Getting to Aha!
The overwhelming response to our recent Nonprofit Messages Survey highlights how vital it is for your organization's messages to connect quickly and strongly with the donors whose help you want — and how rare that is today.
The way your nonprofit talks about its work, results and ultimate impact is a core competency critical to your success. Relevance is the heart of memorable, motivating fundraising messages — "aha! messages." If your messages are irrelevant (more than seven of 10 nonprofits describe their messages as off target), your organization will fail to motivate the gifts and loyalty you need to move your mission forward.
The bad news is that most nonprofits (there's a 76 percent chance that means you) admittedly do a poor job, despite their efforts. Their key messages don't connect to the people who need to hear them, and they generate a "so what, who cares?" response rather than an aha!
The great news is that fixing the problem is highly doable and promises vastly greater success in advancing your mission than you're experiencing now. It's incumbent upon executive directors, board members and key fundraisers like you to lead the charge to make your messages relevant. Here are the survey findings and several ways to cut the mess from your messages right now:
Challenge: Who cares?
Most nonprofit messages don't connect strongly with key audiences.
Seventy-six percent of the 1,566 nonprofit leaders who completed the survey say their messages connect with their target audiences only somewhat or not at all. Looking at the flip side, only 24 percent of nonprofits rate their messages as connecting well — a discouraging success rate.
However, the number of organizations whose messages do connect represents a 12 percent improvement since the last Nonprofit Messages Survey in 2009. This jump in message relevance suggests that making aha! messages a priority is making its way onto nonprofit agendas.
- Relevance rules, but there's no way to be relevant to everyone. Forget trying to reach the general public — you waste time and money and fail to engage those you really want to engage.
- Narrow your target audiences down to a maximum of three groups, composed of individuals who can do the most to help you meet your fundraising goals and are most likely to do so.
Challenge: What did you say?
84 percent of organizations characterize their messages as difficult to remember.
Most organizations report that their messages suffer from lack of inspiration (70 percent generate a "so what?") and poor targeting to audience wants and needs (70 percent spur a "who cares?"). Twenty-six percent of nonprofits describe their messages as confusing. Ugh!
Here are a few comments from survey respondents:
- "Always about us, not about the people we're communicating with."
- "Too long and filled with jargon."
- "Lack clarity, because we have too many cooks in the message kitchen."
- "Good for each program but weak or nonexistent for the organization as a whole."
- Find the sweet spot of relevance that is the overlap of your organization's wants, your audiences' wants and what it is that you do differently from other organizations.
- Learn everything you can about your three target audiences so you can focus messages on the right sweet spot.
- Implement tested get-to-know-you techniques doable for every fundraiser, starting with personas, a marketing advisory team, a listening strategy and online surveys.
Challenge: What's getting in the way?
Relevance blocked by lack of focus and expertise.
The leading obstacles to messages that connect are 1) messages are a low priority, compared to other fundraising and marketing tasks (28 percent); and 2) lack of expertise (27 percent).
The irony here is that while so many put message massage aside to get fundraising campaigns out the door, they weaken those campaigns by featuring irrelevant messages. I urge you to take some time to craft aha! messages, as you continue to get campaigns out the door at a bit slower pace.
- Make messages a priority.
- Build time for message development into all fundraising campaigns.
- Bring your leadership and colleagues on board at the beginning, harvesting their message ideas and clarifying what it takes to craft messages that connect.
Challenge: Inconsistency triumphs
Leaving confusion and annoyance in its path.
Here's the rub: Fewer than half of nonprofits report consistent use of their messages across campaigns, platforms and target audiences. As a result, fewer prospects and donors recognize or repeat those messages and are likely to be annoyed and not pay attention the next time.
Make it easy for your prospects to recognize that communications are coming from your organization by being consistent — in language and tone — in your outreach to each audience.
- Develop a comprehensive style guide you and your colleagues can refer to. Bonus: This vastly reduces the questions you're asked and the amount of editing you have to do.
- Build your all-organization team of effective fundraisers. Start by asking for their help. Then train them in messages and delivery. Ongoing support is a must.
Three steps to aha! messages
The potential is huge, and the process is doable and tested. Here are my recommendations for your first three steps to aha! messages:
1. Ensure that your organization's strategy and goals are crystal clear. I can't tell you how many times I've been hired to develop messages for an organization but can't get to ground zero because there's no agreement on organizational direction and goals.
Without clear organizational goals, you can't shape the right fundraising campaigns or target audiences. And there's no way to create aha! messages if you don't know whom you're talking to. If this is your situation, your problems are bigger than "so what, who cares" messages. Get on it!
2. Build understanding and support of leadership and colleagues — you need their insights and reach. The two most cited barriers to aha! messages (lack of focus and lack of expertise) underscore the "so what, who cares" message crisis.
Refusing to spend the time and money to learn how to craft and test messages strongly undermines your fundraising goals. Aha! messages are an investment your leadership has to make to succeed.
But here's what you're up against: Fundraisers like you plus marketers and executive directors are most focused on messages, with individuals in those roles comprising 78 percent of survey respondents. Make sure you involve the rest of your colleagues in aha! message development from the beginning.
Cross-organizational participation is even more vital once your messages are ready to roll. Your colleagues are your primary on-the-ground messengers via their workday conversations and communications. And they're a valuable ongoing source of insight on audiences' perspectives. Bring them on in, today!
3. Start with your tagline — less is more. It's always harder to write something shorter than longer, and your tagline is as short as it gets. It is the absolute essence of your messages. Moreover, your tagline development process builds the insights you need to craft a potent positioning statement, key messages or talking points, and your elevator pitch outline.
In the end, relevance is the be-all and end-all of aha! messages. When aiming to increase relevance, it's imperative to go beyond delivering a relevant fundraising message here and there. The real challenge is to consistently deliver memorable and motivating messages that pierce the "so what." Aha!
Nancy Schwartz is president of Nancy Schwartz & Co. and author of the Getting Attention! blog. She also is a member of the FundRaising Success Editorial Advisory Board. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org