EPISODE 7: The power of authenticity
How to pitch your organisation while remaining honest, transparent, and true to yourself.
Throughout this series, we have discussed the building blocks for telling your story in a compelling and dynamic way. However, there comes a time when you need to tell potential donors and partners how great your organisation is, and I know this the hardest part, actually ask for funding.
Of course, this is easier said than done. It’s always difficult to articulate what you're doing right without feeling like you're bragging or overselling your organisation. On the other side of the coin, it's easy to come off as arrogant, by saying, “We've got it all figured out, we're the answer, give us money now!”
To secure support (and hopefully, funding!) you must strike the balance between arrogance and modesty to find the right way to sell your organisation to donors. We believe a successful approach requires three magic ingredients, including:
Appealing to donor’s heads: Give numbers, statistics, and facts to demonstrate your impact in concrete terms. This can be taken from your impact assessment, impact stories, or existing research, which you can compile into your ‘Case for Support’.
Touching donor’s hearts: Make your organisation unforgettable by creating empathy through engaging storytelling.
Authenticity: Be honest and upfront about your track record, challenges, and potential. As we discuss the first two ingredients in previous articles in the Step Change series (LINK), this article is focused on the third ingredient, which might seem less tangible, but is no less essential to the fundraising process.
How can you bring authenticity into your pitch?
Most of us are instinctively attuned to authenticity. We may not be consciously aware of our judgments, but we have an instinctual understanding of who is genuine and who is trying to take advantage of us. Donors are no different and, in fact, they may be warier of inauthentic approaches because public trust in charities is fragile. Too often, nonprofits and social impact organisations hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, and it doesn’t take much to damage your, or your funders’ reputation. Not to mention the potential harm it could do to the very population you are trying to help.
We know it can be tempting in the competitive field of fundraising for social impact organisations to sacrifice authenticity in order to impress donors and access those much-needed funds. Resist! It is important that you let your authenticity shine through, and here are several ways to help you do so:
Speak your own language: When speaking to donors there is sometimes an advantage in using the donors’ favourite buzzwords and jargon because it allows you to show that you have done your research. However, it can be easy to go overboard and sound insincere. For example, your organisation might be suddenly throwing around words like ‘systems-level change’, ‘new equilibrium’, and ‘transcendental approaches’. Admittedly, each are interesting concepts, but when everything sounds high-level, abstract, and intellectual, it makes your messaging less accessible. It can also alienate your staff and service users, who perhaps prefer to think of things at a more pragmatic level. Don’t try and be someone you’re not. Yes, understanding donor language and jargon is important, and being able to use it is even better, but you need to find a balance. Sometimes the best writing is that which says it simply, and with heart.
Don’t overstate your impact: Several social impact organisations that I have worked with have been, for a lack of a better way of to put it, insecure about their impact, especially when compared to larger organisations. It can be tempting to bolster impact numbers or make pie-in-the-sky calculations and promises.
For example, an organisation might say, “If we train ten farmers and there are seven people in each of those farmer’s families, that’s 70, and if those 70 people each encourage ten people to try the new farming technique, we’ve impacted 700 people!” While there is some truth in this snowball effect of impact (training one farmer will likely impact her entire family and, indeed, some participants might share the techniques with others), most donors can see this for what it is, an exaggeration, and it will make the organisation seem less trustworthy. Plus, if you promise the world and don’t deliver, you’ll have a really hard time when it comes to writing your report and risk making yourself look bad in the process!
Don’t be shy about small numbers: When faced with the challenge of small impact numbers, some organisations decide not to give impact numbers at all and focus solely on a narrative description of their activities. From my perspective, I think that is a huge mistake. Even a relatively small number is impressive in the sense that it shows your organisation has done work and, because of that, you have real experience. Failing to showcase numbers can give the impression that you don't have any numbers at all, which will put donors off far more than small numbers. If you still feel insecure about the numbers, I recommend adding a line such as, “We have trained ten farmers and with your support, we plan to deliver the training to 100 more in the next year.”
Recognise your limitations: Many organisations that I have worked with tend to be afraid of “What about…?” questions. For example, if you are training farmers to improve their crop yield, someone might ask, “What about getting the crops to the market?”, “What about crop insurance?”, or “What about the environmental impact of farming?” These are all valid concerns and are very much directly related to the work you’re doing. In fact, solving one problem may exacerbate other problems, or it may be impossible to solve one problem without solving the others.
This can lead some organisations to try to solve everything. A small organisation that started to solve one specific problem can suddenly be a sprawling organisation solving many different and complex problems at the same time. While I think it’s important to consider the overall system, many organisations simply do not have the capacity or resources to solve multiple large-scale problems effectively.
However, donors may still ask, “Why are you not solving this, that, or the other thing?” so it’s a good idea to be prepared to address their concerns. It’s OK to say that your organisation doesn’t currently have the capacity, but you’re exploring new projects, partnering with other organisations, or simply doing more research. Admitting that you can't do it all can be frustrating or even embarrassing, but recognising your limitations is an important part of authenticity.
Be honest about your challenges: Running a social impact organisation has never been easy, especially in a COVID-19 world. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a project that has gone exactly to plan. Why? Because we live in an imperfect world, and it is not these imperfections that is the problem. It’s how your organisation deals with them. Donors (or the good ones, anyway) will know this. That’s why there’s a ‘challenges’ section in your narrative report. The key is to be proactive. You don’t need to air your dirty laundry in public, but you do need to be honest and open about your challenges. And - most importantly - talk about what you’re doing to address them, and the lessons have learned.That is how you build and maintain trust.
Don’t over-gloss your images: A picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes those pictures can cost you hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. It is always good to have a store of marketing photos on-hand, but do you what? They don’t all have to be professional ones. Personally, I think that raw, direct footage showing a real situation can be far more effective (and cheaper) than a glossy photo shoot. Forget photoshop. Forget filters. Focus on showing the organisation you are. Be real. Capture real moments and the work will sell itself.
Still hesitating about pitching your organisation?
You’re not alone! Personally, I hate pitching. But as I’ve started to focus on authenticity and mentally reframing the “pitch” as sharing my experience and building a relationship with donors, all in the service of creating positive social change, it gets easier.
That said, no matter how fantastic your pitch is, don’t expect funding right away. Focus on creating an authentic connection with potential donors and never forget that not all resources are monetary. An introduction to a relevant person, advice, or getting plugged into a network can have a huge effect on your organisation’s long-term success.
Remember, the more you can get your message out to potential donors, the more likely you are to get funded. Good luck!