Telling your story well is something you need to be extremely intentional about doing.
So how is 2022 ending for your nonprofit?
Especially if December 31st marks your fiscal year-end, are you going out with a bang or a whimper? And even if you can legitimately place the year 2022 firmly in the “success” category, how do you translate that into a meaningful narrative for someone outside of your organization?
Sometimes, we get so enmeshed in the ins and outs of daily operations that we lose sight of the larger conclusions that we need to draw. Coming in under budget for your yearly operations is a laudable goal, but there has to ultimately be more than the bottom line when it comes to ascertaining if your nonprofit is really living up to its potential. Even more importantly, you have to be able to maintain enthusiasm from others for supporting your mission, and that can be difficult to do if it’s based simply on the fact that you kept things from going into the red.
The importance of finding ways to relevantly tell the story of your organization is further complicated by the fact that most nonprofits don’t rely simply on a payment-for-service model so common to standard profit-based entities. Financing operations in the nonprofit world is, more often than not, a crazy quilt of donations, fundraising events, grants, endowments, and other assorted income streams that are usually predicated on the assumption that your organization is fulfilling its mission. It’s challenging enough to try to entice people to fuel your nonprofit’s coffers as a one-time event, but developing and growing that support over a protracted time period can be nothing short of daunting. As a result, telling your story well is something you need to be extremely intentional about doing.
For new startups or for smaller nonprofits with a modest operating structure, there can be an implied sense of timidity, of being almost sheepish about talking too much about the organization and its mission. Especially from the perspective of seeking donations, some nonprofits can seem to almost embrace the mindset of not wanting to press their luck. Now more than ever, nearly three years after the onset of the pandemic, with inflation and energy prices at near record highs, it may seem to be the worst possible climate in which to ask people for money.
But, contrary to that perspective, the reality is that Americans actually are still willing to fund organizations whose causes resonate deeply with them.
According to Zippia, during the height of the pandemic in 2021, online giving to nonprofits increased by 12.1%.
This actually speaks to two different aspects of funding your nonprofit. If you can present your narrative in a truly compelling way, people with a shared value set will be willing to monetarily support your mission, even at a time when the financial climate is far from ideal. Secondly, and possibly even more important, this statistic reflects the incredible significance of an online presence. In-person fundraising will always have its place, but solid and widespread support is best facilitated through a powerful online presence, embracing everything from an organizational website to a well-maintained Facebook page, from a YouTube channel to an Instagram account to a podcast.
But even if you manage to create a multi-faceted digital platform, how do you go about crafting a narrative that accurately reflects what fulfilling your mission actually means? Conducting surveys of the clients or customers you serve certainly plays a role, but there has to be a more comprehensive way to distill your organizational experience. To narrate your story so that it’s not only engaging but also statistically valid requires that you embrace both the qualitative and the quantitative. It may seem dehumanizing to reduce your client interactions to facts and figures, but it’s difficult to build a compelling case for your nonprofit’s legitimacy unless you have objective metrics to measure your performance.
The concept of outcome tracking is the most straightforward way to answer the questions, “Why did the client seek us out?” and, “What did we do to serve the client’s needs?”. Irrespective of your organization’s mission, you have a clearly-defined set of services you provide, and people will seek you out based on your ability to address their needs via those services. At the completion of the interaction there will automatically be an outcome, and you need to have an intentional, investigative approach to measure this in a meaningful way. Simply identifying what someone wanted and what you did for them only addresses part of the story.
If you were unable to provide the service the client was seeking, why was that the case? Did the client ask for something completely outside the structure of what you provide, or were there obligations for receiving that service that the client failed to fulfil? An incomplete service transaction can, on the surface, look like a failure on the part of the organization. That’s why the back story can’t be overlooked; knowing that something didn’t happen is basically meaningless unless you can present an explanation as to why it didn’t happen. You can use everything from Customer Relationship Management software to a humble Excel spreadsheet to track outcomes – the tool is irrelevant, but the data you’re documenting is crucial.
Another fantastic byproduct of outcome tracking is the fact that you can filter the results to determine how your services played out across the full spectrum of the clients you served. Trend analysis can shine a spotlight on deficiencies in your operational processes, or help you validate the effectiveness of the programs in your organization. But it can also help you to understand the outside factors that influence how your services are carried out. Do you serve fewer clients in February than in July because your geographical location experiences severe winter weather? Do single parents have greater difficulty in meeting your program obligations because they experience the added challenges of finding child care?
Armed with this cumulative knowledge base – which is, in reality, the most valuable possession of your entire organization – you can not only draw conclusions about how well you do what you do, but you can use that information to create an engaging narrative for others to better understand what your venture is all about. Never sell yourself short – it’s your story, a story that came into being because you care about what you do. Always ensure that you care just as much about telling it to others so that they, too, can be passionate supporters of your mission.
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