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Vol. 41, No. 1

Quick! What does your organization do? NCBF speaker helps you answer that question

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“A nonprofit that understands its brand—not just its mission—is in a better position to get things done.”

That’s according to Jennie Winton, founding partner at San Francisco-based branding firm Mission Minded, which works exclusively with nonprofits. In a plenary at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Foundations, Winton walked participants through a model that can help you craft an effective message about your organization—whether you have one minute of someone’s time, two minutes, five minutes, or longer. 

Though this is changing a bit as nonprofit management becomes a profession in its own right, Winton said, it’s typical that someone working on staff or as a volunteer comes to an organization with a passion for its cause, but without a lot of knowledge in marketing and branding.

This can lead to the feeling that, though you love and believe in the organization, you don’t know how to explain it to others in conversation—or make them care. If you’ve ever panicked when someone approaches you and says, “So … what does your organization do?” then read on.

What gets in the way?

“We often fail to use visual language when speaking,” Winton said. Another unhelpful tendency, she added, is to focus on what programs the organization offers rather than on the impact it has on the people it helps.

It’s critical, Winton said, to start your conversation by talking about your organization’s impact. This, and not the laundry list of specific programs, is what you most want them to remember later and possibly act on—and “you never know how long you have” to talk to someone. If the conversation does go a bit longer, she added, then you can always get into more detail about your programs.

Another way to think of it, she said, is benefits versus features. Features are the programs and other specific things your organization offers, and benefits are the ways those things help people—and the reasons your listener will want to get involved. Make sure you lead with benefits, Winton stressed.

Jargon is another big stumbling block, Winton said. For a bar foundation or association, this can include legal terms (if you must use them, make sure to define them)—and for any organization, it can include acronyms. The full name of the organization says much more than any acronym can, she believes.

Always err on the side of explaining more than might be needed, Winton advised, even when speaking with a donor, volunteer, or other stakeholder. “Never assume that the person you’re speaking to understands your organization,” she said, “even if they’re on your board.”

Another bad habit, she said, is to change your message each time you talk about your organization, out of the mistaken belief that people will notice and be annoyed if you repeat yourself. In fact, Winton believes, repetition is key: In advertising, she noted, it’s widely known that a consumer must hear the same message 14 times before it sinks in.

Key elements of a good message

“A good message points to the problem you’re trying to solve,” Winton said, adding that it’s important to be as explicit as possible.

To challenge yourself, she recommended, keep asking yourself, “Why does it matter?” So, if you start with the idea that your foundation gives a grant to a law-related organization, why does it matter that this money is given? And if the organization then uses the money to increase access to justice, why does that matter? If you tease it out far enough, she said, you might arrive at something along the lines that your community is stronger when everyone can get legal help.

Even if someone is already well versed in whatever problem your organization solves, stating it clearly can give the person a minute to connect with you, Winton said.

Speaking of connection, it’s important to add some emotion—a “heart connection”—to your message, Winton said; this makes the other person more likely to engage with what you’re saying and remember it later.

And find a way to insert the word “you,” she advised. “The worst date you’ve ever been on” is one where the other person talks about themselves the whole time—you don’t want to give anyone that feeling.

Message crafting through Mad Libs

Remember the pencil-and-paper game Mad Libs, in which filling in blanks for things like “adjective” and “part of the body” results in a funny story? Well, it can also help you craft a great message about your organization, Winton said.

She shared the following Mad Libs-style template:

“______(Name of Organization) believes ______(Deeply Held Value). Every day, we ______(Verb) _______(Object) for _______(Constituents), because _______(Problem Statement).”

How might that look in real life? Here’s an example from a Mission Minded client:

“At Youth Outside, we believe a meaningful experience in nature can change the course of a life. We lead the field by counseling, coaching, and funding outdoor educators and thought-leaders to ensure that as many youth as possible can partake in the life-changing experience of the outdoors. Because when we do, we improve the lives of youth today and create dynamic outdoor stewards for tomorrow.”

One minute, two minutes, five minutes … and beyond

Say you develop such an effective one-minute message (which you can also think of as your “elevator pitch”) that your listener is hanging on your every word and is clearly open to hearing more. How do you build from that strong start? Winton broke down the various lengths of messages and what type of information you should add at each stage:

  • One minute. This is the model we’ve focused on in this article, and it is the foundation for the longer messages. Use the Mad Libs exercise and the “Why does that matter?” question to get at the most important points—and then resist adding further detail.

  • Two minutes. What you add here is more specific detail about how it is that your organization is solving a problem in ways that no one else can. How does the organization’s work solve a specific problem and make the world a better place? Though you should have a single one-minute message for the organization or for a particular program, it’s appropriate to have several at the two-minute length.

  • Five minutes. If you have a little longer, then build from the two-minute message and add a true story that demonstrates why your programs matter because of the impact they have on the people you serve. Close by describing why only your organization can bring about this great outcome. It’s tempting to add figures and statistics at this point, but a story is more effective.

  • Ten minutes. This is the message that leads up to what fundraisers call “the ask”—that is, the direct request for money, volunteer time, or whatever support you need. This is also your first opportunity to explain in detail a program that may be of particular interest to your audience. You should still lead with the benefits, Winton said. (“Our ___ program [describe how it helps],” not “We offer ___ program.”) Close by directly and explicitly stating what you need, how much, from how many, and what it will accomplish.

However much time you have, Winton said, make the most of it with your well-chosen words and how you deliver them. “If you’re boring,” she said, “people just want to get away from you.”