Dear Nonprofiteer, We’re Unknown and Unsung

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Our social service agency does a lot of good work, but when we try to raise money from people we find that no one knows our name or what we do.  Sometimes it seems we’re the best-kept secret in town.  It doesn’t help that our clients are unsympathetic–adults with problems–rather than appealing (like children) or glamorous (like arts groups).  How can we simultaneously raise and beautify our profile?  Signed, Hiding in Plain Sight

Dear Hiding,

Not to sound like a New Age guru, but you will get more attention when you’re confident that you want more attention–that is, when you’re not held back from promoting the agency by the idea that your first task is putting lipstick on a pig.  Every nonprofit agency is persuaded that every other nonprofit agency has an easier times raising funds.  The arts groups believe the social-service groups have the unfair advantage of being essential; the groups that serve children think people give them less money because their clients are shorter.  You believe in the work you’re doing, and presumably your job is to help your clients–however "unsympathetic"–to transform their lives; so that’s the story you should tell.  By a happy coincidence, that’s the kind of story people want to hear.

Now, a couple of concrete suggestions:

  1. Does your agency have the right name?  A name change is not a trivial activity, but if you’re really unknown it won’t cost you anything in public awareness, and it might help you tell a more inspirational story.  If you’re called "The Center for Homeless Drug Addicts" you’ll raise less money than if you’re called "Transformation House"–if for no other reason than the likelihood that The Center for Homeless Drug Addicts calls itself CHDA, a collection of letters with no meaning to anyone who doesn’t go there every day.**  If you do decide to change your name, follow the example of Chicago’s Metropolitan Family Services, formerly United Charities: choose your new name to reflect what you do or who you serve, not what you want other people to do for you.  Even The Center for Homeless Drug Addicts is better than Give Addicts a Prayer–and please, please, resist the urge to come up with a name because you like the initials.
  2. Caveat to #1: spend no more than half an hour deciding whether to change or keep your name.  If your Board says, "No, no, people know us by this name!," fine–accept that and move right on to making sure more people know you by that name.  Start by making sure every piece of paper that comes out of your agency looks like it came from the same place–that it has the same logo, that it renders the name of the agency the same (and, if you do use initials, please make sure the whole name appears next to them every single time), that it uses the same typeface.  This matters because (1) most people know about you only what they read in your publications.  If your publications look sloppy or disorganized they’ll think your agency is, too; and (2) people only remember what they see over and over and over again.  If they see your name written like this and then like this and then LIKE THIS they won’t realize it’s all the same agency.  So be consistent!  Note: "every piece of paper" includes your Website.  Make sure your Web design matches your hard-copy design.
  3. Write your own headline.  Write a one-sentence description of what you do that appears on EVERYTHING you publish–brochures, pieces of stationery, press releases, invitations to benefit events.  Use active verbs ("We change lives," not "Lives are changed by us") and talk about people, not about programs ("We help drug addicts get clean," not "We have an addiction recovery program").
  4. Create your own news stories.  Identify a concrete success or two, and write a one-paragraph account of the client’s journey from there to here.  (Obviously you’ll need the clients’ permission but many people who’ve succeeded with your help will be happy to help you in return.)  Print these on card stock, 3 to an 8-1/2 by 11 sheet, so you’ve got a stack of what the old politicians called "palm cards."  (Nothing fancy, no need for pictures, though they’re not that hard to drop in, either.)  Then have your Board, staff, clients and volunteers sit down and think of every possible venue in which these can be distributed: neighborhood festivals, tag days at local grocery stores, Lions’ Club meetings; and then have Board, staff, clients and volunteers go out and secure permission from all those places to distribute palm cards there.  Meanwhile, post the stories on your Website.   
  5. Reach out to the mainstream press.  Write or call local reporters.  (See if your area has a resource like Chicago’s Community Media Workshop, which trains local nonprofits to approach media outlets that might be interested in their work.)  Tell them the stories on the palm cards, and ask if they’d be interested in learning more.  If you’ve got an inspirational story, it won’t take you long to find a feature writer or editor who wants it.  Don’t start with the big papers, the Washington Posts and Chicago Tribunes–go to the local weeklies, which are desperate for copy.  Just by being in newsprint the story gains credibility for your agency–so it doesn’t much matter whether it’s in the Wednesday Journal or the Wall Street Journal. 
  6. Reprint and distribute. After a successful effort to place a news story, many agencies are disappointed: where’s the flood of attention they were counting on?  Remember: it’s not the news story itself that counts; it’s how you use it afterwards.  Newsprint confers credibility, but not everyone on earth will happen to pick up the paper that day.  So, call the "permissions" department at the paper and ask whether you can copy and distribute the article to prospective supporters.  (That’s how you should say it: "supporters."  If you say "donors," sometimes the press gets gun-shy.)  They’ll probably ask you to put the copyright symbol, their name, and "used by permission" across the bottom–which you’ll want to do anyway, because it makes the coverage look even more official and credible!  Then mail the reprint to everyone you can think of–and keep doing that, enclosing the clipping with other mailings, until you get the next article written about you.

Quick-and-dirty summary: the only cure for being uncelebrated and unsung is to do what Walt Whitman did: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself . . . "


**all agency names invented


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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, We’re Unknown and Unsung”

  1. Gene Finley Says:

    There are two things that come to mind. I had a friend that told me he didn’t care for our clients. That hit me a little wrong after some Jack Daniels truth. I just said to him, “Well then you goddam sure don’t want us to quit doing what we do”.

    The other thought is that volunteers are your best messengers and your best donors. You can count upon them to tell your story well and you can count on them to donate. When you need good PR they have sweet stories to tell.

    Sorry if that word above offends but it’s what I said to the guy. A good donor these days, he is.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Excellent riposte! I wonder whether a charity could get away with a marketing piece or fundraising appeal with exactly that headline–“If you think our clients are a problem, then you sure don’t want us to stop what we’re doing!”–or whether that’s the kind of thing people grasp face-to-face and simply recoil from when it’s written down.

    You’re absolutely right that volunteers should be out front and center to the press; if you can find a volunteer who’s willing to talk, s/he’s solid gold.

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