(Illustration by Justin Gabbard) 

The other day I had lunch with a retired CEO who now chairs the board of a large social service agency with a broad range of services. “The work we do is great,” he said, “but it’s not simple to explain to others. I find it hard to get people excited about our organization when they can’t really figure out what we do.”

At Wellspring Consulting, which I founded in 2002, we often hear about this problem from those involved in nonprofit organizations that provide a broad range of services. Consider the Children’s Aid Society, one of the largest social service nonprofits in New York City. It serves the city’s neediest children at 44 locations with more than 100 programs in academics, sports, health, and the arts, along with parent services for applying for low-income housing and finding family medical care. Several years ago, the organization was grappling with ways to attract greater interest and support and had come to believe that the sheer complexity of program offerings was getting in the way. Although many people in the city knew the organization’s name, few knew what it did, with the result that the organization was having trouble getting major donors excited about its work.

Not all organizations face this problem. The work of City Year, for instance, is straightforward: It brings young adults together for a year of full-time volunteer service in urban settings. With this simple design, City Year has achieved dramatic success. It has been a darling of funders, has been honored by Presidents Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush, and has grown rapidly on a national scale.

Or consider the Posse Foundation, which finds highly talented students in the poorest of neighborhoods, students who almost never consider going to college, and places them as groups of 10—“posses”—in top colleges and universities with full scholarships. The foundation’s story is remarkable. When we tell people about the Posse Foundation, they grasp the idea immediately. The Posse Foundation has realized a sustained 20 percent annual growth rate over the past 10 years and has expanded to eight major urban areas. Posse Scholars graduate at a rate of 90 percent, substantially higher than comparison groups.

But there are many multi-program organizations where the very comprehensive nature of their services makes what they do so important. Again, consider the Children’s Aid Society and the critical role it plays in providing an integrated set of services to poor children. Or consider Groundwork, whose mission is to build powerful children, families, and communities so that all young people have access to a full range of opportunities to lead rewarding and fulfilling lives. In such cases, a simple program structure can’t do the job. A breadth of services is required. Yet how can these organizations get the word out in a way that captures attention? How can they convey what they do to appeal to donors and funders, rally the support of government officials and policymakers, and build the allegiance of others in their field? To answer these questions, we studied large organizations with complex program structures, drawing upon publicly available data and our own in-depth interviews. What we learned fell into four approaches that can be used individually or in combination.


  1. Identify a core element at the root of a complex set of programs, and create a captivating brand message built on that core. Some organizations choose to accept that the full complexity of their offerings can never be expressed in a short statement. So they choose to uncover the essence of their work through a simple and inspiring message—a message directly connected to their social objective. The United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, for example, struggled to create a coherent message around programs that include immunization, girls’ education, child protection, and many more. In market research, UNICEF found that although it was second to the Red Cross in terms of unaided awareness, few people had any idea what UNICEF did. In response, UNICEF looked across its work and identified a central essence—child survival—that effectively communicated its work and appealed to its constituents. UNICEF then retooled all of its marketing and fundraising messages to start and end with the theme of child survival, using the middle of the message to mention specific programs. The result was a marked improvement in the way the UNICEF brand was perceived. Donations also increased at a time when other organizations were facing shortfalls.

  2. Enlist major supporters through deep engagement. For some donors, a campaign with a simple, cohesive message and emotional appeal can be effective but doesn’t go far enough. Major donors often wish to have deep knowledge of the endeavors they might support, and they deliberate carefully about where their dollars will go. To address this segment, some organizations have found that they can successfully use the complexity and depth of their work. For instance, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental group, regularly involves its major donors in working groups to discuss priorities, policy, and objectives for the organization. Leaders spend time meeting with major donors to draw out their interests and opinions. And key staff members are assigned to work with donors on issues in their area of expertise. The work of these groups is then used to help direct the policy and strategy of the organization. The result is a highly involved set of major supporters who feel actively included in the work of the organization, often leading to substantial and sustained levels of support as well as increased access to people with influence in policy rulings or legislative action.

  3. Populate the organization’s board with influential people in the organization’s field. Organization leaders or board members often express a desire to include celebrities on their boards, believing that celebrity power will raise the profile of the organization and attract donations and other support. But this strategy rarely leads to the expected result, particularly when a celebrity does not commit time and support to the organization and its work. More important are influential board members who can connect the organization to people and institutions it needs to engage. Such a board member could be a good friend of the mayor, a philanthropist who can multiply her contributions by enrolling the support of her friends, or an expert in the field who blogs about the organization’s accomplishments. But how does an organization find such people? Most organizations have a board development committee that works to identify new board members. Successful approaches include asking friends and supporters of the organization to provide suggestions, approaching influential people who have an apparent interest, and being persistent with those with the greatest potential to improve the board.

  4. Build visibility with targeted audiences. Nonprofit leaders often want their organization to be well known to the general public. Organizations do benefit when they receive positive press coverage, and some organizations have become widely known this way. Although interest in press attention is understandable, an attempt to boost visibility can lead to poorly conceived marketing expenditures yielding paltry gains. In addition, one-time appearances in the major media do not generally lead to an increase in financial support or make much difference to the people most critical to the organization’s success. Consider when Good Shepherd Services, a multiservice provider to children, youth, and families, won the New York Times Company’s Excellence in Management award: Sister Paulette LoMonaco, Good Shepherd’s executive director, said that her organization received no perceptible boost in funding support as a result of the award.

What approach, then, should an organization take to build its visibility, and who should its target audience be? The best candidates are those who can make decisions in the organization’s favor: politicians, leaders of government agencies, philanthropic institutions, other service providers, and community leaders. The Afterschool Alliance, a national advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., regularly sends out carefully crafted e-mail blasts to its large database of supporters and interested parties, which it has assembled by working with after-school programs and grassroots organizations. By watching how people respond to these e-mails, the organization has learned to focus on topics that are relevant to its constituencies, who then have a greater interest in furthering the work of the alliance.

In another example, the Connecticut Health Foundation interviewed and surveyed people across the state to assemble a database of more than 350 people and organizations who were working to support one of the foundation’s strategic initiatives: reducing racial and ethnic health disparities. This database has been used by the foundation to foster a virtual and actual community of people interested and engaged in this common objective, who together can strengthen a common cause.

Back to the Children’s Aid Society: Two years later, it is using all four approaches to market its complex mission. Although still delivering more than 100 programs across multiple locations, it now represents its work with a short list of core areas and communicates the essences of that work as “filling the gaps between what children have and what they need to thrive.” To attract and deepen relationships with major donors, Children’s Aid Society leaders have moved away from larger, more impersonal symposia. They now invite potential major donors to roundtable discussions, where they discuss the organization’s programs in depth. In seeking new board members, they look for people who are well connected within networks of potential supporters and who can activate these networks to provide support. And in building public visibility, although they do appreciate receiving notice in the mainstream press, their investments in visibility are focused on bringing their story to audiences who are most likely to respond to their message and provide support. These measures have been part of the organization’s exceptional performance, including increases in individual donations, a greater than 20 percent growth in total income over the past three years, and a remarkably strong reputation among peers, government officials, and funders.

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