“No, it’s not”: why your nonprofit’s “importance” is no longer important

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Last week, I received an unsolicited mailer from Heifer International, a nonprofit that provides funding for impoverished people worldwide. The mailer’s title, bursting off a deep red background, was more than a little presumptuous: “The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World.”

My immediate and very definite response was, “No, it’s not.”

Now, this isn’t any criticism of Heifer International itself. While I have no prior knowledge of them, I’m sure they do great work. But here’s the point: I have no prior knowledge of them. To me, then, their catalog is far, far from being “important.” It’s just junk mail.

I also should clarify that I’m not (or at least not totally) heartless. I give, albeit modestly, to causes that move me, like Fort Wayne Trails, the Homestead Spartan Alliance Band, Indiana Tech, and the American Cancer Society, among others. But what’s notable is why I give to these organizations. It’s all about who these organizations are connected to, not the relative “importance” of their mission.

  • Fort Wayne Trails is important to me personally in that I’m a runner, biker, and walker, and I recently joined its board of directors
  • My son is in the Homestead Spartan Alliance Band
  • I’m an Indiana Tech alum, I’ve taught there, I’m on the alumni board, they’re a client, and several friends work there
  • I know many people who have been affected by cancer and a good friend recently asked me to make a contribution to an American Cancer Society campaign he’s part of

Can I honestly say that I give to these causes because of their relative “importance”? Maybe, in the case of the American Cancer Society. But is my son’s band more “important” than the 1.5 million other nonprofits I could give to? Are trails? Is Indiana Tech? And are any of them more “important” than Heifer International? It’s hard to say. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter.

In 2014, nonprofit development and marketing expert Clare Axelrad said this about the changing face of fundraising:

“39 percent of Americans are motivated to get involved with causes that have affected someone they know, and 36 percent are motivated by it being an important cause to family and friends. These reasons for involvement far outweighed having time or money, or feeling an urgency to help people in need.”

To sum up Axelrad’s point in a phrase, in today’s interconnected world, “who” is more than “what.” The “importance” of a given cause–to the extent that such a thing can even be judged–matters only if a prospective donor is connected to people affected by, or who advocate for, the cause.

Ultimately, then, how “important” your work is no longer “important”–as least not as much as who is connected to the cause. Instead of trying to prove your respective value to society, then, you need to focus on very specific people–your end beneficiaries and your advocates. Figure out why you’re important to them, find out who they’re connected to, and give them the tools to tell your story. That’s how you’ll make an impact–and ultimately become what matters most–A Cause Worthy of Support–to a limited but larger group of donors you’d never reach otherwise.

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