Lessons from young charities - part 2

Written by
James Read
May 22, 2012

Part 2: what today’s innovative new charities can teach the rest of us

In part one we started a discussion about the five principles that characterise today’s most exciting young nonprofits. These are organisations like Charity: Water,Invisible Children, and others that have rocketed to international prominence and have raised millions of dollars for their cause. We’re also looking at how more mature organisations can apply these principles to their own organisations.

Here are principles three, four, and five.

Principle 3: be a storyteller

Over and over, the leaders of successful young nonprofits tell you that they are storytellers. Why? Because facts and statistics alone are not enough to motivate passion to change the world. It must come from the stories of people caught in circumstances we would find intolerable – and that creates energy that motivates us to act.

Not surprisingly, younger charities have found film and video to be the most powerful way to tell their stories. Invisible Children, Charity: Water, Falling Whistles and others have video at the heart of their communications strategy. Video is shareable and faster than almost anything else at moving someone to action.

Storytelling is an easy principle for many organisations – especially older ones. Every organisation that’s been in existence for a while should have a wealth of stories about their impact. Yes, it takes time and investment to find your stories and tell them well. But it’s worth it.

Principle 4: invest in the brand experience

The most successful young nonprofits today put a great amount of thought and effort into how their supporters experience their brand. They craft their websites, social media interactions, events and branded merchandise with one goal – to create a compelling user experience.

Is it expensive? Is it hard to do well? Yes and yes. But it’s critical for building the energy and momentum that a movement needs to spread rapidly. Ben Keesey, CEO of Invisible Children, states that they want their branded merchandise to be better than what for-profit companies produce because their cause is more important.

Of course, what is an appropriate brand experience for a new organisation like Invisible Children may not be appropriate for your organisation. Younger organisations tend to be supported by younger donors who have different expectations. The key is to create a consistent brand experience that will resonate with your audience. As Jeff Brooks (who blogs at Future Fundraising Now) so eloquently points out, the little things – like timely thank-you letters – often matter as much as big things such as your website.

Principle 5: prove your impact

In today’s cynical world – saturated with marketing promises – the impact of the first four principles fizzles out quickly if you can’t demonstrate that what your organisation does is working. To use an old metaphor, proof of impact is like railway sleepers. Once they’re in place, you can lay even more tracks that will send your momentum train further than you ever imagined it could go.

Charity: Water is a master at this, using video, photos and Google maps to show the impact of completed water projects. It creates a virtuous cycle, as satisfied donors then share the Charity: Water story with more and more people.

The good news is that you don’t have to be perfect. Recently Charity: Water had to retract a claim about duration of impact. They posted a thorough explanation on their blog about why they could no longer confidently state that an individual would receive clean water for 20 years through their projects.

According to Rod Arnold, their chief operating officer, supporter reaction was very positive. Charity: Water had demonstrated they valued their constituents as equal partners who deserved the truth – not as faceless donors who were only as good as their last gift.

Again, this principle should be a no-brainer for charities of all ages and sizes. You’re doing good work, so invest the time and effort needed to prove it.

There you have them – five principles that characterisetoday’s hottest young non-profits. Will following them make your organisation a recognised name? Maybe, maybe not. But they will help you build a stronger, more loyal base of supporters for your work.

About the author: James Read

James Read

James Read, believes the best days of fundraising are ahead of us. A creative director at Grizzard in the USA, he focuses on understanding how rapid changes in technology and culture apply to strategy, messaging and copywriting in nonprofit fundraising.

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