Five easy ways to thoroughly confuse funders, partners, and clients


by Ulises Silva, Detroit LISC Communications Program Officer

The next time you’re explaining your organization’s strategy to prospective funders, take a close look at their faces. If they’re squinting, creasing their eyebrows, and vaguely reminding you of six-year-olds at an astrophysics seminar, chances are, you’re being unclear.

Nonprofits need to engage funders to get, well, funds. We need to engage partners because we can’t do the work alone. And we need to engage clients (e.g., residents, patients) because we want them to know about the services we’re offering. And there’s no faster way to lose all three than by complicating simple explanations about the work we do.

In fact, here are five easy ways for nonprofits to thoroughly confuse funders, partners, and clients and send them running to the nuclear fission seminar instead.

1. Assume everyone knows what a CDC is.
Nonprofits are notorious for taking acronyms to a whole new level of insanity. From the moment you sign on at a nonprofit, it’s “Contact GRDC, UNI, BBC, and all our CDC VIPs in DET ASAP and BTW did you read the LISC blog? LOL!” The only problem is that most people outside your office might not know what a CDC even is.

In written communications, make sure to spell out acronyms (including your organization’s) upon first mention. When talking to a new funder or client face-to-face, unless they’ve been working in your field for a while, try to keep the acronyms to a minimum.

2. Assume that the super convoluted process you’ve got in your head will be perfectly understandable to others.
Nonprofit work is complicated. The number of things we need to juggle and manage in the absence of sufficient resources, staff, or decent coffee can be overwhelming. But we manage because we’re used to it. Unfortunately, when a funder asks how you track incoming grants, it won’t help your cause to say, “Well, first, I log it into the SFT system and then give it a PA number, but before that, I need to make sure it’s not HUD, otherwise, Bob needs to enter it into the SCTS, which, actually, also needs to be looked at by Barb because it might be SSCTS 4.0, and that would create a conflict in our HSAO system, which reminds me, Bill, would also need to…”

Before explaining anything to anyone, make sure you’ve thought it through from the perspective of someone born yesterday. Always ask, “Would a person completely unfamiliar with our work understand this?” Here’s a hint: if explaining your processes to yourself gives you a headache, chances are, you need to rework it before that big presentation. Use bullet points to distill a difficult process into its most basic sequence.

3. Never, ever update your web site.
When someone wants to know more about you, chances are, they’re going to check out your web site first. And few things create instant confusion faster than a web site that has an outdated logo, a mission statement you devised back during the American Revolution, and a Staff Info page listing people who left the company six years ago. Make sure someone on staff keeps the web site current and clear. And don’t be afraid of social media: it’s good for you. (Just make sure you keep that current too.)

4. Make sure everyone on staff says something different about what your organization does.
The scariest words in the English language, at least when spoken by a prospective funder, might be, “Hey wait, your co-worker said that…”

Maintaining clear internal communications is just as important as maintaining clear external ones, because you want to ensure everyone is saying the same thing about what your organization does. The last thing you need is for 14 different versions of your mission statement and goals to be floating out there. If you can, draw up some basic talking points, an elevator speech, and some general boilerplate copy, and share it with everyone on staff.  Having said that, if you want that to flop as well, make sure to…

5. Bombard people with buzz words and jargon.
For all the grief that we give corporations about paradigm shifts and outside-the-box thinking (i.e., buzzwords), nonprofits can be just as bad. When explaining our goals to people, we get a little leverage-happy as we’re eager to facilitate the explanation of the cross-organizational collaboratives we align with strategically.

Thom Clark of the Community Media Workshop calls this “proposalese,” and it can take your prospective funder from interested to confused (and bored) in 60 seconds (a lot less, actually). When explaining your organization to someone, try to be less proposalese and more engaging. After all, you want your message to resonate with your audience, not reduce them to tears.

Clear communications can mean the difference between engaging a partner or sending them running for the hills. So if you’re not sure you’re being clear, do a simple test: tell yourself what you planned on telling a funder. If, by the end, you feel the urge to cry bitter tears of frustration, chances are, you’re not clear. Try again.


Posted on June 24, 2011, in Best Practices and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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