It’s tempting for some nonprofits to skip this step because they assume that the message is self-evident. All they have to do is talk about their work – and they’re already experts in that very subject. What could market research or a marketing professional tell them that they don’t already know?
Once upon a time, a man was walking along the road when he saw a group of stonemasons hard at work up ahead.
“What are you doing?” he asked one mason curiously when he came close enough.
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m laying bricks,” the stonemason said. This answer wasn’t very informative, but the man didn’t want to bother the busy mason, so he continued down the road. Soon, he reached the second stonemason, who seemed quite busy too. The man watched for a while and then asked the same question again.
“What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m building a wall,” the second stonemason said. This answer wasn’t terribly illuminating either, but the man thanked the stonemason politely and continued on his way until he reached the third stonemason. After two such unhelpful answers, he had almost given up, but he decided to try one last time.
“What are you doing?” he asked the third stonemason.
The stonemason looked up with a wide smile and said: “I’m building a cathedral! It’s going to be a beauty.”
It’s true that potential supporters want to hear about your work; and it’s true that you’re the expert in that subject. But when you talk about your work, are you certain that you’re really giving them the information they’re interested in?
Imagine a video by a non-profit that provides school supplies to underprivileged areas. The staff at the organization knows that the personal connection is really important to their donors, so they spend the video talking about how, if you donate, your contribution will be given to one of your local schools. You’ll be making a difference in your own community.
This isn’t necessarily a bad subject for a video, but it’s not the specific angle I would recommend as a professional. If you want to impress viewers with the personal impact that their efforts have, you can’t just focus on the donors themselves. You have to put the children onscreen; they’re the ones whose stories prove that the organization is making a difference.
This fact is so fundamental, it would often fail to occur to someone in the organization that it needs to be said.
This is an oversight that can happen in any kind of non-profit. A meal delivery organization can spend three minutes talking about the quality of their food without showing a single person whose life is made better by it. A research hospital can describe all kinds of scientific advancements without telling the stories of the people whose lives have been saved.
The problem of good messaging seems to be widespread across the non-profit world. I recently read about a survey in which 76% of responding board members didn’t believe their messaging resonated with their audience.
And yet, there’s still a tendency to skimp on messaging and research. Change is difficult; it’s more comfortable to stick with what’s familiar.
On the other hand, a non-profit that is willing to take on an updated, strategic approach would be gaining quite an edge.
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