Lessons Learned from the East Kingdom Gazette

Five years ago, I started the East Kingdom Gazette as an experiment in using a blog and social media to improve communications in the East Kingdom (the Northeast chapter of the SCA, Inc.). Last weekend, I moved from Site Management and Content Editor to a more limited role. This made me introspective about what I’ve learned about the SCA and its communications. Here is a summary of the most important points.

  1. People read about the SCA as if it were a community, not just as a hobby. The articles they care most about are ones with an emotional content, in which we celebrate or grieve. Obituaries are always read widely. In Memoriam: The Calontir Falcons may never lose its place as our most read article because that loss was felt beyond the East. A happier article that has stayed in the top ten is Baron to Knight to Prince in a Day, because it caught people’s imagination in all the right ways.
  2. Politics matter and word choice matters even more. The other most popular subjects are politics and changes to rules. How those posts are written matters. I sometimes pushed for rewrites of submissions from people in positions of authority because what they wrote was open to misinterpretation. In the real world, I’ve written for political campaigns and have some experience with this, so I came from a good place to make the request.  I strongly advice that anyone in the SCA writing a potentially controversial piece get experienced feedback unless they want their inbox to be filled with unhappy emails. The number of emails can be significantly lessened and – more importantly – the SCA made a happier place.
  3. Research has longevity. Articles that contain Arts & Sciences research continue to be read long after they are posted. They are picked up in searches that extend beyond the SCA also. One author was contacted by a Harvard researcher for permission to cite an A&S article we posted.
  4. The SCA and the web have huge visual potential together. The Gazette doesn’t have time to fully take advantage of photos, but when we did the results got wide readership such as with this Coronation piece.
  5. Many people think their projects are not important enough to be publicized. Frequently we got an email with an intro that goes – “I was told to send this but I wasn’t sure if you’d want to post it…” The Gazette doesn’t post self-promotion pieces or advertisements, but there are so many things we would post and aren’t sent to us because people think no one cares. They were usually wrong. People would care.
  6. Both push and pull matter. In other words, use a webpage and social media and email. All have advantages. All get used. Here’s the Gazette’s current stats:
    Followers – 171 via WordPress, 198 via Twitter, 296 via email, 301 via Google+, 2,317 via Facebook.
    Webpage Views – Range from 2,797 – 5,438 per month although they have gone as high as 30,988 in a month.
  7. There will never be enough time to do all the things the Gazette could do. The potential for what we could do with the Gazette has consistently outstripped the available time and personnel.
  8. Expectations have increased in the last five years. People expect more and faster coverage of everything significant now. Often they can get the information from places other than the Gazette, but finding those places depends on knowing the right people. While the Gazette cannot always turn information around as quickly as a private individual, we can make sure our information is accurate and accessible to anyone who wants it. Accessibility is important in a large group like the SCA.
  9. Unofficial makes things easier and harder. The Gazette is not an official publication. This gives us an agility and freedom that official websites don’t have. It also means we are not integrated into the official structure. We can’t have the best of both worlds, but I wish we could because…
  10. As a Society, we can and need to do better. It’s easy to criticize Corporate or a kingdom for what they could do better. I’ve had moments of doing that. Now I mostly have sympathy for the enormity of the task of helping a 50+ year old organization run almost exclusively by volunteers adapt to an online mode of communicating that is not static. If people are interested in helping the SCA adapt, I would strongly suggest that they volunteer to help their local webminister. It’s a more manageable place to start making change, and most activities occur locally. Offer real help, though, and not just helpful suggestions. My response to helpful suggestions for Gazette articles quickly became – “We would post that. Let me know when you’ve written it.”

All of these lessons weren’t something I learned by myself. The Gazette is run by an amazing staff of editors that bring varying opinions and experiences to our discussions. I am deeply grateful to everyone who worked on this project. It could not have happened without all of their time, devotion, and creativity. I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

Did You Want A Grown-Up Nonprofit?

The SCA distributed a Harassment and Bullying Policy this week. Opinions are flying on the internet as to whether this is a good thing and what it means to the SCA. I know one thing that it means – the SCA is showing signs of growing up, and that’s a good thing. Nitpick the details of the policy if you want, but the fact that this policy now exists is an important step forward.

Sentimentality about what the SCA used to be and idealistic views of how it should be are not how you run a nonprofit. What you do as an individual in the SCA is your hobby and be wistful if you want. However, the SCA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that supports your hobby. There is a big difference, and it’s something that many people in the SCA do not want to recognize. They like to think about the SCA as if it’s still a party among friends without the need for rules or an organizational structure. It hasn’t been that party for a long time, and people need to stop thinking it is. It’s harmful to the organization’s health and needlessly disillusions individuals.

Even an organization based on chivalry and largely volunteer labor cannot thrive without some of the standard things required by a membership based nonprofit that relies on earned income. They include:
– Timely and comprehensive communication with its members
– Responsive feedback mechanisms
– A method of reviewing the effectiveness of the staff and management
– Support for its regional officers.

The SCA is still struggling with the first three for many reasons that aren’t what this post is discussing. This is about support for its regional officers. Harassment and bullying cannot be tolerated in an organization if it is to be welcoming and successful. In an organization as odd, full of personalities, and hierarchical as the SCA is, this is particularly challenging. I’ve been one of those regional officers. They need real tools that they can use to solve this kind of problem. Sending a peer to talk to a person who is repeatedly inappropriate isn’t a solution. Peer pressure isn’t one either. A policy that backs up an officer is a real tool that they can use no matter who they are or where they live.

Change is a scary thing for many people, but look at it this way. I’ve included two photos of fighters from the beginning of the SCA and now. Imagine someone has been actively fighting for all those fifty years. Their armor has changed due to research, improved skills, and increased expectations. You know what else has changed that you can’t see? Probably their jock strap and cup. If you’re following my analogy here, yes I am comparing the corporation and its policies to a jock strap and cup. They are the not so pretty underthings that support the SCA. What individuals and groups do is the pretty armor.

The resources available to and expectations of a nonprofit have changed, and the SCA is not the same size we were fifty years ago. Time to change the documents that support us and take advantage of modern materials. It’s a lot better than taking a shot to a fifty-year-old cup that’s being held together by duct tape.

Why Did You Write That Email?

DearHave you written an email to the SCA, one of its officers, or any other nonprofit? Did you ask yourself why you wrote that email before you hit send? More specifically, what were you trying to achieve?

In my post about appreciating people, I suggested that officers acknowledge every email even if it was just with a form response. I got a response to my post that sometimes a form email generates complaints from angry people, who are upset that they didn’t get a personal response. Because of this, some officers stopped using form email acknowledgments. Consequently, they weren’t acknowledging the emails they received at all.

Let’s not look at what the officers are doing. That was the prior post. Let’s look at the complaining people who are making the officers dread their email. Why did those people write? What were they trying to achieve? Odds are good that they didn’t achieve it.

An email exchange is hard to visualize. It’s people sitting behind their keyboards. Let’s visualize it a different way. You are on one side of a bar door. The potential email recipients are already in the bar. You’re about to open that door and look for a conversation. Even if you haven’t walked into in a bar before, you’ve seen it happen in a movie. So open that door and walk inside.

There’s a whole lot of email addresses sitting on those stools and a bartender behind the taps. Where are you going to sit? Ignore your social anxiety – these are emails and not really people. Why are you here? Do you want someone to listen? Are you hoping for sympathy, an argument or help fixing a problem? Do you want a meaningful relationship or a flirtation? If you aren’t clear on what you want, then how are you going to pick the right bar stool or the right email address?

A nonprofit usually has a number of email addresses that you can use. Options may include a general email address, an issue specific one, or the people who work/volunteer for it. Maybe you think any of those email addresses should get you the response you want because a well run organization should answer every email and tend to every member’s needs. You are assuming a world full of large budgets and ample staffing, which doesn’t exist. Email is easy and cheap to write, so organizations may receive an overwhelming amount, especially if something controversial is happening. There isn’t time to answer all of them.

Writing to a general email address is like trying to talk to the bartender on a busy Saturday night. Expect a nod and your drink, in other words a form email response. That’s all there’s time for him to do. Maybe if you just want to have your voice counted that is enough.

Suppose you want to create change? You have an idea to suggest or a problem that needs solving. Then you are looking for a meaningful relationship. How do you do that? Write emails to specific people. Ask questions so you learn about them and the organization. Listen as well as talk. Don’t yell. Maybe those people won’t have time to write to you, but maybe they will. You just need to find that one person or several people to start the process.

If what you want is to vent and get sympathy, then let’s face the hard facts. If you yell, you may not get the response you want no matter what email address you use. If you yelled at a person sitting on a bar stool, would you expect them to continue to listen and answer you reasonably? No. If the organization has ample funds and good member services, then you might get a personal, reasonable answer. However, remember that those well funded organizations are rare in the nonprofit world.

So ask these questions before you hit send on that email. Why am I sending this email? What do I hope to achieve? Picking the right bar stool and opening line won’t guarantee the answer you want, but it will increase your odds.

The Importance of the Unofficial

Tokens and awards I have received, including my favorite - the monkey who spoke no evil on a necklace
Tokens and some awards I have received. My favorite is the monkey who spoke no evil hung on a necklace, which is not an award.

The East Kingdom has a new set of awards. You need to get busy, and I don’t mean writing award letters. You need to start acknowledging people yourself. Yes, you, whoever you are.  Me too.

Awards are tricky things. They are more than official acknowledgements of work well done. They also convey a message of what it is a group values, and people without awards may feel undervalued, wholly unintentionally. It’s true for any organization, but especially for a nonprofit where volunteers don’t get raises or performance reviews.

Depending on the organization, an award can be given to a person who donated gobs of money, displayed great skill, volunteered insane amounts of time, or was a poster child for climbing the corporate ladder. Whatever their behavior was, it was rewarded. Therefore, it indicates what the organization values.

For any organization, there are downsides to relying on official awards as the primary way that people are acknowledged.

  • Volunteers or donors who don’t receive awards may feel that they aren’t valued or noticed.
  • People who have received every award possible may not continue to have their work acknowledged.
  • Official awards can take on a terrifying level of importance when they are the only means of recognition.

If there are adequate amounts of unofficial thanks, attaboys, and acknowledgements, then an organization can avoid these problems. This is especially important for the SCA as a volunteer driven nonprofit. People are our most valuable resource. They are also a renewable resource, and I don’t mean renewable by having babies or recruiting. You renew this resource with praise, thanks, and appreciation.

Anyone can renew this resource, and everyone should renew it if they care about having a healthy organization. In fundraising, there are standard ways to thank donors, which are often the most important resource of other nonprofits. The process is called stewardship. So what can you do to help steward people in the SCA? What is our standard menu of options?

First things first. If there is someone who you think deserves one of these new awards – or an old one – drop them an email to tell them that they’re awesome. Hopefully you will write a letter to recommend them for the award, but there is no guarantee that they will get the award – especially these new awards. There are a frighteningly huge number of people who deserve them. Your person may not get one anytime soon, so take responsibility for making them feel appreciated.

Here are a list of other options in escalating complexity. They aren’t the only possibilities, but if you’re not sure what to do then this is a list to consult.

  • Say “thank you” or “well done” if you see someone who deserves it, even if you don’t know them. It may take a deep breath to walk up to them, but people are rarely upset when you appreciate their work. Bonus point if you can tell them something specific about what they did.
  • Give them a shout out on social media (and tag them)
  • Write an email to thank them for their work or tell them about something that impressed you.
  • Write a paper thank you note. These are rare and show real effort even if they are brief.
  • Give them a token, which can be anything. Truly it can. The point isn’t how valuable it is or how useful. The point is that you cared to give it to them and they can keep it as a memory. Better to give them something trivial then neurose about creating the perfect token. (I am guilty of this myself.)
  • Invite them to sit down with you at an event and ask them about their work or project. Listen to them. That can be huge.
  • Invite them for a meal, give them a batch of cookies, or drop off a bottle of wine.  Food is in effect a perishable token.

I will add one last plea to anyone who is an officer from the local level up to Board members. Acknowledge every email you receive. Your response can be a simple form note that you received the message, will take it into consideration, and then thank the person for taking the time to write it as long as you put their name at the top. Do it even if the email is aggravating. Like official awards, officers create the impression of what the SCA considers to be important. Courtesy is important. Ignoring communications from our members isn’t an option. We need to keep renewing our most important resource – people.

A Flowchart for Messages to SCA Volunteers

How you communicate with volunteers is as important as the actual information you convey.  This is true for any nonprofit but especially the SCA.  Here is why.  Nonprofits have four basic resources that they need to survive: money, infrastructure, people, and goodwill.  If an organization communicates irregularly and doesn’t express its appreciation, then it risks losing goodwill.  Without adequate goodwill, an organization may lose volunteers.  The SCA runs almost exclusively on the work of volunteers.  It can’t afford to lose them.

In addition, the SCA rests on the concepts of chivalry and courtesy.  That mythos can’t be disregarded in a business email anymore than it can be at an event.  All communications to volunteers should make them feel valued, informed, and as if a thoughtfully run organization is looking out for them.

Writing in this style can be challenging for a person who doesn’t have experience. The following flow chart is designed to make this easier for a volunteer or staff at any nonprofit – including the SCA.  It is available as a pdf here.

Volunteer Messaging

 

 

 

Scribal Calendar and Note Card Fundraiser

CalendarIn 2014 the King and Queen of the East asked me to handle fundraising for the Royal Travel Fund in the East Kingdom. This fundraiser was the result. People from other kingdoms have asked me about how it was run. The following covers the questions I can remember them asking me. If you’re thinking of doing this and I missed a question you have, feel free to contact me.

Why Did You Decide To Sell Calendars and Note Cards?

At the time, I was concerned about donor fatigue. The normal way of raising funds has been to hold many small fundraisers. If you run many fundraisers, you run the risk of people tuning them out or feeling that they’re being asked for money too often. If we could run one large fundraiser, it might be the only one the reign would need and eliminate donor fatigue.

Calendars and note cards had the potential to raise a large amount of money and was also designed to be a marketing/outreach vehicle for the SCA. (This choice was both financial and to assist with recruitment.) These were the reasons I felt the fundraiser could succeed.

  • Paper calendars and note cards are things people still buy. (We did an informal survey to check this was true in the SCA.)
  • People might spend more to purchase an item than they would give for a straight donation.
  • The number of people who could participate was unlimited unlike with an auction.
  • The amount of labor and cost of materials per item would be lower than for fundraisers using donated handmade items because the items were being reproduced.
  • The calendar was given a theme that would show off the SCA to people who knew nothing about it. This meant they could be given as presents to relatives or friends who wanted to know more about the SCA, thus expanding the market.
Back of Calendar
Back of the 2015 calendar with credits

Staff And Timeline

I’ve been asked how long it took us to put together this project, and my answer is only 4+ months from inception to delivery—but that is because I had amazing help. I don’t recommend anyone try to do it in that short a time frame unless they have experienced help.

Baroness Aneleda Falconbridge is a graphic designer; she did the graphic work and built the website; she is a professional graphic designer. Lady Lucie Lovegood of Ramsgate and I have both worked in fundraising and special events. Between the two of us, we handled the artists, sponsorships, and marketing. Lucie also handled the sales and distribution logistics. In addition, the East has a large and deep pool of scribes so could find twelve in this period of time.

Artwork and Poetry

The theme we picked was “The Labours of the East”. The theme for each month was adapted from period documents with similar themes. The idea to put a poem with each month came from a specific document by Thomas Fella. The poems brought the project together thematically.

The poems were written by an SCA poet who thankfully could produce the work quickly and has a humorous voice. As I mentioned before, we were tight on time.

The artists were given their theme, the poem and the dimensions the piece needed to be. We included a few guidelines like the fact that gold leaf doesn’t reproduce well so not to use it. Other than that, the design and execution was up to them.

A few things we learned along the way were that it might have been more useful to give the artists an actual sheet of paper depicting the dimensions we need filled. We originally just asked for scans or photos of the work. In the end we collected them all because some materials made reproducing them challenging. It was helpful to have the originals either to try different methods of getting the image or to compare the proof to the original to see how true it was.

Honig's page
An example of the calendar interior. Artwork by Mistress Ro Honig von Summerfeldt; Calligraphy by Mistress Carolyne de la Pointe

How The Money Was Raised

Income for the project came from the following sources:

  • calendar sales
  • note cards sales
  • sponsorship of each month of the calendar

We sold the calendars and note cards at a couple of events and online. If we’d had more time, we would have sold them at more events. Most of the sales came through the website, and we got sales from outside the East. The website contained a description of the project, photos of the artwork, credits for the artwork and a Paypal order form. The Paypal order form was custom built for us so people could just put in the number of items they wanted and click through. We also gave a contact email for people who wanted to pay by check.

One of the reasons this was so successful was the cost of the printing. I’ve been asked if we considered using a print on demand service like CafePress; the return was too low and we never did. The choice was between a printer with an online website or a local printer. The local printer came in at the lowest price. We also liked the fact that Baroness Aneleda could see a physical proof, and we didn’t have to pay shipping.

We had to have a cut-off date for order because we didn’t use a print on demand service. However, I don’t think that last us many orders and may have gained some. We had a huge rush in orders just before the deadline. It was an incentive for people to place their orders.

Marketing

Marketing was done via social media, email and the East Kingdom Gazette.

  • Social Media – We put out some general notices at the beginning. During the last two weeks, I posted a photo of one month each day with the name of the artist and that month’s sponsor plus a link to our website. That way we had fresh content each day that wasn’t annoying, promoted the product, thanked the people who made it possible, and also reminded people how long they had to order.
  • Email – The East Kingdom’s email list is largely inactive. Instead I asked specific people to post notes to their local group’s email lists and Facebook pages.
  • East Kingdom Gazette – The Gazette in an unofficial news blog for the East. We put in articles about the project along with pictures at the beginning and end of the sales period.
An example of the front and back of a note card. Artwork by Lady Lada Monguligin
An example of the front and back of a note card. Artwork by Lady Lada Monguligin

Sales And Distribution

All the information required for sales and distribution was gathered by Lucie onto a spreadsheet. We used this to determine how many to have printed. Lucie also used this to set up the shipping.

A packing group was recruited to stuff all the envelopes. Lucy had the envelopes labeled and sheets for each order prepared before we started. People paired up the items, order and envelope. Other people checked them and then they were sealed.

The items were shipped in large manila envelopes with file folders inserted as protection. It was the cheapest packaging available. They were sent via the US postal service. Please note that if you have a large number of packages that weigh the same, it is faster to group them that way when you get to the post office.

Extras of the calendars and note cards were made in case packages didn’t reach their destination. We only needed one replacement item, although we did need one.

Was It A Success?

Yes.  We had a goal both for number sold and money raised.  We are delighted to say we exceeded both.

Laurels vs. Pelicans Boffer Fundraiser

Delicate Flower of the Northern ArmyLaurels vs. Pelicans was a fundraiser held for three years in the East Kingdom. I periodically get asked questions by people who want to run their own. This is a summary document that covers the questions, plus contains examples from the events. If you have a question that I haven’t covered, you can drop me a note.

Why Did This Work?

Here are the three basic principles we used that seemed to create the success.

  • Fun raises money and increases participation in anything.
  • Keep it simple with minimal structure and rules.
  • This is primarily a theatrical improv performance that’s all about entertaining the audience even though people really did compete and the outcome was unknown.

The fog of warHow Do I Run One?

Equipment Needed

  • No armor. Pad the weapons, not the people.
  • We used local LARP standards, which meant pvc with at least ½” pipe foam on the shafts and 2” of serious foam on any thrusting surface. Nothing narrower than 1”. We’ve allowed projectiles, but gave up on them because they made things less fun.
  • We saved lots of time and money because SCA members who also participate in LARPs borrowed boffers for us. They also taught us how to make this type of boffer so we could produce the specialty weapons.
  • Specialty weapons were very popular and raised the bulk of the money. You need someone who can lead the team that creates them.  (See charts below for examples)
  • People may volunteer to create or bring their own weapons. Just make sure they understand the requirements. We allowed some lightweight Nerf swords on the field, but not the heavier ones.

How the Fundraising worked

  • The weapons participants were given were dependent on how much money was donated in their name. (Dagger – $25, Sword/Ax – $50, Two Sword/Sword & Shield – $75, Specialty Weapon – $100)
  • Fundraising was done via a website. Due to SCA rules, this was a private fundraiser so we could use Paypal. Most of the donations came in that way.
  • The website was updated manually to show the totals. We updated it a couple times a day, but there was a lag. However, it was the only way we could do it with cheap technology.
  • Fundraising ran for 1-2 weeks so people didn’t lose interest and there was a sense of urgency.
  • Fundraising ended a week in advance so we had time to make the weapons.
  • Peers sometimes offered incentives to donors. These worked well.
  • We had a sponsor of the event who underwrote the cost of the materials.
  • The last time the event was run, a musician offered to play musical introductions for each peer. These were popular and raised a fair amount of money.

Oh, it's youHow the Peers were involved

  • We recruited some peers in advance so that no one had to be first to volunteer.
  • Those peers then recruited other peers. A request also went out via the peerage mailing lists and social media to recruit them.
  • The peers created fighting nicknames. It just happened and they were popular. (See charts below)
  • The peers also created the idea of theme weapons to go with their nicknames. The specialty weapons raised lots of money. (See charts below)
  • Ideally the peers will publicize the fundraiser and recruit their own donors. Remember that some peers are on the quieter side or don’t have extensive social media networks. You may need to help them get the word out. Ideally you will have someone involved with an extensive network who can help the peers who haven’t raised much money.

How the tourney was run

  • The format was one-on-one bouts followed by a melee.
  • The sponsor of the tourney was the MC. He was a good showman, made it fun for the crowd and managed the public part of the process.
  • For one-on-one bouts, peers hammed it up before doing the actual fighting
  • For the melee, we made sure the peers spread out because fighting in a clump made for bad theater. They fought until one person was left
  • We used line marshals to keep the crowds from getting too close.

Three HorsewomenRules of Engagement

  • Safety is paramount.
  • No head shots.
  • No hitting from behind.
  • No wind up swings.
  • If a boffer touches you, no matter how light, it’s good. Be aware that in the heat of the moment, people will completely forget this. Remind them going in repeatedly.
  • You can lose limbs and not be dead until you’re hit in the torso. Limbless peers are funny peers.

One Thing You Must Remember

You must have someone in a leadership role who is comfortable riding herd on a bunch of enthusiastic peers. We gave the peers as much freedom as was safe to exercise their creativity. This was about having fun. However, a lot of enthusiastic peers can lead to a lot of craziness because they’re used to being able to run with ideas. There needs to be one person in charge who is fine saying no to them if absolutely necessary.

As much as possible, we tried to not say no. The fun and energy the peers brought transferred to the spectators – the people watching the website or watching the melees. This fundraiser was about making sure people had a good time. The peers knew that making sure these people who donated so generously had a good time was their job. They did it very well.

DSCN2055Why We Stopped Holding It

We saw donations dip in the third year. It was a lot more work on the part of the organizers to make sure that all the peers who listed specialty weapons had a chance to use them. Some of it may have been the location in the kingdom where we held it, but mostly we felt the novelty had worn off. However, it raised give or take around $3,000 each year. In addition, it made the point that the peers were willing to poke fun at themselves for the good of the kingdom. While it lasted, it was a great fundraiser.

Charts From Laurels vs. Pelicans

These Charts from the website include the participants’ names, fighting nicknames, weapons, theme music (year three) and donations.  Click to enlarge.