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Telling a Powerful Story

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.


What are the most compelling trends in workplace giving today? Will the traditional pledge-card campaigns of old still cut it with today’s millennials, who already make up 25% of the workforce and are estimated to comprise 50% within seven years? The answer, according to America’s Charities CEO Steve Delfin, and panelists at a half-day conference on Wednesday, was a resounding no. (Check out the name of the conference, with the hashtag title #givingundertheinfluence: I suppose this was meant to suggest a good kind of “under the influence” as opposed to the bad kind with which we are familiar, much as the charitable giving day, #givingtuesday, is the good twin of the shop-for-yourself day known as Black Friday. And take a look at the report issued by America’s Charities here.)

Instead of traditional campaigns that generate funds for causes selected in the C-suite or in the office of the campaign sponsor, the panelists contended that the new giving model emphasizes total choice indeed that choice is transforming workplace giving. After all, the argument goes, today’s employees often bring their causes with them to work, and they want giving options that center around what matters to them – all of them – not to their supervisor or boss; they want opportunities to engage their networks, share the stories of organizations that move them, take existing campaigns and take them over; and they want to do this in and on their own time, not in one day or month of the year. The dominant opinion among the speakers was that companies are, largely, losing control over workplace giving as individuals shape their giving as they choose moving right around or through what the company may be promoting. Creativity may drive a campaign and make it successful, but control will not.

There is no doubt in my mind that millennials will have a significant influence on the way we do philanthropy, that social media is here to stay, and that not using it is not an option. I am also confident that the old model no longer works. But I am still a bit suspicious about generational paradigms: are all baby boomers or gen-xers the same? Will all millennials be so? I doubt it. So while companies may indeed be losing control over workplace giving (it is the multiplicity of all those “I”s that makes for the loss of coherence), and while millennials typically have skills that their elders lack, it isn’t clear to me that all of the participants come to their philanthropy with a clear sense of direction. I still think there is much for everyone to learn.

Here at the Catalogue we have always believed in choice – not the limitless choice that leaves most people bewildered, but informed choice that invites participants to explore their own passions, find nonprofits that fit those passions, and give thoughtfully. Sharing the news with friends has always been and continues to be an option on our site, campaign pages are part of the arsenal that we provide to nonprofits in our network, and our workplace giving portal – in use at a number of companies around the region – offers a combination of interactivity and choice. But our assumption is that even those who have the philanthropic gene often lack the time to identify effective charities doing work that resonates for them. We don’t all come equipped with favorite charities. Some of us are still finding them.

Marrying what the Catalogue can do (create the opportunity for meaningful exploration) with what social media can do (share awareness and build real support for worthy organizations whenever and wherever people live and work and play) makes for an extremely powerful combination. I hope we will see that combination play itself out in many realized, and as yet unrealized, opportunities in the months and years ahead.