Anyone who has ever worked for a nonprofit knows that your job title only describes a small part of what you actually accomplish on a day to day basis. Here’s how you can make sure you wear those multiple hats successfully.
Samantha Martin gets what it’s like to have your job title only describe a part of what you do. Though her title is ‘Development and Community Engagement Specialist’ at the nonprofit organization Downtown Cleveland Alliance, her role encompasses more than just raising money. While she works closely with donors, grant makers, corporate entities and others on why they should invest in the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, it’s the myriad of hats that she wears behind the scenes that tell the complete story.
Here she breaks down the ways to handle the variety of questions and challenges you encounter when working for a nonprofit.
If you work for a nonprofit, you’ve likely developed your ‘elevator pitch’ about what it is that your organization does, both for its members and donors as well as for any possible constituents.
For Samantha, she’s been able to winnow Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s message to one sentence, though a larger description does it more justice.
Describing the organization as “the connector between other downtown nonprofits, businesses and their owners, and other stakeholders to make downtown Cleveland a vibrant place to work, play, and live,” Samantha (or Sam as she’s called) zeros in on the fact that her organization serves to connect.
Once she explains that quick overview, it gives her a starting point to dive deeper.
“We help attract businesses to come downtown and help to retain businesses who are already there. We work with them to restore old buildings and get historic home tax credits if applicable. We want to make these connections so that people will want to come experience downtown Cleveland. Cleveland is becoming a hub for technology, and millennials are wanting to be in a downtown city center. This makes Cleveland a great place for companies who want to attract those millennial workers. But even as we continue to have success, we want to keep up the momentum and keep people excited about being downtown. Downtown isn’t finished yet. There is still work to do.”
Even that longer description of her organization keeps the focus on what it does and how it can provide change to its community. You want to emulate that when you’re trying to share what it is that you’re own nonprofit accomplishes.
Imagine you had to put the entire purpose of your nonprofit on a business card – what would you say to communicate it? What words would you use to share what you do that allows you a jumping off point to explain further?
Have a go with this business card template on Canva and use it for your own nonprofit.
You usually don’t have long to capture someone’s attention. Making sure you can describe your organization quickly helps open the door to a longer and larger discussion about what it is that you do.
Many times, any potential donors or investors want to understand the guiding purpose behind why your organization first opened its doors. Understanding that history can go a long way to convincing them to come on board.
The Downtown Cleveland Alliance (or DCA) has existed for eleven years and began as a way to revitalize the city. Sam explains that for those that may not know, Cleveland, Ohio is considered one of the many “rust-belt” cities, which refer to areas in the US Midwest that were thriving and booming starting during the Industrial Revolution until the latter half of the 20th century. The rust nickname became popular in the 1980’s when many of those same areas saw “economic decline, population loss, and urban decay due to the shrinking of its once-powerful industrial sector”.
Though the city itself has been around as long as the US has been a country, once the steel industry mostly moved overseas, the city began to slump and became a fairly unwelcoming place to be.
Cleveland’s vacancy rate was extremely high, and though people might come downtown to attend a baseball or American football game, they didn’t live in or enjoy downtown the way it used to be enjoyed by local communities and neighborhoods.
However, since DCA’s inception, the city now has a 98% occupancy rate and more residential buildings continue to be built.
They’ve also hosted major events such as the 2016 Republican National Convention and half of the 2016 NBA Championship games.
All of this has led to both people and businesses flocking to return downtown and much of that has been spearheaded by DCA.
The question for you is, do you know the history of your organization? Do you know its goals and purpose? Understanding those and being able to share them are excellent ways to explain the importance of your nonprofit and the work that it does.
Having a historical perspective not only serves as background for explaining your organization, but it can also be showcased through fundraising and other campaigns. Celebrating the anniversaries of your founding and incorporating a fundraising platform into that can further benefit the work you do.
By using one of Canva’s card templates such as the one below, you can celebrate your organization’s history with a fundraising drive as well.
DCA did this with their $10 for 10 campaign. Playing off of their decade of accomplishments in 2016, DCA started a fundraising drive asking people to donate $10 in honor of their 10 years.
You can borrow this idea and connect your nonprofit’s on history to its future and create excitement around a program or fundraising campaign.
Often nonprofits and associations get labeled as relics of the past. Millennials generally aren’t flocking to participate, with over a quarter of participants in one survey saying that these groups are “old school”.
Yet, Sam is a millennial and not only thrives at DCA but oversees its program to work with young professionals in the city.
Called the ‘City Advocate Program’, of which Samantha is an alum, each advocate spearheads a project in an effort to better downtown.
“The program graduates 15 or so each year and the specific programs they focus on all relate back to DCA’s mission to make downtown a place to live, play, and grow. For example, one advocate is currently working to build a playground downtown. Even five or ten years ago, there were very few children living within the city limits. Now there are over 1000 kids under the age of 15 that live in the city and DCA wants to make sure that these children and their families have safe and fun places to enjoy outside.”
Sam is a ‘mission based person’ and she loves working for an organization that does real, actionable good. Many millennials say that they crave that same inspiration and connection to their community.
If you want to stay relevant in the nonprofit sector, you also need to appeal to this motivation and work to bring in young professionals to help grow your team. You can’t merely explain the work you do, you also need to get millennials and other young professionals actively involved so that they can share in the goals that your organization is working towards.
Tasking a group like the City Advocates with specific projects to lead keeps them actively involved and accountable. By giving people a stake in the outcome, they are far more likely to work hard to see it succeed.
You can find organizational chart templates in Canva to outline your team structure, such as the Collins Template example below.
Bestowing agency on people also means making sure that you have a visible presence in whichever field your nonprofit is in. For DCA, this means their flagship program: the ‘Clean and Safe Ambassadors’.
Business owners pay an assessment fee to the city which covers the costs for these ambassadors.
“They are symbols of downtown, meeting and greeting tourists, but they are also literally cleaning with sweepers and brooms. They ensure everyone feels safe, by escorting people to their cars and maintaining a presence so that people feel welcome to come down there.”
The ambassadors share information about their program and DCA with their shirts as well as flyers and informational packets when people ask.
Being visible and having materials that you can use to share what it is you do helps spread your message and increase your ability to gain attention and support for your organization.
Another thing that many nonprofits struggle with is the fact that those working there do so much that not every program gets highlighted clearly. Often there are a variety of different interests involved and nonprofits generally work with a number of constituents – whether it’s the people that they serve or the people who they are trying to get support from – so it’s understandable that some things may fall off your radar.
Sam gets this because she’s seen it happen to herself within her own organization. Until she was writing a grant for funding DCA’s homeless program called SEEDS, she was not fully aware of all that it actually did.
“Each summer, SEEDS works with the local homeless shelter and hire between 9 – 15 men who then work with local companies doing things like landscaping downtown. Not only does this benefit the city as a whole, but the local companies work to teach the men marketable skills so that they can get back on their feet.”
Even though her role is to work with donors and recruit supporters, many people see the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and assume that they only work with businesses. Her goal is to show them that this isn’t all they do.
Getting to know the ins and outs of what your organization does and the different programs it offers can help you promote your group as a whole. It can also allow you different ideas for ways to raise money. Highlighting specific programs gives your development team a new way to showcase different areas of what you do to make a difference.
With many nonprofits working in very niche (and sometimes, not very exciting) areas, it can be hard to share the overall impact of your organization.
“I work with local businesses to explain and help them apply for historic tax credits for renovating older buildings. And while that sounds boring on paper, I try to communicate it in a human manner and make sure they understand the great impact this has on everyone. It’s not just these businesses redoing a building for their offices, but that it also means bringing more jobs to the city center, which in turn positively affects local residents. This gives DCA the opportunity to get even more businesses involved in what we do, which allows us to turn around and do more for the city.”
Using charts or infographics to explain the human elements of the more transactional side of your nonprofit’s work helps to connect their outcome with the nitty gritty of what you do.
Just because an area may not seem as exciting doesn’t mean you can’t use great design to share the human impact involved. By explaining how these different parts relate to your overall goal keeps people and donors enthusiastic about what you do.
One of the best successes that Sam has seen is the way that people have responded to DCA’s social media posts. Videos that pump people up with city pride or posts that get shared and go viral because they connect on a deeper level helps spread the work that the Downtown Cleveland Alliance is doing.
Not only that, but it also helps Sam brainstorm new methods for better reaching donors. Some of the videos created have been so successful that they’ve won Emmys for the past two years.
“Using Instagram to share visuals of how much the city has changed and grown connects with people and inspires them to keep working toward our goals.”
People love a great before and after. Use Instagram, Facebook, and other social media posts to share the changes that have happened thanks to the work of your nonprofit.
Even if your organization hasn’t created a visual change, sharing the different ways that you work to help others can create impactful and viral moments.
Supporters want to feel like they are contributing to something good or someone deserving – use social media platforms to show exactly how you’re doing that so others can see and share.
Sam knew that she loved interacting with people but she was somewhat nervous about the grant and proposal writing aspects of her job. “I honestly worried that they wouldn’t be as fulfilling. But that hasn’t been the case at all.”
Thanks to writing grant requests and proposals, Sam’s been able to learn even more about a wide variety of projects and aspects of DCA that she was unaware of or didn’t know well before. Since she’s writing these proposals to raise money for these different projects and initiatives, she has to “jump in and learn so much more” because now she’s requesting funding for them.
“Even having been a part of the City Advocates program before, I didn’t know about the SEED program when I came to work here. It wasn’t until the Director asked me to write a grant about it that I learned in detail the work we do through it. I’ve absolutely loved learning more and now I’m excitedly planning and thinking of different ways to raise support for it.”
Even if you’re unsure if you’ll do well in a different area or enjoy an aspect of your work, you should still jump in. Since you’re likely to be part of a small team, being a team player goes a long way towards making the office run smoothly and effectively. It also gives you the chance to learn more and develop new skills that you may never have considered, which could lead your career in a new direction.
Trying out these different fields can give you an entirely new perspective on the work both you and your nonprofit accomplishes.
With part of Sam’s job including development, one of her biggest challenges is creating a path for recruiting individual donors to help fund different programs.
“Currently, most of our donors are businesses or corporate entities and much of our money comes from the tax assessment fee and grants. So the business side is covered. We also have someone who handles corporate membership. But what we don’t have are a lot of individual donors. We have a few, but not many. This is a project that’s become one of my main goals – to find and recruit individual donors.”
With DCA having been around for 11 years, it’s not as though the current funding system hasn’t worked. But merely because that’s worked for the past decade doesn’t mean that Sam shouldn’t seek new ways to expand donations and create more support for the variety of DCA programs.
“I want to start doing donor parties and creating special invitations to attend, as well as tapping into our City Advocates alumni base. There are so many enthusiastic supporters that I want to reach out to them and bring them back in.”
Finding new ways to look at issues such as fundraising expands your organization’s ability to reach its goals. Just because something has been done one way in the past doesn’t mean it has to continue to be done that way moving forward. Looking at all sides of an issue and seeing if you can approach it in a new way can lead to breakthroughs and increased success.
Thinking outside the box isn’t just limited to approaching aspects of your job, but also the way that you showcase and advertise your organization’s accomplishments.
Every year, DCA has a partners luncheon to thank funders that have collaborated with them for the year. “Part of the luncheon always includes an exclusive first look at a new downtown project or a newly renovated building.”
Sam used a real estate template from Canva’s flyer section to create the invitation for this event. Since the new building being shown was an apartment complex that was recently completed, she was able to pull in the images of the new building to highlight it.
She didn’t stop there however. Sam also used a menu template to help create a SMART (S – specific, M – measurable, A – achievable, R – realistic, and T – time-bound) goals worksheet for the City Advocates program. Feedback from previous groups had said that they felt like they didn’t have tangible stepping stones and goals to help keep them on track throughout the year. By creating this worksheet, Sam sought to provide them with a basis for tracking and reaching those goals.
Just because a template says it’s for one purpose, doesn’t mean it can’t be used for something else. Don’t allow the title of a template to dictate its sole use. If you can see another way to use the template to create worksheets or invitations or flyers or more, then do so. Thinking outside the box applies to finding new and creative ways to get your message or mission across.
Lastly, Sam says one of the most important things you can do as a non profit is make sure that whatever you’re putting out into the public – via social media, direct mailings, flyers, etc – looks well-designed and professional.
“If your mailer or fundraising flyer doesn’t look visually appealing, people are going to throw it away. You want something that’s going to catch someone’s eye first and foremost. If you’re struggling to convey what it is you’re trying to do or what your organization’s goals are, it might not be how you’re describing it. It might be whether it looks appealing or not. The most important thing you can do is make sure what you’re putting out looks professional, even if you’re the COO and end up having to create it yourself.”
Your team may be large, or you may not even have enough money for a graphic designer. Neither should stop you from putting out the best materials possible. Ensuring your nonprofit looks professional starts with the type of images and graphics you share with the world. Using a resource like Canva allows you to create these images and presentations so that you don’t hold your organization back through unprofessional communication.