The budget cuts resulting from the global economic downturn of 2009 forced nonprofits onto digital platforms to more efficiently and cost-effectively connect with their stakeholders, but that stakeholder engagement remained primarily on a personal—not a virtual—level. Fast forward to the the global pandemic of 2020, during which most of our professional interactions have become virtual, and we see that organizations have discovered how critical digital platforms are (and will be) to their success, both during and after the pandemic. Now their primary vehicles for inspiring, attracting, and activating donors are stories delivered through a digital storytelling ecosystem that includes their websites and those of their key partners; social media; virtual events; messenger services such as WhatsApp; email; live and recorded videos; and charity information sites such as GuideStar.
At the same time, during the last few months, foundations’ priorities have shifted toward two key issues that have risen to prominence: COVID-19 relief/response and social justice. Not only will funders be interested in supporting organizations that have been negatively affected by COVID-19, but they will be particularly drawn to those that have pivoted in response to it by developing new offerings, delivering services more efficiently, and serving new populations. Equally, funders are going to be looking for grantee alignment with issues of social justice—looking, that is, for organizations committed to the empowerment of under-resourced communities, to diversity of board and leadership composition, and to socially aware programming and engagement with issues of equity and inclusion. In crafting an organization’s message, therefore, it is increasingly necessary to incorporate content and highlight organizational elements that reflect such commitments.
During this time of economic depression, it is more critical than ever before that nonprofits learn how to access information about U.S. family foundations, who often tightly guard details about their grantmaking priorities, selection criteria, and even the organizations that they support. Nonprofits must also learn how to engage with foundations, how to align their own offerings with foundations’ priorities, how to approach and develop relationships with them, and how to distinguish themselves from the other 1.7 million nonprofits registered in the U.S. Equally important is an understanding of the four key elements of an effective and compelling story:
Problem: Why your organization and programs exist
Solution: What your organization does and how it does it
Impact: The implications of the results your organization delivers to the communities that it serves, to the prospective funder, and/or to the world
Ask: How a funder can help your organization make the desired impact
In engaging any stakeholder, but particularly a funder, it is first necessary for an organization to overcome the numerous challenges inherent in telling one’s story online, including: the prevalence of online fraud; increased competition from a greater number of organizations (including many with larger budgets and a greater digital presence); and the relative difficulty of establishing a rapport with a funder online. Organizations must therefore tell their stories in a manner that offers reassurance to prospective funders by emphasizing:
Relevance/timeliness—demonstrating alignment with on-the-ground needs and funders’ priorities
Clarity—stories that are compelling and easy to understand
Transparency—among other things, making available verifiable information that demonstrate the organization’s legitimacy and the quality of its stewardship of funds
Authenticity—demonstrated through, for example, endorsements of the organization and its offerings by trusted third parties such beneficiaries, experts, and media outlets
In order to engage in effective digital storytelling, organizations need to develop digital strategies that will enable them to systematically communicate their unique value propositions and attract the support they so desperately need during a time of multiple crises that have intensified the competition for scarce funds. There are six key elements of a successful digital fundraising and marketing strategic plan:
SWOT analysis: This tool assesses an organization’s Strengths and Weaknesses as well as the Opportunities and Threats that it will either leverage or mitigate in an effort to effectively engage with its stakeholders.
SMART goals: These are goals that the organization will set, based on the results of the SWOT Analysis, that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and
Channels assessment: This means an undertaking to:
review each digital channel (e.g., Facebook, Website) that an organization has prioritized in its SMART Goals, and to
determine the audiences that can be reached through each, the constraints (e.g., budget, skills, tech) to doing so, and how those constraints can be overcome.
Content strategy: Such a strategy will include defining target audiences and their personas and the content types and core messaging appropriate for each channel.
Content calendar: An execution roadmap based on the content strategy that defines roles and responsibilities, content to be shared, a timeline, and metrics to monitor.
Monitoring and measuring: Various tools (e.g., Facebook and Instagram Insights, Google Analytics) can be utilized to evaluate how effective a plan will be and to measure whether it has been successful or whether it needs to be modified.
By following the listed steps, organizations should be able to increase the likelihood of successfully inspiring, attracting, and engaging funders, positioning themselves to rebound and even to thrive both during and after the COVID pandemic.