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How to tell your nonprofit’s story in fewer than 20 words

Sep 6, 2018

One of the most common challenges I see with nonprofits is an inability to clearly and concisely explain who they are and what they do. Often, when I ask people I meet who work at nonprofits what their organization does, the answer can take minutes.

Why does this matter?

First, people often tune out a long, rambling explanation of what an organization does. If people stop paying attention to you, the odds of them becoming supporters or donors plummets.

Second, everyone in your organization, from the President to an administrative staff member to an intern should all be able to tell your organization’s story within a few seconds. This ensures that there is a consistent, clear message from everyone about what you are and what you’re doing. This helps spread the word and reputation of your organization across countless networks. If you can’t explain your nonprofit to others in one or two sentences, how will other people spread the word?

And lastly, from my experience working for and with nonprofits over the last two decades, if your organization can’t explain itself in one or two sentences, it usually suggests a deeper problem. Your organization’s vision and mission may be too fuzzy and undefined. There may be a problem connecting the work your organization does with the big picture goals you have. Or it might mean that there are competing visions within your organization about its mission. All of those are red flags to potential supporters. More than that, it means you may have some work to do make your organization more effective.

So if you can’t yet tell your organization’s story in a few words, it’s worth taking a little time to figure it out. Even if what your organization does is complex or complicated, it should still be possible to provide a clear story about your organization in a sentence or two.

Here are six examples of nonprofits that do this well:


Charity: Water

Charity: Water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries

(17 words)

 

St. Baldricks

Give kids with cancer more options by funding the most promising research
(12 words)

 

Adopt a Love Story

Helping families overcome financial obstacles to adoption
(7 words)

 

Table

Providing healthy food to hungry Chapel Hill and Carrboro children every week
(12 words)

 

Eyes Ears Nose & Paws

Partnering people with dogs to improve lives
(7 words)

 

St. Jude

St. Jude is leading the way the world understands, treats and defeats childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
(18 words)

or their even shorter version:

Finding cures. Saving children.
(4 words)

 

Those six nonprofits all do a great job telling their story in fewer than 20 words.

And in all six of those examples, the organizations tell short, compelling story.

Children face the threat of cancer and life-threatening diseases, so St. Jude is working to treat and defeat those conditions. Adoptions are expensive, which might mean kids might never find a new home, so Adopt a Love Story helps parents overcome financial obstacles. Many children in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, North Carolina don’t have enough to eat, so Table works to help provide them with food. Millions of people worldwide lack safe, clean drinking water so Charity: Water helps change that. Cancer research could help save millions of children, so St. Baldricks raises money to help find cures.  Many people with disabilities need assistance to get through their daily lives, so Eyes Ears Nose & Paws trains and provides service dogs.

I was able to paraphrase their stories because their elevator pitches gave me enough information that I could reword what they do, just like I would if I were telling someone at lunch about any of these nonprofits.

Let’s break these down a bit and see what they have in common.

1. What and for whom

In traditional reporting, we often think of the five W’s and one H (who, what, where, when, why, and how). But nonprofits need to be able to strip that down to the most important two: what they do and whom they serve. 

The why, when, where, and how are all important, but they can wait. You can explain the rest in speeches or on your website. But the short, essential elevator pitch needs to focus on what you do and for whom. If you can squeeze in some of the rest, great.

2. No wasted words

Go back and look at those examples. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a word in any of them that isn’t essential to the sentence: no fuzzy adjectives, flabby adverbs, or empty buzzwords. Nearly every word in these examples adds meaning.

Several of them have an implied “we” or “we are” and omit the name of their organization. They have confidence that we’ll remember who they are and keep the focus on what they do and whom they help.

3. Use enough words

The counterpoint to #2 is that you need enough words to explain the core idea of your nonprofit. Being too spare or too minimalist can be a problem as well. One nonprofit I came across has the tagline “Children first” on the top of its website. It doesn’t follow that with a clearer subtitle or explanation until you scroll down halfway down the homepage, and even then, the short explanation of what they do is on a “slider” that changes every few seconds, so it can be easy to miss the message about what they actually do. You see photos of kids in classrooms and young adults working with them — but what are they about? Health? Nutrition? Education? Something else? It takes some work to get that answer. Most visitors won’t make that effort to find out.

I’m not knocking this organization. I love what they do and their mission to help children. I might give them money someday. But their most prominent homepage message is too short to be meaningful for casual visitors. If they added a clarifying few words to it, they might be more effective in engaging potential supporters and donors.

4. Clear, everyday language

All of these avoid jargon, marketing-speak, buzzwords, acronyms, or any other murky language. They use clear, everyday, understandable words. This might seem obvious, but many nonprofits lead with aspirational marketing language that is unclear or doesn’t answer the basic question of what the nonprofit does.

5. They pass the “grandmother” test

Here’s the grandmother test: imagine that someone’s grandmother is sitting across from you in a living room and she asks, “what does that place you work for do?”

To pass the test, a) your answer must sound natural being said out loud, and b) it should be clear enough that this 80-something woman would be able to nod and understand.

If your answer would sound like a bunch of marketing gobbledygook, or you think the answer would baffle the grandmother, you’ve failed.

So if you’re a nonprofit, take a hard look at your website — would a first-time visitor understand what you do within a few seconds? If not, think about taking time to change that this week. Most likely, you’ve got a good story to tell, so make the effort to share it clearly with the world.

Just keep it short.

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