"Give Us Money Or Else" A Tough Message For Nonprofits

theateThe morning headline is a familiar across the country. A longtime nonprofit community organization must raise a large sum of money in order to stay operational.

This time it’s Detroit’s gorgeous Music Hall, as reported in the Free Press. It’s a terrific venue and there are some very intelligent, committed and business-savvy leaders on its Board of Trustees. But the organization owes its lender nearly $2 million and has until the spring to raise it. Or else.

Situations like this demonstrate the importance of communications to nonprofit organizations. The message now, as we have seen many other times, is “give to save us.” That is a very challenging situation under which to be successful and, importantly, it only works once. If you get into a financial pickle again, will donors want to save you again? Probably not.

The classic example we have used in discussing these situations for many years happened about 10 years ago. A relatively small organization faced a very serious financial shortfall. It decided to appeal to the public to “support us or we’ll go away.” One of its Board members hosted a radio show and he devoted an entire hour of broadcast to imploring the community to “save” the organization. And it worked. Once. The next year, the organization found itself in the same situation. Because the “save us” message didn’t ensure sustainability, only survival for another year, the public wouldn’t buy the line again. The organization eventually withered away.

The Music Hall situation, of course, is different because it needs to eliminate debt rather than just meet annual operating expenses. But it still provides a valuable lesson. A few years ago at a conference, I heard a line from a fund development expert I ripped off and have repeated ever since. “Donors don’t give money because you have needs. They give because you meet needs.”

The communications imperative for any nonprofit organization should be to ensure its community understands how the organization meets the needs of the community. Music Hall should get credit for its transparency. But it should also serve as a reminder for nonprofits. Communications must be a priority. You must regularly get in front of your audiences, articulating your mission and impact. Otherwise, the message can quickly turn into a “SOS.”