Equity and Accessibility with Valaree Machen of Uplifting Athletes

In this episode of the Health Nonprofit Digital Marketing podcast, Spencer Brooks sits down with Valaree Machen, a seasoned nonprofit professional passionate about digital marketing and accessibility. They delve into the importance of equity and accessibility in the digital realm and how these principles can benefit nonprofit organizations, especially those focused on health-related issues. Valaree shares her insights on integrating accessibility into various channels, the difference between compliance and usability, and the practical steps her organization, Uplifting Athletes, has taken to ensure everyone can access their communications.

About the guest

Valaree grew up in the real-life town that inspired the television show Gilmore Girls, but has traveled extensively across the United States throughout her life. Valaree earned a Professional Writing degree from Western Connecticut State University and began working for three chapters of The Y upon graduation. From there, her passion for non-for-profit work led her to the Society of Plastics Engineers and the National Organization for Rare Disorders before landing at Uplifting Athletes. Valaree graduated from West Virginia University in 2023 with a Master of Science degree in Data Marketing. Valaree’s personal philosophy is that for-purpose work should be done with purpose and specializes in strategic, data-driven marketing.


Contact Valaree

Full Transcript

Speakers: Spencer Brooks, Valaree Machen

Intro 00:04

Welcome to Health Nonprofit Digital Marketing, a podcast for nonprofit marketers in the health space. Join us as we discuss how to use the web to drive awareness, engagement and Action for Health causes. This podcast is part of the thought education of Books Digital, the web agency for health nonprofits. Now, here’s your host, Spencer Brooks.

Spencer Brooks 00:26

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of health nonprofit digital marketing. My name is Spencer and today I’m joined by Valaree Machen, Valaree is the team lead for Integrated Marketing Communications at Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit that uses the platform of college athletics to raise awareness for rare diseases, while also providing student athletes with valuable leadership experience. Valaree’s personal philosophy is that for purpose work should be done with purpose and specializes in strategic data driven marketing. So today, we’re here to talk about accessibility and equity, particularly in the digital space. And so, Valaree, welcome on the show. Could you start by just providing an overview of your background and the journey that led you to your current role at Uplifting Athletes?

Valaree Machen 01:15

Hey, Spencer, thank you so much for the warm welcome. And thank you all for listening. My background as Spencer said, I’m currently working at Uplifting Athletes, which is a very cool organization and a unique space. But previous to that I was working with the National Organization for Rare Disorders as their digital marketing manager, and really fell in love with the rare disease community and trying to make their lives a lot easier through marketing and making sure that materials and resources are found to the right communities. I just obtained my master’s in data marketing recently from West Virginia University and have been applying that across our organization as well. So it’s been a very exciting couple of years, trying to move forward, especially in a post pandemic world.


Spencer Brooks 02:06

Absolutely. In the realm of digital marketing, I know that accessibility is something that a lot of folks right now are paying attention to. And in fact, you know, when we were discussing this podcast interview, in the conversation before this recording, I know accessibility was one of the things that that you had mentioned that Uplifting Athletes is really focusing on right now. So, I’m curious to get your take on what prompted uplifting athletes to focus on accessibility and, and why you view that sort of through the lens of equity.

Valaree Machen 02:43

That’s a great question, Spencer. Even before I joined Uplifting Athletes, there was a real value invested in the idea model that we call Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility, especially working with the rare disease community, we know that our patient community can often face a lot of burdens that they have to overcome. And as an organization, we want to make every day a little bit easier for those who are trying to find resources and spend their time prioritizing what matters most. And that means getting access to treatments, bringing forward drug development, or even experiencing a more high-quality day to day experience living with a rare disease. So, when we craft our programming and our marketing, we really want to focus on making sure that people have the right tools in a way that they can see them. And often this gets overlooked in marketing communications. But we want to make sure that accessibility and accommodations are met so that everybody can enjoy our programs and have a place within our community.

Spencer Brooks 03:49

I think this is especially relevant for folks that are working in the health space. And I think that in many cases, you see these nonprofits who are focusing on rare diseases, disorders, chronic conditions, right, where actually the population that is being served, may have issues accessing resources online or in person. Right. And so, I think this is a topic that’s probably top of mind for a lot of folks. So, I’m glad that we’re discussing this.

Valaree Machen 04:23

Certainly. And it goes beyond even just thinking about visual impairment. It really is a full spectrum accommodation that we’re looking at for people who face epileptic episodes, or who maybe just have ADHD and have trouble finding and narrowing information on the web. So, everything that we do comes with intentionality.

Omni Channel Approach to Accessibility

 Spencer Brooks 04:47

So, Valaree, I know you mentioned this idea of an omni channel approach to accessibility. So, would you mind just elaborating a bit on what that means and How you are applying that in your own marketing efforts?

Valaree Mache  05:02

Yeah, great question. So for omni channel for us that looks at not just our digital assets, but the full user experience when we’re in person with our community, we really try to integrate from our lines of communication either directly through a phone call or through email, making sure that our communications are clear, we have bullet points to narrow down specific information that needs to be pulled out of all of our key takeaways. We also integrate alt text into all of our images on the website, social media, and our email marketing. And then we’re working now on going through our YouTube history and updating everything to also include either pre caption or auto generated captioning or updated SRT files so that people can turn on or off the subtitles as needed. So really trying to make every step of the journey customizable to what people need. Most excitingly, we partnered with accessiBe this year, and integrated their web widget onto our website. And that has given us the ability to really customize it to a user perspective of the website, it lives as an overlay, and people can choose what settings they want, a larger font size, screen reader accessibility, anything to really to tailor and customize that experience to meet their medical conditions or preferences.

Spencer Brooks 06:35

Yeah, and I, that’s a really cool concept, by the way, just overall with the omni channel approach. And one of the things that I was thinking about with this is that occasionally I hear comments from people that just may not be aware that things like social media, or YouTube requires something of an organization of a nonprofit to enhance accessibility, I think sometimes I see the assumption that, oh, if I’m posting this on Facebook, or if we’re posting that on Twitter, then Facebook, or Twitter or YouTube, well, they’re responsible for the accessibility and they’re covering all that sort of stuff and so we don’t need to do anything about that. But I think what it is you’re saying is that there is some sort of responsibility for those individual channels. And so, I’m curious, Valaree, if you have like specific examples, or, you know, some of the ways that I think, particularly for social media platforms that you have incorporated accessibility, just as a way of highlighting to listeners, what they might be missing out on.

Valaree Machen 07:43

Yeah, it’s a great thing to think about, you know, people who don’t have to experience a different viewing preference may not always think about the behind the scenes or the hidden components through all of the programmatic coding, I’m a really big fan of Sprout Social, I’ve been using it for the past decade. And we do all of our social management through Sprout. And in sprout, when you’re in the scheduling feature, you actually have the ability to update your alt text or your image descriptions and schedule those ahead of time. So anytime we’re going through our scheduling process for social media, my communications manager, you know, puts together with post, and then I get the second set of eyes, looking at it to make sure that every single piece of content has some kind of image description, so that when screen readers or people with visual impairment need to read the alt text, it’s there for them. You know, it’s a hidden benefit for us as well, because all text feeds into SEO properties, which, you know, everyone’s always trying to fight for. So having that additional boost to our content that describes what the image is or graphic, helps on multiple levels and really flushes out what our campaigns are and how people can find information for them.

Technical Compliance versus Usability

Spencer Brooks 09:07

One of the things that I wanted to ask about Valaree was, or really, I guess it’s a topic that I’m curious to get your take or your perspective on is the difference between technical compliance and usability when it comes to accessibility in digital marketing. So, is that something that you would be able to expand on a little bit like the differences between those things and why both are essential?

Valaree Machen 09:38

So technical compliance from my perspective, and you may have another definition of this is meeting the requirements of certain standards like ADA accessibility or W3 for the website, and making sure that all of our components are living up to those standards. Usability goes into a day per function where we’re communicating with the community to get their feedback on what they’re actually functioning like within our marketing communications, or what their individual needs are when they’re working with us. And this can be as simple as, let’s say, a technical compliance, you have high contrast colors on your website or your marketing materials. But just because yellow stands out on white doesn’t mean that everybody who’s colorblind can see that. The usability would be able to turn that function into a black and white where people would be able to better register what that communication would be. So visual asset compared to something else.

Spencer Brooks 10:47

Absolutely. And I think I, I agree with that definition, I sort of have the same one, right, where it like, at least a lot of our work is related to web site stuff as well so usually, I find that folks are thinking, first and foremost about the technical compliance of things, right, like if we meet these standards, and this automated tool tells us that the website meets those accessibility standards, then we’ve done our job. But I think that the usability component is, yeah, you could have a website that meets these technical standards. And you could have a tool that spits out a green checkmark, or you get 100, or whatever. But if someone who’s visually impaired is using a screen reader, and it takes them, you know, two minutes to listen to all of your navigation options, you know, to even find what you want, what they want to go to, then there’s still actually some usability work to be done. Because something can be technically compliant, but it can be a real pain to use. So, I think those I wanted to highlight both of those things, I think, for folks, and I think you’ve done a good job at doing that.

Valaree Machen 11:52

Absolutely. Even in person events and functions. If we think about the signage that’s used around an event space, if you have a sign pointing towards the elevators, but it’s, you know, there’s blockage in the way of where the pathway leads to elevators, you may have the compliance of having signage and having the elevators available but usability is not easy to navigate for a person who wants to be independent, and have their accommodations met in a way that’s equitable, compared to people who don’t need that accommodation.

Challenges in Incorporating Accessibility

Spencer Brooks 12:27

Yeah, it’s a tricky thing. And I think it requires it requires a lot of forethought. I’m curious, Valaree, what has been the most difficult part of incorporating accessibility into your work, because I know it’s not easy. So, what have you found to be one of the bigger challenges?

Valaree Machen 12:45

It’s definitely taking the time to make sure that you’re filling in all the blanks. So, for me getting everybody on boarded to a process that says, I know that content needs to be created. And I know that we’re working really fast, you know, it’s a small team, a nonprofit trying to get all of the resources out at once. Because what we’re doing really does change the lives of individuals every day. But making sure that we’re going through each step and making sure that everything is filled out completely. And not just saying let’s get it out and fill it back in at a later date has been, you know, a consistent struggle, just resource management, that and also just taking the time to listen to the community, I wouldn’t say that it’s a struggle, but it is time consuming to make sure that you’re meeting the needs of every single person that you may encounter and finding adjustments that meet them. But that’s also one of the really cool things about working with our community, people know what accommodations work best for them, and being able to collaborate with them, overall makes our product a lot better and a lot stronger. So having that integrated communication and community feedback is essential for us to be able to provide quality content and experience.

Spencer Brooks 14:07

Yeah, that’s really those two things, I think, are quite important because on the one hand, the Resource Management like the capacity to do this is actually it feels like one of the biggest barriers to adoption, I’m not necessarily convinced that the biggest problem that people have is that they don’t understand the importance of accessibility. It’s more like I have this huge content calendar that I’m supposed to be keeping up with. And I’m doing the jobs of five different people and all these hats and you know and then now in addition to all this work that I’m already overburdened with that I’m you know, supposed to be able to understand and fit in all of these you know, what amounts to like the little tasks like Oh, image alt text getting this or maybe I need to like, now run this image through a contrast checker or you know, stuff like that, right. All really good stuff, but it’s like practical capacity. issues. And so just focusing on that for a minute, you mentioned developing like onboarding people into these processes and things like that. So, would you be able to elaborate on that a little bit more? And how you sort of run this internally to make sure that it’s not more of a capacity sink than it needs to be?

Valaree Machen 15:20

Yeah, it’s a great question. You know, I think everybody’s fighting time management, especially at nonprofits. Because you’re right, everybody has to be so many things, all at once. I take a really small step approach, my position is really focused on creating the strategic framework for marketing and communications, which I’m very fortunate to be in this position, as I love it so much. And that means I filled out a lot of standard operating procedures. And that also comes with accessibility needs. All of our internal documents have three different styles for people to learn from and reflect on, we have a written handbook, we also have videos, or audio instructions for people to follow along with visually. And then we have a live training component where we do an all team meeting that gets recorded, where we have 30 minutes to teach them about different areas of our marketing communications department, or different topics, like accessibility for the community, and then not just explain what needs to happen for us to produce the content but why it’s so important for us to make this a priority. And you’re right, as soon as people think about why it’s important, they care and they get it. And they want to make sure that experience is as helpful and full as possible for our community, because that’s what keeps them coming back to our organization. So having those different touch points, and just making sure that people have the reminder set on their calendars, you know, take five to 10 minutes every month and check over your resources and your documents and make sure that they’re up to date. And they’re as accessible as possible, it becomes part of the routine. And we move forward at every six months with an audit of all of our marketing materials, so that we can make sure that everything is still up to level that we feel proud to share externally, as well as internally.

Spencer Brooks 17:20

Mmhmm. I guess on the topic of audit your team as well. And just kind of those ongoing, you know, those regular tasks. How does your team approach the maintenance of accessibility? Because I know that is another that’s another task is, you know, it’s not just a one time thing it’s ongoing, regular checks. So how do you ensure that Okay, once you, there are things like for example, a website where there’s a big push at the beginning, oftentimes to make it accessible, but then, you know, over time, it still needs to be checked. And there are other things like social media, where it’s more of a something that you do, as you’re posting and things like that. But I’m curious how you maintain a high standard of accessibility over time, like what roles do your team play in doing that? And how do you make that happen?

Valaree Machen 18:13

I, it’s different for every organization that I’ve been in. Right now, we don’t have a webmaster or web manager who’s overseeing the entire website. So, it’s a split responsibility on our team. And is it perfect system? I’m not sure we’re still in the testing phase, to be honest. But right now, we just switched our website, actually over from Drupal, to WordPress. So that has come with a whole new suite of onboarding instructions, just how to use the website. And I really treat my other staff members like they’re own area experts, and that I rely on them as a service department, as our corporate marketing team. I’m looking for them to provide me with the knowledge and the content that is most applicable for their areas of expertise. So, I onboard everybody on how to use the website, and then show them which pages or widgets are really their responsibility to maintain, and then every month they’re expected to put in five to 10 minutes making sure that the accuracy of the website is up to date, and that their components are all still relevant. If they need any additional pages or any additional resources they put in a ticket with me and we explore what that need is and where it fits into the long term plan of the website, or a different communication piece. And then every six months, I meet with them for about 30 minutes to 45 minutes and we go over all of the pages and tools that they’re responsible for and talk about what’s working, what’s not working, what updates need to be made. What is the feedback that they’re getting from their constituents. And then we work on optimizing for the next six months and repeat. So if we break it down every month, it’s very low effort just to maintain. And then at that six month point we really look at what can we do to make this above and beyond what it is? And what are we missing? And then make improvements from there.

Handling Feedback

Spencer Brooks 20:21

Yeah, that’s a great structure. And I know no structure is perfect. But you know, just having one like that is much better than going ad hoc. So, I love that answer. It’s very, very enlightening. I wanted to go back to the question, I asked you earlier about the most difficult part of incorporating accessibility into your work. We touched a bit on the team capacity side of things. And the other thing that you mentioned was community outreach and feedback, being able to solicit feedback and being able to be in contact with the community about your accessibility efforts. So, would you be able to speak a little bit more into that and how you handle it?

Valaree Machen 20:58

Yeah. So right now, this is one area of our website that we have in development right now. We have a really great account manager with accessiBe, Sheldon, he works with our nonprofit partners. And he sends us a lot of resources weekly about how we can improve accessibility. And one of the areas that he had requested from us since we were really open to taking community feedback and his suggestions was to actually add a page to our website for accessibility requests or concerns. So right now, we’re building out a portion of our website where people can report either areas of the website that don’t function well for them, or additional accommodations that they may need. And we will take that feedback, you know, anonymously, and try to implement that across our communications and our marketing materials. So that there’s an open line of discussion. We’re also fortunate that we have a rare disease Impact Manager who does outreach to the community every day, that’s their responsibility. So, if you want to get a hold of somebody to talk about rare disease, and how you can work with Uplifting Athletes, or if you need any resources, Amy is available to answer your call and point you in the right direction. Man, we’re always looking for feedback on how we can improve our services. So, it’s a really open dialogue. Even just having forms, all of our forms and intake forms for events, like our uplifting experiences, all of our forms, ask if you need any ADA accessibility or accommodation needs. And we work with you to make sure that we fill those as much as possible. So, if you have dietary restrictions, movement restrictions or sensory issues, we work with you to make sure that the location or the event that you’re interested in, works with you and works for you. And we work as that first line of advocate for you so that you can take a backseat and just enjoy the experience and not be burdened with having to fight for what you need during our experiences.

Success Stories

Spencer Brooks 23:15

I’m glad that you pulled that out. I think that’s an important piece of a much more mature accessibility program. So hopefully listeners can pick up on pieces of that and implement that in their own work. I’m curious to hear about maybe any success stories or positive outcomes that you’ve seen as a result of prioritizing accessibility and equity in your digital marketing work.

Valaree Machen 23:42

Yeah, hold on one second, I actually will pull up a quote from you. One of our participants in our uplifting experience. Our uplifting experience program is free for all individuals who are facing a rare diagnosis in their families. They happen at game days across college and professional athletics. We have even bowling events with different college teams. And it gives individuals an opportunity to just enjoy a really memorable experience and take some of that pressure off of having to figure it out themselves. One of the quotes that we got from a family member was at one of our recent uplifting experiences. And Lauren wrote, having a child with a rare disease is a very isolating experience. It affects where we can go and what we can experience in a way that is hard for parents of healthy neurotypical children to understand. The logistics of even a simple outing can be overwhelming, in part because managing our child’s care and addressing their needs on a daily basis can be utterly exhausting. Uplifting experiences took the planning away and made full participation at a unique event possible, it was a blessing to both parents and children. This is also a wonderful way to make my children feel special. Not in the euphemistic Special Needs way, but truly just getting a real moment to treat yourself for being yourself. Seeing the joy on my child’s face while watching the players was priceless. And that really makes what we do special and noteworthy, and why we go to the length that we do.

Spencer Brooks 25:35

Yeah, I think that’s what everyone’s looking for right? Is the is that kind of feedback and that kind of that success story, which is what makes it all worth it, so I appreciate you sharing that.

Valaree Machen 25:46


What in Digital are you Working On?

Spencer Brooks 25:47

I did want to transition into some of the standard questions that I asked pretty much every guest on the show. The first one of those questions is just what’s one thing in digital that you’re working on right now that is consuming a lot of your brain space? And what takeaways can you share with listeners who might encounter that same challenge?

Valaree Machen 26:05

Right now, we’re working on a lot of the website stuff as we transition over to WordPress. So, I think that that takes a lot of my thought process. I’m a really big email marketing junkie. So, email marketing is always top of mind for myself as well. And standardizing all of our organizational marketing materials has been a big project, especially as we go into the new calendar year, we’re coming up on a few really important dates for the rare disease community. This upcoming year will be Rare Disease Day on February 29 since it is a leap year. So, a very special and rare, Rare Disease Day ahead of that we’ll be focusing on the Young Investigator draft, our flagship event of the year where we get to embrace, you know, researchers at the same level as professional athletes at Philadelphia Eagles Stadium in Philadelphia. So, a lot of my thought process is not just looking at the individual pieces of marketing, but looking at the full picture and seeing really the forest through the trees. I’m not sure if I fully figured out what the best process for that is. But I take it every single day at a time and try to use all of the tools that I have and the people that I work with, to create the best picture possible and tell our story in the most meaningful way possible.

What Resources Do You Use?

Spencer Brooks 26:33

Yeah, that sounds so most of the definition of a marketing communication director’s role, right. So, you know, I’m sure that there’s a lot of other folks that are right there with you. I’m also curious to learn about two or three resources that you regularly use to keep up on news and trends in your work.

Valaree Machen 27:53

I’m a really big fan of Facebook groups, call me an older millennial. But I still use Facebook groups pretty frequently, especially nonprofit and like Women In Email. Even Sprout Social has their own information exchange as a Facebook group that works great, I think our best tools to lean on each other and ask questions and not be afraid to be wrong or right about something. Because that’s how we all learn. I’m also a really big fan of connecting with people and trying to get mentors in your space so that you can learn more. So definitely reaching out to people as needed to learn what tools have been working with them. Or even if you see a really great marketing campaign, I’ll email companies and ask for their marketing department and try to learn why they did what they did and I’ve come out really meeting some really interesting people that way and being able to further my knowledge base and marketing because of that.

Wrap Up and Contact

Spencer Brooks 28:56

Well, that’s great. I’ll make sure you know I know that Facebook groups is like a It’s a huge thing. So you know, maybe as an older millennial as well and just on there, but it’s fantastic resources there. Valaree, just the last question I have for you is how can listeners get in touch with you if they’d like to learn more about your work

Valaree Machen 29:14

feel free to reach out at Valaree dot Machen at uplifting athletes.org My name is spelled very interestingly so it’s V as in Victor, A, L A, R E E dot M A C H E N at uplifting athletes.org I’m sure you’ll link that in the description Spencer or feel free to go to our website uplifting athletes.org And leave a message in our Contact Us form, private message us on any of our social channels. We have less than a 24 hour business day turnaround on all communication. So, I am free to answer any questions you may have or point you in the right direction.

Spencer Brooks 29:59

That’s great. Thank you, Valaree that that wraps up our show today. If you liked this episode, please consider rating and reviewing us on Apple podcasts or whatever platform you listen on, really helps other people find the show. And this show is also part of the thought leadership of Brooks Digital. We’re a Web Design and Development Agency for Health nonprofits. So if you like this podcast, go to our website at Brooks dot digital, and you can find more of our insights and learn about our work. But with all that said, Valaree, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Valaree Machen 30:32

Thank you so much for having me, Spencer.

Outro 30:40

Thanks for listening to help nonprofit digital marketing. If you liked this episode, leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform. And don’t forget to check out the Brooks digital website at www dot Brooks dot digital where you can find other resources like this podcast. Learn how we help nonprofits like yours and get in touch with our team. See in the next episode.

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