Two weeks ago, we issued a challenge for people to help our top-rated charity, VillageReach, tell its story in a more compelling way. We got a lot of responses, many of them very thoughtful and interesting. Here’s a summary.
Making it personal (and tangible)
Many of the suggestions revolved around telling tangible, personal stories of individuals, something that there isn’t much of in VillageReach’s current website content. As Carrie (who emailed in) said, “Individual givers want to save kids and moms and dads with faces and names; and hear their stories in not just facts, but feelings.”
if UPS can build a brand around its brown-clad delivery folks, surely VillageReach can spin some amazing tales about the brave people driving trucks into the middle of nowhere with life-saving vaccines on board. Go out and interview everyone who moves supplies around Mozambique and ask them what it’s like to be behind the wheel of hope. That’s a story I want to hear – and a cause I want to fund.
Commenter Susan Schindehette makes a similar proposal, with specific ideas for how to create a compelling video. Excerpt:
Find one of these workers who’s from humble beginnings herself, get her a Flipcam and have her shoot away. See the world through her eyes, from her own hardscrabble home, through her journey for Village Reach, and then end the story with a little baby in her lap who’s going to live because of the medical supplies she just delivered. Voiceover: “I know what it means to be sick with no medicine. And it’s a good thing to make sure that won’t happen to her.”
Commenter Robert Mundy also supports this idea, writing, “I want to hear from the people that make VillageReach possible.”
Commenter Carrick prefers to hear from the beneficiaries of improved health systems (i.e., the people whose lives/family members’ lives were saved), rather than the workers. Carrick critiques the story currently on VillageReach Focus, writing:
the VillageReach website contains a story about a woman they serve, and although her circumstances certainly sound terrible, they’re not described in a compelling way—nor does it describe the tremendous benefit VillageReach has to her life. If anything, it suggests that VillageReach isn’t doing enough for her, since she still has to walk two hours to get to the health center. Personally, I would tell the story of someone who suffered and struggled, and then finally found VillageReach, which saved them or their child’s life.
On the tangibility front, Katya wonders if VillageReach’s emphasis on tracking could help:
Because VillageReach is about logistics, what if you used that as a huge advantage? You can put a map up and show, in near real time – what supplies are being moved where thanks to donor support.
Keeping it simple
Several critiqued the complexity and difficulty of VillageReach’s current web content. Jeff Brooks of Future Fundraising Now writes:
The website resolutely refuses to speak the language of ordinary people. It’s squarely aimed at experts and insiders … VillageReach is like a smart, geeky, promising adolescent; they are apparently not interested in connecting with people outside their circle …
Complexity may be necessary to accomplish program goals, but it kills fundraising. Simplify! …
If the “smart giving” movement is going to be any more than a euphemism for the “stupid marketing” movement, nonprofits like VillageReach are going to have to grow up, go beyond themselves, swallow their pride, and enter the world of real-life donors.
Cold chain supply? rMIS? openLMIS? Great system names, but they leave a black hole in the reader’s mind. Descriptive names would have more appeal and create understanding. Your corporate donors on the other hand may be fascinated by the buzz words. Save it for them in – speeches or special collateral outreach.
On the topic of simplicity, I was particularly intrigued by Duane Kuroda’s claim:
Impact and results by a charity satisfy something I call the minimum logic requirement – that minimum about of proof where a donation is not a bad idea, and the charity has more or less equal footing for donation $. Then, the emotional aspect can kick in. If a donor has to choose from charity A or B after the logical stats have been evaluated, then the one with the biggest emotional response has the best chance.
Obviously, I don’t see myself – or most GiveWell donors – as following this pattern. But it may be true that the vast majority of donors do, and this would pose a substantial challenge to the “smart giving” movement.
Putting the emphasis on donors & fundraising
Brigid Slipka feels that the website is not aggressive enough in soliciting donations:
ASK. ASK. ASK. Go through website page by page and every time you are making a case for what VillageReach achieves, end it with an ask. Be specific: “Be a part of our success story by giving a donation today” and link directly to donation page. After a while, you can use Google Analytics to see which donation links are clicked on the most. Keep those and remove the others.
She makes a large number of specific suggestions throughout the website, which we recommend that anyone interested in the details of this case check out.
My suggestion for Village Reach, and for any nonprofit struggling to raise money in support of effective programs, is to realize that donors want to become a part of your story. As consumers, people buy products which help them be the person they want to be. I believe that donors want to do the same thing. We donate as a way to “self-actualize”, to most fully become the person we believe we are.
If the smart giving movement wants a world full of robust nonprofits, we need to recognize that sales and marketing is just as critical of a business function as program development and delivery.
How important is it to improve the messaging?
Commenters Alexander and McKay question the premise of our challenge, asking whether VillageReach really wants to be targeting the masses and saying that relationships – including with larger funders – may be more key to VillageReach’s fundraising than how it tells its story.
On the flip side, commenter Susan Schindehette on our blog and commenter Bo on Katya’s blog express conviction that there is a strong, emotionally compelling story here if it can be told right. Susan writes:
Village Reach says that it trains “health system personnel to become logistics specialists, delivering medical supplies to all the hard-to-reach villages so that health workers working in remote health centers are no longer responsible for making the long journeys to collect their own supplies.” HELLO!!? That’s what, in the business, we call a “story”!
We really appreciate all the feedback, although it’s going to be up to VillageReach whether and how it ultimately wants to change its storytelling.
Overall, I think these responses are an interesting illustration of the challenges faced by the “smart giving” movement. We want to help donors give to projects that are more impactful, and more in need of funds, than where they give now. Yet for the vast majority of donors, the most compelling pitches are likely to revolve around the tangible, the specific and the simple – all of which describe the opposite of a good impact evaluation.
To my mind, that’s a substantial tension, and a good reason for those interested in “smart giving” to think of themselves – at least for the foreseeable future – as targeting a niche market, not the general population.