stories that move


What I'm Thinking About

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What Do You Wish Everyone Knew?

Photo walk shot of street art by Robin Bradford.

Photo walk shot of street art by Robin Bradford.

Recently a large well-known nonprofit was updating their longtime fundraising luncheon held at a hotel into a more exciting, inspiring (and financially fruitful) event. The new lunch would be held under a tent in the parking lot of their facility. I am passionate about this group’s mission and was thrilled to help them.

I met monthly with their impressive and capable fundraising team and also with their communications team. Early on, I found myself glazing over as they spoke passionately about 13—or was it 33?—programs they provided at multiple locations. Each program had a clever name or acronym. I knew each program was a strategy created to meet a particular audience or need but as they tried to help me appreciate every single aspect of their work, I finally said “uncle.” When I said “tell me about your work” they heard “tell me every single thing about your work.”

This is a common problem. A prospective donor cares about your cause. They are seeking a way to be part of your nonprofit’s work. They show up, ask questions, bring friends. Yet, so often nonprofits meet curiosity with a flood of information that leaves people confused and disengaged. “They are doing a lot,” the donor thinks and without much thought makes a gift.

So what’s wrong with that? A lot.

This situation reminds me of an afternoon I recently spent with a friend. My friend and I have walked nearly weekly for the past six years. We’ve walked through cancer (hers and my husband’s), deaths (our mothers, my father), job changes (both of us are now in our dream jobs!), and much more. Recently, her elderly father started hospice care so I offered to drive her to the town where he lives two hours away to check on him. We are the kind of friends who don’t need the radio on. We value each other’s company. And on the long drive back, having spent time with her dad, I began to tell her about my family.

Stuck in IH-35 traffic, I told her about how I only have one cousin. I said he has three kids and lives in upstate New York, and his father died quite suddenly at age 48 of a brain tumor. I told about my aunt who struggled with Multiple Sclerosis, and my visit with her when she was in hospice care. I told about my mother and aunt’s dad, my grandfather, who disappeared when they were little and how my aunt hired a detective to find him when she grew up. My dear friend asked questions and expressed interest or I wouldn’t have yammered on.

But do we show the same respect to donors? Do we “overshare” before the time is right?

Imagine how our donors feel when we open the metaphorical suitcase of our nonprofit’s work and pull out everything but the kitchen sink!

“Three things,” I told this hard-working nonprofit staff. Put all that stuff you just told me into three buckets. These are the three things you do.

“Only three?” they asked in disbelief. They do do so much…

“Three. People can only hear three things.”

They did it. Together we figured out the three most important things they did. Is this “dumbing down” their work? Not at all. It is communicating at the appropriate level of detail about their work.

As the date of the big event approached, a video was produced and we developed the event script. One afternoon I had a phone meeting with the nonprofit’s executive director to help her develop her remarks.

But she was frustrated. She’d been filmed in the video saying the one or two things I scripted and it didn’t seem like enough. She was used to hitting data points and sharing stories. I reminded her all of that was being covered by other parts of the program.

“But what’s left for me to say?” she asked. She was a very experienced senior leader and a national, if not international, expert in her field. I’d pushed her out of her comfort zone. (And doing so was pushing me out of my own!)

“What do you really wish people knew about your organization and your work?” I asked.

This simple question opened up a cascade of powerful reflections. Listening, I typed as fast as I could. She said she was sometimes frustrated that people thought they knew what her organization did and the problems the nonprofit was trying to solve. But like the proverbial blind people touching the elephant, they each had a different, personal and somewhat small notion of the nonprofit’s work.

“What we are doing is big,” she explained. “We are approaching this problem in a way no other organization is,” she added. “And it works,” she said. “We are a model around the world,” she said. “That’s what I wish people knew.”

The day of the luncheon, the weather was perfect, the guests arrived and toured the facility. They heard carefully crafted stories that represented the “three buckets” of the nonprofit’s work. (They did not hear about all of the 33 wonderful programs!) Under a big tent, everyone gathered to hear testimonials and watch a video capturing how this organization changed the lives of three people. The executive director shared her vision for the future and what she really wished people knew about the group’s work and the current unmet need in our community.

There weren’t a ton of data points. Not every single program was represented. That meant there was time for a slow and caring solicitation by a volunteer champion of the organization. And that day they raised more money than they ever had when they held lunch at the fancy hotel.

After the event, one board member told the development director, “Every moment was sacred.”

The work of this nonprofit is sacred—but when flooded with more information than is necessary, a prospective donor (or even a longtime supporter!) can feel disoriented and nonessential. But when prospective and longtime donors get to experience the sacred, vital, essential nature of a nonprofit’s work , they can step into the scene. Now they are part of your story—not an impressed (and slightly confused) bystander. And that’s when the real giving begins.

Robin Bradford