendship Circle (aka The Chabad of Sharon), $25,000. Here's some background about the competition.

Virgin America begins flying out of Boston this month and to promote their arrival they cooked up a competition among nonprofits for a modest amount of loot, $25,000. The organization that got the most votes won.  Now $25k isn't a lot of money for anyone but the smallest charities, and generally doesn't inspire a lot of interest. But with the economy tanking just about all the Boston nonprofits--big and small--jumped in. You can check out the list here, but minus duplicates there must be 400 charities represented.

And these just aren't any nonprofits. They include the Boston chapters of Boys & Girls Clubs, Komen, Girl Scouts, Big Brother Big Sisters, Farm Aid and well known local organizations like Greater Boston Food Bank, Pine Street Inn, Community Servings, Rosie's Place and the list goes on and on. Some of the biggest nonprofits in Boston jumped in to win $25,000.

And Boston Medical Center did too. Our strategy to win was simple: Grassroots, email, social media.

Grassroots. With 5,500 employees over several city blocks in Boston we knew we had a captive audience we could tap. Also, with our affiliation with Boston University, we had a large base of students and faculty we could try to reach out to. And because we were hoping to win the money for the hospital's pediatric AIDS program, The SPARK Center, we reached out to AIDS organizations across the state and country and asked them to vote for us.

Email. With 8,000 donors we hoped to galvanize them to vote for BMC. We also had a substantial list of business partners and vendors that we could reach out to via phone an email.

Social media.We're new to social media but I felt Facebook and Twitter would contribute about 10%  to our total votes. Certainly enough to make a difference in a close race. We created an event page on Facebook and had everyone on the team post it on their walls and send out invites to their friends asking them to vote and to invite their friends to join them.  On Twitter, I got some great advice from @scottyhendo on pumping up the program, and people were very generous with their "re-tweets" (basically forwarding my vote request to their friends and so on).  We even did a Twitter raffle to goose re-tweets. Congratulations to Boston's own @SEOSEM for winning the $25 Starbucks gift card I donated to the raffle.

For a while things were going well. We even beat back the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts (No, it wasn't me that spread that rumor about their peanut butter cookies) and their 45,000 members. We led by a couple hundred votes and were feeling good as we entered the final week.

But then things changed dramatically. It seemed in a heartbeat that the Friendship Circle of Sharon came out of nowhere and landed in third place. Still a good 1,200 votes behind BMC and 1,000 from the Girl Scouts, but such a big jump! I remember emailing my team and boss, "Who are these people!?" I never got a response because no one thought they could catch and surpass our votes--because we were still adding several hundred every day ourselves.

But as each day passed they gained on us. The day before the competition ended I left the office at 5pm and the Friends were at 1800 votes and we were at 2700. By midnight they had pulled 200 points ahead of us. Going to bed that night I prepared myself for the worst. We'll be down by a thousand votes by morning, I thought.

But when I awoke that final day we were only down by 300. Maybe we could win. But I had to understand more about what I was dealing with. That's when @holtmurray and I took some time off from getting out the vote to learn more Rabbi Chaim's get-out-the-vote efforts.  In Jewish blogs, forums and newsletters across the country and around the world was one simple request: please help the Friendship Circle of Sharon. Check out this one here and be sure to read the comments at the bottom.

Looking at the Rabbi's efforts I saw one possible chink in his armor, which briefly inspired "Operation Sundown." I thought if we could stay close in the voting throughout the day we could make up the votes after sundown when the Rabbi and his followers weren't allowed on computers. Voting didn't end until midnight.  Rabbi Chaim had been playing by the rules all week and killing us. Maybe we could use his rules against him and win.

But Rabbi Chaim beat me here too. In press releases published that day on Jewish web sites he encouraged supporters to vote before sundown and they responded, even though on previous days most votes had come in the evening. By 5pm when vote for the Friendship Circle slowed to a trickle they were up by 900 votes.

While it's said in the Old Testament that God made the sun stand still so Joshua could finish destroying the enemies of the Jews, Rabbi Chaim didn't need a miracle. Sunset came and went on time on Friday. Unlike Joshua, he needed no extra time to mop us up. (Seriously, they should send this dude to Gaza). Mazel tov!

So out of 400 charities BMC's SPARK Center finished second. No small feat, but still out of the money.  So what lessons did we learn from this whole experience?

We need to improve our communication infrastructure to employees and donors. Despite having all the votes we needed to win the competition within a few city blocks of my office in the South End of Boston, it was surprisingly difficult to get the word out to our 5,500 employees. Information on the voting was simply lost in traditional communication vehicles, like email updates and newsletters, that went to employees.  It's also a fact that in a hospital most employees aren't sitting behind a computer all day so you can't count on doctors, nurses lab techs, etc. getting the news that way. We tried to address this by setting up computers in the lobby areas and cafeterias so people could vote directly, but we had trouble with Internet connections and Wi-fi. 

Our communication with donors only highlighted that they feel like they already get too much from info from us, and our appeal to vote actually prompted a couple complaints that enough was enough! With an email newsletter open rate that hovers around 15% it's pretty clear that many did not get the message to vote.

We need to work harder to build a loyal, passionate base of supporters. What really impressed me about the Friendship Circle of Sharon was that they had a lot of fans and passionate supporters. They won the votes, but they also had over 500 posted comments that mentioned how great their work was and clearly showed that they had a lot of fans. Don't get me wrong, we have a lot of fans too (and we had over 300 comments), but Rabbi Chaim's supporters were mega fans that got out the vote. While we called just as many local civic groups and national AIDS groups and begged them to push their supporters to vote for The SPARK Center, they didn't come through like the friends of the The Friendship Circle of Sharon did. Rabbi Chaim just didn't have supporters. He had supporters with zeal.

We need to expand our social media network. Social media is important in several ways. First, it helps to improve that communication infrastructure to employees and donors. It communicates with them in a way that is both present and preferable to them. Second, it helps build that loyal network of supporters because it's a far better tool for sharing the type of information and stories that creates and sustains more fans. Finally, it's a much more efficient and effective way for reaching larger audiences. While we were all encouraged to "work the phones" to push the vote, a tiny url I tweeted on Twitter resulted in nearly 300 votes in just a few hours.

It was also obvious from Rabbi Chaim's efforts that while I was probably getting a higher percentage of the audience I was asking to vote, the audience he was asking to vote was exponentially larger and responding ten votes to every one I got.  While he didn't accomplish this through Facebook and Twitter, he did achieve it through their cousins, websites, blogs and forums.

Though the good Rabbi did not make the sun stand still. He did make it run.