Effective Nonprofit Communications Starts With ‘Why’

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By Peter Panepento

Nonprofits are often very good at talking about what they do. But the groups that have the greatest success connecting with donors, motivating activists and getting media attention tend to spend little time talking about their programs and services. Instead, they are adept at articulating why they do what they do.

“What” tells people the mechanics of your work. “Why” captures their imagination and shows them why they should care. This is an important distinction — and your ability to move past the what and focus instead on the why can make a huge difference when it comes to achieving your mission and truly making a difference.

The communications teams at the most successful nonprofits are laser focused on showing people how their work transforms lives — and they can clearly articulate their vision. If your nonprofit is struggling to find its voice or having a hard time connecting with potential supporters, it’s important to take some time to think clearly about why you exist — and then commit to ensuring that you articulate that “why.” The shift can be a game changer because while your “what” may be interesting and informative, it’s your “why” that inspires people and sparks them to action.

The Search for Purpose

There is a reason why many nonprofits struggle to make this shift and default to talking about what they do. It boils down to this: What is easy. Why is hard.

It’s easy, for instance, for a charity that supports the hungry to talk about how many meals it serves and the need to make sure its shelves are stocked with cans of vegetables and boxes of pasta. But if you’re looking to move people in a deeper way and advance your cause to achieve more meaningful results, it’s important to move beyond communicating about the “what” (the cans and boxes) and being able to articulate the why — the purpose behind what you do.

  • Why are you working to feed people?
  • What is the larger impact of your work?

These questions require a deeper level of thought. They prompt you to consider what motivates your staff, donors and supporters. And ultimately, these questions demand you get to the core of why your organization exists in the first place — and whether your collective actions align with your true purpose.

By taking the time to answer these questions, your organization can gain a clearer sense of its purpose. In turn, you have a much better chance to inspire people to take action on your behalf, change minds and get attention for your work.

Weave Purpose Into Everything You Do

Let’s return to this hypothetical hunger charity — digging deep to find out why it’s providing those meals can lead to some inspiring discoveries that can, in turn, produce emotional and powerful communications.

For instance, it discovers that families that have access to regular, nutritious food are healthier, that their children are more likely to be able to succeed in school, and that our society and economy is ultimately much stronger. Helping families get good food helps improve our schools, our economy and our society. It can fuel the mind of a future scientist or successful entrepreneur. It can create habits that lead to longer, more productive lives.

That’s purpose!

But it’s not just enough to know and understand that purpose. You also have to articulate that purpose.

Every day.

In every piece of written communications. In every fundraising conversation. In every meeting with your staff and board.

It has to be front and center on your website, show up in every meaningful conversation on Twitter or Facebook and be part of every pitch you make to the media.

Doing this requires discipline from your leadership and your communications team. It requires training your board and your staff. And it requires consistency. But if you’re wondering why some organizations are getting more media coverage, more donors or more support than your nonprofit, it’s probably because they have taken the time to define their purpose. Even more, they have the discipline to make sure that purpose is embedded in everything they say and do.

What is easy. Why is hard.

But making the shift from what to why can supercharge your communications — and drive your nonprofit to new heights.

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