Here at Relish we try hard to adopt sustainable practices, recycle, and reuse as best we can. Generally speaking, we do our best to minimize the impact we have on the planet.
I bring it up because I had a fun conversation today with Mark Eller, the Memberships, Major Gifts, and Foundations Director at Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Leave No Trace is easily one of my favorite organizations because they teach people about interacting with our natural spaces with more care and consideration.
Mark brings a ton of expertise to the table at Leave No Trace, having as he does a career steeped in communications AND marketing. So, as you might imagine, we talked a lot about these subjects. We both feel every nonprofit can benefit from understanding how Communications and Marketing intersect to tell stories that compel transactional relationships.
One of the biggest takeaways from our conversation was about measuring success. Yes, it’s important to use data to identify trends and information—but it’s also important to pair your data with observations and watch people’s behaviors. That will help you identify whether their actions match up with your organization’s mission, so you can learn where you can better educate and train your stakeholders. Using anecdotal evidence paired with data makes for a stronger plan of action going forward.
Check this one out. It’s a ton of fun.
ASK: What could I do better the next time I go into our natural spaces? Be a steward with a protection ethic.
Listen to the podcast here
Creating a compelling story through marketing and communication with Mark Eller from Leave No Trace
My guest is Mark Eller. He is the memberships, major gifts, and Foundations Director at Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a Boulder-based nonprofit that does a lot of great work getting the word out about how we can all be better stewards when we are out in the outdoors. One of the great things that Mark has is his wealth of experience in communications, copywriting, editing, etc. He sees an interesting differentiation between communications and marketing. Marketing things are all transactional, and communications are all about building awareness. It was a cool conversation. I hope you have a good time reading it. Mark is a great guy. Here we go.
Mark, how are you doing?
Stu, I am doing well.
Thank you so much for being on the show. I appreciate you joining me. I am excited to talk more about what you guys are up to at Leave No Trace, how everything is going, and have a fun discussion about communications, marketing budgets, and how nonprofits can differentiate between those things.
It is a rich topic for sure.
It sounds like you have been doing a little bit of research, which I thoroughly appreciate. Thank you so much for doing that. Tell us a bit about your organization, what you have been up to, and how things are going coming out of the crazy pandemic we have been involved with.
It has been an interesting time for Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. We are a national nonprofit based here in Boulder. We have been around since 1994. Interestingly enough, the Leave No Trace Center once shared a building with our friends at the Access Fund, the climbers’ advocacy group, and with International Mountain Bicycling Association, which is where I worked for eleven years before joining the Center. I have been with Leave No Trace for a number of years but did a long stint as Communications Director for IMBA. All three of those Boulder nonprofits shared a DNA and used to share an office space together.
Was that at Galvanize where you were with IMBA?
The old office was on Broadway until not too long ago. Close to the Hill Campus area, there was an old IMBA logo still on display. You could see it from the street. I never worked out of that building but that was the origin story for those three nonprofits.
I worked for an ad agency back in the day called MPH. This is back in the late ’90s. They had an office that The Nature Conservancy or Access Fund moved into after they wrapped up their operations. That was out of the Folsom where The Nature Conservancy is now.
One-size-fits-all messaging has its limitations. When you customize your message to an audience, it gets better results.
A lot of nonprofits share a common history with an organization that either became a peer organization, went away or evolved into something. One of the funny things about those three, Access Fund, IMBA, and Leave No Trace, all have had some version of a traveling program. Subaru has been a sponsor for Leave No Trace and IMBA. Access Fund is still with Jeep but they have all had traveling educators. You see this DNA expresses itself in different ways in different organizations that have some common themes running back in time.
Boulder is such a place that has so many great nonprofits doing some amazing things in that community. You cannot throw a rock without hitting a nonprofit in that town.
One of the things I am excited about is our Tourism Partnerships Program, which is new for the Center. We have been involved with tourism in different forms for a long time but this is a new partnership program. We have engaged with statewide partnerships here in Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, and New Hampshire. One of the common things, when you meet with these tourism groups is that they say, “There are so many different environmental nonprofits in our state or our city. Trying to get them all aligned around one message is a challenge unto itself.” It makes a lot of sense.
It is a good reason for us to be involved in that work. Leave No Trace is able to come in and say, “Let’s do some work in this area and get these stakeholders as aligned as possible,” which is easier said than done and get a bunch of different nonprofits who might be in totally different spaces in terms of the recreation types that they deal with or the interest that they have and see if we can find the common elements, which we all share of wanting to protect natural resources.
It is cool to see when nonprofits are able to do that. I remember a great case study when they were trying to open up an area North of Grand Junction. They were going to open it up for a lot more oil and gas development. Two organizations came together, one was Ducks Unlimited, and the other was somebody like Access Fund that you would think would not have a ton of overlap.
They both saw how much impact this was going to have on that area and came together and made it so that development did not go through. That area was preserved for wildlife and wilderness. It is cool to see when nonprofits can pool their resources. Even if they have different missions or different user groups, they were able to create a huge impact.
It is fun when it works. It does not always work. At the end of the day, nonprofits are like every other business where you have competitors and can play in a competitive space sometimes. Other times, you are able to put differences aside and say, “The benefits of working together outweigh looking at each other as competing for dollars, members or messaging.” It is nice when you can move past the competition level and strike up a partnership.
By way of background on me as your guest, I moved here around the timeframe in the late ’90s to work as an Editor at Rock and Ice Magazine. I have been an East Coast guy my whole life and have drifted into journalism. Getting a job at one of the climbing magazines was my dream gig. I landed in Boulder and worked for a bunch of different outdoor sports titles as an Editor. I started writing for Trail Runner, the sister publication of Rock and Ice, and then eventually shifted to different things.
I am working with Ski Racing Magazine, which VeloNews, their parent company, had acquired. That was a funny episode in my professional life because I am not an Alpine skier at all. I was going to help cover the Nordic scene. The lead editor left, and I was thrust into covering World Cup Alpine Racing, which is such an intense, awesome sport. I still follow it to this day. I still do not Alpine ski. I am a snowboarder and a Nordic skier but it was one of those things where you had to adapt on the fly and, in some ways, fake it until you make it.
That is what I love about small magazines, and that is what I like equally about nonprofit communications and marketing work. I work in the development department for Leave No Trace, raising funds. At IMBA, I was focused on communications than fundraising. Like my small magazine background, I like that you can wear a bunch of different hats. I have helped invent our Citizen Science program at Leave No Trace because I saw the need to have a cool technology program to wave in front of potential funders and donors. That bought me into learning everything I could about Citizen Science.
It reminded me of being a magazine editor where you are like, “There is this whole set of climbers I did not know about that are doing deep water soloing. I’ve got to find out everything I can about that scene in our sport.” Off you go, you learn what you can and try to report something back to a readership interested in authentic knowledge-based. You cannot pull the wool over their eyes for too long. I tried.
It is amazing how scrappy both the independent publishing arena is as well as nonprofits. It is this DIY, get-it-done attitude. It is one of the things I love most about working in this space. I was an intern at Rock and Ice before you joined. It is fun to see how many different touchpoints we have together.
It is a small community and lots of people doing cool things. Boulder is great all. With the multiple nonprofits here, you can learn a lot. A part of that process of wearing lots of different hats and being able to tell a good story is learning to listen to experts. If you are talking about outdoor recreation and environmental education, we have got a lot of experts here in Boulder that are worth listening to.
It is a great place to be able to get a ton of experience and expertise in that realm. One of the things I am intrigued by with Leave No Trace is all of the impacts that have been going on over the past several years. We see it most noticeably here in the Front Range of Colorado but people are going crazy in the woods. I love seeing people enjoying our open spaces and natural resources. Tell us a bit about your mission there at Leave No Trace and how things are going with that as we see unprecedented use of our natural places.
It has been quite the story. One of the nice things about the Center’s approach is that we take a very data-driven approach to what works and what does not in terms of messaging and addressing impacts on natural areas. In that regard, we oftentimes partner with Penn State for large-scale research projects. We did a nationally representative survey of Americans about their recreation habits. It was a multi-phase throughout the COVID pandemic.
Fairly early, we’ve got our first survey out there and then did two more phases after that. One of the big takeaways is that people initially were canceling international trips and other types of vacations and deciding to buy some backpacks or paddleboards and make their vacation plans around natural areas close to home.
We also know from the survey work that that is likely to continue. People are saying very clearly in the survey data that eventually, they were able to get their hands on some outdoor equipment, which all sold out immediately. They started planning their trips around natural areas even more than they had in the past.
At least if they are going to believe, people take them at their word will not recede very quickly because they have made that investment in the equipment. They had a lot of great experiences but it also left us with a lot of new users or people that are new to a new form of outdoor recreation. That has the potential to create a lot of impacts. We all experienced that. It was not that there was heavy use but there were also people doing things they had not had so much background in the past.
Communication is about inspiring knowledge and trust in your organization.
For example, people that are used to running on the Boulder Creek path here in town saw that, “I cannot stay 6 feet apart from people. I will get out on a trail.” Trail running is similar but not the same as running around streets and paved bike paths. People have learning curves and good positive messages about how to anticipate the impacts you might cause when you are in a natural area. I am not afraid of running out of work to do for the center in those areas any time soon.
It is one of those challenges that continue to grow. It is about education, and that is what I love about your organization. It is that mission toward getting people to understand how their activities affect the places they like to play.
That is what we are hearing with this Tourism Partnerships Program. That is a couple of years old now but getting inundated with a lot of requests. This is by no means unique to the Front Range. We are talking to beach communities, communities in the Great Lakes region, and here at home in Colorado. They are all saying the same things like, “You would not believe it if you saw how crowded our trails or beaches got this summer.” We are saying, “We would believe it because we are hearing it from every sector of the nation and internationally as well.”
This happened in Europe, too. We have a dynamite presence, especially Leave No Trace in the UK, Ireland, and Scotland. It’s the same thing there. People are going into natural areas. They go on a little farther than they used to try to get away from all the busiest places. That is leading to a real need for good environmental education.
What are you doing to get the word out and spread that knowledge about how to behave in the outdoors?
We focus on the education aspect. The #RecreateResponsibly Movement is a great thing that we have had a hand in shaping. #RecreateResponsibly is a message-based campaign that does not offer a ton of educational resources behind it. Whereas we see that as our specialty, we have good messaging, and we love to work with a lot of the tourism partners in particular. The health or gear companies we work with have great marketing in-house and can devise a fantastic looking campaign but when it comes to, “What are you going to do to train rangers and state parks across the State of New Hampshire and how to share low impact practices?” That is where that depth of educational knowledge comes in.
That center has a long tradition there. It is great to work with marketers who come up with good-looking campaigns and smart-sounding taglines but taglines and imagery only get you so far when trying to change people’s behaviors in the outdoors. You have to say, “What could we offer them in terms of training? How are we going to assess all of our environmental messaging and see how well or how not well-aligned it is?” That is where the center’s work can shine.
It seems like there is an opportunity there to incentivize people through accreditation for people to have a patch to put on their pack or vest. I am sure you are doing some of that type of work.
We customize with all these partners. We have community partners who are usually smaller-sized organizations. We have this new category of tourism, lots of others. Like most nonprofits, we have too many categories that we work with for the membership side of things. With all of them, we try to assess their particular needs and tweak the messaging to fit their audience the best. One-size-fits-all messaging has its limitations. When you can customize it to an audience, it gets better results. You can measure those things. It is a real challenge.
Another thing that is familiar territory to a lot of nonprofit pros who might be reading is metrics. How do you measure success? In our case, particularly of Leave No Trace, the essence of it is, “How do you measure the impacts that did not happen because you were successful in educating people?” You measure the absence of bad things. If you are doing a fantastic job of educating people but the volume of visitation goes up by 400%, you still may have more impacts than you had the previous year. You have got to tease out some pretty sophisticated techniques.
One thing that Ben Lawhon, our Education Director, has become a real expert in the field of human dynamics when it comes to resource management is paired observation studies where you survey people about their beliefs about Leave No Trace or other environmental things. You also observe that same person who filled out a survey or answered some questions at the Trailhead, and then you watch their behaviors and pair what the self-reporting said with what you observed them doing.
People may not even be aware that those things do not match up their behavior did not match up with their self-reported understanding of Leave No Trace principles. We can help the land manager, friends of the group or whoever we are working with to say, “Even though these people think they are doing a great job with waste, what that means to them is not necessarily what we want or what you want to limit resources. Let’s dive deeper and see how we can figure out where the misunderstandings are happening and help people do better.”
That must be a challenge in trying to figure out how to normalize the data so that you are comparing apples to apples. Figuring out how to make that happen is a real challenge.
You have got a lot of assumptions people make. One of the things in this tourism realm is that there is always this tension between the residents and the tourists. There is a lot of othering, “I lived here for twenty years. I know what to do.” It is these people coming in from wherever. They are the villain. What we have observed a lot is that residents give themselves a lot of agency to not follow the regulations, “I lived here, and I have always used that trail. I do not care if it has been closed off for the season for revegetation. That is my trail.” That is a difficult dynamic to break down.
It is nice that Leave No Trace has a message, theme, and high level of consumer trust. I loved working at IMBA. It is a great organization but you are always coming into every conversation with that, “Are you pro bike? Are you anti-bike?” You’ve got the single user lens that people look at you through like, “I do not like the mountain bike people, so I do not care what you have to say.” It is nice to work for an organization that does not have that single user group tag associated with it from the get-go.
One of the nonprofits I work with is a trail organization in Nederland called Nederland Area Trails Organization. We position ourselves as agnostic in terms of trail use. We ride bikes, run, have equestrians among our group of people, and people who like to go out and hike to the picnic spot. We try to position everything we do from that lens of multiuser access and enjoyment. It is tough.
Mountain biking does show up fairly loudly, so people tend to associate our organization with mountain biking in particular, even though we are trying to be an all-inclusive trail organization. One of the things I was thinking about is being able to get that Leave No Trace message out to a diverse set of people. It must be one of your main missions.
One of the legacies of this particular organization is that it has this big tradition in scouting. A lot of people associate Leave No Trace closely with their Boy Scouts of America or Girl Scouts of the USA experience. That is a great thing, and it is helpful from being able to play well on both sides of the political divides that we have. Scouting groups tend to be more conservative in their orientation.
If you’re not paying attention to how marketing has evolved, you’re probably not being the best marketer for your nonprofit.
I see that an immense strength for Leave No Trace is that we are not so easily categorized as like, “They are the hippie types from Boulder.” We’ve got those, and we are proud of having those kinds of people in our organization. We have a huge presence, and that scouting tradition is strong and has been doing wonderful things.
Leave No Trace has some nice advantages and everybody else’s challenges as well for how you are perceived. Perception is a good moment to shift towards that marketing and communications stuff that we have been talking about of when is the right time to focus on a communication strategy or a marketing strategy and break down those barriers people have of why they think they should or should not support your organization.
Let’s dig into that. In your mind, marketing and communications, I am assuming that you feel that they are rowing the same boat but sometimes not in the same direction.
I came from magazine and editors positions. I am more of a communications person than a marketer at heart but I have found that the marketing challenge is interesting and very rewarding when it goes well. In my mind, marketing is all about trying to inspire a financial transaction. Sometimes beyond financial, and sometimes it is coming to join a trail work event or participate in a program.
Often, the crux of marketing and the way you are evaluated in that space is, “How many dollars did you raise?” That is a fair and necessary part of nonprofit work. No money, no mission. For eleven years at IMBA, I primarily focused on spending the money that the development team would bring in through different communications products and initiatives.
Now it is quite healthy to be on the other side of the equation and say, “How am I going to raise enough money that we can do this great new webinars series that we want to offer?” As a development department person, I am more in the marketing space than ever before. To me, communication is about inspiring knowledge and trust in your organization. The marketing part of that is, “Are you going to make a donation or do something else to further the capacity of the organization? The communications inspired you, and now we are going to try to convert that into some form of support.”
That is an interesting way to look at it. We tend to think of the audience engagement cycle as having four main pillars. The first is to attract, convert, bond, and inspire. People flow into and around that ecosystem as their needs change and their engagement with your organization changes. You are likening communications to that attract phase and then marketing on what you do with those people once you get them to the site to try and get them to take that action. That is what the converting and bonding phase of that process sounds to me like.
It is related to our past lives in journalism. For a long time, people were quite willing and assumed the natural order of things was to subscribe to the magazines and, eventually, the websites that provided the content you liked. What we have seen that is made it so incredibly tough in that world is that consumers now have so many choices for free content. They have spoken loudly that lots of free content are as good as or better than paying for premium content. That has led to a death spiral for a lot of smaller publications. You are competing with social media, in particular, that offers unlimited free content. You can consume your whole life away.
A lot of people have made it clear that, “If the quality is not always as high as professional journalists, I can keep scrolling until I find something that I do like.” People love to whine and moan about paywalls but at the same time, they will equally whine and moan about how there is nothing but crap out there to read. It is quite a dilemma. For nonprofits, the way that that happens is you can communicate yourself until you are blue in the face about the great work you do and how inspirational you are. That is not going to get you a member to donate or the money to do your mission until you can marry that to some effective ask.
Simply streaming as much content out the door as possible is not a good communication strategy. It is part of a communication strategy to do enough that you stay on people’s radar but you have to be able to mix in a readable, entertaining or inspiring ask message, not crank out as much inspirational content as you can, whether you think of yourself as a communicator or a marketer, you are going to have to address this question of, “Is it enough to have a great mission?” Scream it from the rooftops how great your mission is. It is not going to get you too far in nowadays’ super busy communication streams that we are all trying to swim in.
Our friends over at NextAfter have this value proposition where there is all this friction in the nonprofit world where it is an uphill battle because people do not necessarily wake up every day saying, “How can I give away some of my money today?” For-profit space, there is an exchange of money for a product or service. In the nonprofit space, the trigger happens before that transaction is complete. As soon as somebody makes a decision like, “I am going to give to this organization,” there is an immediate fall-off of that enthusiasm and dopamine that gets hit.
You have to make sure that they follow through with that intention. It is also such an uphill battle with friction points all along that route of trying to get them interested and understand why they not only should donate to you. The decision is not just, “Should I donate to organization A or B?” You have to differentiate yourself between other similar organizations but also this friction of, “Or not do it at all?” There is all this additional tension that is in there. Having that unit that unified or coordinates communications and marketing strategy is important in getting people to make that final decision.
I have always thought that for-profit companies should take a hard look at an application they get from any applicant with a nonprofit background because you are trying to sell a product that is nothing more than an idea and a feeling of belonging. If you can do that and succeed in getting people to donate consistently, you have pulled off something impressive. We all, as nonprofits, pride ourselves on our mission and program efficiency. The center has a top four-star rating from Charity Navigator and other nonprofits but that is not going to get somebody to donate either.
You can say, “Ninety cents of every dollar goes towards programs.” That is all great but you are still trying to get somebody to write a check for $100 or a couple of hundred dollars or $1,000 based on mostly a feeling of, “I like these guys and gals. I like the work that they do and the way they do it. I need to contribute to this cause.” That is quite the challenge. Some organizations focus on a great suite of member benefits, which can be a good thing. For a while, IMBA had, when I was there, bikes fly free. For a lot of people, that was like, “That is why I am a member. I do not like everything you do but bikes fly free. You cannot beat that.” When that went away, it was hard to replace.
It is a bit of a treadmill to get on with the member benefits package. It has always got to be there. It is an important part of marketing your organization. If you are trying to sell a membership to a nonprofit purely based on getting the backpack, you are always going to be on this treadmill of, “How can we get a better benefit than last year? We cannot get this one again. Are we going to lose half our members because that voucher went away?” It can be a fraught path to go down.
You said it well with the idea that if somebody can market and communicate that story in the nonprofit space and any industry, we recommend trying to position your organization or business as the guide in that process. Figuring out how to do that as a nonprofit is a challenge to get the organization positioned to make the donor or the volunteer the hero. It is a twist in that communication that needs to happen so that people can get excited and decide, “I am going to give to Leave No Trace versus another organization that does similar things or not give at all.”
Marketing is such a multi-layered beast these days but you have got the world of content marketing, which is something that you and I, as editors, feel at home in. You have to be an effective marketer to track ads and all the subtle tricks of the trade that go along with Google Analytics and tracking social ads and demographic profiles. You have to at least have a working knowledge in all those different areas to be effective in nonprofits like you would in a for-profit company. If you are not paying attention to how those things have evolved, you are not the best marketer for your nonprofit that you could be.
Don’t fall prey to making assumptions. Be data-driven in your approach as much as you can.
It is a real challenge because everything changes on a dime sometimes. I know there are some new Google algorithm changes coming up that are going to make some people’s heads hurt.
Why are we not all on TikTok? I cannot tell you.
That is all audience, and that is the real challenge for organizations, particularly ones that have a very wide variety of stakeholders. Let’s say you are a trail-building organization and a lot of your volunteers tend to be younger but your donors tend to be older, and your corporate sponsors tend to be in the middle. You have to figure out how to message to each of those audiences effectively and figure out how to get in front of them where they show up to get information so that you can bring them into the fold. All of a sudden, you are spread so thin that you are not able to do as effectively of a job as you could if you were focused on one user group that you could wrap your arms around where they go to get information and show up.
One of the nice legacies of Leave No Trace is that it is a data-driven approach that is built into the organization. That is true. We all have a way that we market and communicate. Not making assumptions about, “Your demographics is key.” For example, your Facebook audience is the oldest slice of your demographic. For the center, Facebook, our strongest demographics are the 18 to 25 and the 26 to 38. The biggest following on Facebook is the youngest demographics that are tracked other than the tween age people.
That is a good example of when somebody tells me, “Do not put that on Facebook because there are all the old people.” I am like, “Look here. This is the biggest reach that we have for 18 to 25 is our Facebook following.” Do not fall prey to making assumptions. Be data-driven in your approach as much as you can. I am an English major, so these are painful words for me to say.
I will put in a plug for our friends over at Google. You do not always hear nice praise for Google every day. People see them as too big but Google for Nonprofits is an incredibly powerful program. If you are not enrolled in Google for Nonprofits and are in the nonprofit space, I would suggest you take another look at that. The array of tools, free ads, and things that you can do by having an enrollment in that program is amazing and worth celebrating.
People talk about Google Grants from time to time. That is an amazing opportunity that does take some effort but once you are in that program, it may not be your best traffic source but it is a new traffic source that is sitting there, ready to be tapped. Looking at all of those tools is great advice. I appreciate you bringing that up.
Especially most of us out there are on a $0 marketing budget or close to it. We try to do as much as we can with all the free tools that are available. It has limitations and tends to change for nonprofits that get above that $5 million to $10 million mark. You are not talking about a $0 marketing budget at that price. You are still used to doing everything you can, as cheaply as you can. Google for Nonprofits is certainly worth a look if you are working on that $0 marketing budget.
At Leave No Trace, how do you distinguish or differentiate between communications and marketing? Are they connected at the hip? Are they two separate parts of your organization? How does that work where you are playing?
It is joined at the hip and tries to stay in synchronicity as much as possible. For me, it had been a good professional challenge to step away. The thing that comes easiest to me would be to write press releases, call up folks in the media, and do all my bag of tricks from being a Communications Director. I have a different set of tasks in front of me now. I try not to step on toes too much. The people doing communications at the center are great at what they do. I will say, “Here is a story that might be worth a share on our social feed.” I have a marketing purpose behind wanting that story to go onto our feed but that is not my role.
The communications team is welcome to say, “It is not what we are talking about this week but we will keep it in mind for later.” That is totally fair. We need to find that happy medium. In my mind, if I had to give up a formula to it, 10% to 20% of communications messaging might take up a marketing theme something about joining as a member, contributing to a campaign or making some contribution to the mission. I am perfectly happy if 75%, 80%, and 90% of the messaging some weeks are around raising awareness and communicating the values and knowledge that the center has to share.
It has got to be a blend. You can overburden your followers with too much marketing-oriented messaging but you do not want to go down the road of like, “We will crank out so much content about how great we are, and we will never ask anybody for anything.” That is not going to get your nonprofit to where you want it to be.
One of the things that we like to push is this idea of value exchange and getting great information out there that comes from an organization but is not necessarily always about that organization. It can be effective. You are not constantly beating people over the head with asks for their time or money. Positioning yourself as someone who is knowledgeable, willing to share information, and excited about the idea of educating people can then help bolster those asks when they are made.
It is also celebrating the people that got you there, your board members, and members. For us at Leave No Trace, a lot of times, land managers are doing a great job of spreading a Leave No Trace message in a particular forest, park or river. Those feel-good messages build that personal affinity. That has a marketing function to it but in those cases, I do not think those are primarily marketing-focused messages. Those are building constituency and improving your communications about who you are and what your values are. That sets up a marketing message down the road.
I was thinking about the idea of you being able to brand your organization through all of the great work you do and the information you can share and get out there into the world. That becomes that awareness piece that then brings somebody back. I do some volunteer work with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado. I am pretty sure that they usually have your little placards at the registration tables when volunteers show up to work. Getting in front of that wider audience builds that awareness piece for you.
Coalition building and finding like-minded groups like VOC is a wonderful thing. You have to balance that with like, “Where are we going to make sure that this furthers the capacity of the organization?” You want to be able to tell your board, your members, and all the people that support you that, “We are not preaching to the choir or reaching the same small audience. We need to scale this thing to where we are protecting more natural resources next year than we did this year.” To go back to our earlier point, the next year that we are looking at is going to be hugely important to make sure that we have grown the capacity of the center to bring the messaging in front of as many people as possible.
The need is clear that there are tons more room to grow. We believe passionately that dollars contributed to the organization help protect more natural areas. At the end of the day, that is still going to mean asking people for dollars. You can’t just be saying, “This is important work, and it needs to be done.” One of the things we did not touch on but has an interesting balance between positive and negative messaging is if there’s anything we can learn from our brethren in the political realm, it is that negative messaging can be highly effective. In our world, it is important not to scold and not to be perceived as like the trail police but at the same time, people can be extremely motivated by a message that says, “These areas are in trouble, and it is because of bad behaviors that we need to change.”
That can be a motivating message for people. That is not wrong. That is not fear-mongering. That is letting people know that there are bad behaviors out there, and they are not necessarily being conducted by people who are bad people. The impacts they are causing are harmful to wildlife and harmful to natural places that we treasure. We believe education is the best cheapest, most effective way to get people to change those behaviors. It is not all happy-go-lucky messaging all the time.
Most of us out there are probably on a $0 marketing budget or close to it. We try to do as much as we can with all the available free tools.
I was reading a book talking about coaching. This was coming at it from a perspective of sports. Some of the most effective coaches have a real solid balance between praise and criticism. When you can find that balance and create that synergy where people understand that there are opportunities to do better but what they are doing is also good, that tends to be where a lot of that progress gets made.
It is like educators too. You look back on the teachers that meant the most to you. They were not going to be the pushover that called every Friday free study hall. It was that teacher that got something out of you that you did not know you had. That meant some honestly harsh evaluation of your work as a student at some point.
The nonprofit has a need to find out where we can push people in a way that they are going to appreciate of like, “We can do better.” You can help somebody do better. You can show some tough love. It is a real danger in this field to be perceived as scoldy or holier-than-thou. We have all made our mistakes in those ways at times in the past but there is something to be said when somebody looks and says, “I appreciate that they were willing to shine a bright light on something that needed to have it exposed.”
That is where testing comes in and plays such a huge part. You usually hear that mostly in the realm of marketing. You can test messaging and communications and see what is creating the effect that you were hoping to achieve simply by pumping the brakes when we tend to get too excited about a particularly bad event that is going on. Leveraging that passion and idea but testing that message before we go out and do something that will turn some large percentage of our audience away.
There was a vocal voice on social media that was saying, “Leave No Trace is too namby-pamby, and I am going to take it on myself to call people out in the harshest possible terms for their bad behaviors.” It got a lot of attention. It is easy to get the attention that way but if you look at it, you say, “What was the outcome of that? How many people change their behaviors in positive ways because they were getting trashed?” That has its drawbacks. There is never an occasion to harshly call people out. Since we are talking about communications and marketing, it is an interesting tension that sometimes a heartfelt, honest, and somewhat negative message can have as much impact as something that is very positively worded and happy in tone.
There are plenty of examples of both sides of that where you have people who are so overly harsh about everything. That can turn an audience off but if you are constantly praising and not pointing out the fact that there are actual problems out there, people start to wonder why you are in business or what it is you are doing.
I do a fair amount of grant writing for the center. It is not the most enthralling writing that I have ever done in my life but it is satisfying when it works, and somebody feels you are worth creating a grant opportunity for an organization. You start a grant with the problems. You do not say like, “Everything is great. We educate people. It is greater. There is a real need for you to donate $50,000 or $100,000, $10,000 because here is the problem. Here is how we are going to solve it. Here is the timeline that we will be working on. These are the outcomes that we anticipate.” If you do a good job with that, it started because you stated the problem.
If you think about an action movie, there are lots of ups and downs during the course of a good, well-crafted film. You do not have one inciting event that gets overcome, and then the movie is over. That would be pretty boring. The hero tends to go through all of these crazy parts of the story where it looks like they have gotten to the other side, and then there is another challenge. It is that overcoming and that process of painting that picture for people that creates a compelling reason for them to engage with any organization.
I would go back to where in my mind, marketing and communications for a nonprofit is closer to for-profit work than people realize. If you are selling house paint, you need to convince the consumer that, “You might be happy with the color of your house now but our colors are nicer and more durable. There is a sale coming up where you can get a bunch of our paints. You are going to have this great-looking new house.” Truthfully, it is not all that great. You need to start with, “You’ve got something and could get something even better. We can provide it for you.” A lot of that is similar. People know that there are problems in places like outdoor spaces. They are not sure what the right solution is.
For one person, if you are super focused on trail access for hiking, the American Hiking Society might be the place where you want to go. You are all in on that activity, and all of their imagery and messaging looks like, “This is the home for me.” They have succeeded in finding their consumer. They have got the right content and feeling of belongingness for that consumer. That is the space that we are playing in.
We have somewhat competitive relationships with our other environmental nonprofits out there but we also have great opportunities for collaboration and partnership work. Those two things are not exclusive. We might convince somebody that they want to Leave No Trace membership and an AHS membership or whatever else they want to do but we are marketing to them and communicating with them. That is part of what we are doing. It does not work to pretend otherwise.
It is such an interesting topic of conversation in terms of trying to create an understanding around when you should be taking that action to ask and when you should be spreading the message and continuing to reinforce why that action and that ask are so valuable.
There are lots of good challenges out there. I hope we have covered a lot. Are there any things that we wanted to tap into before we wrap up?
That is a great place to wrap things up. I would love to have you let people know how they can get a hold of your organization and find out more about Leave No Trace.
It is LNT.org. That’s the easiest and best way to get started. Search for our feeds on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. We still do not have that TikTok channel up yet, but you will find us in all those places. Let us know how we are doing. Mark@LNT.org as well if anybody feels inspired to shoot off a message to me.
I love having these conversations. I love talking about how we can all make a difference in the world and how nonprofits can do a better job of getting their message out and getting people to take action. That leads me to my final question for you. It can be anything. If you were to ask people to take action after the show, what action would you ask them to take?
The best starting place is to ask yourself, “What could I do better the next time I go to a natural area?” We all feel like we are Leave No Trace in the way we handle things but when I joined this organization and took the Master Educator course, I realized that there is still farther than I could go. Getting into that frame of mind of seeing yourself as a steward of the outdoors with an ethic of wanting to protect natural values is the most effective thing I could ask anybody to do in terms of how they are going to contribute to the natural world.
I appreciate that. We can all do our part to make sure that we are leaving no trace when we go out into our wild spaces and whether that is making sure that we go through that puddle that is in the middle of the trail instead of going around it or picking up some of those dog poop bags that are becoming more and more frequent out there but making sure that we are aware of what we are doing. We all have an impact. I love that approach. I appreciate you being on the show.
Thanks for having me. It is a fun conversation. I’m looking forward to hearing from anybody out there that wants to carry on the conversation.
There you have it, another great episode. Thanks for reading. If you would like to learn more about how to apply the audience engagement cycle to expand your organization’s mission, there are two things you can do. You can go to MissionUncomfortableBook.com to download a copy of my book. While you are there, you can get your purpose driven marketing score to see where you can unearth some gold for your organization. If you would like to listen to back episodes of the show or sign up to be a guest, go to RelishStudio.com/podcast. That is it. I will be back for another great episode.
About Mark Eller
Mark Eller develops partnerships and grant proposals, including new business, government funding sources, private foundations and corporate grant programs. He has a background in journalism, including editorial positions with multiple outdoor sports publications, and served as the director of communications for the International Mountain Bicycling Association for 11 years before joining the Center. Mark@LNT.org