Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

January 9, 2012

Nonprofits have a great story to tell

By Todd Cohen

A crucial task for nonprofits struggling in the broken economy is to do a much better job talking about the essential role they play serving people and places in need.

Through the stories they tell, nonprofits need to raise supporters’ and partners’ awareness of urgent social and global problems, help them see their organization’s impact in helping to fix those problems, and help them understand the difference they can make by investing time, know-how and money in their organizations.

Stories also are essential in helping investors appreciate nonprofits’ own need to build their capacity to learn, lead and grow, as well as the challenges they face in navigating economic stress and social change.

The unraveling economy has pushed many nonprofits to the edge, swamping some and motivating others to find ways to work smarter and serve better.

Demand for nonprofit services has soared while the marketplace for the resources nonprofits count on has tightened and is shifting dramatically.

Powering the expanding social economy is any individual or organization working to put private resources to public good.

In the face of social and global crises, sweeping demographic change, and rapid advances in technology, the once-separate worlds of charity, private capital and public policy are evolving quickly and starting to overlap.

In that rapidly evolving marketplace, underlying challenges for nonprofits are to adapt and improve their organizations, help their investors understand how change is affecting the communities they care about, and show investors how they can make an impact on fixing community problems by getting involved in their organizations.

That requires engaged boards and donors, effective and inspired leaders and managers, partners who are truly collaborative, and an organization with the vision, business model and resources to turn that vision into results.

It requires understanding the values and interests of prospective donors, volunteers and other partners, and finding meaningful and fulfilling ways to engage them in the organization.

And it requires developing a clear, simple and compelling story that helps people see how supporting a particular nonprofit will make a difference in the causes they care about.

A critical part of building organizational capacity is for nonprofits to vastly improve the way they communicate, both internally and externally.

So the story the organization develops about its role and impact in taking on social and global problems should inform and help shape the work it does and the way it works.

The staff, board and volunteers of a nonprofit should be able to tell that story, and should be telling it every chance they get.

And they should be using the broad range of available vehicles to tell it, including talking to donors and other individuals and organizations; using the organization’s website, email and other digital media; and speaking to civic organizations, on public-affairs radio and television, and writing guest opinion columns for news and specialty publications.

Nonprofits have important stories to tell, and they should make it a priority to tell those stories as clearly, as often and as broadly as they can.


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