Charities should say what they mean

Charities have a tough job, and they’re making it tougher by communicating poorly.

The job of charities is to address the symptoms and causes of social and global problems, and to make their communities better places to live, work and play.

Those problems are complicated, and charities typically lack the resources they need.

Yet in working to find and keep the supporters they count on, charities often downplay the problems they are trying to fix, and the challenges they face as organizations.

That is not what donors, funders, volunteers and other investors and partners want.

What they are looking for is the honest and often brutal truth about social needs, about the improvements nonprofits need to make in their own organizations, and about how the nonprofit’s work is in sync with the causes those partners and prospective partners care about.

So the stories nonprofits tell need to be clear, candid and compelling.

A nonprofit should help its audience understand community needs, their urgency and causes, the work it is doing, the difference it is making in the lives of people, and how supporters and partners can get involved and help.

Instead, nonprofits often soft-pedal social problems, describing them in technical jargon or vague terms that sanitize their causes and their harsh impact on people.

And instead of being open and straightforward about the operating and fundraising challenges they themselves face, nonprofits often try to put on a happy face.

What donors want is honesty, clarity and details. If they are going to get involved and give, they want to know what the problems are, both in the community and at the nonprofit, and what can be done to make them better.

They want to be valued as partners and investors, not treated as children who cannot be trusted with the truth. Ultimately, they want to make the world a better place.

To develop the partners and resources they need, nonprofits need to communicate as if the lives of their clients, and the survival of their organizations, depended on it, because they do.

So stop hiding behind the safety-blanket of vague, feel-good philanthropy buzzwords and start telling your story so people can understand the urgent needs you address, the work you do, the challenges you face as an organization, the difference you make, and why anyone should care.

Tell your story in a way that makes people want to get involved.

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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