Are Your Communications Honoring Your Constituents’ Experience?

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Late last month, I attended the Mid-America Planned Giving Council’s Building Blocks Conference. A full house at the Kauffman Foundation, and the day did not disappoint. The first session of the day featured Karen Osborne, a crowd favorite for nonprofit audiences across the country. She captivated the audience with her presentation, “Getting to a Joyful, Inspired, Generous ‘Yes’ to Your Blended Solicitation.”

At one point, she asked the audience one of the biggest failures people make in listening to others. Being a little smug, I was expecting the answer “listening to respond” or something of the like.

But that wasn’t it. And her answer humbled me. She said one of the biggest failures in listening is immediately sharing a similar experience. A common one goes like this:

Pregnant Woman: “I’m going to be induced on Saturday night. I’m getting a little anxious.”
Other Woman: “I was induced, too. And the labor took 2,546 hours. Let me tell you about it.”

The reason this is a big fail? It doesn’t honor the other person’s experience. Instead, it pulls the attention from them to you.

It got to me thinking, though. How often does this happen in nonprofit messaging … that is, ignore the constituent’s experience? A LOT.

Here are some common ways communications, on screen or on paper, fall into this same trap.

Talking to longtime donors like they don’t know what your organization does. This is one of the most common ones I see. It usually involves pulling some well-written boilerplate from a brochure in a direct mail letter or email. Problem is, it comes off like you have no relationship.

Talking to major donors in a way that doesn’t honor their higher giving history. If someone has given $1,000, it’s odd to ask them for $15. Make simple changes in copy that tell your readers you know what they’ve done and inspire them to do more.

Talking to medical cause donors like they haven’t seen a disease firsthand. In most cases, there is a personal tie to this type of charitable giving. The copy needs to reflect what that is (if such data exists) or be written in a way that isn’t patronizing. “Imagine a world where XYZ happens … “ They don’t have to imagine … that is their world!

On the flip side, talking to donors as if they already know about a particular societal problem or challenge … and jumping right to your organization as the solution. Consider when a little background and education is needed. Define the problem. Then, platform for how you can solve it, with the reader’s help. This is critical in acquisition messaging.

In many cases, there are relatively simple fixes, sometimes just minor versioning, that can take a communications piece from offensive to effective. Think through your audiences. Imagine someone from each of those groups and review your communications through their eyes. Then, adjust as needed.

Rainout, but not a washout!

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What happens when record-setting rains coincide with your outdoor event?

This past weekend KC Plaza Rotary Club was one of several local organizations to grapple with this challenge. So, how did they handle it? 

KC Games for Good is the club’s major event of the year and the primary fundraiser to support beneficiary organizations. Leading up to this year’s event, the volunteer organizers felt they had finally reached a tipping point with new ceilings set in virtually every category:

·      more non-profit organizations than ever were committed to exhibit

·      more teams than ever were committed to compete

·      more financial support than ever had already been committed

Games for Good is an outdoor event, held the first Saturday of October on the south lawn of the National WWI Museum & Memorial. Each of the four years prior saw the beautiful fall weather Kansas City is known for.

Over the past few weeks, as organizers watched weather forecasts, it was apparent 2018 might be an exception…

Planning Ahead

About 10 days prior, the chair polled committee members to see how they wanted to proceed. There was ready consensus: rescheduling is not an option (due to weather, holidays, other commitments, etc.) so this would be a “Go/No Go” decision.

While no-one wanted to cancel everyone agreed we should be ready should that need to be done.

The committee is organized by functional areas of responsibility:

·      competitions (recruit teams, organize and set up games, etc.)

·      exhibitors (recruit non-profits to exhibit and provide support)

·      sponsorship (solicit donations)

·      logistics (site plan, infrastructure, etc.)

·      volunteers (primarily club members)

·      marketing/communications.

The first step was to ask the coordinator of each area to begin building a list of everyone who would need to be reached if plans did need to change.

On Wednesday the week prior, an initial message went out to each of these individuals from their primary contact on the committee, alerting them to potential weather difficulty and promising to keep them informed. On Friday morning, when the decision was made to cancel, the communication plan was again put into play.


Working with Attendees, Vendors & Exhibitors

Teams were offered the chance to receive a full refund of their registration fee or carry it forward to next year’s event. More than half responded immediately and 90% of those wanted to carry the registration forward.

Sponsors were offered those two options as well as the chance to donate funds already contributed to help cover expenses incurred and provide some distribution to primary beneficiaries. Almost immediately nearly 40% of funds were donated and about as much more has been rolled forward to next year’s event.

Because of the initial notice, when many vendor orders were cancelled (latrines, dumpsters, tents, inflatables, etc.), the organizations were able to do so with no charge.

Companies that couldn’t do that have offered to apply some or all of the cancellation charge to the 2019 event. 

Primary outreach for the event was through the event Facebook page along with promotional support from KC Parent. As soon as the decision was made, posts went up to notify followers. In addition, a cancellation banner was added to the event web site.

Participants at every level appreciated the situation, and really appreciated the efforts to keep them involved and informed. Organizers are hoping this is the first step to making 2019 the most successful Games for Good yet.

Bob Merrigan, Founder of M&C, serves on the volunteer leadership committee for KC Games for Good and is an active member of the KC Plaza Rotary Club.

Highlights from the AFP Gateway Conference

Last week my colleague Lizzie and I had the opportunity to attend The AFP Gateway Conference on Philanthropy in St. Louis. The conference theme was “In This Together: Collaborating for Change.”

Our nonprofit friends on the opposite side of the state put on an amazing conference. A stellar lineup of local and national speakers like Linda Haley and Antionette Carroll, a chance to get Carol Weisman’s latest book, and ample networking toped our list of favorites. 

Breakout sessions we attended included everything from emotional diversity, DIY video creation, social media & email newsletter strategies and achieving big results in small shops. Topping the list of takeaways:


  • Really good fundraising is based on love. If you’re doing it right, your fundraising journey is going to impact you as deeply as it does your donors.

  • We don’t go to donors looking for money. We go looking for their heart. With that, money follows.

Effective Marketing

  • Quality video is an important part of a nonprofit organization’s communication strategy. It produces more conversions than any other content.

  • Set social media goals (hint: goals should include actually being social & engaging with your audience!)

  • Ask yourself if YOU find your social media content interesting, relevant and engaging. Would you take time to read it?

  • The average human attention span is 8 seconds, or about 2 scrolls of the wheel on a computer mouse. Is your email going to grab their attention?

Big Results for Small Shops

  • By definition the small nonprofit is under-resourced. Utilizing consultants and agencies, you can accomplish what you don’t have the bandwidth to personally, and the ROI is more than worth it.

  • The advantage of a small organization is a very focused team with strategic goals and tightly focused donors. Relentlessly review efforts to achieve goals, create a ‘not-to-do’ list because time is the hottest commodity not to waste.

  • Reach out to donors just to ask advice. They will appreciate a contact without an ask and they love to dispense their opinions.

Our overall consensus is that it’s important to make time for professional development. We came back recharged, refreshed and armed with new ideas to help our clients.