Lessons from Oprah

pablo-picasso-the-lessonOprah Winfrey, the multimillionaire talk show host, media mogul, publisher, film producer, philanthropist, and general life force announced last week that she is closing down her highly successful daytime talk show in 2011 after 25 years of broadcast syndication. If you follow the Oprah phenomenon at all you can pick up some valuable insights for your nonprofit about how to connect to and keep strong ties with an increasingly fickle and fleeting public.

Oprah didn’t start out as one of the world’s most powerful brands. Poor, black, a victim of childhood abuse, Oprah used the talents she had – intelligence, determination, focus and an affirmative, positive energy – to rise to such a position of extraordinary influence that she is simply referred to as “Oprah” – a single name brand (think Google, Apple, YouTube, Wikipedia) recognized worldwide.

Here are ten lessons to take from Oprah the brand:

  1. Know Thyself – powerful brands have authenticity and stay true to their core. Oprah has, well, always been, Oprah. She knows who she is and has rarely let the hot air lift of self-importance move her off-course.
  2. Keep Learning and Experimenting – while keeping the brand on track, learn how to try out new ideas even if they don’t always deliver. Think Oprah’s book club, magazine, philanthropy and, oh yes, that misguided philanthropic reality show that she canceled after one season.
  3. Protect Your Brand Like a Tigress – it’s your reputation, your value to your audience, your future. Oprah recognizes that she is the brand and every action she takes reflects that truth.
  4. Keep Adding Value – Whether it’s giving important help to the newly-needy like UJA-Federation NY’s Connect to Care program, or the Jewish Farm School‘s expansion to give more college kids opportunities to learn organic farming, keep producing new ways for people to get involved with you. Oprah’s book club, her introduction of Dr. Oz who made health-care a hot topic on daytime TV, and her “best picks” product feature all gave viewers content they valued.
  5. Keep Your Eye on What is Around the Next Curve – It’s noteworthy that Oprah is not disappearing in 2011 – rather she is moving to her own cable network, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) a move that tells you lots about the future of broadcast television. For nonprofits, think about where your base of support will be in the next ten years and get positioned now to be there for them.
  6. Surround Yourself with Talented People and Give Them Plenty of Support – Oprah’s people are curiously semi-famous because she publicly acknowledges their talent and they in return give dedicated support to her and the brand. Nonprofits often are reluctant to acknowledge their professional talent and their successes concerned such actions might steal some of the spotlight from their major donors. Take a lesson from Oprah and recognize those stars on your staff team who keep your brand strong.
  7. Be Good at Saying “Yes” to Opportunity and “No” to Distracting Noise – Lots of offers to expand or experiment may come your way. Some of them will be worthwhile but it’s also important to know your capacity, your mission and vision and what it takes each day to deliver on that promise. So recognize that you can turn down offers and even upset some people to stay true to your mission. Oprah didn’t become the media giant she is by ignoring either.
  8. Use Your History to Define Your Story – Every organization has a story. Tell it; leverage its meaning; rely on the strength it offers to get your organization through difficult times. Oprah’s story is at the core of who she is and what her brand has become.
  9. Give Freely and Loudly – While nonprofits are not in the business of giving away cars or food processors to their ardent admirers, nonprofits can become better known for their own special generosity. Give thanks in personal and special ways to people who champion your work and make it possible to deliver your mission. Oprah, in her announcement of her planned departure, made special note of thanking her audience for their support and for making her who she is today.
  10. Entertain Yourself and Your Audience – Make involvement fun, exciting, participatory, unexpected, joyful and spiritually – enriching. Oprah’s audience of 42 million weekly viewers in 145 countries tunes in be entertained – figure out how to inform, engage, create meaning and a joyful experience for your audience.

Imagine how successful your organization can become. Within each of us is the talent and motivation to do great work. Just put some of Oprah’s game book rules to work and watch what happens.

Gail Hyman is a marketing and communications professional who currently focuses her practice, Gail Hyman Consulting, on assisting Jewish nonprofit organizations increase their ranks of supporters and better leverage their communications in the Web 2.0 environment. Gail is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

image: The Lesson, Pablo Picasso