Category: communications

Breaking through the clutter

By Paul VanDeCarr, Managing Director, Working Narratives

Editor’s note: Paul spoke to WRAG members and local nonprofit representatives earlier this month at a program titled Storytelling for Social Change, part of WRAG’s 2014 Brightest Minds series. We asked him to share some storytelling advice for both funders and their grantees.

How do I break through the clutter and reach people with a great story? It’s a big question facing anyone who wants to boost support for her organization or cause. There’s a lot of talk in the philanthropic sector about “amplifying” our stories to reach people. But sometimes the best way to break through is not to go louder and broader, but to go smaller and narrower, like an arrow.

Consider these tips:

Know your audience. In strategic communications, there’s no such thing as the “general public”—only a specific group of people you need to persuade so you can achieve your objectives. That may be a particular policymaker, for example, or a narrow demographic of prospective donors. Breaking through the clutter is easier if you’ve identified an audience for each of your objectives. 

To do: Read Spitfire Strategies’ communications planning tool, the Smart Chart. Foundations can have a communications staffer or outside trainer work through communications strategy with grantees.

Tell a good, piercing story. Too many nonprofits tell success stories without revealing the struggle that the protagonist went through en route. As a result, audiences have nothing to hang on to or even feel. Tell stories of struggle, challenge, even failure, and you give audiences a way into your people and your cause—it invites people to join you and help create a good “ending” to the story. 

To do: Get together with colleagues for a brown bag lunch to discuss or present your favorite short stories, web videos, or other narratives. Examine them not for content but for how the storyteller draws you in—putting the protagonist through progressively tougher challenges, subverting the reader’s expectations, or whatever else.

Leave room for curiosity and suspense. The website has become famous (and reviled) for producing a stream of “irresistibly sharable” stories about “stuff that matters.” The site’s success is thanks largely to its headlines, which are designed to inspire curiosity that can only be satisfied by watching the video stories. Whatever you think of Upworthy, theirs is a valuable lesson: When telling a story, plant questions or doubts in your audiences’ minds, so that they want to stick around to the resolution; indeed, there is no resolution without a question to begin with.

To do: Review your own foundation’s or organization’s stories for whether you give people a reason to stick with you. Foundations could give extra funds to grantees or a grantee cohort to do market research—even informally—about what stories, headlines, or characters resonate most with target audiences.

Make your stories actionable and sharable. Once you’ve told a good story, audiences are more likely to want to participate in your work. As I write in this Working Narratives blog post, make your stories “actionable” by linking the personal to the political, creating pathways to action, and building partnerships starting early on—all so that people can more easily understand what action is required and take it. Also make your stories sharable; people are more likely to read or watch content that’s been recommended by a friend than from other sources. 

To do: Do an audit to see how “actionable” your stories are according to the criteria above.

I hope these techniques help you hit your target. For ongoing discussion of story strategies for funders, nonprofits, and storytellers of all sorts, please read the Working Narratives blog. New content is posted every Wednesday, including an upcoming series of posts in which story experts answer “narrative strategy” questions from people like you. Please write to with your questions and comments.

Twitter: not really social media?

By Nick Geisinger, Communications Director

The editor of argues that Twitter is less of a social network, and more like “the New CNN”:

“On Facebook, we have to friend each other to really engage. On Twitter, people will follow you if you’re interesting and they get something out of it, even if you never follow them back.”

Of course, many folks do interact socially on Twitter, but I agree that it’s useful to think of Twitter as a news site and of yourself as a reporter.

As a grantmaker, you fund things, do things, and learn things. If you tweet the highlights, people who are interested in what you do can benefit.

Name 10 experts in your field that you respect and admire. Would you like to know what they’re thinking about today? Follow them (i.e., subscribe to them) on Twitter. Voila: today’s news, written by experts, relevant to you.

Maybe that’s not news to anyone reading this. But as the communications guy for a grantmaker association, I can say that there are certain grantmakers that I know a lot about, and other grantmakers that I know very little about.

So… anyone care to tweet?

– If you are a WG member that should be on our member organization list or our member staff list, please comment and let me know!)

– Click to follow WG on Twitter

Communicating with your co-workers

By Nick Geisinger, Washington Grantmakers

Hello from the Communications Network Fall Conference! I’ve been soaking things up and forgetting to blog, but there were some thoughts out of Clay Shirky’s keynote that I wanted to post. Shirky’s job is thinking and saying smart things about the internet. This is some of what he said:

– The costs associated with publishing once forced us to ask: “Why publish this?” Now that publishing is free, the question is: “Why not publish this?”

– If you think there are people outside your organization who might give you quality feedback, then you should share what you’re working on.

– The goal: “A feedback loop that makes the organization smarter than it was yesterday.”

Here’s a way to think about that with regard to philanthropy. Over in for-profit-land, they hide information from competitors. Here in the social sector, there are many groups of smart, dedicated people working on the same issue we’re working on. They’re our co-workers. We should share things with our co-workers.

COF: Telling philanthropy’s story from the bottom up

By Katy Moore, Washington Grantmakers, Director of Member Services

The challenges of “telling philanthropy’s story” are not new. From the basic (and often dreaded) question “so, what do you do?” to organizational and field-wide messages, we struggle with communicating about who we are, what we do and why anyone should care. At yesterday’s “Telling Your Story: Letting People Know How You’re Changing the World,” we got a glimpse into a few foundations and organizations that are telling their stories from a different perspective.

David Isay, founder of StoryCorps (25,000 personal stories and growing) shared a few of his favorites as an illustration of the power that one authentic, personal account can have. According to Isay, “across history, personal stories have been how we have digested and understood huge issues… Telling an individual’s story is ‘history from the bottom up.'”

Dave Beckwith, Executive Director of The Needmor Fund shared the family foundation’s anniversary publication, “50 Years, 50 Stories,” published to widen the circle of colleagues who fund in community organizing. (I really loved her quote: “Social engagement begins when we share our stories…Social change happens when we agree together to change the ending.”)

Dianna O’Neill, Manager of Interactive Communications at the FedEx Foundation showed a short video which took top honors at the first annual Corporate Citizenship Film Festival earlier this year. The  film tells the foundation’s story using only the voices of employees, grantees and people served (not a single chart or graph – not even a narrator!). O’Neill emphasized that “the small details and human anecdotes tell the full story of the foundation’s work much better than top-down data.”

I think O’Neill is right on the money–and, strangely enough, the perspective that’s most often missing in our stories may be that of the grantmaker employees. Is it possible that no one understands philanthropy’s role because we only talk about our grantees? Yes, many of our stories are the same—we are all working to improve our communities—but we do philanthropy no favors by glossing over our own chapters.

In a time of increased scrutiny and oversight, it’s crucial that foundations get better at communicating their worth. Along with hard data we’ll need great stories, which will benefit immensely from new and unexpected points of view—and that includes yours.

Cross-posted at Tactical Philanthropy blog.

Communications 2.0: Why should we care?

At our recent Web 2.0 event we asked the panel to cover a lot of ground, but perhaps we didn’t dwell long enough on the basic questions, “Why should I care? What’s the point?”

This recent post from Sean at Tactical Philanthropy nails the point:

“The best philanthropist is not the one who makes the best grants… It is the one who most effectively share[s] high quality information.”

That’s because one foundation’s grants are a drop in the bucket of philanthropy. But one foundation’s  information/ideas/knowledge/”lessons learned” can influence where philanthropy empties the bucket.

Nevertheless, foundations are staying away from the interactive internet in droves. A recent Communications Network survey found that “only 25% of private foundations and 16% of community foundations have waded into the area of interactive tools such as blogs and social networks, where the opportunity to build and deepen relationships with grantees and others is greatest.”

The author then adds that “Foundations shouldn’t feel badly about this. The adoption of Web 2.0 tools in the corporate world isn’t too far ahead of where foundations are – even with budgets that are sometimes vastly bigger.”

I’m not so sure about that. 1) Budgets are largely irrelevant when it comes to Web 2.0. It takes some staff time, but most tools can be found for free. 2) Foundations aren’t like corporations. Companies have to worry about their own bottom line, while in philanthropy, as Stannard-Stockton puts it, “all ‘returns’ accrue to the public at large.” In the philanthropic world we have far more and better reasons to communicate.

With that, here’s something else from the Communications Network: Come On In. The Water’s Fine. (“An exploration of Web 2.0 techonology and its emerging impact on foundation communications”). Lots of good stuff here, including these nuggets:

  • whatever is “lost in message control will be more than made up for by the opportunity to engage audiences in new ways, with greater programmatic impact.”
  • All of these steps first require leadership, arguably a new type of leadership, not only at the top but also from the ‘bottom’ up, since many of the people with the requisite skills, attitudes, substantive knowledge and experience are younger, newer employees, and occupy the low-status end of the organizational pyramid, and hence need strong allies at the top.

-Nick Geisinger

Seth Godin: “Make your annual report cheap and boring”

I read Seth’s blog regularly [in a feed reader!]. Many of his posts affect me like a jolt of caffeine–scratch that–like a good nap, after which I feel refreshed and ready to have good ideas. He just finished up an online chat with the Chronicle:

Question from Alison, large education nonprofit:
    Hi – Any suggestions for an Annual Report as a piece of the marketing picture? What’s a must-do? What mistakes to be avoided?

Seth Godin:
    I would make your annual report boring and cheap and post it online. Then I’d create a storytelling document that is aimed at the vernacular of the people you need to read it [emph added]. Turn it into a pdf and a piece that’s easy to share. Test it and make it spread. No need to conflate the two.

Question from Ashley, Large social-service nonprofit:
    Is there anything no one asked, that you’re shocked we didn’t ask? Or that should have been a top question?

Seth Godin:
    I’m not surprised but disappointed that a lot of the questions were “my boss won’t let me” type questions.

The work you’re doing is so important, so vital and so urgent that to let politics get into the way of spreading your message is just a shame.

My best guess is that this is partly the boss’s fault and partly the culture. In other words, if you go do stuff, small stuff, cheap stuff, storytelling stuff and testing stuff, you not only won’t get in trouble, you’ll get rewarded. hurry!

Goodman to funders/nonprofits: “We’ve got a problem.”

Here’s the thing: Most nonprofits and foundations don’t capitalize on “the world’s oldest form of viral marketing”–their stories. They waste their most valuable communications asset. Why are stories more effective than data, mission statements, or values statements? Because “numbers numb, jargon jars… but stories are stored.”

At last Thursday’s lunch event, communications expert Andy Goodman broke down the elements of a good story for Washington Grantmakers and Nonprofit Roundtable members, and suggested specific buckets of story-types that we should make sure to fill. It was tremendously useful and entertaining, but since I’m paid to tell you things like that, here are a couple of other opinions:

“Just superb!  Inspiring, immediately useful, thought provoking and engaging — a rare combination.” – Ruth Schimel, The Schimel Lode

“It’s not often that you attend an hour-long seminar and come away with real, concrete steps that you can implement immediately without extra cost or even a huge amount of time.  Everything he talked about was very doable, and intuitive.  I started using his ideas that same afternoon as I was drafting some talking points. And, he was hilarious to boot.” – Lisa Kays, Washington Area Women’s Foundation

If we missed you at this event, we hope to see you soon!

Andy Goodman, Tamara Lucas Copeland (president, Washington Grantmakers), and Chuck Bean (Executive Director, Nonprofit Roundtable)

April 17 Event: “Andy Goodman & Storytelling”


Many of you know Andy Goodman’s “free range thinking” newsletter as a must-read. Mr. Goodman is coming to town on April 17 to help Washington Grantmakers and Nonprofit Roundtable members take better advantage of storytelling—our “single most powerful communications tool.” 

> Register online here 
(WG members only – Executive directors and communications staff welcome!)

Should foundations get serious about communications? [News, 3/14]

United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets anti-malaria campaign raised $18 million in 2007; the total includes $3 million in matching funds from another WG member, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (wire, 3/13). Here’s the Rick Reilly Sports Illustrated column that got the ball rolling–an op-ed that changed the world. And here’s a recent PCN report, “Raise Every Voice,” which argues that foundations should increase investments in strategic communications.

WG member Share Our Strength rebrands to tie together its various campaigns (PRWeek, 3/17)

Congress Passes Second Chance Act to Ease Ex-Inmate Reentry (Public Welfare Foundation, 3/13) – “$362 million in grants to state and local government programs, new “reentry courts,” and non-profit agencies to expand mentoring, drug treatment, education, job training and other reentry services” 

Donations requested for Mt. Pleasant Fire Victims (Express, 3/13) – through Neighbors Consejo

Study Notes Economic Ills of Low Graduation Rates (WaPo, 3/14)

Two radical education ideas:
Anti-Union Group Offers ‘Worst’ Teachers $10G to Quit (, 3/12)
New York Charter School to pay teachers $125,000 base salary (NYTimes, 3/14)

Va. BUDGET – Recap of major issues – $22M to improve existing pre-k system; $42M on mental health; foreclosure grace period…

VOLUNTEERING – Internet spurs upswing in volunteerism (USAToday, 3/13) – This just in: The kids are alright. Happy Friday, third sector-ites.

@ WG:
– March 20Washington Grantmakers 101s & New CEO Reception 

Communications Network Webinar: “No More Jargon”

“The demonstration seeks to establish regional equity in the allocation of transportation dollars among municipalities and neighborhoods. It is expected to result in wiser environmental planning and a more equitable distribution of resources” ….

If that sounds normal, then maybe it’s time to watch the replay of this webinar on killing jargon. It’s about avoiding “abstraction, passivity, vague pieties, and formalisms.” It’s also about occasionally choosing a surprising, uncommon, and memorable word. (i.e. Don’t just not be boring. Be memorable and interesting.)