“Even as many wealthy nonprofit institutions - like museums and universities - are reporting record increases in contributions, other charities, especially those that provide direct services to the poor, are struggling to get donations and keep up with rapidly escalating demands for aid,” reports a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article.

How can nonprofits that serve the poor keep up? How can they get attention amidst the glitzy fundraisers of museums and symphonies, or compete against universities’ highly loyal alumni fundraising networks? 

One way is to tell their stories more powerfully - to both government funders and to individual donors. I remember the article “I Want You to Meet Joe,” published in the Spring 2005 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, about how a small, semi-remote nonprofit in Northern Larimer County, Colorado was able to shift government reorganization of the state’s mental health program. The project manager was going to do a presentation using her PowerPoint, but the PowerPoint didn’t get to the meeting on time. Here’s an excerpt:

Erin Hall’s stomach sank as she sat at a roundtable with 40 of Colorado’s most powerful decision makers in a conference room in downtown Denver last summer. Hall, the project manager of a new mental health and substance abuse program in a semi-remote, northern part of the state, in Northern Larimer County, had been invited to present at the statewide mental health summit. ...In her old-style presentations, this would have been the part where Hall went into lengthy detail showing charts outlining the 12 strategies for uniting 34 different organizations under a common umbrella, called the Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse (MHSA) Partnership. On this day, she simply showed a slide of a successful, 40-something man in a shirt and tie, smiling and holding a pair of glasses, accompanied by the question, “What if Joe’s story had been different?”

Hall then recounted an entirely new Joe story, still no fairy tale, but one where Joe received proper, coordinated treatment over the course of his life for what he learned was his bipolar disorder. “He has had no jail time, has used remarkably less primary care, the police and ambulance don’t even know who he is, and he has never again been close to suicide,” explained Hall. “The first Joe is reality, the second Joe is the changed reality that we’re working on. Our partnership really believes that things can look different for the Joes of the world.”

The slide show ended, the lights went on, and just like a scene out a heart-tugging movie, the 40 listeners jumped up from their chairs and, for the first time all day, broke into thunderous applause. “Holy cow! They really liked it and it touched them,” Hall remembers thinking at the time. The rest of the day, the entire group talked about Joe, bringing him into the context of every program they address. “How would this affect Joe?” they would ask. Since the summit, word of the Joe story and Northern Larimer County’s ongoing massive revamping of its mental health and substance abuse program continues to spread far beyond the county. The MHSA Partnership is being used as a model for a statewide group trying to help other counties implement similar systemic changes.

Right now, nonprofits that serve the poor need to harness stories like this and distribute them to their stakeholders - volunteers, donors and government funders. There are so many magical stories of lives changed as a result of nonprofits. I hope these stories are spread widely so they can help even the smallest human services nonprofit find more supporters.

This is just one idea. What are some other ways that small nonprofits serving the poor can fundraise better? Your suggestions?

image Perla Ni, founder and former publisher of Stanford Social Innovation Review, is the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits. She is also a co-founder of Grassroots.com.