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How To Create Your Nonprofit Case Statement: Clarify Mission & Values

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In Part 1 of this three-part series about developing your unique, essential “Case for Support.” I introduced the concept of the nonprofit mission, values, and vision triad. Together they’re how you are known in the community. They become your brand.

A brand is the essence of one’s own unique story… The key, though, is reaching down and pulling out the authentic, unique “you.” Otherwise, your brand will just be a façade.” –Paul Biedermann, re:DESIGN

“A brand is a reason to choose.”Fred Burt, Siegel+Gale

Getting clarity on these fundamental components of your raison d’etre is essential if you hope to win philanthropic investment. You must know your unique story and what might cause someone to choose to become engaged with you rather than someone else.

Today we’ll cover two legs of this three-legged stool: (1) Mission (story) and (2) Values (reason).

1. Clarify Your Mission Story – What You Do

Your mission is your ongoing narrative.

It’s the stories you tell on a daily basis, demonstrating the positive outcomes you create.

Here’s your goal:

Develop a strongly articulated, universally accepted relevant case for support that resonates with potential supporters. Within this case for support, tell your most compelling story or stories.

What your mission story must do:

It must answer the question:  What would happen if we ceased to exist?

Since there are likely competing organizations providing similar services and programs, your niche must be honed and defined. For example:

  • Are you the pre-eminent provider in a particular niche (e.g., visual vs. performing arts; local vs. national; pre-schoolers vs. all at-risk youth)?
  • Are you the only organization addressing the problem in this particular way?
  • Are you a “leader” (since other organizations nationwide would like to replicate the model)?

TIP: To get some ideas of ways to define your niche, do an internet search on keywords for your organization (e.g., “arts” “education” “at-risk kids” “cancer” “immigration reform” “equine therapy” “veteran support” “free legal aid” etc.). See how they tell their story, and consider how your story may be similar and different.

Nothing beats a good story.

Too many nonprofits try to persuade people with facts.

Guess what? This doesn’t work well.

You must awaken the heart to arouse the mind.

Feelings first, facts later.  There are no exceptions to this rule. You must move someone emotionally before they’ll take in information – or act. You can’t spout information until you touch the heart. Speak to the soul so the facts have a fighting chance.

We’re all story people. Stories are the oldest form of human communication – before writing! We’re wired to understand the world through stories, and that’s how potential constituents will best come to understand your mission. If you can’t engage your audiences through storytelling, whatever you’re trying to accomplish will wither and die.

TIP: Try reframing the way you think about what you do by describing what you do beginning with “Once upon a time…” Note how this is different from “We do such-and-such” – which tends to be all about your process rather than your reason for being. (e.g., “Once upon a time in our local community there were one out of four seniors who didn’t know where their next meal would come from” vs. “We alleviate hunger.”).

TIP: Amplify your overarching narrative with individual stories about one person, place, or thing. In other words, wrap your mission in a series of compelling stories your audience will empathize with and find stimulating and relevant.

Stories get your message across in a way that sticks.

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath identify three different types of inspirational stories:

  1. The Challenge Plot where the protagonist faces a daunting challenge.
  2. The Creativity Plot where the protagonist solves one or more puzzles through ingenuity and persistence.
  3. The Connection Plot where people come together from different walks of life: different race, class, affluence, nationality, power.

All three are invaluable in inspiring philanthropy.

The best way to inspire folks, in fact, is to help them see themselves in your story. As the hero who gives the story a happy ending

Stories are the foundation of a strong brand (more on that, below).

What are your stories?

Are they on the tip of your tongue?  Are they top of mind for everyone in your organization? Staff, board, volunteers, donors?  What kinds of plots do your stories tend to have?

CHECKLIST: What makes a story a good story?

When creating a Case for Support that serves as an internal, working document, you want to be sure it includes stories that can be a central resource for all your messaging moving forward. Here is a checklist of what makes a story compelling:

A good story grabs your attention. When you’re telling your story in writing, your headline is what will grab a reader’s attention. Your target audience is exposed to thousands of pieces of information on a daily basis and if your headline isn’t compelling, you can be sure your content will go unread.

A good story conjures up emotions that link to people’s values. Does your story conjure up feelings of sadness, hope, despair, trust, happiness, security, or a loving community? Whatever emotions a reader feels when they read your content will translate into how they feel about your organization.

A good story is easy to understand.  Too often when I ask nonprofits about their mission, they’ll tell me “well, it’s pretty complicated to understand.” If you’ve ever stopped reading a book or a magazine article because it was just too complicated you’ll know what this can do to your story. Don’t let this happen to you! Clarify your story so you can simplify it. If it takes too long to get to the point or requires too much work, people will decide it’s not worth their time and move on.

A good story has a beginning, middle, and end; compelling, relevant plot, and great characters. Think of one of your stories. Now, before you get ready to tell it, ask yourself these questions (think from your reader’s perspective):

  • Why are you telling this story now?
  • Is this story news? If not, is there a way to refresh it?
  • Who cares about this story?
  • Why might someone want to share this story?

A good story wraps everything up.  Think carefully about what you want your reader or listener to do once they come to the end of your story. If you want them to feel they’d like to learn more… volunteer… attend an event… sign a petition… make a donation… include a call to action that makes this easy. Don’t just leave folks hanging there!

Good stories, like good deeds, bring your mission to life!

2. Clarify Your Values – How You Do What You Do

Your values are not your what, they’re your how.

They’re not your mission statement. They’re a value proposition. Essentially, they’re an argument that persuades folks of how you’re different. They help you ‘make your case before the jury of potential supporters.

Here’s your goal:

Figure out what values make you uniquely you, and not some other similar nonprofit. Ultimately, your values will be a reason that might persuade someone to become involved with you as opposed to someone else.

What your values must do:

They must describe how you do what you do. Your values are your personality. It could be you’re more fun… cutting-edge… serious… experimental… research-based… compassionate… clinical… casual… scientific…spiritual… communal… specific… holistic…you name it! It’s a reason why someone might jump up off their seat and think “Heck, yes! These are my peeps; they share my values! Values are what move people from their status quo to take a new action.

What are the core heartfelt values your organization enacts in the world?

Values are principles or standards you feel are important or worthwhile. They form the underlying priorities that guide your decisions and behavior. Values you consistently rank higher than others are what are called “core values.” These define your character and remain relatively stable across contexts.

Your most likely donors will be those who resonate with these core values – and who will value the opportunity to enact them, through you.

TIP: If you don’t currently have clarity and group buy-in on your organization’s core values, ask these questions:

  • Does everyone in your organization have clarity on your core values?
  • Are these a true reflection of how you currently walk your nonprofit’s talk or an artifact of former days?
  • Is everyone in your organization passionate about your core values?

People give from the heart!

When we’re in the emotional/psychological kick-back space it’s all about tugging at heartstrings. This isn’t manipulative; it’s about giving people what they want. A value pay-off.

Here’s something interesting from the folks at NextAfter, who specialize in online fundraising, revealing what they’ve found to be the number one factor influencing giving:

“This month we will publish our 1,000th online fundraising experiment. And based on all our experiments, spanning a combined sample of more than 123,424,714 donor interactions, we have found that the number one factor that influences giving behavior (that’s within your control) is the force of your organization’s value proposition.”

What is it about how you do what you do that makes you align better with your particular donor’s quest for meaning?

Values are powerful.

They are the boundaries within which your organization will operate in pursuit of its vision.

Take the time to thoughtfully articulate them. You’ll find they’ll tell you a lot about your future directions in terms of mission, brand, and vision. They’ll help you define your programs, leadership, and support constituencies.

TIP: Take the time, first, to clarify your own values. Then ask others on your team to do the same. Finally, schedule a time (while you’re still in the values frame of mind) to conduct a group values-clarifying exercise. You’ll generally be most effective where individual and organizational values align.

In Part 3 of this three-part series, we’ll delve more deeply into the third element of the existential ‘case for support’ triad: Vision.

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