Tell the Story, as if Your Life Depends On It
Having shocked them back to the moment of primal scream, I can begin to walk them – whether they’re for Saving the Gecko or Banning the Split Infinitive – through the indispensable process of telling their story. It’s also described as “Making the Case,” but the fundraising case we’re all familiar with is often a merely formulaic recitation that’s too easily ignored. Let’s look for a minute at what you can accomplish, if you really think about telling your story, as well as you possibly can.
How Are You Special?
What’s unique about your mission? Was the organization founded to deal with a unique social problem centuries ago, or a health concern in the last decade? Without plodding through too much dusty history, is there a rich tradition of philanthropy behind its genesis? Did it employ an innovative approach to a difficult problem?
Has your organization had to adapt to changing times, if your work is rooted in a time and place much different from the world of today? What new programs have you created in response to demographic, economic, or cultural shifts? If your mission is health-related, is it as relevant to today’s needs and approaches as it should be?
The tricky thing about a case is that it needs to appeal to both the head and the heart. Your audience may well be business-savvy, and you’ll need to justify your rationale in economic terms. Is it more cost-effective to help people through your programs, to prevent more costly problems later on? Is every dollar you raise leveraged by attracting other support, either cash or in-kind? Donors are increasingly anxious to become hands-on, often applying their entrepreneurial experience in hopes of improving performance at a cause they care about. They are also demanding results. Can you measure the impact of your efforts?
On the last point, as much as funders are emphasizing measurable impact these days, I find myself resisting its pressures. Yes, this trend has produced improved nonprofit effectiveness in many areas. Still, I know that when you insist on measurement, organizations increasingly will favor programs that can be measured. The risk is that very valuable programs that can’t be quantified will get short shrift.
That’s where the heart comes in. Tell the story within the story. Focus on one individual, and bring your mission to life by telling her story. Make it impossible for the donor to turn the page without committing to taking action, taking a step that will make a difference in that one person’s life. Perhaps it can’t be quantified, but if you’re truly changing the world, make a persuasive case for the value of your work.
More Than One Document
Beyond the 2-3 page case you hand to a donor, there are many opportunities to get your message out. And in these critically challenging economic times, it’s more important than ever that you be heard above the crowd. So make sure you – that means your staff, volunteers, board members, donors – are all hearing and passing on the same message.
Many of those people spend time interacting via the Internet, so be sure they’re well equipped with concise, accurate information. It’s worth spending some time, whether in a retreat, or perhaps a facilitated case development process, to develop the correct language for your messaging. Then be sure it’s consistent on your website, your acknowledgments to donors, your elevator pitch, videos, brochures. It’s amazing how frequently constituents in the same organization will provide varying descriptions of their work – often ones that give no clear idea at all what the organization does.
Know What You Do Well
As you take the time to inventory your organization’s character, its programs and its achievements, try to identify areas where your work stands out. How can you clearly distinguish yourself from your competition? What makes your program more deserving of a dollar from an individual, corporation, foundation or government agency? Tailor the message to each audience. Be specific, and be positive. You may have noticed lately – Americans have opted for a message of change, and hope.
There is a mood in the country today, as we face difficult times, to concentrate on what’s important. For each individual, it’s time to think about making a difference. It may be through volunteer action, through more carefully targeted philanthropic donations, or by embracing a cause and supporting it via online social networking. So there is someone out there who will find you, if you convey the message that your organization is worth their commitment. It’s all about telling the story, and it’s time to get started.