Over the past several weeks information and events have unfolded that should have caused everyone who runs or cares about a small to medium sized nonprofit to take heart and take second look at how we are communicating with the folks we hope to recruit to help us in our efforts. Who was not amazed by the outpouring of support that was shown to the Buffalo Bills Damar Hamlin’s small nonprofit after he collapsed and nearly died from cardiac arrest during a Sunday Night Football game? It was proof positive that yes American’s do care about each other and want to support worthwhile nonprofit causes. Mr. Hamlin’s collapse on national TV grabbed people’s attention, and they flooded his tiny nonprofit with millions of dollars he never could have dreamed of. What we need to do as nonprofit leaders is, short of having cardiac arrest on TV , is grab our target audience’s attention so that they feel compelled to act in a similar manner.

In 2017 with the help of a few dedicated friends we looked at how poorly the local food bank in our community was providing for those who needed help. The prepackaged boxes they handed out, were not designed around providing meals for hungry families, but instead were based on what was collected by the local supermarket recovery system. Sometimes the boxes would contain a flat of very ripe tomatoes or ½ a dozen spaghetti squash, not something you could plan a week’s worth of meals around. And only handing them out monthly it was impossible to make them stretch that long. We Knew the local food bank had control of all grocery store excess food, but after trying to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement to get some of that food failed, we decided to open our food pantry anyway, hoping the community would make it work. It was a place where people in need could shop like in a super market off of shelves and out of refrigerators and take what they wanted and would use. It eliminated a lot of waste and helped where it was needed and they could come once a week, like we all shop. We didn’t write any grant applications but through our local newspaper, fliers, Facebook, and word of mouth we let the community know what we were doing. Local support came very quickly and before our first year was complete we were serving nearly as many people every day as the local foodbank and groups from all over the community were holding food drives for us. It was the right way to serve those in need and the community realized that from the beginning. We let the community we were serving know about what we were doing and they showed up to support us. Simply stated it was a compelling story and most everyone knew the old system wasn’t working. So they showed up to join in our effort.

people's pantry flyerOn the flipside the extensive investigative reporting the Arizona Republic exposed the sad truth that many of the nonprofits fronted by big name NFL players are managed poorly at best and sadly prosper and are even rewarded for that mismanagement by the public. In many cases less than half the money they raised was used to help the causes they purported to be helping. And we all know that type of abuse is not limited to nonprofits created by our sports heroes. But because of an unwritten rule, “never speak ill of another nonprofit” we all seem to cling to we
never say a word. If we don’t want to speak ill of our fellow nonprofits we should at the very least be talking about how effectively we are using every donated dollar. And if enough of us approach that subject every time we talk about our nonprofit, people will begin to wonder why some groups never mention it.

Knowing 80%to 90% percent of every dollar a donor donates is actually going to help someone in need is a big deal to donors. And if that information was was part of every well run nonprofits sales pitch people would not only notice but a lot of them would ask other nonprofits what their numbers are. It’s the nonprofit communities responsibility to expose groups whose operational costs, most often salaries, exceeds 50% of their total budget. It’s bad for their clients and it’s bad for all nonprofits. And that that perception may very well be part of the reason why giving to nonprofit has been in a steady decline for more than a decade.

And if you are one of the nonprofits whose return on a donors investment isn’t what you’d like it to be it is time to ask why. You either need to cut overhead, usually paid staff, or increase your services with the same staff. One way to do that might be to replace some paid staff with volunteers. The advantage beyond the payroll saved is volunteers are already sold on your mission and with a little coaching are usually eager to tell other people your nonprofit’s story. And don’t think volunteers can’t do what paid staff does, the above mentioned Food Pantry was 100% volunteer and gave away $5.00 worth of food for every dollar that was donated. But whatever it takes to have numbers that reflect that you are good stewards of someone’s donation is critical.

Our stories how and why we do what we do told correctly are compelling. We have just lost track of how to tell that story. We have fallen prey to tax credits, annual gala, and paid grant writing. Forgetting to create a core of donors who believe in what we do. People who believe enough in what you do to donate their time and treasures to that effort and are not just motivated by tax advantages or corporate team building outings. You build that kind of commitment by having a compelling story, sharing it effectively, and caring about how every dollar that is donated is spent.

Bill Packard and his wife Barbara have spent the last two decades plus, as volunteers, reviving struggling nonprofits or starting new nonprofits . Their two books, ”Going Full Circle”, chronicling that journey and outlining what they learned.