Are Your Heartfelt Nonprofit Stories Stuck in the Elevator Pitch?
Have you ever found yourself, whether by accident or design, face-to-face with a VIP—a Very Important Prospect—and been at a loss for the right words to convey what you do?
It happens to me all the time. I run into someone at a cocktail party and find out they’re the program officer for a corporate foundation. Or I meet someone at an event who I know is a major philanthropist to other charities in our community. Or I plan a prospect visit and right away I’m asked, “Tell me a bit about what you do, and what your biggest challenges are?”
When this happens, what do you say?
All too often, you awkwardly spit out a canned, memorized elevator pitch.
Perhaps something like: “We’re a comprehensive human services agency. Founded in 1850. We help 75,000 people of all ages in five counties. We focus on the underserved.”
Are your eyeballs rolling back into their sockets?
There’s a story—many stories—hiding in there somewhere. Why is it that most of us don’t tell our story when given the opportunity? A story is much more compelling than dry facts and figures. And you don’t have to pitch it.
A Good Story Pitches Itself!
So let’s get your stories unstuck, and get you out of the elevator.
Traditional elevator pitch elements include:
- How you began and why you exist.
- The problem(s) you solve.
- Your impact.
- How you’re distinct from others in your field.
- Why people should care.
- Why you are the best solution.
- What you need most right now.
Rather than stringing these elements together as a bunch of data, try telling an emotional tale. You’ll be amazed at how these elements naturally fall into place.
Begin with your personal connection to the vision and mission. You should be passionate about the story you tell. Passion is contagious.
To ignite personal passions, I ask board members to tell me why they became involved, and stay involved, with their charity. I’ve never had anyone say “because we serve 75,000 people.” It’s usually something personal like, “My mother and sister had breast cancer,” or “I grew up hungry,” or “I was fortunate to attend this school on a scholarship.” Or it may be, “I saw the story about the abandoned kittens, and I just couldn’t ignore it.”
When folks remind themselves why they care, they come back to the fire in the belly that connected them. This is the fire needed to connect others.
Capture Fire-in-the-Belly in a Story
Everyone loves a good story. And it comes much easier to folks than trying to memorize a canned elevator pitch. You’ll find if you practice it, storytelling comes naturally. Our brains are wired to tell stories. It’s the oldest form of human communication.
We’re used to a natural storytelling arc that moves from a difficult situation to a trigger that makes this situation urgent, to a character/protagonist who, encountering the situation, goes on a journey to overcome the trials and tribulations, to a mission (yours) and how this can positively impact the story, to an invitation to become a hero who saves the day.
It looks something like this:
Once upon a time...
- There was this untenable, unfortunate, unbelievable situation ...
- Every day, our protagonist (the person, animal or cause you want to help) faced many obstacles...
- One day our protagonist battled to overcome these obstacles, but sadly...
- Because of that [your organization] stepped in to provide…
- What was most needed...
- But the happy ending has eluded the protagonist this far. A hero is being sought to save the day!
- Finally [what donor can do].
I remember a hospital board member who said her daughter’s finger was severed, then reattached, by a doctor who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Here’s how she turned this event into a compelling story:
"Once upon a time, my daughter lost her finger [unfortunate situation] in an accident with a slamming car door. The local hospital said they couldn’t reattach it [obstacle]. My daughter was inconsolable! Playing piano and sports were what she lived for [why obstacle untenable]. I called my doctor, who put us in touch with this hospital for a second opinion. Long story short, because this hospital had state-of-the-art equipment and the best surgeons money can buy (all due to philanthropy) [donors saved the day], they attached her finger [what was most needed right now] and she’s now living happily ever after!"
Board and staff alike should be able to weave together both (1) their own personal story/passion, and (2) a story about the impact your nonprofit has—the people, animals, places or things that are helped—due to philanthropy.
This means developing a practice of collecting and telling stories, which I discuss in 6 Best Ways to Make Storytelling Part of Your Nonprofit Culture.
As business and thought leader Jim Collins taught us: We are known by the stories we can tell.
Get Your Story on the Best-Seller List
Let’s face it. Donors have lots of stories to choose from. So why choose yours? This gets back to the final elements of the traditional elevator pitch: (1) “Why you?” and (2) “What do you need most right now?”
Folks want to know what is most urgent, because there are many deserving causes all competing for their philanthropy. They want to give where it will make the greatest impact. And where they’ll get the biggest bank for their buck.
Can you blame them?
Tell folks why they should choose you.
You’ve got to show folks they’ll get the biggest bang for their buck with you. Not simply “we’re the oldest or the biggest” but “all our staff are survivors; they know how to work with this population.” Or “we have the most Nobel Prize winners; we’re likely to find the cure faster.”
Tell folks why it’s urgent.
I’ve been on visits with board members and E.D.s who couldn’t answer this critical question. They’d stammer out, “Oh, everything is important,” or “Whatever you choose to give to will be appreciated.” That’s nice, if you want a token gift. It’s definitely not passionate or inspiring.
If you want your story to rise to the top of your prospective donor’s philanthropy list, you’ve got to create urgency and be crystal clear about what you need (dollar amount) and what that gift will accomplish (amazing happy ending).
There’s a huge difference between “we need money to help poor Holocaust survivors” and a compelling narrative, with all the elements a good story should have, that concludes with a specific ask and urgency:
“Now in the final chapter of their lives, because of all they endured, many suffer from illness and have special medical and psychological needs as a result of the profound trauma they experienced. We have a waiting list of 300 survivors—most in their 80’s and older—and seek funding now, while the need is intensifying and acute, to build an Emergency Assistance Fund. We’re seeking $500,000 to provide the care they need for food, shelter, safety, health and welfare.”
Your nonprofit will be known by—and will live and die by—the stories you can tell.