How Well Are You Telling Your Story?
Many people in the humanitarian aid and development sector believe fervently in the work they are doing. They want to save the children, help build homes for earthquake victims, work in the Ecuadorean cloud forest collecting data on climate change, and so on. Believing in your work is a wonderful thing, but some people who work “for good” don’t realize that not everyone shares their passion.
Which means fundraisers need to tell their stories engagingly. They need to make audiences care. Because the money I will spend on charitable donations this year can go to orphaned children, or school construction in Afghanistan, or … homeless cats I’ve seen on the Internet!
I’ve been a communications consultant working and living in the Asia-Pacific region for 25 years, mostly working for international companies such as Apple Computer and Microsoft and The Walt Disney Company, but also for local government agencies. I’ve spent my time doing public relations work, public affairs lobbying, and quite a bit of custom publishing, in print and online. About five years ago, I started doing things for non-profits, trying to help them to tell their stories better.
Of course there are organizations in the aid and development space that are world-class communicators, but those are mostly the exception to the rule. A young friend of mine who worked in communications for an emergency medical relief agency asked me several years ago what I thought her next career step should be. I told her to go to work in the commercial sector, at a major advertising or public relations agency, for one or two years. To toil at the capitalist coal face, up against unreasonable client-imposed deadlines and in competition with other starving (and sleep-starved) agency hacks. Survival of the fittest. Best education you can get.
If your organization is a world-class communicator, click on, friend. Everything I will say from after this you already know. Your donors are fully engaged, and they empty their pockets for you on demand. Your agency and government partners are equally attuned to your mission, and you’re ticking every box on schedule as you work through your one-, three- and five-year plans.
But if your organization is one of the “text-heavy quarterly newsletter with a handful of blurry operations pix”, plus a “please give because you’ve given in the past and we’ve got you in our database to prove it” request for funds, you may want to keep reading.
Have they gone, then? The great communicators? If so, let’s get started.
First question: are your communications adding value for your audiences? For donors and potential donors? For your business partners, and local government agencies and regulators? For your staff and for potential recruits? And last but certainly not least, for aid recipients?
Communications can reach all these audiences and more. But like you, most of the people you’re communicating to are busy, and they’re receiving communications every day from dozens or hundreds of other people and organizations. If your communications are not adding value, they won’t be read/viewed. Not after the first few, at least.
Next question: what are you trying to achieve with your communications? Do you have a communications strategy? Are you and everyone in your organization clear what your message is, what your “story” is? Because there are lots of reasons to communicate, and lots of ways to do so.
- Communications can be used to explain/persuade:
- What we do, e.g. how our food bank helps feed people
- What we don’t do, e.g. what behavior aid recipients can expect from our staff members and volunteers
- How it works, e.g. how we make river water potable
- What you should do, e.g. vaccinate your children against the polio virus
Communications can be used to build relationships:
- Engage audiences so they want to know what comes next
- Make a connection so audiences care/take ownership
Communications can be used to drive action:
I’ve lived overseas for 25 years, but I am a native New Yorker, which undoubtedly contributed to my development as a world class cynic. I’m a firm believer that most people are motivated by self-interest, nearly all of the time. A heretical thought, perhaps, to many in the humanitarian aid and development community, but what percentage of charitable donations are anonymous? [Answer: a very, very, very small percentage.]
In your communications, are you putting yourself in your audience’s shoes? Are you asking yourself what value – if any – you’re adding for them, to their business and/or personal lives?
How are you engaging your audiences, drawing them in, making them care?
A few years ago I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in a small town where an international aid organization had established a hospital. I was there for only a day or so, and I arrived in time for lunch, which off-duty staff took together in a small house, at several long tables. I got my food and sat down with my hosts, who introduced me to nearby colleagues. In explaining what I was doing there, I used the phrase “the aid business”, to which a young German woman took violent exception. “Aid is not a business,” she exclaimed, indignantly, in a tone of voice that silenced the room.
“Aid is a huge ‘business’, worth billions and billions of dollars” I replied, more than a little bemused at her reaction. The woman stormed out of the lunchroom, and I didn’t see her again during my short stay, but I have told the story many times since. That young German aid worker was a Believer (did I mention she was young?). She believed in the work she was doing (which is good!), and obviously felt it ranked far above the crass material graspings of the grubby commercial world.
Most people, however, live in the grubby commercial world. Most development and aid industry suppliers live in that world. Most aid recipients live in that world. And most aid donors live in that world, and speak that language.
You may be a Believer, but many of your conversations are with non-Believers, or agnostics, or Believers in a different cause. In those conversations, can you be persuasive about your cause? Can you make people understand why they should care?
That’s the purpose of communication. That’s why you need to figure out your story, and how best to tell it.
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.