Advance your cause by respecting your audience

To effectively engage the donors, volunteers and other partners your nonprofit counts on, your communication with them should show you know who they are, understand what they care about, and value the role they can play in advancing your cause.

Sadly, however, far too many nonprofits talk at, down to or around their audiences.

Rather than focusing on the needs they address, the difference they make in the lives of the people they serve, and the causes their supporters care about, many nonprofits simply talk to and about themselves.

On their websites and in their newsletters, annual reports, fundraising materials, news releases and other communications, nonprofits seem intent on impressing their own leaders and supporters, rather than doing the hard work of explaining what they do, cultivating existing partners and recruiting new ones.

They overstate their successes and impact, and soft-pedal the serious social problems they are trying to address.

They tell heart-tugging stories about their clients and the tough challenges they must or have overcome, but fail to explain in clear terms the complex causes underlying those challenges or the complicated and often collaborative remedies to address them.

They seem seduced by their own hype and smitten with technical jargon and philanthropic shoptalk.

And they place greater emphasis on their leaders than on their own work and impact, and they pander shamelessly to their donors.

In short, when many nonprofits speak, it’s all about themselves. They often seem confused about who they are trying to reach, and tone-deaf to the intelligence, interests and values of the audiences they are targeting.

The job of a nonprofit is to serve people in need, fix social problems, and make our communities better places to live, work and play.

To do that job, a nonprofit depends on supporters and partners. Finding and keeping them requires knowing who they are and their values, and creating stories that explain the need the nonprofit addresses, the difference it makes, and the way its supporters and partners can address community needs and advance their own values by getting involved.

Communication should advance your cause. So instead of talking to yourself, listen to and learn about the people you need to reach, and talk to them, not at them.

Want help?

Philanthropy North Carolina is a consulting practice that provides writing and strategic communications support for nonprofits, foundations, colleges and universities, and others working for social good.

To find out more about hiring Philanthropy North Carolina to work with your organization to improve your communications, contact Todd Cohen at 919.272.2051 or

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