Mastering Nonprofit Communications: Three Short Lessons

Messaging in the nonprofit world is just as important as in corporate America. But instead of getting someone to buy a product, our goal is donor investment in our communities, our universities, our churches.

Embrace Vanity

In today’s donor-speak, a three-letter word is all the rage.  The word is not “now,” although conveying a sense of urgency is always important.  It’s not “yes” or “why.”

The word of the day is “you.” It’s called donor-centric fundraising—a strategy that is less about an organization’s accomplishments and more about the emotions that come with making a gift. For example, “Because of you, 100 more students will walk across the stage at graduation” or “Your contribution is the reason this family stayed together in their home.”

Perhaps it’s a result of our narcissistic society.  Maybe the blame falls on our attention-craving leaders or the rise of the selfie.  Whatever the reason, it’s all about ourselves—even as we help others.

But maybe harnessing the power of the good feeling isn’t all bad.

A 2015 conversation with Draymond Green, the Golden State Warrior’s power forward, shows the power of emotion. He pledged $3.1 million to his alma mater, Michigan State.  The motivations behind his gift are self-centered yet inspiring.

Green had spoken with Tom Izzo, his former coach, about giving.  Izzo talked about the $1 million donation he had made to Michigan State four years earlier.  Green explained, “He said it was one of the happiest moments of his life.  I wanted that feeling.”[1]

Stop Throwing Stats at Us

A few years ago, a commercial caught my attention, and not because it was amusing or compelling, but because it was so boring.  It was a campaign to stop government funding cuts to hospitals. The ad was a litany of stats: every year, 5.6 million hospital workers conduct 23 million surgeries, deliver 3.7 million babies, and treat 133 million ER patients.

The flood of numbers numbed my brain. When numbers get that big and abstract, they lose their impact.  They could’ve said 100 million surgeries instead of 23 million surgeries and the result would’ve been the same.  The numbers were just too big to grasp, and there were too many of them.

Real-life stories would’ve told a different story. Show the baby who would’ve died if not for the doctors and hospital equipment that saved her. Talk about the dad who lived to walk his daughter down the aisle–thanks only to the ER that saved his life.  Bring in emotions and the ad works.

A campaign here in South Carolina used stats, but in a way that was effective.  It was a campaign to reduce traffic deaths.  A reporter asked people on the street, “How many people died on our highways last year?” One said 55,000.  Another guessed 500,000.

When the reporter asked next, “what is a reasonable goal for reducing traffic fatalities in South Carolina,” most responded that the number should be cut in half. Sensible enough, until the next question.

“What is a reasonable goal for traffic fatalities in your family?” asks the interviewer. The people being interviewed had a shocked look on their face because the question was no longer in the abstract.  It became personal, and the message hit home.

 The Donor as Hero

Donors want to solve a problem.  If nothing is wrong, why does anyone need their donations?

Too many nonprofits are afraid to be negative.  They want only optimistic messaging and pictures of happy children.  If you run a food bank or an animal shelter, it’s okay to show pictures of hungry people or homeless dogs because they evoke strong emotions.  They show the problem only a donor can solve.

A few years ago, the YMCA rebranded itself as The Y.  The messaging that went with the rebranding was powerful because it set up the Y as the problem solver.

If you haven’t seen the ads, here’s a brief description of the one called Idle Hands.

It starts with children looking bored.  They’re wasting time and play fighting. You get the sense that trouble is lurking just around the corner. An ominous voice begins, “Idle hands. They say they’re the devil’s workshop. Easy targets.”

Then, new video appears.  It’s brighter, more cheerful.  Students are working on crafts and other projects.  They’re choosing constructive activities like doing their homework or playing basketball …at the Y, of course.

Kevin Brady, the ad’s executive creative director, explained the reasoning behind the story.  “You don’t tend to give money when everything is perfect, you give it when there is a true, urgent need, and the Y is addressing those needs every day of the week.”[2]

Well said.

Written by Jessica Browning, Senior Vice President of Communications for the Winkler Group, a full-service fundraising firm specializing in capital campaigns and planning studies.  Ms. Browning has 25 years of nonprofit marketing and development experience.  She received a B.A. from Duke University and an M.A. and M.B.A. from William & Mary.  Follow Jessica @jwjbrowning or @winklergroup.

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