Making a name for yourself

Josh Ruxin

“I’m out of a job because no one dies anymore,” the former village funeral coordinator of Mayange, Rwanda, said to Ruxin.

But only two years ago when the Access Project arrived at the region’s health center, neither nurses nor patients were anywhere to be found.

Ruxin finally found the nurses at home. “If patients need us, they’ll come find us,” they said.

Now the third Millennium Village site in Africa, the health center treats over 400 people daily with drugs that were nearly nonexistent two years earlier. And kids no longer die daily of preventable diseases, Ruxin says.

Access Project was launched in 2002 to provide technical expertise and fundraising assistance to health systems in several African countries.

Ruxin says the group had a very small budget the first few years.

“The first three years were just about hitting the ground running,” he says. “Zero web presence, zero publicity – it was all about just getting the job done.  It wasn’t until the organization started to generate real name recognition that other donors started taking a close look at it and jumping on board.”

A lot of it came down to luck. Usually it was freelance reporters passing through Rwanda, Ethiopia or Kenya who came across members of Ruxin’s team and became interested in the project.

Yet it was stories like the funeral director’s that attracted that media attention and helped the group generate its now annual budget of $2.5 million.

Money often breeds more money, says Ruxin. “That financial success helped us have a story to generate funding.”

And that story provides some lessons, which Ruxin offers in his own words.

Playing the two-sided coin

I think that it is a great irony and a near tragedy that name recognition is so important when it comes to fundraising.

The tragedy of it is that nonprofits that are passionate and have had success over the years will not necessarily be able to translate that success into increased funding without name recognition.

By the same token, there are plenty of nonprofits out there that have tremendous name recognition, but don’t necessarily have the passion and on-the-ground success that donors should be financing.

It’s sort of a two-sided coin.

The best public sector leaders recognize that when approaching new streams of financing in particular, there is a level of credibility that goes with branding and name recognition which, in a sense, money can’t buy.

There are a lot of nonprofits out there who shun the media because they fear that they’ll appear self-serving, and they don’t want the attention.

Probably they also realize that it’s a lot of work to get it done, and they’re not sure exactly how it’s going to pay off for their programs in the end.

Getting your name out

The beauty of the Internet is that there’s absolutely no reason why even the smallest nonprofits can’t shoot a little video, have a blog, or have some sort of web presence that starts to offer name recognition.

In a sense, it’s easier than ever before to get your name out there.

  • Have a web presence.

Any time a potential donor is checking you out, the first thing they’re going to do is Google you to figure out if you’re real. A simple website is the easiest start.

  • Get the story out.

If there are people in the organization that have great stories, it’s very important to make sure those stories get out.

Among our projects are a number of women’s cooperatives that sell beautiful woven baskets and tablecloths. Just by alluding to them in things I’ve written, they’ve started getting orders.

In a sense, a nonprofit’s greatest asset is its story, and if that story’s not out there, they’re wasting their greatest source of capital.

This can mostly be done through the Web as well, through blogs, videos and other online networking tools. It can also be done by sending out pitches to reporters, and identifying specific journalists that might be interested in what the nonprofit is doing.

  • Get help.

If an organization has the wherewithal, hiring a publicist or some sort of media agency that can help brand and get the word out is a great next step once you’ve got the basics down.

Josh N. Ruxin is assistant clinical professor of public health at Columbia University and director of the Millennium Villages Project in Rwanda. He is also founder and director of the Access Project, which provides technical expertise and fundraising assistance to health workers in Ethiopia and Rwanda.

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