I was talking with a nonprofit leader the other day about what made her mission stand out. At the end of the conversation, she added, "and we also collected more than a thousand bars of soaps and deodorants to distribute to women in prison during the pandemic."
Then she talked about how much that simple gift meant to women who have been cut off from the outside world. It suddenly became clear that what this nonprofit is providing women in prison is dignity. That wouldn't have been clear if she hadn't made that offhand comment.
We've all been guilty of getting so wrapped up in our nonprofit mission that we don't tell the outside world what we are up to. In the bible, that's called hiding your light under a basket. In my old days as a reporter, it was called "burying the lead." Either way it is a particular problem for nonprofits, especially since so many nonprofit leaders are humble, self-effacing, and really, really terrible at talking about their accomplishments. Most people aren't drawn to nonprofits because they want to call attention to themselves. They are driven by a mission that can be all consuming.
Curse of Knowledge - Psychologists point to a related problem, the Curse of Knowledge, or "There are some things you just can't unsee." It is a cognitive bias where we assume that everyone knows as much as we do about something. They don’t. And because we are so close to it, we don't know what they don't know.
Nonprofit staff are particularly prone to this because they become immersed in their work and forget that no one outside their circle has their expertise, involvement or even the vaguest idea what they were up to. How many times have you and your staff had a big win on an important project and then been surprised that your board didn't know about it? Was it because you didn't communicate along the way, or buried the news in an email?
The Price of Silence - Unfortunately, nonprofits that don't communicate their good works can pay a severe price in funding, donor retention and branding. Every survey and expert say that donors want to know the impact of a nonprofit's cause and the way their gifts help. If the nonprofit doesn't bend over backwards to tell them, they may not donate the first time and are less likely to ever donate again.
What to Do - The Curse of Knowledge is a hard trap to avoid. Follow a few steps:
Get an outside set of eyes. When I work with a client, one of the first things I look for is what they are doing with the people, animals, or issues they serve, and how that can be shared with the outside world.
Question what others understand. Continually ask yourself, does anyone know what we did?
Build communications into your projects. Take pictures and video of your nonprofit in action. Think about how you will share the knowledge when you plan a particular activity.
Create communications channels and budget the time to share information. Whether it is a quick update to your board or a donor letter, establish a communications plan that allows you to reach your audience when you need to.
Let us help! Chances are that one reason you are not communicating your successes right now is that you don't have the time. That's where we can help with a range of storytelling communications services. Email us at email@example.com.