Nonprofits: 5 Ways to Shape the Conversation

It’s a binary proposition: Either you”re being heard. Or you’re not. Either you are engaging communities. Or you’re not. Either your nonprofit is affecting change, or opportunities are being lost.

There is no middle ground.

Or is there?  If you’re like most organizations (and indeed like most companies and people), you’re probably somewhere in the middle. A great mission, some great work, indeed some transcendent outcomes. But you also know there’s more work to be done.

Last week, we were fortunate to attend the Washington State Nonprofit Conference, and the theme was ‘Shaping the Conversation’, which in large part involves telling better stories. In the past, it might have been enough to have your brochures broadcast your mission for people to hear – a one way conversation that in the past might have been effective. But these days, people want more. They want discussion, they want conversation, they want debate about purpose, approach and potential outcomes. Your audience is having these conversations with each other in places like social media, they’re telling stories about YOU without you  even knowing about it.

So you have to engage. And by engaging, maybe you can help shape the conversation around who you are. Maybe you can join a collective dialogue that inspires people in the same direction you’re headed. This sort of engagement is the new business imperative.

Coincidentally, this week we are also working in St. Louis with a number of nonprofits that are directly affecting outcomes in Ferguson and beyond. These are nonprofits (like the wonderful Saint Louis Crisis Nursery) that are hitting the ground in meaningful ways, whether delivering diapers and formula or providing legal observers to peaceful protests.

Here’s some take-aways about how they’re ‘Shaping the Conversation’:

  1. Don’t Speak FOR people before listening TO people: You can’t just offer solutions without really putting your ear to the ground first and understanding the depth of issues.
  2. Be Resilient: 9-12 month cycles to get things done just don’t cut it anymore. You – and your organizations – have to be flexible in the way you respond to events and/or crisis. New thinking has to be the norm.
  3. Be Collaborative: You might be a foundation, or a grantee, or a volunteer, or a donor, or someone else trying to help a worthy cause. But true leadership is predicated around building relationships across all these groups, real connection, that can be called on in times of need. Organizations can work together, for example, to form a higher agenda. Learn from your partners.
  4. Fail More:  It’s a tired adage, but the more you step up to the plate and swing, the more you’re going to strike out. But learning to see the next pitch is invaluable.
  5. Measure your Outcomes: One foundation we are working with has one very simple way of measuring the success of their programs – the more children that sing and dance, the better job they are doing. Sure, there’s lots of other important metrics they look at as well, but this one is the most vital. And a powerful cornerstone of how they ‘shape the conversation’ around their own story.

Shaping the conversation is a big bold audacious goal. We all have to jump into that, or risk being lost in the noise out there. But chances are, we probably have more shared values then we know, and more shared challenges.  There’s a lot of opportunity for all of us to get together around that, and share the power of our work.

So continue the dialogue. Keep shaping the conversation. And thanks to everyone out there doing the hard work to make this a better place.


Author: Chris Donaldson

Chris Donaldson is Executive Producer at HCFmedia. Can film making change the world? The Short Answer: Yes.