In my past life as a nonprofit consultant, I once worked with a school that educated inner-city kids. In the early going, I drafted a grant proposal for this school, dutifully including a “problem statement” that cited statistics on urban poverty, literacy, and the quality of the local public schools. In the school’s initial edit, this section was removed almost entirely, and I was told that we can’t include these things because we don’t want to stigmatize the school’s constituents. We didn’t get the grant.
However well-intentioned this approach was, it served neither the school, nor the donor, nor even the school’s constituents well. I use this example to pinpoint a common nonprofit practice: soft-pedaling, if not omitting altogether, any statement of the problem, as well as any institutional challenges or need. A focused, effective ask can only proceed from a well-defined problem and a compelling, equally explicit solution. If you fail to articulate a real, relevant problem, why should a donor care about your solution? And if you don’t articulate any organizational challenges or needs, what incentive is there for a donor to give?
Put another way, your donor communications tell a story. While many stories end with a happily ever after, you won’t find any that also include both a happily ever before and a happily right now. Engaging stories proceed from significant, realistic tensions and conflicts. Your donor communications should, too.
Which brings me naturally, gracefully, seamlessly to this week’s Republican presidential debate. Please note that I do not intend to evaluate the substance of any candidate’s remarks. Instead, I’d like to analyze a moment from the debate in terms of what we can glean about clear, effective donor communication.
Vivek Ramaswamy appeared to be the only candidate to recognize that a debate is less about answering individual questions (the analogue here being an organization’s laundry list of programs and projects) and more about developing a coherent, compelling narrative. Consider:
Overarching Problem: “We’re in the middle of a national identity crisis . . . The problem in our country right now, the reason we have that mental health epidemic is that people are so hungry for purpose and meaning at a time when family, faith, patriotism, hard work have all disappeared.”
Overarching Solution: “What we really need is a tonal reset from the top, saying this is what it means to be an American. Yes, we will stand for the rule of law, yes, we will close the southern border . . . and yes, we will back law enforcement because we remember who we really are, and that is also how we address that mental health epidemic in the next generation that is directly leading to violent crime across this country.”
After listing a few specific, pressing issues facing America, Ramaswamy states the overarching problem in clear, coherent terms. Then, he states the overall solution equally clearly, weaving in proposed solutions to the specific issues he outlined earlier. What really drove the point home, though, was his subsequent exchange with Mike Pence.
Pence: “We don’t have an identity crisis, Vivek. We’re not looking for a new national identity. The American people are most faith-filled, freedom-loving, idealistic hard-working people that world has ever known. We just need government as good as our people.”
Ramaswamy: “Mike, I think the difference is [that] you . . . have, an ‘it’s morning in America’ speech, [but] it is not morning in America. We live in a dark moment and we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold cultural civil war.”
Pence and Ramaswamy are from different generations. During the Cold War, America’s foremost “problem” was obvious: the Soviet Union. Against this backdrop, paeans to the American people like Pence’s could work. Remove the “problem”—or, more precisely, replace it with a less obvious and more multifarious one—and it reads as a solution in search of a problem. (Ramaswamy actually put his finger on this exact point later on, retorting to Pence: “I have a news flash. The USSR does not exist anymore. It fell back in 1990.”)
A willingness to clearly state problems earns your audience’s trust and makes them more receptive to your solutions. Contrast this approach with Pence’s comments, which in the absence of a stated problem read as vacuous pandering. But the benefit of stating the problem extends beyond earning trust for “telling it like it is.” If readers resonate with the problem as you lay it out, they will be disposed to affirm your solutions, just as a conclusion follows from a premise in a logical argument. Moreover, by being explicit and direct, you engage the widest possible audience. In contrast, hedging, soft-pedaling, or getting into the weeds risks losing people along the way.
An effective ask proceeds naturally from here, provided you deploy similar precision when articulating your current needs. The more precisely you define the problem and articulate your solution, the more your organization appears uniquely positioned to address the problem and effect the solution. Let me rephrase that last bit: the more good your donor can do to address the problem and effect the solution by partnering with you.
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