Don Akchin, Charm City resident for twenty-five years (“I’m still a newcomer”), has turned his reporter’s training and love of writing into a successful enterprise of marketing mission-based and community-development groups like The Baltimore Collegetown Network, and the Bon Secours Spiritual Center. Beginning his professional career writing for The St.Petersburg Times newspaper, he still considers himself “a recovering journalist.” After leaving the paper in the mid-1970s to pursue a job with the 13-30 Corporation (which later became Whittle Communications), he worked with print magazines and made TV-news format videos for high-school and college kids. During his tenure at 13-30 Corporation, he realized that he was moving accidentally into marketing. Since 2006, he’s kept a lively and information blog, “The Accidental Marketer.”,
“I started out as a writer and I am here to help [nonprofits] with communications. But along the way I realized that in fact I was talking about marketing. So to me it was ‘accidental.’ I think that many of the people in marketing positions in nonprofits are there ‘accidentally.’ They were promoted from being the assistant to the president or they were in HR but were called upon to do fourteen other things, and one of those was communications, or PR, or marketing.” He sees numerous intersections between writing, fund-raising, marketing, and communications. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to do this.” Marketing is about story-telling.”
One important lesson Don recently learned is the need to reinvent continually. When the success of his business seemed in doubt through much of 2009, he realigned his services and found the effort well rewarded in 2010. A soft-spoken man with a fiery vocation that inspires all that he does, Don didn’t want to shut the doors on his business, so he marshaled advice, reconsidered his business offerings, and presented his talents in more meaningful ways to the clients with whom he’d already built relationships. Technology helped him reach out, but his focus has always been on his clients and their clients – and strengthening the bonds between them in a myriad of ways.
Writing for magazines taught Don the importance of pitching one’s story to editors and advertisers while ultimately considering what’s of interest to readers. Such considerations meant finding ‘a hook’ to capture each group’s attention (even if they’re not all biting the same hook).
- Who is my audience?
- What is going to be the thing that draws their attention?
- What is it I want them to think? What should they take away?
- What is my strategic purpose for putting this information out there?
Don sees each encounter with a client as ‘experimental.’ While there are principles to follow, there must also be discussion, adjustment, and reflection over the precise mix of words and images needed to reach the constituents of any given client. Moreover, given the rapid shifts in communications technologies in the last few years, one must be ever ready to take on new strategies.
Even with his rich and varied background in communications, Don found 2009 to be an unforgiving year for his business, and turned to the guidance of Dr. Fred Mael, an organizational consultant and business coach. His work with Mael Consulting and Coaching produced a significant rethink of his own outreach program.
“Until late last year I followed a traditional marketing and communications practice, trying to add information about social media, but largely working through traditional [print] media … And last year was just horrible.” His traditional service offerings got him “no traction” with clients and gave him no growth from referrals. Working with Mael, he realized the primary need for nonprofits in the nadir of ‘The Great Recession’ was fund raising, which meant inspiring people to give, especially during a recession. Based on his past experience, Don concluded that inspiring philanthropy required compelling stories and engaged relationships.
“I thought, ‘Everything I do [before his business’s realignment] for nonprofits is nonessential. It’s about image. It’s about communication. It’s about what they don’t absolutely need right now, and if I don’t offer what they need, I’m going to starve!”
To get these concepts to his constituents he developed three products: ‘Annual Fund In A Box,’ Grant Writing Services, and Total Communications Alignment. The first, ‘Annual Fund In A Box,’ proved especially valuable as a product that clients could comprehend, offering a “turn-key operation” by which Don’s company pursued all the “back office work of running an annual-fund campaign” while the client concentrated on interactions with major donors and providing the public face. Clients were also eager for grantwriting help.
“By March of this year, all of a sudden, all kinds of new business started coming in, where there had been a drought for the previous fifteen months, and it’s all fundraising business. All of which has changed the character of what I do!”
As his business grows with these newly promoted products, Don remains aware of the need to work to determine client needs, even if they turns out to be something different than what they first reached out for. “People come to you saying they want a particular thing, when often what they really want is something else entirely. They just don’t yet know it.”
For his clientele, Don sees something of a generational distinction in terms of technology and outreach, with clients “closer to my age than to twenty” more comfortable with email than with Twitter and the like. These same clients are aware, nevertheless, of such developments in social media and look to him for guidance. Sometimes the constraint is funding, as his clients are sensitive to the need for some time and training to get up-to-speed with such social networking applications.
For Don Akchin Strategic Communications itself, and monthly email blasts remain the outreach of choice, with consistently strong feedback to help prod long-time readers into action. These blasts spur what Don describes as the “Oh, I’ve been meaning to talk with you about…” kinds of conversations. “They remind people that I am there, and that the information I can provide to them is valuable to them as nonprofit leaders.”
Don’s work has also led him to involvement with many spiritual and religious groups. Some of these communities are engaged in what he calls the “prophet motive” (see his blog entry for 20 May 2009): a vocation to improve the lives of people around oneself however one can. The institutional religious status of his clients is, to him, accidental to the ethical ambitions they share.
“I feel it’s important for me to do something positive in the world. … Since I’m not the person who will go to India with Mother Teresa and I’m not likely to mount the barricades with anybody, this is what I can do: I can help such organizations work more effectively through better communications and through helping them find their resources. I have found my way to make a mark in the world with the talent that I have, and I am a happy camper. And I’m helping to make it a more just world in the process.”