Want to Raise More Funds? Go Out and Tell Your Story—to Everyone!

by Larry Checco

(Reprinted with permission from Guidestar - April 2012)

I've lived in the land of non-profit for my entire career as a musician. After forty-one years as Principal Clarinetist with the North Carolina Symphony, I am now seeing life from the management side of the organization in my position as Senior Advisor to the orchestra. Serving on both the performing and management sides of the Symphony has deepened my understanding of non-profits and the problems inherent in running an organization in which breaking even at the end of the fiscal year is often a benchmark of success. Naturally we boast on those rare occasions when we have a surplus, but in the present economic climate, extra money is rare indeed. So, what do we do to give ourselves the best chance for meeting our budgets and facing the inevitable rise in expenses from year to year? Here are a few things I have learned.

There is no substitute for understanding and having a passion for the subject itself. This is certainly true in the arts. The more a person has delved into, and had artistic experiences, the more equipped they are to impart their passion to others. Believing in what you're doing is the basis of job satisfaction.

Of course it is essential for everyone in the company, and this includes boards of trustees, to have a clear understanding of the mission and how their job relates to accomplishing that mission. It sounds so simple, but I am amazed when I talk with people from a variety of non-profits who can't really articulate their role in the scheme of things.

For the most part, non-profits exist to support worthy causes. But worthy causes aren't things you sell to customers. Our difficult task is to ask people, foundations, corporations, and governments to make gifts to support our worthy causes. Orchestras are fortunate because promoting the greatest music ever composed not only supports our ideals, but also allows us to produce the live experience in the concert hall. In order to do this, we must sell tickets, make proposals to foundations, and ask patrons to support the orchestra with a donation above the cost of their ticket.

In his effort to explain to me the problems his organization was facing raising funds and being recognized in the community for its decades of good work, the board member of a nonprofit housing organization said to me in obvious frustration, "My own 28-year-old son was recently in the market for a house. I suggested he go down the street to the organization I've been a board member of for the past 26 years. You know what my son said?"

"No," I replied.

"He said, 'What's that?'!"

The story set fireworks off in my head.

Here was a committed board member, proud of the work he and his organization were doing in the community, and yet his own son had no idea about the organization he, the father, had devoted 26 years of his life to.

Don't Overlook the Low-Hanging Fruit

When it comes to getting the word out about their organizations, the first things many nonprofits think of are marketing and advertising campaigns—followed by endless meetings on how they're going to raise the funds to pay for them.

They seldom stop to look at the low-hanging fruit just aching to be picked, namely word-of-mouth opportunities to tell their organization's narrative to those closest to them in their homes, neighborhoods, and communities.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.

The very first thing any organization needs to do is know what its narrative is, and a good place to start is by researching and answering the following questions: Who are we? What do we do? How do we do it? And why should anyone care enough to support us?

Once you've answered these questions and created a narrative that is true, compelling, and easy to understand, you then need to encourage everyone affiliated with the organization to go out and tell the story; in short, encourage everyone to be good advocates, or brand ambassadors, for the organization.

Here are some easy and inexpensive—if not totally cost-free—ways to go about spreading the word:

  • Begin at home. Practice by telling your organization's story to your family and friends. Educate them about what you and your organization do. This will enable them to become good brand advocates if someone should ask, "So, what does your spouse/mom/dad do?"

  • Get more active in your community. Frequent and active community involvement provides any number of cost-free opportunities for people in other organizations to learn firsthand who you are, what you do, and why they should care. It not only raises your brand profile in the community, it also gives you the chance to collaborate and partner with other organizations in achieving your goals. Here are some suggestions for building your brand through community engagement:

    • Seek out every opportunity to network and work with other businesses, organizations, and community leaders.
    • Encourage your staff to attend civic organization, church, and school meetings to talk about and answer questions about your organization.
    • Share resources and information with other community organizations.
    • Demonstrate your willingness to work with others to help resolve community issues by volunteering to get involved in local task force efforts.
    • Create points of entry. That is, invite prospective donors, community leaders, media representatives, and others to your organization so that they can see for themselves firsthand what it is you do as well as get answers to any questions they might have about your organization.
    • Talk to your seatmate. When traveling, take every opportunity to explain your organization to people you meet. Then hand them your business card—which should contain your organization's mission statement on the side that is usually left blank!
    • Be sensitive to the cultural make-up of your community. If the neighborhoods you are working in are multilingual, be sure you have someone on your staff who can communicate fluently with the people living and working in those areas. It's difficult to build a relationship or promote a brand when a language barrier exists.

    Remember, telling your story and building your brand are very much about creating positive relationships. And there is no better way to build these relationships than through face-to-face community engagement. But that means that your board, staff, and volunteers need to get out from behind their desks and actively work to make your organization a major player in community affairs.

    Increasing your brand visibility in this manner will serve a multitude of purposes, including helping you attract new revenue streams as well as recruit better-qualified and motivated board members, employees, and volunteers.

    So, get out there. Tell your story. And start picking that low-hanging, low-cost fruit!

    Bottom Line: Raising money and increasing outreach begin with making sure everyone you know personally - family, friends, colleagues, community contacts - is aware of your connection to the organization and understands your passion for the mission. Engage those closest to you first and spread your network from there!

    Larry Checco is president of Checco Communications and a nationally recognized public speaker, workshop presenter, and consultant on branding and leadership. He recently published his second book, Aha! Moments in Brand Management: Commonsense Insights to a Stronger, Healthier Brand. His first book, Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization, has sold thousands of copies both here and abroad.

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