A Question of Accountability

This article first appeared in Volunteer Victoria’s E-Link newsletter on July 29th , 2011. Sign up for E-Link and keep current with news and information from Volunteer Victoria.

A Question of Accountability

The national media recently turned its attention to charitable spending and highlighted the outcomes of a grading system that measures how Canadian charities of various shapes and sizes use donated funds. The report provides a valuable service, benchmark comparisons, and some important answers and also raised many questions, identified gaps in evaluation methodologies and stakeholder communications, and potentially planted seeds of doubt for donors and stakeholders that extend beyond the 100 organizations involved in the grading exercise and the realm of fundraising.

Some stakeholders are now looking to the non-profit community to bolster confidence and demonstrate that we are fully invested in accountability and oversight in all areas of our operations – from fund and friend-raising to governance and volunteer and staff management and everything in between. So where do we find a useful frame of reference that could address potential concerns of stakeholders?

The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance created ‘Standards for Charitable Accountability’ to assist donors in making sound giving decisions and to encourage fair and honest solicitation practices, to promote ethical conduct by charitable organizations, and to advance support of philanthropy.

The 20+ standards help stakeholders explore themes related to measuring effectiveness, finances, fundraising and informational material, and how an organization answers questions about itself and its practices. By working through the standards, an organization should be able to help stakeholders gain a clearer understanding of how an organization:

· is governed
· spends its money
· applies truthfulness in their representations, and
· discloses basic information to the public

To learn more visit http://www.bbb.org/us/Charity-Standards/

Your Case for Support – a critical first step

The following is a guest blog post written by Kari Frazer, facilitator of our recent “Planning for Fundraising Success” workshop.  Kari holds the international Certified Fund Raising Executive designation and has been practicing fundraising, marketing and media relations for 24 years.

In my recent Planning for Fundraising Success workshop for Volunteer Victoria I think the pivotal subject was creating the The Case for Support. Many of the 30 people in the room had an ‘aha’ moment when we went to some of their websites and looked for evidence of their priority needs. Many websites had a Canada Helps button that asked for a donation, but very few described a priority need and engaged us in a human story.

The first step we can all make is to describe our priority needs on our websites. Your website is your most important tool for identification, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship of your donors. The creation of all collateral, presentations, grant writing, direct mail and face to face asks can be duplicated from your website information. By sharing the stories and needs so accessibly and with such clarity, all volunteers and staff in the organization naturally become spokespeople and support your fundraising efforts.

Take a look at your website’s home page. Where is your story of an urgent need? Do you have ‘one click’ to a human story about a problem, the solution, the urgency and how the reader could be involved?

One exceptional site to model after is The Girl Effect. The website information and the series of videos cultivate us as well as encourage us to take action. The options to be involved include donating one-time, donating monthly, choosing what specifically to donate for, sharing the video/website with friends, volunteering, advocating, and finding out more information. This one site takes us through the entire The Fundraising Cycle from identifying ourselves and our friends to being cultivated, then solicited and thanked before being identified for another gift.

Our goal is for each priority need to have a human story that appeals to the reader’s heart, head and wallet. When your story describes the current problem or situation, what emotion does it stir? Pride? Fear? Inspiration? Hope? Grief?

You speak to the reader’s ‘head’ when you present a solution to the problem and a logic to why your organization has the history and resources to address the problem.

The reader is now ready to donate and knows that their contribution will make a difference because you have spoken to their ‘wallet’ by describing how each contribution – no matter if it is $25 or $2,500 – will make a difference. The reader is important to solving the problem. Through your organization and this particular project the reader can be a part of something bigger than themselves.

The reader has decided that this is an important need to donate to but what is the urgency? Why should we donate to your project when there are 1,100 charities in Greater Victoria inviting us to support them? Why you and why now? What is your call to action?

Evaluate your own website use the CharityChannels.ca evaluation form or  contact CharityChannels@gmail.com / www.CharityChannels.ca to show you the way.

Telling Your Organization’s Story

We recently held a very successful  “Story Skills and Telling Tales” day-long workshop, facilitated by Victoria-based storyteller Norma Cameron.  In this post, Norma herself gives readers some resources to turn to while learning how to tell your organization’s stories.

In 2005, after years of being a storyteller and a fundraising/communications consultant, I decided to marry these two pursuits and build more effective communication strategies and tools.  After all, a well-told story is the shortest distance between two people and telling your organization’s story is really no different than the stories we share with each other every day. 

However, it does require a wee bit of work.   First of all, you need to gather your organization’s history, mission and most of all – the positive impact it has on those it serves (proof of its “mission in action”).  Then, focus on choosing, gathering and telling the most convincing and compelling stories to your audience (could be future or current volunteers, staff or donors).  The goal of an impact story is to take others to the front lines of where your organization and its cause meet.  Choose the most emotionally-engaging way possible to tell these stories (using the most appropriate medium) to make your audience feel as though they are right there.  

Once you’ve covered the history and impact, your next task is to explain your future vision; paint a picture of what the community will look and feel like if your organization realized its mission (or current goal).  Don’t forget to include the journey and resources required to get there (highlights of your plan and your budget).  Next up, you need to articulate how your audience can help to achieve this future state…your “call to action” (in easy to follow steps).  In other words, place them in this story of success. 

In collecting this information, think about answering the following questions…Why is your organization the best at what it does? Why does it deserve support?  Is it a good steward of funds?  Develop your own set of questions – but in following the mantra of “show versus tell” distill and incorporate the answers into a handful of powerfully convincing and compelling tales…rather than simply listing these as facts. 

Over my 20+ years as a storyteller, I’ve learned that without a doubt, simplicity and authenticity wins out every time.   By mastering how to recognize, understand and tell authentic stories about your organization and its work (in plain language) – you’ll have the vital building blocks to create a powerful communication strategy.

As you may have noticed, there is a revival of interest in storytelling and as a result there are wonderful resources on this topic.  You can find lots of books, websites, blogs, etc. on many aspects of storytelling.  While there isn’t a book specifically on applying storytelling to non profit organizations (but I’m working on it), I’ve listed some of my favourite resources below.

And, don’t forget to seek out storytelling gatherings in your neck of the woods (check on the national website: http://www.sc-cc.com/) .  For example for those close to Victoria, why not drop into the next storytelling evening hosted by the Victoria Storytellers Guild, check out their website for dates/location: http://www.victoriastorytellers.org/

Learning the art of storytelling:
The Way of the Storyteller – Ruth Sawyer
Improving Your Storytelling – Doug Lipman
Suddenly They Heard Footsteps – Dan Yashinsky
Couple of website links on ingredients for good stories:
NPR’s Scott Simon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiX_WNdJu6w&feature=related
NPR’s Ira Glass (first part of four): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loxJ3FtCJJA

Storytelling for corporations:
The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling (or) The Springboard – Stephen Denning
The Story Factor (or) Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins – Annette Simmons
Your Client’s Story (specifically for financial advisors) – Scott West & Mitch Anthony

Gathering personal or family stories:
Telling Stories of Life through Guided Autobiography Groups:  James Birren & Kathryn N. Cochran
Writing About Your Life – William Zinsser
Storycatcher – Christina Baldwin

Focus on stories about/for women:
Women Who Run With the Wolves – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Inviting the Wolf In – Loren Niemi & Elizabeth Ellis
Composing a Life – Mary Catherine Bateson

Blending creativity (and the need to) in your work:
A Whole New Mind – Daniel H. Pink
And a great Ted Talks on this topic by Sir Ken Robinson: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html
The Leader’s Edge – Charles J. Palus & David M. Horth

Best book ever – on using plain language in all you write/tell:
Death Sentences – Don Watson

Through her business, The Narrative Company, Norma Cameron works with clients across Canada as a fundraising and communications consultant, teacher and facilitator. She believes passionately in the need for clarity in vision, mission and goals, plain language in all communications and tapping into the unparalleled power of story to motivate teams and attract support.

Norma is part of the CAGP Teaching Faculty and as a speaker and seasoned storyteller; she has performed at conferences, concerts and festivals in Canada, the USA and the UK.  You can reach her at


Fundraising in Challenging Economic Times

“What’s happening isn’t going to get better – that’s what we all believe. It might even get worse.”

Those were the cautionary words of fundraising expert Judy Lightwater when she gave the workshop, “Fundraising in Challenging Economic Times”, to a group of Volunteer Victoria’s member agencies this past March. She was talking about the state of our economy and the significant impact it has had on the ability of nonprofit agencies to seek out and receive funding from external sources. “You have to be even more concise than you used to be,” Lightwater advised, referring to the way agencies write funding proposals. She told the group that the most important question to address is: “What’s the need and what are you doing about it?”, and advised that including hard numbers in proposed project outcomes is absolutely essential.

The message came across loud and clear from Lightwater that nonprofit leaders need to be very familiar, off the top of their heads, with what their agencies need in terms of money, per project. If agencies don’t know themselves where they stand financially, then they will not be able to accurately reflect this need to potential funders. Lightwater also noted that it is crucial for agencies to collect and become very familiar with their own clients’ impactful stories that can be shared with potential funders, the media, or other possible supporters. She advised that nonprofits should “never assume that people know what you do” and recommended that we find a teenager to share our “elevator pitch” with to see if they understand it. (Lightwater’s grandson has been very helpful in this regard!) If the teenager in question doesn’t understand the message, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and revise the pitch until it works.

Lightwater also talked about the importance of having fundraising professionals as part of our organizations, even if only on a part-time basis. She suggested that a fundraiser should be able to raise monies for their organization equal to ten times what they make in salary. And, while it may seem obvious to some, Judy also noted that an agency’s fundraising person has to be able to ask for money: “If you don’t ask, people won’t give.”

Finally, Lightwater advised our member agencies that concerned individuals form the best group of potential donors. “Spend time with them, build relationships, ask for advice, and the money will follow.” Lightwater says that we have no evidence of a lack of money in our community, only a shortage of asks that are based upon informed and conscious relationships with those who want to help.

Additional tips from this workshop included:

  • Spend most of your time seeking funds from groups and individuals that bring you the most money. “Spend your time where the most revenue resides.”
  • Think about letting go of your fundraising events, because they usually don’t make money (once you add up all the staff time spent in organizing them, as well as other budget items). 
  • Invest in your local community foundation, e.g. The Victoria Foundation. They have donors that might be interested in investing in your organization if you invest with the foundation. 
  • Remain conscious of the language you use in funding proposals, as some terms can be unclear or over-used. Lightwater’s “groan” list at this workshop included the following terms: resources, access, issues, needs, day program, awareness, and support. 
  • Place your “Donate” button front and centre on every page of your website. Use social media tools to capture new audiences.
  • Organize a joint donor and volunteer appreciation night, and don’t even mention fundraising.

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