3 Ways to Stand Out With Impact
Thinking of fundraising as a form of sales can feel like a splash of cold water. The analogy reminds us of fundraising’s transactional nature — the donor is the buyer, and you, the nonprofit representative, are the seller. But this analogy can also be empowering. Steeped in the charity mindset, as those of us in the social sector tend to be, we can sometimes think of fundraising as a glorified form of begging. But with a sales mindset in place, you remember you have a product to offer that has value to the buyer. And as with sales, the quality of your product is key.
The product in question is, of course, the impact your organization produces. Said impact continues to be one of the top reasons donors give. For example, “The Giving Environment: Understanding How Donors Make Giving Decisions” (opens as a pdf), a 2022 study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy noted that donors seek organizations “that make greater effort to educate the donors on what’s being done with their money and how it’s making a difference,” as well as “demonstrate greater efficacy and impact.” With so many options from which donors can select, standing out through a stellar impact offering is imperative. So here are some tips for doing just that.
1. Appraise the Value of Your Organization’s Impact
In “The End of Fundraising,” author Jason Saul argues that power has shifted to social good creating organizations in an era where, increasingly, “mainstream economic currency” is attached to the social and environmental outcomes nonprofits produce.
Whether through keeping youth in school, keeping families in their homes or reducing social determinants of ill health, the work of nonprofits, in addition to alleviating suffering, has economic value — including to the private sector actors that benefit from a strong labor force, growing consumer markets and vibrant neighborhoods. Saul’s primary prescription is to think beyond the philanthropic market to the social capital market and its impact investors.
But even when dealing with traditional philanthropy, communicating the economic value of social impact can be helpful, if only for the confidence boost it provides. Measuring said value in such terms can be tricky, and even futile with some types of social outcomes, but social return on investment is a method that provides a useful starting place.
2. Match the Features of Your Impact With Your Donor
Impact comes in many forms and not all aspects of it will be attractive to all “buyers.” Small gift donors and corporate employees — in short, people less familiar with how the social sector works — may be more interested in compelling human interest stories and numbers reflecting the organization’s reach.
Institutional donors, such as foundations and public agencies, may be interested in more structural changes, e.g., how is an organization addressing systemic issues like inequitable access to healthcare. The latter may also be interested in whether the organization is pioneering scalable models for addressing tough issues, like low high school graduation rates.
Being able to properly communicate the right features of your impact to your donor type is key. For lay and informed donors alike, however, nonprofits would do well to demonstrate their ability to tackle complex issues in ways that have sustained impact.
“Recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the movements for racial equity and justice evoked an increased desire in donors to have a greater and long-term impact on issues through strategic giving choices,” according to the study on how donors make decisions, which primarily consulted individual donors.
In other words, even small-gift donors have an understanding of the differences between Band-Aid solutions and more long-lasting remedies; and they want to see that sophistication of programming reflected in the impact the nonprofit conveys.
3. Raise the Quality of Your Impact
Armies of fundraisers, reels of heart-warming videos and arsenals of fundraising tech can’t fully compensate for poor impact. At risk of overstating the obvious, impact — the real changes that your organization accomplishes in lives — is the mast upon which your organization’s flag flies; it’s raison d’etre; its justification for taking up oxygen in this world.
Creating quality impact does require resources. The good news is, many of these resources can come from funds designated for programs, which are more plentiful than unrestricted resources. Structuring program grants in ways that build learning, research, co-creation with participants and expected pivots into the design, give nonprofits the flexibility to more methodically explore cause-and-effect relationships, run small pilots, select from multiple approaches, and set expectations with donors, partners and program participants that the quality of impact is a priority.
Do-goodism still exists in the popular imagination as a form of morally motivated DIY-ism. It comes with the assumption that when fueled with heart and passion, doing good is as simple as ladling soup into bowls to feed the hungry. In truth, doing good, properly and well, is hard, and requires reams of training, professionalism, skill, and learning agility. Making the investments of time and talent in improving the impact of your work — and communicating the right aspects of that story to your donors — will help your organization gain a commanding advantage in the marketplace of buyers and sellers of good.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Malaika Cheney-Coker is the founder and principal of Ignited Word, a consulting firm dedicated to helping nonprofits increase their impact through creativity. She delights in the kaleidoscope of ideas that is creativity as well as the analytic thinking and research that partner with those ideas for effective social change. With experience in both the U.S. and international nonprofit arena, she works across a range of subject matter areas, including evaluation and organizational learning, thought leadership, coalition building, and organizational creativity.