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Building Trust: Nonprofits must communicate their value proposition, industry expert says

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Locally, over 3,000 charitable organizations are vying for donor dollars and volunteer hours to support their missions. Dan Prater, senior managing consultant with FORVIS LLP, noted the importance of getting their message out.

“It’s critical,” said Prater. “There’s a sea of nonprofits, and even the best are not necessarily understood.”

People may know an organization helps children, he said, but they may not know there are distinctions among the missions of Big Brothers Big Sisters and Boys & Girls Clubs, for instance.

“They may have similar demographic reach, but they often do something different or have a special nuance,” he said.

Cause IQ, a company that researches nonprofits, pegs the number of nonprofits in the Springfield metropolitan statistical area at 3,102 as of January. Those organizations employ 35,616 people, Cause IQ reports, and they bring in more than $6 billion in revenue each year with combined assets of $10 billion.

Some of those nonprofits are large, like CoxHealth and Convoy of Hope. Organizations with less than $1 million in revenue make up 2.2% of combined nonprofit revenues, while those with more than $100 million in revenue account for 70.4% of nonprofit earnings, Cause IQ finds.

To gain a portion of the community’s annual spend, the organizations must first gain donors’ trust.

“With trust, you can do anything,” said Greg Burris, president and CEO of United Way of the Ozarks. “Without trust, everything is four times harder. Nonprofits are constantly working to build and maintain trust.”

Case study
A January Facebook post by Castaway Animals Rescue Effort reported a crisis.

“If it’s convenient, can you please bring by a bag of cat litter?” the post asked. “We are at near-critical levels at the adoption center AND the sanctuary and would love to avoid dipping into our emergency rescue funding if possible.”

The post included photos of three sweet-faced cats the donation would benefit: Pancake, Sabrina and Khari.

Less than a week later in the adoption center, CARE communication manager Rob Hardy gestured to a 5-foot pile of litter bags in the storage area. Donors had come through with multiple stacks of 40-pound bags – but wouldn’t cash have been more convenient?

Not really, Hardy said.

“We would much rather the community be able to help out when they can,” he said. “A lot of the supporters do come in from time to time to help, and when they do, then that gives them a little extra motivation. It’s always nice seeing some of our CARE alumni come through here.”

On the scene since 1992, CARE’s supporters have had many chances to see its mission up close.

“There are so many ways people can be part of our organization,” he said. “We try to make it as easy as possible, because we are not city or state funded, and everything we do is from donations.”

CARE has an annual budget of about $150,000, he said, and its main goal is to rescue animals from death row at Springfield-Greene County Animal Control. Its website says that tallies up to about 1,000 animals each year. While other rescues take in abandoned or stray animals from the general public, CARE does not.

“Our primary effort is for the animals that are about to be euthanized,” Hardy said. “We remain at capacity.”

CARE has a clear story to tell, and its social media pages are filled with personality profiles and pictures of adoptable animals, plus photos of families leaving the adoption center with a new member in tow.

Differentiators
Prater said it is important for a nonprofit to define what makes it different but also to communicate its unique value proposition. He cited the findings of a Stanford University study completed a couple of years ago.

“High-net-worth individuals tend to give money to organizations they think they know the most about,” Prater said. “People don’t give to organizations they’ve never heard of, and they don’t give to organizations they’ve heard of but don’t understand.”

According to the Community Foundation of the Ozarks’ 2023 “Shaping Tomorrow” study in partnership with Habitat Communication and Culture LLC, 88% of donors said transparency is important to their decision to support an organization. Additionally, 89% of respondents indicated that it is important for them to trust nonprofits will effectively use their funds before they make a decision to give.

To connect with donors, Prater said, an organization must be clear about why it exists, what it’s doing and why people should care.

Burris said there are generational differences to giving, with younger donors wanting to be involved in the mission.

“We tend to find the younger generations want to have an experience. They don’t want to write a check and send it in and say, ‘I’ve done my part,’” he said.

Data show trust is on the decline among younger donors. Research published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2022 says only 47% of Gen Z trust nonprofits, compared with 67% of Baby Boomers – highlighting the importance of the challenge in messaging for charitable organizations.

Burris says nonprofits must tell their own story.

“Any nonprofit that doesn’t understand how to tell its story well is probably at risk,” he said.

Prater said nonprofits face steep challenges.

“They aren’t public relations specialists. They just love puppies and people,” he said. “They’re expected to be expert communicators, and that’s a vicious cycle they’re in. I’m sympathetic to that. They just expect people to get it, and they don’t.”

Better Business Bureau charity evaluator Give.org reported in 2022 the top five factors in establishing trustworthiness: accomplishments shared by the organization, third-party evaluation by an independent organization, name recognition, financial ratios, and passion and sincerity of appeals

Decisions about donating
American National supports multiple local charities, among them Care to Learn, Honor Flight of the Ozarks and Harmony House.

Jennifer Henry, American National’s senior events and engagement specialist, said the company’s charitable donations give its associates a sense of pride.

“They know their company is investing in the community and trying to make it a better place,” she said. “It feels good to give back.”

American National participates in the United Way annual campaign, which allows employees to give on their own, and some department managers also use volunteerism as a team-building exercise. The company provides a full paid day off for volunteerism in the community, Henry said.

“We did a bicycle-building team activity at our marketing retreat at Dream Center, and we were able to surprise nine kids with new bikes,” she said. “It got people in teams working together, and they got to surprise these kiddos. You should have seen our employees’ faces.”

Directors of local nonprofits say they are working to get their stories out, and, where possible, to provide a direct experience to potential supporters.

Kelly Baldwin is executive director of Cents of Pride, which began in 2009 with the purpose of meeting Springfield Public Schools students’ essential needs. Today, 14 SPS elementary schools host a Cents of Pride store, where more than 4,000 students per month can spend money they earn through attendance and good behavior to buy hygiene items, clothing, toys and more.

Baldwin said volunteers procure the merchandise and run the stores, and donor support helps to fund the organization’s $50,000 budget.

“It seems really easy to get people on board because of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” she said.

She noted when kids come to the store, data say about 64% of the items they purchase are need-based, like food or hygiene items.

“When they do buy fun things, a lot of times they will tell you they’re buying it for their mother,” she said. “If it’s a toy, it’s often to give as a gift. They’re very unselfish.”

When people observe the program in action, they’re hooked, she said.

It’s harder to get people directly involved for Laura Farmer, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Southwest Missouri, which provides intensive training for volunteers to serve as court-appointed advocates for children.

“Because our organization relies on the support of our community, awareness is key,” she said. “It’s vital that we educate community members about the realities for children who have been abused or neglected and hopefully motivate them to action.”

Amy McGee Jardell, executive director of the Ozarks Literacy Council, said she tries to make the council’s mission tangible by sharing personal stories and photographs.

“We have quite a few success stories about literacy and how it has affected people’s lives,” she said.

Jardell said there is a big demand for literacy services, with 15 people currently on the waiting list to work with a volunteer tutor.

“It gets sad,” she said. “I don’t want to lead with that story. I want to look at the person who’s made great strides and broken through fears or the apprehension of being an adult with low literacy who came to us anyway.

 “It helps to share those real stories so supporters can see the progress and not just the need.”

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