Nonprofits don’t need another campaign. We need to look at our social media strategy over the long term and embrace it for the community building, impact making gift that it is. If people care about Kim Kardashian, certainly we can get them to care about education, health care, poverty, the environment, and humanity.Read More
People spend a good part of their lives trying to figure out who they are- understanding their identity. As organizations, however, we usually focus on what we do instead of who we are. We know what we represent, what we’re for and against, how we present ourselves to the rest of the world, etc., but we don’t know our story. Positioning organizations as influencers requires us to rethink this strategy. Ultimately, being an influencer is about building relationships and creating community around our organizations. This means we need to humanize ourselves. We need a story of who we are- a unique narrative that will resonate with people and help them to identify with our cause.
3 Steps to Crafting Your Organization’s Narrative
1. Ask your community
When we first begin to consider who we are, we have to recognize that our organization is made up of multiple individuals with their own stories. These stories are vital to understanding our larger narrative. So, first thing’s first: interviews.
Start by speaking with five to ten people connected to your organization- staff, board members, volunteers, beneficiaries, members of the community- anyone who is affected by the work you do. Ask them questions to learn about their relationship to your work. What does your organization mean to them? What would they be doing if your organization didn’t exist? Do they have a meaningful memory from their time with you? Keep the questions as open-ended as possible. It’s amazing what comes from this exercise.
Most of us who run nonprofits think we know exactly what we’re doing, why we do it, and how it’s perceived by others, but we’re usually missing something. By taking the time to interview all the different stakeholders connected to our organization, we get a personified understanding of the role we play in our community, and we may be surprised by the results. When we start listening to everyone’s perspective of the role our organization plays in their lives, we see that we mean so much more than the services we provide.
2. Ask yourself
Step two is the reverse of step one. We begin the process of crafting our narrative by finding the stories of those who are influenced by us, but to tell our story, we have to see how we are influenced by them. So, it’s time to flip it. Ask the same questions you asked in step one, but this time ask them of yourself: What does this person mean to our organization? What would our organization be like without them? Do we have a meaningful memory of our time with them?
By comparing our community’s experience of us to our experience of our community, we begin to see a kind of plot emerge. Our organization’s role within our community begins to take on an identity of its own. Through story, we’re able to understand the relationships between our community members and us. This helps us to erase the boundary typically erected between organizations and the communities they serve. It enables us to craft a narrative that is holistic in its approach, relatable in its presentation, and human at its core.
3. Identify the theme
Through this process, we begin to see a theme emerge that is far more human than a mission statement. This is where our narrative begins. In the case of re:imagine/ATL (from our first element of influence), the theme that emerged was diversity. When Good Done Well worked with an arts education after-school program, we discovered their theme was family. The theme acts as the anchor of our narrative. It helps us understand the feeling we’re trying to communicate through the story of our organization.
The theme is the connective tissue between you and your community. You’ll be able to figure it out by listening for similarities in the first two steps. Some word will keep coming up, or some emotion will be expressed, or multiple people will get excited about the same thing. Ultimately, understanding your theme comes down to instinct. You’ll just know. This theme is going to inform everything about your narrative: its tone of voice, how your organization is positioned, the anecdotes you choose to tell, the font you use, the pictures you post, the photographer you work with… everything. When you understand what that theme is, it will connect everything else.
4. Build the narrative
From the first two steps, we collected a lot of stories related to the work we do. By intentionally weaving together these stories with their theme we begin to build our narrative. Do you ever notice how so many nonprofits post pictures on Instagram or Facebook with a quick, hollow description (I call this obligatory social media), or requests for donations are sent on formal letterhead? So many of the communications from nonprofits could be a template. Just switch the nouns to represent the cause of your choice and hit send. This is not the way to build a community. As you begin to build your organization’s narrative, ask yourself three questions:
Is it Unique? Is it Memorable? Is it Personal?
A narrative is not a creation story- it’s not something that you write down once and forget about except for copy and pasting it on your annual report once a year. Just like our personal narratives, the narrative of our organization is a living, breathing story that guides us, moves with us, and transcends us. Our narrative is our ethos and our identity. It informs every aspect of our communications strategy- website, social media, PR… and it informs our programming, fundraising, interior decorating, hiring, firing, it informs everything we do.
Case Study: DIGDEEP
Three years ago, before Good Done Well was even an idea, I started working with a small organization called DIGDEEP. I could go on and on about how incredible the organization is. Their founder is one of those people who embodies multiple rare, enviable qualities: work ethic, innovation, creativity, passion… he’s a visionary who also happens to get shit done. When I began working with them, they were building water systems for communities in Africa, but around that time, they learned about water poverty in America and begin re-focusing their work on Native American communities.
We worked together on an awareness campaign called #4Liters. By taking the #4Liters Challenge, people agreed to spend 24 hours living on 4 liters of water- the minimum amount of water needed per day to survive, according to the World Health Organization- instead of the typical 400 liters. My first two years working on the campaign we worked to get YouTube influencers to take the challenge, hoping to raise awareness and encourage the public to take the challenge themselves.
Towards the end of my second year with the #4Liters challenge, I sat down with DIGDEEP’s founder and learned that the #4Liters campaign went way beyond my initial understanding. He explained to me the idea of water as a human right. For the last two campaigns, we had been focusing on the simplest version of the challenge- right now you’re using a lot of water, spend one day using less- but the narrative of DIGDEEP wasn’t conservation, it was water as a human right. The point of the #4Liters Challenge wasn’t getting people to use less water for one day, it was getting people to empathize with the millions of people who were denied that basic human right on a daily basis.
This year, we’ve spent more time crafting the #4Liters narrative and thinking about how we can connect the work we do to the stories of our community. We’ve developed a narrative that is unique in two ways: the #4Liters campaign is a water campaign not about conservation, but about water as a human right, and DIGDEEP is the only organization working on behalf of the 1.3 million Americans currently living without access to safe, clean water (other organizations do this work internationally). This narrative is memorable because they work to weave together the stories of their entire community – the families they serve, the people who support them, and Native Americans currently fighting for water rights. People who hear about DIGDEEP remember the deeply personal stories surrounding their work. This satisfies the last criterion- that the narrative be personal.
In three years, #4Liters has evolved from a simple awareness challenge into a way to advocate for our neighbors, and connect a community of people from extraordinarily different backgrounds around a theme and a narrative that resonates with all of us.
Why should you craft a narrative?
Yes, technically nonprofits are organizations. We do things. We work hard to make the world better. But behind our work is the story of our community. I can’t yet give you the empirical value of taking the time to understand yours, but I promise you that all you have to do is start interviewing your community to see for yourself. What we do matters, and so does who we are, because lots of organizations are doing what you’re doing (or at least something similar), but you’re the only you. Who you are differentiates you from everyone else. So, take the time to craft you narrative, and then use it in every single piece of communications you produce. Two things will happen: you’ll start to look forward to producing communications, and people will start to look forward to hearing what you have to say.
We see you. We hear you. We love you.
With Gratitude, GDW
Most of us think we already have a why and that it lives on the about page of our website under mission, vision, and values. Mission, vision, and values are very important to the heart of an organization, but they are no why. A why is deeper and more elemental than any mission or vision statement. A why is your raison d’etre, the force that drives you, and most importantly, the thing that connects you to everyone else.Read More
Sustainability may be one of the most over-used words in the world right now. It’s used in a myriad of different contexts from the corporate world to home appliances. We use the term sustainability all the time in the social good space – sustainable change, sustainable practices, eco-sustainability – but we never use it in the financial context. The ridiculous pressures of society on the nonprofit world has led us to this place where we are forced into survival mode, constantly relying upon grants and the chance generosity of others to fund the very necessary projects we run.
Conventional wisdom tells us that nonprofits exist out of a selfless, altruistic, you before me attitude that drives individuals to create organizations that can only ever give. This isn’t just, it isn’t empowering, it doesn’t solve problems, and it isn’t possible. This mindset puts an enormous pressure on staff at these organizations to quantify their every thought, to operate solely in the near term, and to close their fists tightly around every dollar. Societal norms are forcing the organizations best equipped to change the world into scarcity frameworks that will never be able to grow or expand. If we’re serious about delivering transformation, it’s time to reset our strategy and change the way we understand financial management of our organizations.
transactional --> investment = sustainability
Our current mindset sets us squarely in transactional models. The idea that we ask donors for X much, which means we can do X much right here, right now, and we can take pictures of it and post them on our social media feeds to prove that X dollars yield one smile… is crazy. It only allows for immediate loss or gain which solidifies the notion that the future is beyond our control and not worth thinking about or spending on. When we run our organizations on transactional models, we will never move into investment quality outcomes. If we’re waiting for the mega-grant/donor to magically appear and offer us the money we’ve always dreamt of to scale our work and multiply our impact, we may as well stop now. In these situations, it’s not the amount of money that matters, but our mindsets when it comes to managing it.
If transactional financial models are about immediate gain/return and using the money in a way the produces the quickest, most tangible outcome, then investment financial models are the opposite. The investment approach says that our organization is more interested in depth of transformation, continuity, endurance, and lasting relationship. When we’re employing the investment approach, we may not see those perfectly quantifiable results that donors love to see in their annual reports – but we’re dealing with big issues, real issues: human beings, animals, and saving the planet. Investment mindsets push us to think beyond next week and imagine how the financial decisions we’re making today are going to impact the communities we serve for the next 5, 10, 20 years. The investment model is built on the principle of sustainability with the core belief that the good we do only matters if it is truly and deeply felt beyond the outcome of our brief transactions.
The concept of transaction versus investment models is a relatively simple one, so what does it mean in practice?
- Reliance on grants for day-to-day programming
- Creating a fundraising budget based on the exact needs for one fiscal year
- Working independently of partnerships with other nonprofits and corporations
- Total reliance on donations and grants for revenue
- Barely getting through the week without crying over money
- Using grants as seed funding for projects with sustainable financial models built-in
- Creating a fundraising budget based on needs for current fiscal year and scale/expansion projects set for the next 1-5 years
- Working with like-minded nonprofits and corporations in the community to share resources and scale in tandem
- Creating additional membership, marketplace, or sliding scale models in addition to donations and grants for revenue
- Crying tears of joy over the lasting relationships and impact your organization is able to be a part of
Moving from a transactional model to an investment one does not in any way mean that we should stop evaluating our impact. Quantifying the work we do is important on a number of levels and we have a responsibility to our supporters to communicate the differences being made through the power of our organizations. What we have to be mindful of is the methods we’re using to evaluate impact and the metrics that we are looking at. Transactional models limit us to binary outcomes – getting one child out of poverty, building three wells, curing one type of cancer – but anyone who’s worked in the social good industry for more than five minutes knows that our outcomes reach far past that. We help sixteen-year-old girls work through their unplanned pregnancy, we share food with the family who is hosting us as we build their well, we do our best to empower leaders, we come up with missing dollars, sneakers, desks, water bottles. Our work is love, and love is much trickier to quantify than schools built or koalas saved (but it is possible to quantify, and the best impact evaluators know how).
So to resist another binary, where do you fall in the transactional <> investment spectrum. How is your organization financially structuring itself? If you feel like you’re leaning toward the transactional, Good Done Well is here to help you. We’re here to help you break down what exists, understand where you want to go, and put the financial structures in place so that you can do so sustainably. If you’ve recently moved from transactional toward investment, we’d love to hear from you. What’s worked, what hasn’t, do you have any wisdom for the rest of tribe? Comment, call, email, we love to hear from you.
We see you. We hear you. We love you.
With gratitude, GDW