Since you asked: 6 tips on the LA 2050 Grants Challenge


I’ve had a few1 organizations reach out to me for advice on how to come out ahead in this year’s LA 2050 Grants Challenge. They seemed to find my advice helpful, so I thought I’d share it with the rest of you lovely people.

Granted, you’re in the home stretch and there isn’t much time to implement, and maybe the middle of the event isn’t the optimal time to begin strategizing (more on this in the thrilling conclusion).

And with time running out you probably feel like this:

[action gif illustrating the pressure of last-minute digital strategizing]

But better late than never. Probably.

I’m starting the list with #2, because the #1 most important thing is not necessarily the most urgent thing, and I decided to save it for last.

You’ll see what I mean. (Also, I’m the dessert-first type.)

2. Keep on emailing your list.

You’re already doing it, obvs. Don’t be shy about it, because anyone who’s on a few nonprofit/innovation/social justice/whatever lists is already primed to receive frequent LA 2050 vote appeals. You can get a few more out in the next week without alienating your list members too much.2

3. Cross-check your email list and your social media audiences.

Hopefully your CRM can do this. What you want to do is look for the most engaged members of your community. For example, if someone is on your email list, and follows you on Twitter, and has liked your Facebook posts, then they are really into you. Make a list of these super-fans and reach out to them directly to ask them to share your posts and to ask their friends & followers to vote for your project. You may want to look at people who connect to any two “nodes”: e.g. follow on Twitter & liked a post on Facebook; subscribe to email list and follow on Twitter; etc. You get the idea.

4. Enlist your allies.

This might prove to be challenging because we’ve all got friends & allies in competing organizations. (Someone – the source is murky – called the Grants Challenge the Hunger Games of Los Angeles nonprofits). But if you can, reach out to influential individuals & organizations who can amplify your message. Make a simple, specific request that they either share one of your social media posts, or create their own post asking their friends & followers to vote for your project. If you’re doing the latter, make it as easy as possible for your influencer and have a sample post written, along with an image, before you make the ask. If they agree, great! Now, send them the link or the content immediately so that they don’t forget, and so you don’t have to worry about whether to make that awkward follow-up request. Do the same for the super-supporters you identified in the second step. And by second step, of course, I mean step #3.

5. Quick-and-dirty Facebook ads.

The organizations that reached out to me didn’t have much in the way of social media ad budgets. They aren’t going to get into the numbers of impressions where they would get meaningful data on content performance nor would they likely see the performance indicators move much in response to content or targeting tweaks, so I kept my advice as simple as possible.

  1. Export your email list as a .csv file and format it so that it contains only a single column of email addresses.
  2. Create a Custom Audience by uploading your list.
  3. You can then create a campaign that targets this custom audience.

The way it works is that if someone has subscribed to your list with the same email address they used to register their Facebook account, Facebook will place their profile in the Custom Audience. This won’t be everyone on your list. For example, I registered my Facebook account with an email address that I have never used for anything else, ever, so even if I’m on your email list, Facebook won’t find a profile associated with the email address you have on file for me. But this will work with a certain percentage of your list. And you don’t get charged for ads that aren’t served, so it’s worth a shot. The reason this is worthwhile is that these are people who have already shown an interest in your organization’s work, and we know that not everybody opens your email or clicks on the links, so this is a second shot at some of your supporters.

There’s one more step: create a look-alike audience based on the Custom Audience you just created from your uploaded list of email addresses.

Since Facebook knows everything about us3, they have algorithms that can identify profiles that are similar in interests and behavior to the profiles of your supporters.

These are the simplest way to serve ads to people who are likely to vote for your proposal.

We haven’t touched on content, but there isn’t a whole lot of time to perfect your posts. I did give one content tip, which I’ll share below.

6. Make the most of any video (preferably) or photos (fallback option) of your organization in action.

Ideally, you want media depicting people doing whatever it is your project will facilitate/enable/create, and showing people what your organization makes possible. Obviously, if you haven’t done anything in line with your proposal, and that’s why you joined the challenge in the first place, you won’t have this kind of media.

But if you can do the following, right now, I would: contact someone who would benefit from the project you’re trying to get funded; go and record a video interview with them talking about what your project would mean to them personally; try to get them to keep it under 30 seconds (or edit it later). Post this today with the link to vote for your project and make it the subject of any paid social media campaigns.

Finally, we come to the beginning.

1. Start last year.

I know, I know, that’s not 100% helpful. Aaaaaaaand it’s 40% obnoxious.

But really, the best strategy (for pretty much any and all things) is prepared well ahead-of-time. I don’t have a magic MAKE IT VIRAL button. Nor do I broker deals with the devil (but I know a guy who knows a guy, so…).

Where this advice becomes less annoying and more practical is when we think ahead to the possibility of another Grants Challenge next year, or any fundraising campaign, advocacy push, any time you’re going to ask someone to do something.

Start now by working on this (inexhaustive) list:

  1. Build your email list
  2. Reach out to influencers
  3. Build relationships with bloggers & other journalists
  4. Curate/collect/create ZOMG AMAZING content

Work on those consistently and you’ll be much better situated for any future online outreach effort.

Good luck!


I think three is the minimum number that qualifies as “a few.”

Not a guarantee.

3 I have mixed feelings about this. If anyone wants to talk about it, let’s have that conversation!

Observations on the LA2050 Grants Challenge and Community Engagement in Los Angeles

NOTE: provided digital strategy consulting services to one competitor, Move LA, who was awarded the Jury Prize in the CONNECT category. We have relationships with a few other applicants but did not participate in their campaigns.

Congratulations to the ten winners of the LA2050 2014 Grants Challenge! I will definitely watch the winning projects unfold in the upcoming months.

And I also hope to see the other applicants continue to seek funding and realize their projects. Some of my friends and colleagues who participated are already moving ahead with their ideas regardless of whether they’re currently funded, and I admire their dedication and vision.

I have a few observations after geeking out over the whole process:

There were 267 project proposal submissions across all five goal categories.

Is that a lot of ideas? No, that’s not a lot of ideas. It’s TOO MANY IDEAS. Seriously, though, that’s a high-class problem for Los Angeles to have – too many good ideas.

IMAGE: LA2050 review AWESOME

And just like with California ballot propositions I may not have read each submission thoroughly before voting. But voting did require a painful choice in some cases. I was torn between mixed loyalties and, honestly, sometimes the relative awesomeness of two awesome ideas is hard to quantify. (I have heard unconfirmed reports of people creating multiple accounts so they could vote more than once, presumably to assuage such internal contradictions, but good luck getting anyone to admit to that.)

There were only five goals.

So we’ve been invited to participate in envisioning LA as a place to LIVE, CONNECT, CREATE, LEARN, and PLAY.

Where is WORK?

We all like to LIVE, CONNECT, CREATE, LEARN and PLAY. But most of us spend our time at WORK.


We’re talking about jobs: Are they available? What kind? Can you live on your wages or salary? Will you retire before you die? What rights do you have in the workplace? Those are questions I have about LA in the year 2050, and those are questions that many in LA are actively working on.

Granted, some of this year’s entries deal directly with jobs. The Downtown Women’s Center won the jury award in the CREATE category for a project to integrate homeless women in the workforce. That’s a beautiful mission and I don’t mean to diminish it, nor other submissions that deal with employment, such as PortTech LAWould Works and, probably, others. (I’m sure I missed some. There were 267 submissions!)

But I would like to see organized labor participating in the conversation. LAANE, a frequent worker advocate, held a vibrant LA2050-branded Twitter Party to talk about income and employment back in 2013. But the original eight “indicators,” which included “Income and Employment,” got subsumed within the five “goals,” and work, somehow, lost focus.

Not everyone played fair

The 2014 Grants Challenge was clearly open to nonprofit and for-profit organizations. But at least one submission came from a for-profit company masquerading as a nonprofit. They checked the “nonprofit” box on their LA2050 submission, and they claim to be a nonprofit on their Facebook page. But after doing a little digging I verified that they are registered with the state of California as a for-profit corporation. Could appearing to be a nonprofit have helped their chances to garner support in the crowdsourced voting? Perhaps. In any case, they didn’t win and there’s no point in calling them out by name.

Some of the winners of the online voting were predictable before the voting started

In the one category that I tracked closely because of my client’s participation, I used a Facebook page post performance analysis tool to watch trending and overperforming posts from the Facebook pages of every organization in the category.IMAGE_social-media-los-angeles


The top three vote-getters settled into place more or less within the first day of voting. And they also had the highest-performing Facebook posts the day before voting began.

Email lists were essential

Certain email campaigns sent by the client and their allies produced marked jumps in their ranking in the online voting. After noticing a similar jump in the ranking of a friend’s organization, I confirmed after the voting period that they had recruited an allied group to send an email to their list.


So if you want to increase your social media reach, your digital strategy should probably place a high priority on building your email list.

What did you notice, or what did I miss?

Let’s talk on Twitter. or talk to us here:

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4 Ways for Nonprofits to Start Strategic Communications Now

The Executive Director for an advocacy nonprofit recently admitted to me, “We don’t have a communications strategy. We need one.” That’s actually a good position to be in. After all, he knows what his organization needs and he’s prioritizing creating a strategy. But once someone realizes they need a strategy, they instantly think they can’t afford it. Here’s what nonprofit leaders can do now to create a communications strategy that makes your organization stand out.



Ideally, a communications strategy that’s integrated with a digital strategy will drive an increase in revenues and won’t cost the organization anything.

I recently heard a speaker say that if your community isn’t aware of what you’re doing, you’re probably not getting funded. You can easily turn that around: if you don’t have the budget for communications, maybe  strategic communications is exactly what you need to reach new donors and inspire existing ones. By thoughtfully curating stories from your community and delivering it to your audiences in a targeted way, you’ll inspire more giving.





Another ED said her organization was thinking of hiring a communications director, but they weren’t sure they had the budget for it. Obviously, right? We’ve all heard the refrain “it’s not in the budget.”

But maybe it actually is in the budget. This nonprofit leader was considering linking up with similar organizations to centralize their communications and PR efforts, and splitting the cost among them – a brilliant idea that I wish I’d thought of myself.

There’s an even bigger idea wedged in the middle of that, though: you are not stuck where you are. No matter what, there is a creative solution.





A friend who works with some of the biggest backers of charities and nonprofits in Los Angeles told me that major donors and foundations don’t mind getting requests for funding. In fact, they want the nonprofits they support to ask them for assistance when they need it. Your backers already support your mission, and they want you to succeed. So if you come to them with a solid proposal for strategic communications, there’s a good chance they’ll be happy to give you the support you need. Oh, and don’t forget to give them credit by tweeting a shout-out or posting a thank-you to your Facebook page – they like that. (But that was already part of your digital strategy, right?)





The ED of a small-ish community organization found out that by switching to a new constituent relations management(CRM) service from the one that they’d put up with for years, they could save several thousand dollars. This proves two things:

      1. The technology and costs are changing so rapidly that it’s worth it to reassess your vendors every 2-3 years.
      2. It doesn’t hurt to reach out to others who might have new perspectives, and to question everything. You never know where you’ll find opportunity.


What creative thoughts do you have about strategic communications for nonprofits? Let’s talk on Twitter., or talk to us here:
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Handshake, some rights reserved, by Aidan Jones, edited from original.
Please Help, some rights reserved, by bixentro, edited from original.
Zenith Z-19 Terminal, some rights reserved, by ajmexico, edited from original.