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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Clarity Before Charity

By Hayley Berlent

Holiday time is hardly “Silent Night” when it comes to nonprofits.  According to Charity Navigator, 40% percent of funds are donated during the traditional holiday season, and one can’t ignore the fundraising appeals delivered by phone, email and even on the sidewalk.

Nonprofits run the risk of overwhelming donors to the point that they might give nothing at all.  Clarity before charity—here are four principles for every nonprofit to follow:

Keep it simple
It’s no surprise that charity: water is a favorite among nonprofit insiders. As founder Scott Harrison told The New York Times last year, “Simplicity is key. Be able to tell your story simply…Show. Don’t tell.  And do it visually.” Perhaps a portion of their phenomenal 400% growth over the past four years is due the organization’s simplicity of story and consistency of delivery. It’s that simple.

Make it personal
Many nonprofits market their cause by talking about themselves. “We have 675 beds.” “We’re solving global problems.” “We serve 5 million members.” But rarely do these organizations explain the benefit of 675 beds, how they solve global problems or what’s the value of a membership base 5 million strong.  When we looked at organizations with avid, loyal supporters—the kind of supporters every nonprofit aspires to have—we identified something different:  They humanize communications and interactions. They give it a voice, a personality. They put faces on numbers and connect people to people.  DonorsChoose.org is a great example.  In construct, they’re an innovative crowd-funding platform—they connect causes (specifically teachers and classroom projects) with supporters.  How they differ and transcend platforms like Kiva, or even Kickstarter, is that they show the need, the connect you directly to teachers and projects and, the best part is that every time a project is funded, the teachers share a personal thank you—in the form or pictures or handwritten letters. The power of personal narrative and thanks (with measurable impact, too) has contributed to influencers like Oprah citing it as “supercool” and “revolutionary” and cultivated a rabid twitter following.  They take a potentially transactional experience and make it personal.

Inspire action
There is no greater turn-off than going to a nonprofit’s website and looking actively for ways to contribute only to be met by a donate button and transactional form that then requires four discrete actions or verifications to complete. Nonprofits who are defying these uninspired appeals include Amnesty International among others. Besides keeping their story simple (“fighting injustice and promoting human rights”) and making their brand personal through clear, engaging language and an approachable voice, Amnesty International inspires engagement and action for fundraising and beyond. There are opportunities to “sign up” and “defend human rights for all,” there is an opportunity to “donate now, “fight bad guys with every dollar,” and “act now,” with a very discrete action—at least on this particular day, which was “stop unlawful drone strikes.” They smartly lay out multiple avenues for engagement, use language that embraces their distinctive voice and they inspire through clear and specific calls-to-action.  Unlike so many organizations that tout what they do, Amnesty International balances what we can do together. That inspires action. 

Show impact
One of the most disappointing communications failures among nonprofits is the lack of tangible results or failure to follow-through on the appeal. I’m often left wondering, where did my money go? How do I know it was used in the way they promised? Did I help put a Band-Aid on the problem or contribute to lasting change? We’ve seen these concerns validated in large-scale quantitative research, too. To sustain a donor relationship, it’s critical that nonprofits ask and answer these questions. And, as we look to future donors and the new age of transparency in nonprofits heralded by the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, measurable results are only going to grow in importance.  The Gates Foundation, charity: water and the Robin Hood Foundation are all leading the way in showing impact—and aren’t reliant on the human testimonial alone. They use the power of storytelling through data visualization, video and, in some cases, GPS trackers to show money at work. That’s showing—and not just talking about—impact.

With more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. alone, inspiring charity demands clarity.  So remember, if your nonprofit truly strives to bring “Joy to the World” this holiday season and beyond, you must keep it simple, make it personal, inspire action and show impact.

* This article was written by Hayley Berlent, Chief Strategy Officer and Managing Director, for Siegelvision, a leading NYC-based branding firm.
For nearly 20 years, Hayley has helped cause-driven organizations achieve greater understanding, relevance and impact. As the engagement and strategy lead for several brand transformation efforts, for clients ranging from the Y (YMCA) to Aetna to Rotary International.

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