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The Sign that Drives Me Batty


So announces the brown-with-age, plastic, slide-in letter squares on the sign in front of the suburban community center with which I work.

The building itself is set well back from the busy street, on a hilltop, and the sign is down at the curb. Usually it announces concerts by world-famous chamber ensembles, registration dates for cultural and fitness classes, or forthcoming lectures by leading authors and world affairs pundits–activities that reflect far more accurately the center’s high quality of programming.

Right now, though, it’s summer. The performance and lecture series are on hiatus, and registration dates for the fall have not yet been set. Someone saw the open schedule as a good opportunity to raise some money. (In this area, reselling donated cars is a source of revenue for some private not-for-profits, including this community center.) Hence, the current message.

Why, as a consultant to only one particular program in the center (the arts), do I go batty every time I see the sign? And why do I think you should, too?

  • A sign in front of a building is not going to bring in donations. Unless it is part of a broader campaign that is targeting potential donors on a variety of levels and in a variety of ways, it is not likely to convince anyone to choose a charity. That the sign in this case does not even include a phone number lessens even further the chance that anyone will oblige the invitation.
  • The message, as well as the physical condition and style of the sign, belie the vitality and professionalism of the center. They communicate a sense of amateurishness and disrepair. That the sign is pitching a nontraditional way of making a donation, to an audience that may have had no previous exposure to the center, implies that the center is desperate for money. These are bad messages for a healthy organization to convey, since we all know that people like to invest their contributions in successful, well-run initiatives.The sign should promote the center as a “sight bite,” the visual equivalent of a sound bite. In this capacity, even in a down time, its job is to promote the center as a community resource. Appropriate messages could include “The best community center in the state!”, “Fall class registration begins soon — call phone number for details”, or even “Beat the heat in our pool! Membership info, phone number.”

A board member wears many hats, among which are those of an organization’s ambassador to the community and an active participant in achieving and maintaining its financial security. DONATE YOUR CAR TO THE COMMUNITY CENTER does nothing to help the center’s board members perform either of these jobs well.

I know what you are wondering, and I want to assure you that I already have given my unsolicited advice to the director of the center. He received it most graciously, but, as of this writing, the message remains. I’m only a consultant; I can advise, but the client does not have to follow my recommendations.

However, if you, reader, are on the board of a wonderful nonprofit that is stumbling over its best foot, rather than putting it smartly forward, you have the authority and mandate to bring about a change. If you are to do your job well, then your organization must behave with as much class and sophistication as it can muster. DONATE YOUR CAR connotes neither — and that is why, you’ll pardon the pun, a sign like that should drive you crazy, too.

About the Contributor: Jane Tennen

Jane is  Executive Director of Development at John Jay College, a college of The City University of New York. She provides strategic vision and leadership for all fundraising, alumni relations, and stewardship activities during an exciting time of growth and expansion for the College. Reporting to the Vice President of Marketing and Development, she works closely with the President and other senior leaders of the College.

Jane became a nonprofit professional in 1974 and a consultant in 1986.  In prior positions, she played a lead creative role in more than 200 successful fundraising publications, proposals, and speeches in NYU’s then pacesetting $100 million campaign. She secured the first arts grant at The Door, a leading New York City youth agency and the first corporate grant for an important postmodern dance company, whose board I also helped reorganize and expand.

In her native Philadelphia in the 1970s, Jane helped establish two experimental video series, was involved in two international film festivals, a 90-seat cinemathèque, and an independent movie theatre, and facilitated the first grant for a gallery-performance space.

Jane have served on the Montclair State University School of the Arts Advisory Committee and many other boards, panels, and committees, and have been listed in Who’s Who in America.  She was writing director for the second New York City Kids’ Culture Catalog, described by New York Magazine as “terse and beguiling,” and contributes to the CharityChannel Press online journals Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review and Nonprofit Consulting Review.

Jane received her MFA in nonprofit theatre administration from Yale Drama School and her BA in classical studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

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