“Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words!”

I’m quoting Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in the title of this post.  As you might recall, Freddie, whom we now would define as a stalker, was hanging out in the street when Eliza burst out of the house.  He began to sing about his love for her, and she interrupts him with a song of her own about how sick she is of words.  The title of the song is “Show Me.”

Don’t talk of stars burning above.
If you’re in love, show me.
Tell me no dreams filled with desire,
If you’re on fire, show me!

Have you seen Gail Perry’s article listing the words and phrases fundraisers love to hate?  It’s at http://www.gailperry.com/2012/07/dump-the-cliches-words-and-phrases-fundraisers-love-to-hate/

My contribution is at the bottom – I submitted “impactful” and “make a difference.” 

But the article did prompt me to think a bit about the words we use when we communicate with donors and prospects.  It’s easy for us to laugh at Gail Perry’s list.  And we’re all probably nodding in agreement, especially when we see phrases we particularly hate.

But it’s not so easy to come up with alternatives.  We want our language to be fresh and noticeable, but we want our meanings to remain.  We really do mean “now more than ever,” every time we use that phrase.    Whenever your particular “now” is, whatever the date and time is on the clock, that really is when you want donor support.  So it’s always true.

And what about one of my own contributions to the list?  “Impactful,” — when did that even become a word?  But we mean it.  Kaboom!  Your gift is going to make the state of things different than they were prior to your gift, and will do so not with a puff, but with a boom.  We mean that.  Or, at least we want you to believe it.  Your $500 gift isn’t going to be nearly as splashy as that other guy’s $500,000 gift, but we’re certainly not going to tell you that.  We still need your $500 gift, and we want your philanthropic experience to be gratifying.

Maybe we should learn a lesson from the fed-up Eliza Doolittle and do more showing than talking.  If our donors truly are “making a difference,” do we have to tell them “Hey, you’re making a difference”? or will they get it if we show them?

Can we use really plain language, like “Look what you did,” and show them the faces of smiling children, successful graduates, new bridges, healthy animals, unspoiled wetlands, and so on?  Can we trust the donors to connect the dots from their generosity to our organization’s outcomes?

Or, if it’s during the cultivation or solicitation phase, instead of saying “I’m writing to tell you . . . “, could we say “You really need to see this”?

I don’t know.  I’m just asking.  I understand that a lot of issues don’t lend themselves well to visual imagery.  But doesn’t every issue have at least one story with it?  Could we use fewer cliches and tell more stories?  Or show more stories?

I have to confess to relying on more than one of the words and cliches on Gail Perry’s list.  My previous blog post referred to sustainability, and there is is, the fifth word on the list.  However, in my defense, I was using that word to a nonprofit audience.  I believe the sin is when we speak to other audiences in our own language, and not in the language we share.

There’s much to consider here!  Thanks for the chuckles, Gail Perry.  But thanks for the challenge to us to do better.

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Ensuring your nonprofit’s sustainability

I’ve been asked to do a one-pager in a chart form for a particular agency to help guide their sustainability discussions.  Sustainability has become quite the buzzword among nonprofits, and it’s no wonder.  A significant number of nonprofits out there are in serious danger of failing.  A lot of people are doing a lot of analysis and scrambling for solutions.

I laud this very small nonprofit for bringing forward the issue of sustainability.  Many small nonprofits I encounter believe that they just need to find more money, and their problems will be solved.  It’s true, of course, that “more money” can solve a lot of problems, and free up resources to address other ones.  But it seems that nonprofits who are in desparation mode, spinning their wheels chasing money without a system or a plan, are doomed, I’m sorry to say.

One realization I had while working on this document is that planning for sustainability can be labor-intensive and a perceived waste of time.  It can be viewed as “navel-gazing” by staff and volunteers who just want to roll up their sleeves and get the work done.

However, in a report I encountered while doing internet searches on nonprofit sustainability, I read that organizations most likely to succeed are the ones willing to invest in the self-reflection, honest analysis, and think-work.  This document is from the TCC Group, and is written by Peter York.  You can find the document here: http://tccgrp.com/pdfs/SustainabilityFormula.pdf 

My advice for people who are involved with nonprofits is to put in the time necessary to learn nonprofit best practices that help ensure sustainability. It is hard to take time away from the actual work of the organization to put in this time.  I’ve been guilty of grumbling about being pulled into long thinking and planning meetings.  It’s hard to believe you can contribute anything worthwhile while work piles up at your desk.

However, I’ve also been involved with floundering organizations, and it’s not pretty.  Leaders begin leading through desparation instead of strategy.  Departments are asked to switch directions repeatedly.  Blame is distributed. Good staff members jump ship, and not-so-good staff members who are afraid they won’t be able to find another job flail around with unfocused efforts.  Mission and vision become little more than words on a document in a drawer somewhere.

The best organizations, the ones most likely to survive, are the ones that research what other successful nonprofits are doing.  Very generally speaking, the organizations most likely to survive are the ones who have the following:

–  Strong, decisive leadership that is also humane and inclusive

– A commitment to continually researching and contextualizing trends related to their organization’s issue area, political directions, constitiuent opinions, relevancy of programs and services, and community perceptions of their organization’s value to the community.

– Impeccable financial practices

– Strong relationships with key community leaders, grant-making institutions, and other entities whose goodwill can benefit the organization

– An institutional understanding of best fundraising practices

Even organizations who are patting themselves on the back with the knowlege that their organization can boast all of the above might do well to engage in some introspection, to ensure that there are no gaps or weaknesses.

I don’t anticipate that the environment in which nonprofits must operate these days is going to get any easier.