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Writing for charities and non-profit organizations has its own rewards. Modest fees are compensated by the chance to help support a worthwhile cause, with built-in material for great storytelling.

But in doing work I really enjoy for a national at-risk youth charity and a U.S. educational foundation, I have found that the writing is as much about brand, image and money as it is for any corporate client.

The United States apparently has more than 1.1 million public charities. And Canada boasts an estimated 170,000 charities and non-profits. All of these organizations need to differentiate themselves and relate how well they do their missions to get increasingly scarce public and private funding.

Wooing increasingly skeptical donors

With so many good causes available for support, corporate and individual donors, partners and volunteers are becoming more sophisticated, or picky, about whom they choose. To decide their giving, they increasingly demand transparency from charities and non-profits.

They want to see a clearly spelled out mission and then credible metrics that reveal how well it’s being performed. They want to know how much of their money goes to “overheads” (salaries, rent, etc.) and how much to the charitable work itself.

This latter concern became widespread in 2005, in the wake of a viral email, “Think Before You Donate.” Though discredited and out of date, the email keeps making the rounds, targeting specific charities as being unworthy of support because of how much compensation their CEOs supposedly receive.

Overheads are overdone

The idea is, the more money that goes directly to the cause, as opposed to overheads, the more worthwhile the charity or non-profit is. What an acceptable ratio is depends on who you talk to. Some say that 60 per cent directed to the cause is OK, while others prefer to see this number go as high as 80 or 90 per cent, with only 10 or 20 per cent coveringoverheads.

But overhead costs can be misleading. A new charity, for example, can have high start-up costs that will later taper off.  Or a charity may need to make a major investment in, say, a new computer network and IT support, boosting its overhead costs for the year.

Or you may have four guys who get together after work in one of their living rooms to devote themselves to a charitable cause in their spare time. They may have zero overhead but how does their impact measure up to a charity investing in establishing a national presence to make a real societal difference?

Use other measures

As I said, in judging how well a charity does, it’s useful to look at the performance metrics it provides. Do these make sense? Do they include info about where it fell short in its goals?  Does the charity provide an independent audit of performance?

Good governance is another important consideration. Besides checking out the bona fides of the senior management team, it’s important to look at the depth and range of experience of the board of trustees, and how involved and independent they appear to be.

In deciding which charities and non-profits to support, smart donors are increasingly turning to evaluation and accreditation sites, such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar in the United States. In Canada, a lot of information about charity finances and activities is available through the Canada Revenue Agency , or  Charity Intelligence Canada provides ratings you can pay to see.

But don’t forget to pull on the heartstrings

So, yes, donors, corporate sponsors and volunteers are increasingly sophisticated and require clear, well-ordered evidence that their giving is well directed.

Even so, the majority of donors are ultimately moved by personal, emotional reasons. They support causes they have an affinity for and charities they already have some kind of connection to. So as a writer you have to keep in mind that you are often preaching to the almost converted.

While communications like websites and impact or progress reports need to have hard data, they must also reveal the organization’s sense of mission – the commitment to the cause, told in compelling stories of those who are helped and of the helpers themselves.

If a potential donor is made to see the the good they will do, then their support will come straight from the heart.

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