Wisdom Wednesdays: Telling Your Story and Standing Out

by James Provenza, JD, CPA

You compete for every dollar, and now more than ever, you need to stretch every dollar.  These recommendations — all based on my experience with other organizations — can give you the advantage you need.

Some of these suggestions may seem obvious, and some may strike you as crazy (the Form 990 as a marketing tool … really?), but they can help you set yourself apart.   Let me explain …

  • Have a compelling, written case for support.

Many organizations don’t have one.  You need to stand out.  You need to tell the strongest possible story about how you are changing people’s lives.  You also need to have staff and volunteers on the same page when talking to donors.   I recommend you keep it to no more than two pages.  I know much of the literature says it can be longer (sometimes seven or more pages), but your donors are busy people.  Keep it brief and positive.

  • Don’t cut your stewardship budget.  It is easier to keep existing donors than to find new ones. 

That doesn’t mean you stop making friends, but studies have shown that new donors often don’t make up for the loss of previous donors.

  • Review the profitability of fundraising events, taking into account staff and volunteer time.  Restructure those that are losing money or don’t have a good enough return on investment.

I am surprised at how rarely organizations actually look at this.  I have worked with organizations that were losing money on annual fundraising events.  The important figure is what you net, not what you gross.  Dollars are too hard to come by to keep losing money.  I have found that you can usually do well with two events, if that.  However, if you want staff to focus on planned giving or major gifts, which require face time with donors, you may find it difficult to do more than two in a year.  Events are too labor intensive to do more.

  • Do a compliance audit. 

It is much cheaper to avoid problems than it is to cure a problem after the fact.  For example, the IRS has announced that it will select certain nonprofits for audits based on answers to the governance questions in the Form 990.  Do you have all the recommended policies?  An IRS audit would be an expensive proposition.

  • Post your annual report on your website.   More donors are looking online for information about particular charities.
  • Use the Form 990 as a marketing tool.  

Yes, really.  There are spaces in the revised form to describe your program accomplishments at some length.   You should use it.  People can get your 990 on Guidestar and other locations, so take every opportunity to tell your story.

We hope you find these suggestions helpful and look forward to providing additional information from time to time that will help you in your mission.  If you have questions or suggestions, please drop us a line.

ALDE member James Provenza, JD, CPA, has practiced in Glenview, Ill., for over 20 years and helps individuals and nonprofit organizations realize their plans and achieve their goals.  Contact him at http://www.provenzalaw.com or jprovenza@provenzalaw.com.


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