Nonprofits: Stop pretending to be perfect
You know that friend from high school who you haven’t seen in 20 years but has the “perfect life?” You know who I am talking about: perfect house, perfect job, perfect car, perfect kids… How often do we end up finding out that the “perfect” life they portrayed online is actually far from perfect?
Look… we all do it. We love showing other the happy side of our lives on Facebook or Instagram. You probably know that many experts are blaming the rising levels of depression, anxiety and suicide on our addictive social media habits and our fake online personas.
Well, believe it or not, nonprofits do it too!
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the U.S. With the US population at 325 million or so, that’s one nonprofit for every 216 people, give or take. That’s a LOT of nonprofits! These organizations are constantly fighting for people’s attention (and dollars), and as they do this they often fall into the same social media perfection trap as Jennifer from the cheer squad on her Instagram posts. (C’mon Jennifer, there’s no way you look like that fresh out of bed!). Nonprofits fall prey to the old social media trap of showing the outside world an artificial perfect reality, just like we do.
As a communications company specializing in nonprofits, we are often asked what is the secret to an effective communications strategy. There are many schools for thought on this. Many consulting firms preach the impact model. The Suddes Group, for example, goes as far as coaching their nonprofits to call themselves “for impact” organizations (instead of not-for-profit). The impact model turns your entire communication strategy into a promotional machine about your impact. Everything needs to be framed in light of the positive change you are bringing as an organization. And that’s great… if you are the only nonprofit doing what you do. but you are probably not.
Another popular model is the needs focus. This one calls for all communications to bring up the pressing need which your organization seeks to meet. Again, this is great, but how does a person decide to give or support you over another nonprofit meeting the same need?
You may also have heard or noticed nonprofits that focus on their reputation and broad array of services. The most notable of these, perhaps, is the United Way. If you give to the United Way… may I ask you what is their mission? You probably don’t know. Most likely you believe that they are great at managing your dollars and channeling them to where they are most effective. I would strongly disagree with that assessment… but that’s a story for another day, over a cup of coffee.
So, what is the secret to a nonprofit communication strategy? The secret is staring you right in the face. Nope, not your screen. I’m talking about you.
There is nothing more effective in a communications plan than sharing who you are, in full disclosure and honesty, with your audience.
The radical transformation of our society and the way we interact with one another is a much longer conversation than a blog post. However, all those changes leave us in a place where individuals no longer trust institutions. Trust is harder to earn than ever. So if you want to earn someone’s trust, start by presenting yourself for who you are.
When you look at your communications and interactions with your audience: are your portraying yourself for who you are? Or are you pretending to be a perfect organization? When is the last time you attended a fundraiser and heard someone say: “We are working hard at lowering our overheard” or “We know that we can impact more people if we create more efficient processes?” Yeah… I didn’t think so. Every luncheon, gala, banquet and fundraiser portrays nonprofits as these organizations that “have it figured out” and that “just” need your dollars to fulfill their mission. What if we started being a little more honest and shared about the hardship and difficulties that come with sailing in uncharted waters as many nonprofits do? What if we started sharing with people who we really are: with our shortcomings and frustrations included?
An organization that is honest and forthcoming about their work and presents themselves as who they truly are (instead of who they wish they were) will build rapid trust with their audience. In today’s digital age, those who can humanize themselves will stand out. Trust is gold. Build trust by being you.