Talk Can Be Cheap As Well As Profitable

November 15, 2008       Michele Donohue      

Roxanne Black was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease, at age 15. She said it was difficult to find people her own age in a similar situation with whom she could talk – so she decided to start her own nonprofit.

Black developed Friends’ Health Connection (FHC) where “anyone, any age with any health challenge could find a friend,” she said. She wrote to reporters about her initiative and was interviewed by USA Today, which lead to other interviews in the media sphere.

Then Black decided to extend her organization with a lecture series. With her media connections throughout the years, Black was able to book heavy celebrity hitters — which in the past included the late Christopher Reeve, Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey — as well as revered health professionals, to speak about health and wellness issues.

With grant money slowly shrinking and donors stressed about the economy, hosting a lecture series can diversify your revenue and reach out to prospective donors and people who might be interested in a topic. It’s key to identify someone who will draw an audience since you can’t solicit donations from empty seats. While most nonprofits can’t bank on Oprah, organizations can find people their constituency wants to hear from – such as area leaders, local heroes or a distinguished expert.

Nonprofits wary about lectures should stick with what they know. Try to connect your mission with a lecture topic – then you have built-in experts already on your staff. “I think a lot of nonprofits don’t realize the value of what they are doing,” said Black. Religious groups can speak about faith and values. Environmental nonprofits can give sustainable living tips. Animal welfare organizations can talk about pet care. Your donors give for a reason. Showing them your expertise will remind them of that reason.

Lecture series can help increase revenue and also provide a face to the community. Garnering community clout comes with understanding the demographics and needs of the constituents, advice that the 92nd Street Y has developed with more than 25 years of experience with lectures.

The 92nd Street Y lecture series started in 1982 and has expanded to more than 165 lectures and discussion panels each year. “We are very much in touch with our audience and what they want,” said Susan Engel, director of lectures at the Charles Simon Center for Adult Life & Learning, one of the eight distinct centers the 92nd Street Y operates. And knowing what the audience wants is important for the New York City-based nonprofit, which faces competition from all the Big Apple has to offer.

Lecture topics should appeal to your organization’s demographic. Don’t plan a talk about snowboarding if you are courting Baby Boomers, unless you get Massachusetts senator, former presidential candidate and avid snowboarder John Kerry to speak. The Charles Simon Center set out an aggressive fall lecture program spanning politics, arts, Judaism, comedy and more, with speakers such as activist and writer Gloria Steinem, designer Ralph Rucci and environmentalist Jane Goodall. There are even lectures paying homage to New York City – with a goodbye to Shea Stadium lecture by former New York Mets baseball stars Darryl Strawberry, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, and a lecture with former New York City mayor Ed Koch.

“The topics are relevant and with the goal of educating our public. We need to have a certain name recognition,” said Engel. Check out the pulse of your organization by asking key individuals who represent your donor pool demographic what they would be interested in hearing. For example, informational seminars with financial experts might draw a crowd and give your constituents valuable instruction to navigate a bleak economic landscape.

And a lecture series should make money — not eat program funds. Grants, endowments and reduced speaker rates help keep ticket prices affordable at 92nd Street Y, compared to for-profit venues. The lecture series isn’t a “gold mine,” according to Sarah Morton, publicist and media relations director for 92nd Street Y. The lecture money helps to fund the Charles Simon Center and helps with programs that don’t generate revenue, such as classes for senior citizens, language, dating and assist the de Hirsch Residence, a facility that provides affordable housing for more than 350 young adults.

Talk ain’t cheap

Be ready to pay big bucks if you want to book a celebrity. Professional speakers can cost hundreds, or thousands, of dollars. Sure, comedian Frank Caliendo, of MadTV fame, might make donors laugh – but what’s not hilarious is his $100,000 fee, according to Premiere Speakers Bureau, based in Franklin, Tenn. That price doesn’t include his private jet requirement.

Name recognition and cost go hand-in-hand – and your organization might get a larger audience with a local councilman rather than a little-known celebrity.

Try to cut expenses by finding speakers who will participate for free, or as close to it as possible. Look for community spaces that you can book with little or no cost. You should also figure out if you want to ask for donations or charge a fee. If you plan on charging, think about a reasonable fee structure, like a lower cost for informational speakers but higher for technical topics. Try offering discounts to large groups, like student groups and senior associations, to build connections within the community.

And if a lecture series works for your organization, don’t be afraid to take it to the next level. The 92nd Street Y developed a satellite program five years ago to extend its reach beyond the Upper East Side of Manhattan. More than 30 Jewish community centers use the satellite program to broadcast the center’s lectures, which Engel described as an “exciting thing seeing 900 people in our hall and knowing there another 26 (locations) across the country.”

Black said coordinating FHC speaker events “got to a point where it was too much to handle” for her small nonprofit and decided to stop the organization’s own speaker engagement series three years ago. The group now acts as a broker between the speakers and other nonprofits. FHC acts as a speakers’ bureau, setting up more than 50 nonprofits, hospitals and healthcare facilities with relevant speakers and collecting a portion of the fees to fund FHC programs.

“We realized that we should maximize our strengths, which is our relationships with the speakers, and this way we can help other organizations while utilizing our contacts,” said Black, who said staff members are now free to help in other FHC programs, such as wellness seminars in inner cities and music therapy for cancer patients.

The lectures brought in more than 33 percent of FHS’s revenue during 2006, which Black hopes to expand to make the program more self-sufficient – important for an organization Black first ran out of her college dorm room.

“A lot of the funders, after a while, want to fund new initiatives, which is totally understandable,” said Black. “I think you get comfortable when you know you can rely on a foundation for a while. When you find out that grant is ending, it’s very unnerving that all of a sudden you have to raise your own funding. So, we saw this as a way to help support ourselves and ensure our long-term continued growth, while helping other organizations too, and providing a benefit.” NPT

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