Good businesses and nonprofits are both designed to create value for their customers and constituents.

In business, we create value and then we capture it directly in the form of fees. For example, at Elevate, our clients pay us to provide a good grant writing service. If we stop delivering that value, or if there is some other company who provides a better value, our clients would end their work with us. There is a direct relationship between a business and its customers – the business creates value and then captures it directly.

However, for a nonprofit, there is an indirect relationship. The beneficiaries of the organization are typically not the same as those who pay for the costs of the services they receive. That is the whole point of a lot of nonprofits: people who need their support are not in a position to pay for it. That benefit requires a subsidy in the form of philanthropy.

Becoming a Translator

Nonprofits do not capture the value from their constituents – instead, they turn to their supporters and ask for it. This is why YOU play a really important role as a translator. You translate the impact and importance of your organization to funders, donors, partners, volunteers, and other stakeholders.  To be a successful fundraiser, you must translate how your organization’s work and impact relates to their priorities and interests and values.

Unfortunately, this structure essentially creates an inefficiency, in that sometimes your organization is delivering a great value to your constituents, but not able to capture it from funders and donors.  Other times, organizations can be excellent at fundraising and messaging to their donors, but not necessarily have the programs and impact to back it up.

So how can you ensure you succeed?


Have you ever had to explain what your organization does to someone you just met?  Whether it is the classic elevator pitch or a quick intro at a crowded conference, capturing the essentials of your organization quickly is a key part of your role as a translator and spokesperson.

If you start with something along the lines of “We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, with multiple programs that…”, then you’re starting with the what of your organization: what you are.

That’s not going to quickly grab the attention of your potential volunteers and donors: there are lots of nonprofits with good programs starting their elevator pitch with that same line. Instead, you have to focus on the why of your organization: “We bring joyful experiences to children with cancer. We do this through…”

This is not Elevate’s theory. It’s based on the research by Simon Sinek and this TED talk:

We spend most of our time explaining the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of our ideas, while most ideas get spread because of the ‘why’.

-Simon Sinek

Creating a Compelling Why

While you might think that your WHY is your organization mission, it is not just that. For nonprofits, we believe there are three pieces to a compelling WHY statement: an important problem, a clear gap in services, and an appropriate response to that gap.

The Problem

You need to tackle an important, significant, relevant problem.

The response

You need to understand the other nonprofits and interventions already in your space.

The Gap

You need to address the problem in a way others do not.

The best way to understand what is compelling is to contrast it with what is not compelling.

The Problem

First, sometimes people will not resonate with the problem you are working on: not everyone is moved by the same issues. Moreover, some issues have less public support than others. For example, you might want to improve the services or quality of life in prisons, which is undoubtedly needed and important, but many people might care more about programs reaching ‘innocent’ youth than incarcerated adults.

In general, in the United States, programs that we view as competing directly with the ‘role of the government’ are less supported by philanthropy than issues that do not have a direct government response. For example: teacher training programs are harder to fund than after-school activities.

Other times you might have to do a great deal of public education in order to convince your community that the issue truly is of importance. For example, you might want to tackle public and street harassment. However, the understanding of this issue, how it impacts people who are harassed, and the complexities regarding behavior standards in the public sphere make it a much harder issue to explain to someone who has not thought about these topics before or not experienced street harassment.

As your organization’s voice, you must be an effective translator. You will need to bring real facts and effective stories to compel a wide audience.

The Response

The second way you can fail to compel others is by being the same or similar to an existing organization. People will ask: Why should I support you instead of the other organization already in this space?

A more nuanced question might be: why doesn’t your nonprofit join forces with the other organizations in your community, and save resources by merging with them, rather than being your own organization?  You’ll need a response to both of these questions.

The Gap

Finally, you can fail to compel people with a vague mission or imprecise goals that do not clearly and concisely communicate exactly what you do and how the world will be better as a result of your work.

There is a fierce ecosystem of organizations out there – all doing good work on behalf of meaningful causes – and they are vying for our time, attention, and resources. A clear, appropriately defined mission, vision, and goals will ensure you address a real need and fill a real gap in services. They will also help you cut through the noise of other organizations to effectively communicate the impact you are making and attract funding and supporters.

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