Make it Personal — Six Ways Non-Profits Can Connect with their Audience

One of the many strengths of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market is that people get to meet the artists they’re helping with their donations and purchases of authentic folk art (such as Mireille Delismé from Haiti, shown above). You can’t get much more personal than that, but there are ways to communicate this immediacy online and in print, too. Photo: David Moore.

Why one person’s story is better than all the pie charts in the world

I’ve worked with a range of non-profits on projects, and it would seem they have the perfect material for the content-rich, engaging type of web presence that really works.

But all too often, they can’t see the wood for the trees. How they explain what they do and its impact often sounds more like a briefing to market analysts than anything that will grab an audience and make them want to get involved.

Too often, it’s ‘We fund this many projects in this many countries, and every year we raise this much money to do it. Our average grant is this much, and this percentage of our donations goes directly to projects on the ground.’

This might be how to outline a rational case for why I should donate (along with PowerPoint slides containing some pie charts), and I certainly want your organization to be run on a rational basis, but reason alone isn’t going to make me want to help.

So how should non-profits articulate their purpose and results powerfully? You need emotion — harder to control, not quite so businesslike, but so much more effective. We support those causes we connect with emotionally.

In their great book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath explain that people think the decision-making process goes: Analyze, Think, Change. In other words, if I present a well-reasoned case, people will analyze the situation logically, and decide to change their behaviour accordingly.

In fact, the process is often more like: See, Feel, Change. I show people a compelling example of what’s going on, it makes them feel an emotional response which dictates to them how their behaviour should change.

Make it Personal

So as a non-profit you need to craft your messages in a way that will make people feel. And that’s not with pie-charts, it’s with stories. An emotional connection is made most strongly with a story — something that makes the cause personal, and invites people to imagine themselves in a particular situation.

Here’s an example. In the Japan earthquake and tsunami last year, nearly 19,000 people were killed or are unaccounted for. That’s a large and tragic number, but reading that number probably didn’t make you feel very much, because it’s hard to make an emotional connection with a large number.

But when we’re invited to connect to one person, we find it much easier to empathise. Here’s a photograph of one of the survivors.

AP Photo/Asahi Shimbun, Toshiyuki Tsunenar

I bet that got a much stronger reaction from you than the amorphously large number. You can imagine being in that woman’s position, you notice the horrendous scale of the destruction, and you might pick up on some of the moving details — like her bare feet. By any rational analysis, the thought of 19,000 people dead should drive you to action, but since we’re not that rational, I’d warrant this photograph moved you much more strongly.

Talk like a journalist not a non-profit employee

For a non-profit, some proportion of the site’s audience are looking for a just-the-facts approach — for example, employees at foundations considering a funding application have specific requirements. But depending on what sort of nonprofit you are, the engagement of individual donors and volunteers is much more important, and best done with stories, testimonials and case-studies. But this means using a vocabulary and approach that most often the staff at the non-profit themselves don’t use.

What they need aren’t the skills and approach of the average non-profit employee, but those of a journalist, documentary photographer or film-maker.

There’s a reason journalists tackling a big story will look for individuals to represent the overall situation — it works. So, for example, if the story is on Ireland’s worsening economic decline (and related emigration), you don’t just research the data, you go and find a real street in a real town and ask the business owners what their experience has been; then you go the airport and talk to young people as they’re heading off to look for work in London and Sydney.

Don’t worry that you’re not explaining everything about the issue. So long as you’re true to the individual stories you’re telling, you’ll make much more of an impact that giving the 30,000 feet overview.

Six Ways to Connect Better

1) Think of how a journalist would tell the story of what you do

I increasingly see my role with many clients as being an in-house journalist — using professional communications skills to produce material that informs and engages an audience. And this is the approach that you should take when you’re creating your own content. Journalists know that people don’t have to read their work or look at their photos or video — it has to be worth their while.

2) Be specific: look for one or two projects or successes

You’ll need supporting facts and material, but it’s more important to find a hook to hang this on — an area of your work that exemplifies what you’re all about. Choosing this can be hard, especially if there are a number of people in the organisation keen to put forward their areas as the most important. But you can’t and shouldn’t try and give a completely comprehensive overview — the same way newspapers don’t give every story equal weight. Some stories just have more impact — your job is to find them.

3) Be Personal

Within those projects, find real people affected by your work and choose just one or two. If there have been hundreds of people involved, it will tempting to want to show the scale of the operation, but you should resist that urge, at least at first. Once you’ve got people responding with emotion to a particular facet of the story, you can then broaden the scope and show that what’s happening to this one person you now care about, is also happening to many others. But you have to make that emotional connection first, and that starts small.

4) Use your subjects’ own words

Where possible, you should let the people whose stories you’re telling speak for themselves — don’t just hold them up as examples. This is done with details — take strong photographs or record good video, and include direct quotes in any written work.

5) Choose the best media for the story (and use them well)

It’s great that it’s now affordable to create stories in any number of different media types — including video, audio, stills photography, a well-written blog post, or an interview via Skype. Videos and images get more responses and shares on social media, increasing your impact, You don’t have to spend a lot, but unless you have professional-grade skills yourself, you need to spend something. Your audience will notice (and be distracted) by poor-quality media, writing or images.

6) Give the audience different ways to get involved

Not everyone will reach for their credit card after they’ve experienced the story you’re telling, but they might well want to keep in touch with the organization that has just made them feel something. So multiple options for keeping connected (with different levels of commitment for different comfort levels) is a great idea — from making it easy to share the story themselves, to email newsletter signups through to instant donations and memberships.

Putting it All Together — charity: water example

While I was writing this post, a note from charity: water appeared on my Facebook wall. It was a video for their current September campaign, and it is a good example of many of the points I raise here (even if I could do without the creative director’s pieces to camera).

It tells the story of one Rwandan family’s day — including the three hours the kids spend fetching dirty water from the river.

It’s not perfect, but the video gives you a connection to real people that you can help. Being asked ‘Would you like to help bring clean water to a Rwandan village?’ doesn’t involve our feelings in the same way as ‘Look at this particular family and what they have to do every day. Would you like to help them?’.

Make it personal, and you’ll make a difference. And don’t rely on the pie chart.