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Are Your Program Categories Making it Hard for Your Donors to Give to You?

Fundraisers: Don't Look In Other People's Wallets

program categories

Have you ever been blown away by an off-the-wall question from a donor or board member? You know, the one that makes you wonder if they even know what your organization does?

I hear this often.

On the flip-side, one of my favorite things about my business is that I get to regularly meet with leaders of nonprofits all over the world and hear about the amazing journeys their missions have taken them on. These organizations are solving problems I didn’t even know existed.

It’s inspiring. A doctor who has dedicated her life to solving a rare disease I would have never known existed until I met her. A businessperson who learned about a crisis of men stuck in prostitution who desire freedom — another issue I didn’t completely grasp the scale of.

I truly get a front row seat watching some of the most inspirational leaders in the world. These people are subject-matter experts fighting the crisis, and therefore implementing the programs to solve these issues. Many have spent years learning, designing, and perfecting their craft.

They know their program categories and their organization’s intricacies better than anyone. It’s almost like they speak a different language.

All sounds great, right? People will simply understand your mission and then open their wallets!

Well, not really.

A challenge exists when this same expert has to serve as an educator, explainer, or interpreter of their mission to the public at large. Sometimes, because you know it so well, could talk about it in your sleep, and speak frequently about the details, it’s easy to forget the average person might not fully understand what you are even talking about.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume our donors don’t have questions about our work or missions. Why is this important? Because our donors will give their best gifts when they completely understand what we do and know how their gift will make an impact on the lives served by the organization.

When donors are giving to you and still have unanswered questions in their mind about your organization, this leads to funding challenges.

How do we solve this?


Boil it down. Your programs should roll off your tongue. They should provide clarity to your donors. Pause and make sure you explain your programs in words that everyone can understand, not just your internal program staff. And not with any acronyms or industry jargon.

Recently I was working with a client and really struggled to even understand all they did on a daily basis to serve their constituents. They had a long list of programs that were confusing to donors because they were rooted in industry jargon. Furthermore, one program was 4 letters. I had no idea what it meant. I literally had to stop the meeting and ask for an explanation.

Sometimes, as an outsider, I can be the perfect tester for this because if I can’t understand the programs by meeting #3, we have a problem.

There are two other traps I see when programs are described to potential donors:

Activities vs. Impact

Perhaps you jumped in head first and founded your nonprofit. You started doing all sorts of activities and tasks to get this thing off the ground! But since that time, have you taken the time to categorize the activities into digestible programs for clarity? I find many nonprofits describing their programs as the lists of activities they do — the supporting tasks that drive your program. For example, if you had a tutoring program for underprivileged kids that also provided dental exams, eye exams, and a warm meal each day, we wouldn’t call each one of those a program. But perhaps you would summarize and call it a health & wellness program.

Seems simple, right? But when this isn’t dialed-in, donors do not truly have a grasp on your work and programs. And they will not give their best gift.

Under-selling Programs

Secondly, be careful not to sell yourself short by not defining your programs. For example, if you are running a summer camp for children who have a disability, is that your only program? Oh, you’re also providing online training to the parents through the other months of the year? Oh, and you’re also providing respite care to the parents by giving them a break from special needs kids? Oh, and by the way, you’re helping the campers who graduate from your camp with job hunting, resume creation, and internships? Sounds like you are running more programs than just a camp! Perhaps your program categories are Camp & Recreation, Parental Support, and Post-Camp Career Support.

When your program categories are clear and easily digestible, you can create a supporting budget within them. When you can do this, your donors will more clearly understand what impact their giving can make.

Is there a new way you can present your mission-based activities that provides a clearer understanding of your work to donors? Have your programs evolved over the years, but your program categories have not?

What’s next? Do a check this quarter. Schedule a half-day away and try to think objectively about your work. Consider getting a third-party opinion. Speak to your closest donors and get their advice. This task will be worth it when you see your donors in deep alignment with your mission and work.

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to One For One.

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  • Sherry Quam Taylor

    Scott - Such good comments here. Yes, I love your thoughts about this process helping the other staff members really understand what the organization does and the impact it makes! And I agree with you - there is a fine line to walk between categorizing programs for donors and the actual activities of the organization. Good words today - thanks for sharing.
  • Scott Ruschak

    This process could actually help staff understand the programs better also. I have found that staff not directly running programs (i.e. finance, fundraising, IT, etc.) can sometimes have an incomplete understanding of the programs. They often only see the programs from their vantage point from within the organization - and the programs may fall outside of their training and experience. That said, it can be very challenging to re-define programs into new categories; categories that attract donors may create big headaches for accounting structures, etc. And if you let fundraising teams steer this alone, you may have program categories that don't align what the programs actually do. So the process for defining the categories is important also...
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