Lessons from young charities

The following content was originally published as a two-part blog by Grizzard Communications Group. I’m reposting it here because it captures idearaising in action as done by some exciting new non-profit organizations.

You’ve probably heard of Charity: Water and Invisible Children, two of today’s most exciting new charities. In less than 10 years, they’ve rocketed to national prominence, with appearances in prominent  media venues like Oprah. Both generate millions of dollars for their causes.

Along with them, hundreds of smaller charities you maybe haven’t heard of are rapidly growing their constituencies and spreading their wings.

Oozing with passion and charisma, and usually helmed by hip young founders, these brash start-ups often inspire envy in their more established peers. Mature non-profits wonder, “What are they doing that we’re not doing? How can some of their magic rub off on our organization?”

To answer those questions, I recently attended the Ideation Conference, a gathering of new charities and social entrepreneurs. I came away with five principles that characterize today’s most innovative non-profits and thoughts on how you can apply them to your organization:

Principle #1: Focus on a powerful idea. The most successful recent start-ups are invariably built around a clear-cut problem and a simple idea to solve it. Every day, people drink dirty water and die from it. Give $20 to Charity: Water and they can turn it into clean water for one person. Invisible Children is built on the energy of three young men who couldn’t believe that guerilla general Joseph Kony forced children to fight in his East African war and resolved to stop it.

In each case, the energy comes from a compelling idea that donors can quickly understand. Of course, that’s not surprising, because most of today’s large, established charities were built on strong ideas as well. For example, we all know that Red Cross helps people in disasters and that the American Cancer Society fights cancer. These are simple, easily understood ideas that give these organizations real strength.

Unfortunately, many successful organizations eventually suffer mission creep – they add programs and initiatives that diffuse their focus. The solution? Get back in touch with the simple idea that made your organization great. Focus on it again and again in your communications. Your constituents won’t get tired of it. After all, it’s why they support you.

Principle #2: Recruit passionate advocates, not merely donors. Today’s cutting edge charities focus on building a group – a tribe, as Seth Godin calls it – of people who will rally around their big idea, tell their friends, march in Washington, D.C., and make the solution reality.

Rob Morris of Love 146 – an organization dedicated to ending child slavery – says he wants a participant in his organization to become a fan, then an evangelist who tells others, and finally an “owner” with a sense of responsibility for the cause. Sean Carasso of Falling Whistles – a movement to end the war in the Congo – says they can turn someone who knows nothing about the war to being an advocate to end it in about a month’s time.

So how does this approach work for raising funds? The process isn’t always clear-cut, and young organizations admit they puzzle over the best way to convert advocates into donors. The advantage is energy, momentum, and buzz – enough to take Invisible Children from zero to winning President Obama’s support in just a few short years. And the money does follow. For example, Invisible Children generated over $7 million last year.

The lesson for older organizations? By no means give up the tools you have in place for donor acquisition and cultivation. But make sure you don’t simply view your donors as records in a database. Give them the information and tools they need to connect emotionally to your cause and then share it with others.

Principle #3: Be a storyteller. Over and over, the leaders of successful young non-profits tell you that they are storytellers. Why? Because facts and statistics alone are not enough to motivate passion to change the world. It must come from the stories of people caught in circumstances we would find intolerable – and that creates energy that motivates us to act.

Not surprisingly, younger charities have found film and video to be the most powerful way to tell their stories. Invisible Children, Charity: Water, Falling Whistles, and others have video at the heart of their communications strategy. Video is immersive, shareable, and faster than almost anything else at moving someone to action.

Storytelling should be an easy principle for older organizations to emulate. Every organization that’s been in existence for a while should have a wealth of stories about their impact. Yes, it takes time and investment to find your stories and tell them well. But it’s worth it.

Principle # 4: Invest in the brand experience. The most successful young non-profits today put a great amount of thought and effort into how their supporters experience their brand. They craft their websites, social media interactions, events, and branded merchandise with one goal – to create a compelling user experience.

Is it expensive? Hard to do well? Yes and yes. But it’s critical for building the energy and momentum a movement needs to spread rapidly. Ben Keesey, CEO of Invisible Children, states that they want their branded merchandise to be better than what for-profit companies produce because their cause is more important.

Of course, what’s an appropriate brand experience for a new organization like Invisible Children may not be appropriate for your organization. Younger organizations tend to be supported by younger donors who have different expectations. They key is to create a consistent brand experience that will resonate with your audience. As Jeff Brooks (who blogs at Future Fundraising Now) so eloquently points out, the little things – like timely thank you letters – often matter as much as big things like your website.

Principle #5: Prove your impact. In today’s cynical world – saturated with marketing promises – the impact of the first four principles fizzles quickly if you can’t demonstrate that what your organization does is working. To use an old metaphor, proof of impact is like railroad ties. Once they’re in place, you can lay even more track that will send your momentum train further than you ever imagined it could go.

Charity: Water is a master at this, using video, photos, and Google maps to show the impact of completed water projects. It creates a virtuous cycle, as satisfied donors then share the Charity: Water story with more and more people.

The good news is that you don’t have to be perfect. Recently Charity: Water had to retract a claim about duration of impact. They posted a thorough explanation on their blog about why they could no longer confidently state that an individual would receive clean water for 20 years through their projects.

According to Rod Arnold, their chief operating officer, supporter reaction was very positive. Charity: Water had demonstrated they valued their constituents as equal partners who deserved the truth – not as faceless donors who were only as good as their last gift.

Again, this principle should be a no-brainer for charities of all ages and sizes. You’re doing good work, so invest the time and effort needed to prove it.

There you have them – five principles that characterize today’s hottest young non-profits. Will following them make your organization a recognized name across America? Maybe, maybe not. But they will help you build a stronger, more loyal base of supporters for your work.

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