Answer These Four Questions in Your Donor Messaging

You’re launching a new initiative and excited to go out and talk to folks about it. Are you at this stage or do you remember what it’s like? As a donor communications expert, I live in this moment with my clients. Whether it’s a nonprofit targeting major donors or a foundation trying to attract peers for a partnership, they all face similar struggles when creating clear and crisp messaging.

To ensure your outreach resonates with potential partners and donors, there are a few key questions that your messaging will need to answer:

#1: What is the problem?

While the problem is clear to you, it’s not necessarily as obvious to your potential partners. Take some time to think about how you’re framing the problem, because this is the first step in making the case for support.

A common pitfall is to define a problem based on what your intervention will solve for. Ideally, the problem should be framed from the perspective of those who will benefit. For example, “financial institutions struggle to conduct accurate risk evaluations on agricultural projects using existing models” frames the problem from the bankers’ perspective. A better alternative is: “farmers and others in the agricultural sector are not able to access the credit they need to expand their businesses.”

Both statements are accurate. While the intervention may target bankers, its aim is to open the doors to farmers needing credit. With this framing, a partner who joins the initiative understands that they are helping ensure that agriculture flourishes, smallholder farmers benefit, and the economy expands.

How do you define a compelling problem? There are a few ways to start. One approach is to ask what happens if the intervention is successful. Bankers increase their lending to farmers. What happens then? Map out the ripple effects of an intervention and then consider what problem is solved at each stage. Or, you can tackle the problem at the program design stage with a theory of change.

A few other questions to evaluate the strength of your problem statement: Have you made the case to take immediate action? Do you have evidence from credible experts? Have you used straightforward language and avoided jargon?

#2: Where is the opportunity?

A complex problem needs to be tackled from many angles. For example, there are many reasons that girls may not be in school. Early marriage, earning income outside of the household, childcare for siblings, being unable to catch up after an extended period of absence… it’s a long list. An opportunity can be a geography where no one else is offering services or an area where many organizations are working but no one is coordinating efforts, a lack of data needed to evaluate interventions, or a tool that needs improvement.

Defining the opportunity further narrows where you are going to engage within the broader problem. Using the girls’ education example, an initiative may focus on girls’ unpaid responsibilities in their households as a barrier to school attendance. The opportunity is one step deeper: what is the gap that needs to be filled?

How to do it? An opportunity fills a gap, so it is critical to understand the landscape of an issue and how the proposed interventions fit in with other work already being done. Define the opportunity carefully: another common pitfall is lack of alignment between an organization’s strengths and the opportunity identified.

#3: What is your solution?

Here is where you talk about your approach! Are you piloting or scaling up? Which geographies are priorities? Are you focusing on any special populations? In addition to these considerations, your messaging should describe your model. If your initiative tackles more than one opportunity, the solution should speak to each one.

Beware of getting carried away with detail and overwhelming your potential partners. Rather than making the case for your initiative, this tactic dilutes the power of your story. A good tip is to share information in bite size pieces and think critically about what your donors are most interested in learning.

How much detail do you go into? Think of your work in layers, like an onion. A good start is to state the approach in a single sentence. Then expand into a paragraph, and then a page. This process is a tough exercise in prioritization. Even if you are taking a systems-change approach, you must be able to define your solution succinctly.

#4: What will the impact be?

The same pitfalls in defining the problem can derail your messaging on the impact. A key question is: What will change if you are successful? A new drug is an enormous accomplishment, but healing those who are suffering from a disease is an even greater achievement. Anchor your impact to the people and communities who will benefit, rather than to the product or intervention that your initiative will produce.

A good test of whether you are describing impact well is to ask: does the impact bring you one step closer to achieving your vision? This is a helpful tool to distinguish outputs, such as the number of people who attended an event, from outcomes, such as what those people did as a result of attending the event. For most sectors, impact should focus primarily on outcomes with attention to some important outputs, such as number of people reached.

Do these questions look simple? Yes—but they get to the heart of your initiative and are the foundation of your messaging. As you work through these key questions, there are a few other points to keep in mind:

  • What do you know about your potential partners’ motivations, needs, and interests? Messaging is a balance between what you think is important and what your reader cares about.
  • What are you asking for? Specific and tangible options are exciting to partners, as is knowing what can be accomplished at different funding levels.
  • When is the last time you reflected on your vision for change? An inspirational vision proclaims your identity and tethers it to your messaging.

Good messaging is key to getting others on board with your initiative. These questions are all those that potential partners may ask. They’re tough because they’re so direct. Test yourself by answering them! It is better to find out early on if you need to spend a little more time at the drawing board to get the message right.