A Person in the Picture

My wife’s grandfather, a lovely and memorable man named Jim Nolan, had a simple rule for taking photographs: “Always put a person in the picture.”

A photo of Niagara Falls or the Eiffel Tower or the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens was okay by itself, but it was immeasurably enhanced, Grandpa Jim felt, when there was a family member or friend standing in front. Otherwise – who cared?

I think we should apply the same rule to how nonprofits describe their work. Nonprofits habitually fail to grab the attention of potential supporters because they slip into jargon instead of talking about people. They describe their “catchment areas” and “at-risk populations” and “in-take procedures”… and evaluations and program initiatives and impact data and leveraging ratios. They painstakingly chart uninspiring historical milestones of the organization, such as when they moved to larger offices or when they hired their first CFO. And they tell you about awards they won from organizations you never heard about… back in 1997.

In their attempt to be comprehensive and transparent, nonprofits can be deadly dull. And one common problem is that they forget to put a person in the picture.

If you’re a nonprofit, here are some suggestions for more effective communications:

Begin by telling the story of someone whose life was changed by your organization. A boy from a tough background who went to your summer camp and found himself transformed. A cancer patient saved by your medical center. A young woman from a low-income family who got a scholarship to your school and went on to a brilliant career.

Use direct quotations from that person to capture the impact. Illustrate this with a good photo of the featured man or woman or child. (Go ahead and hire a professional photographer or videographer. Quality matters!) Use the words and photos to personify the impact of your organization’s work.

Then draw back and give the big picture: how the person you’re describing is one of 1,000 (or 10,000 or 100,000) such people you’ve helped since your founding. In a few words, let everyone know that your organization is a significant part of the community and that you have wide impact on solving an important problem.

At this point you’ve connected with both the heart and the mind of the person reading your material or hearing your talk or watching your video.

The next part is critical – and often overlooked. You have to put another person into the picture: the donor.

You can feature existing donors and have them explain why they are supporters. Or you can simply reach out to the readers and explain why you need them to help you – what a donation from them will mean to people like the client you featured. You need to emphasize what an important role donations play in the success of the organization. You need to ask the readers to join in the effort – and you should remind them what the impact would be. In doing this, you inspire potential donors to give, you let them know that their gift will matter, and you make it clear that they are an appreciated partner in achieving success.

Finally, provide an “action step”: a “donate now” button, a number to call, a website to visit, an envelope to return. Inspire donors to give now, and make it easy for them to do so.

Throughout this process, avoid the jargon. Don’t get into the details of how you go about your work. (That’s boring and distracting.) And don’t forget to tell your story with at least two people in it: a beneficiary of your work, and the donor.

Grandpa Jim would be proud of you. And your board treasurer will be grateful beyond words.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.


Special note: I will be co-presenting at a three-part series “Building a Confident Fundraising Board” – a program of the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits. First three-hour session is October 25 in Salem, New Hampshire. Please join us!


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