Last Friday evening, my husband and I were relaxing and watching TV. Suddenly, he turned to me and said, “Are we having an earthquake?” I looked around and replied, “Oh. Yeah.” And we went back to our TV viewing.
I assure you, when we moved to Southern California seven years ago, we weren’t so cavalier. After all, the frequently heard public service announcement reminded us that “every day is earthquake season.” Previously we had lived all our lives with tornadoes, crippling snowstorms and 95 percent humidity. But earthquakes? That was a brand-new life experience.
So, despite the scoffing of colleagues and acquaintance who had lived in California all their lives, we had our 50-year-old house’s foundation reinforced to meet current earthquake standards. And we slept better at night.
Many nonprofits have experienced “earthquakes” in the last few years. Their funding bases included things like government grants, corporate and foundation giving, and the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC). But those just aren’t as dependable these days. The government closes down and holds up distributions, corporations and foundations cut back or change their focus, and according to The Federal Times, CFC giving was down 19 percent last year. Talk about a shake-up!
If you’re ready to reinforce your fundraising foundation, these basic guidelines can help you transition to what can grow to be a strong and dependable base of support — individual donors.
1. Show, just don’t tell results
Government funders and many corporations and foundations want statistics and proof positive that your program can do what you claim. Follow-up reports are often crammed with charts and graphs and bullet-pointed outcomes.
Individuals, however, make giving decisions by engaging both their heads and their hearts. You need to paint a picture (figuratively) that lets them “see” the amazing difference that is possible when they give. Short video clips, newsletters filled with photos and stories of people who were helped, and posts online that share short vignettes help them fully engage with your cause.
It may be a new way of communicating for your organization, but it’s essential. Much of our fundraising is about conversations. Letters are conversations in print. Banners and billboards at events provide visual “proof” that your work is making a difference. Major-donor proposals speak to the heart as well as make an intellectual case. It’s time to get back to “show and tell.”
2. Avoid acronyms
If I’ve learned one thing in my nonprofit career, it’s that acronyms are rampant. In fact, I used one (CFC) earlier. MED,USAID, UNHCR, NPO, WFP, NGOs — these mean something to many in the nonprofit world, but they often only confuse average individuals.
Do your donors a favor and talk in a nice, normal language that they can understand. “We provide food to people who are hungry” makes sense; “we alleviate chronic malnutrition through our food distribution emphasis partially funded by the FFP office of USAID” just loses something (at least to me).
Run terms that are as familiar to you as your name past people who aren’t in “the industry.” Do they communicate or just leave them confused?
3. Never assume
This one is related to No. 2. We get so used to what we do and where we do it that sometimes we forget that some people aren’t quite as “informed” as we are. Years ago, I showed up for my first day at an international relief and development organization. I learned that we did work in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal. Cool!
The only problem was, I had no idea where these countries were. When I took my last geography class, Burkina Faso was the Republic of Upper Volta. I was pretty sure Mail was a South Pacific island and certain Senegal was in Asia.
I quickly learned about these three countries and many others, but I never forgot — what seems like a no-brainer to us can leave a donor totally confused. And confused donors often stop being donors. Easy-to-grasp maps and explanations can help educate donors without making them feel too stupid to be part of your organization.
4. Forget about length
I hate grant applications that say things like, “Tell us what is great about your organization and your programs (limit: 50 words).” That sucks all the passion out for me. But for individual donors, there are seldom those kinds of restrictions (other than their patience).
This doesn’t mean we can wander around the conversational universe without ever getting to the point. But it does mean that we can inject passion, a vignette, a quote or even an example without worrying that we are exceeding some “assumed” word count.
Will donors and potential donors read a four-page letter or newsletter? What about a monthly email? They will read them — if the message engages both their heads and their hearts. Don’t ramble, but also don’t forget to take the time to inject passion, a great story or even a short (but relevant) jaunt down a rabbit trail.
It can be tough to change your conversation to talk to people instead of institutions. Some colleagues will complain and accuse you of “dumbing down” the great work the organization does. But this old dog has found that it’s essential if you want to reinforce your organization’s funding foundation with support from caring men and women. It’s not a matter of “dumbing down” — it’s a matter of speaking the love language of your donors.
By the way, the earthquake last Friday was a 5.1 — not the looming “big one” that gets a lot of coverage on a slow news day, but certainly significant enough to cause damage around the region. But our reinforced foundation passed the test. And with a little work and a willingness to tear down some deeply held convictions about how to communicate, your nonprofit’s foundation can get stronger as you start talking to additional sources of support.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.