Individual donors make up approximately 75% of the donating public, a pretty important fact for nonprofits to keep in mind when they are telling their stories to others – to the individual donor him or herself (women make up more of that 75% than do men), to the website visitor, to the newsletter reader, to the thank you note recipient, to the reporter. But as demonstrating one’s impact, proving one’s financial transparency, and clarifying one’s ROI become ever more important, it’s easy to let the plain business of telling the story get lost.
That would be a shame. While donors do indeed want to know that nonprofits are doing important work, and doing it with excellence and impact, and while they absolutely want to know that charities are financially sustainable and sound (this is why the Catalogue’s vetting process is one of our most valuable assets), the majority of donors is still, I would argue, waiting to be moved, waiting to hear or read something that resonates personally, waiting to learn where the need is and where it is best being met.
This is why – perhaps more impulsively than is good for us – we are willing to text away our bank accounts in the face of a disaster, sometimes without even knowing where our money is going. (Personally, I don’t think this is a good thing, though I am sure the impulse behind it is good; we should all know to what use our funds will be put before we give them away.) We see the need – often in powerful images, as we did last month in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and as we have in recent days in the wake of the terrible tornadoes in the Midwest. (For those who want to do their research and decide where best to give, take a look at this list of disaster relief organizations working in Oklahoma.) The stunning images of devastation, whole towns wiped out in seconds, one house standing here while its neighbor is gone there, and the accounts told by survivors – all these speak powerfully to the painful loss of those whose friends and family members died, and the needs of those who must remake their lives in the aftermath of this terrible disaster.
Stories of real need move us, and there are many such stories to be told – some more immediate and dramatic than others, and…many more than there should be. The problem is, we aren’t always very good tellers. We get bogged down in our own internal languages – jargon of the trade, insider talk that only our colleagues understand, a too-numerical view of what “impact” means. We need to speak to each other in a human voice, help the reader understand what the real need is that we are meeting and why it deserves the reader’s attention. We need to describe what we are doing to meet the need in a way that conveys important information that is still compelling and coherent (not a list of seemingly unrelated programs). We need to talk about impact – through powerful metrics if we have them, but in narratives if we don’t. We need to convey our vision of the future in a way that is inspirational and aspirational. And we need to communicate to donors, directly or indirectly, how a contribution to our cause will make a genuine difference.
Above all, we need to speak in a human language, a human voice – individual to individual, person to person, as members of one human community. In fact, helping readers to see that we are indeed members of a shared community is perhaps the best way to help them see the power and importance of joining the cause.
Barbara Harman gave a version of this talk at the America’s Charities Members’ Meeting on May 21, 2013.