How to Improve your Nonprofit Messaging

For nonprofits to be successful at generating money from both fundraising and earned income, they have to be able to communicate effectively. The best way to do it is to start with why you’re doing what you’re doing, not how or what you’re doing or selling.

If you’ve ever read or heard the words of Simon Sinek, you know that he’s all about making life more impactful and people more successful in all facets.

Though I truly believe you should watch all 20 minutes of his speech, I’ll attempt to summarize an awesome talk from a man much smarter than I:

“The most successful communicators understand that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Don’t forget to include why

The example Sinek gives is Apple. If they were just another computer company, an advertisement from them would ultimately sound something like, “we make computers that work well and look cool. Wanna buy one?” But they’re not just another company, they’re excellent communicators, so their messaging starts with why—followed by the how and finally explaining the what. The actual underlying message in their ads sounds more like, “we challenge the status quo by making beautifully designed products that are user-friendly; we just happen to make computers.” Wanna buy one now?

The first advertisement started with the what, completely flipping the proper order on its head. The problem goes deeper when we not only flipped the order of the messaging—but just like the first example—oftentimes we leave out the why altogether.

Though your organization is probably not selling computers and MP3’s, I couldn’t agree more with professional hustler Gary Vaynerchuk that we need to stop pretending that fundraising is different from sales—but that’s a whole other story.

Now start with why

Now that we know we need to include why, the positioning is vital. Always start with it. In business, your personal life and the nonprofit sector, remember not to just state it, but start with why. It’s the most effective way to incite action and storytelling.

Oftentimes the statement that answers why your organization is doing what it’s doing includes the words “we believe” and has to do with the foundation of what your staff is passionate about, like Apple proclaiming that they “challenge the status quo.” If we were to take the mission of and break it down into a why > how > what statement, it might look like this:

“We believe there’s a problem in the nonprofit sector. We saw a gap in business leadership who didn’t have adequate formal education, so we promote collaboration, push the envelope and challenge stigmas by producing free resources for nonprofits and startups.” The opposite of this would be something like, “we make great content that you should read to run your organization better.”

Streamline your messaging

Creating statements like this and using them is less public-facing, but more of a reference for internal use to drive your organization’s messaging and communications. Aligning your values based on why you’re doing what you’re doing will help your organization inspire action like the greatest communicators and the most influential leaders.

The nonprofit sector has a huge opportunity in inspiring action in this way because what we do is mission-driven, not profit-driven—both behind the scenes and publicly—but we forget that our public messaging doesn’t always convey that. We like to explain that we find homes for rescued animals, we feed the hungry, or teach those who need it—but if we don’t convey why we do it, the outcome won’t be as impactful.

 “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” — Simon Sinek

The best example again comes from Sinek’s talk. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t say, “I have a plan,” but rather, “I have a dream.” By explaining what he believed, he got masses of people behind him who supported what he supported. They showed up because he believed what we believe. We didn’t “buy” what he was doing, but why he was doing it.


nonprofit messaging

Nick Small

With specialties in content strategy and creation, social media engagement and digital marketing optimization, Nick brings a depth of experience in nonprofit marketing. He’s also helped hundreds of nonprofits with their online presence to improve donor retention and attract new audiences, and he still has time for a good glass of whiskey, round of golf or new adventure.

January 26, 2017

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