So, you want to help people. You’ve got an NGO. What’s next?

Let’s say you want to help people. You do an NGO. You start creating stuff. You do good for the planet. You want to communicate better. What’s next? How can you improve the way in which you communicate online?
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First of all, see some resources I previously wrote:

Ok, getting back to the article.

One person and one only

I’ve heard one guy, saying, recently, that people are hard-wired to connect with just a small number of people. It’s very hard to imagine “by doing this step, I will help the whole humanity, but the results will only be in the future”. It’s very easy to imagine “by doing this action, I will help this little person, and I’ll get an immediate feed-back – this person’s joy”. It’s hard for us both to project things in the future, with no direct feed-back (avoid polluting the environment, for example), it’s much easier to act now and get an immediate response (helping a child in need).

Translating into NGOs – have a look at this Google search. You’ll see a large number of posters for [donate to help poster] Google search show only one person in difficulty. Want to donate? OK, ignore the fact that you’ll help some people, a community, a country, the world, in the end. Focus on this little person and see that person connect to you. Ignore everything else. Just look at a single person.

If I were to communicate something, as an NGO, I’d focus on single-person scenarios – “look at this specific person, you may want to help her”.

It’s one girl. One starfish. One impacted starfish. One connection – to the viewer.

Hundreds of persons

I will go now in the opposite direction – show a big impact. Have a way for a person to understand what your business is about. Crunch things into digestible pieces. Say how many people are impacted by a project. List the projects in the past year. List the projects for each year, since you began. List the number of employees in your company and the number of volunteers. Tell me if people donate to you more than one time. Tell me how visible you are on the market. Give me either direct things (number of projects / employees / people helped), or indirect things, from which I can understand your business (you are the NGO in Romania with most 2% donations – SMURD was this in the past years -, people donate to you more than once, you grew from year to year, you have lots of people working for you for free, who are your partners etc.).

Having the ability to look at things from a big scale – macro – helps the people wanting to help you to really understand what you do.

Avoid too few persons

In the picture at the beginning of this blog post you’ll see three happy persons. I think a better solution is to just focus on one person and present the case. Sure, at times, you should present things as “10 people came and they did so and so”, but, in my opinion, it’s best to go very micro – “one little girl said this and this” – or go very broad – “we had 10 people helped by 2 volunteers, there were 3 organizations, we went there, the project belongs in a series of projects which aims to …”.

This mix between macro (everybody) and micro (just one little person) should help you much better than going in the middle – “10 people, here they are”. Either extreme focus, or go extremely broad.

It’s about what the donor gets in return

I think you really have to understand why people help NGOs. Why do volunteers volunteer, why do corporations do partnerships, why do people donate, or contribute with goods, or come and volunteer.

I think that there is more than a single reason. People can help if they see others helping. Volunteer may volunteer more if they know someone who had a similar problem as the one they are trying to heal. Corporations may want to make their employees feel better connected with the world they do business in.

I can’t give you a universal answer. People want to help for lots of reasons. You should find out all of them and start communicating on all ov them.

But, in my opinion, an important factor is donating for the image of yourself. You see yourself as a good person when donating anything (time, effort, goods). Sometimes, you want to do this anonymously, and want only yourself to benefit from your deed. At other times, you do a press release presenting your help. But, in my opinion, people tend to donate something for their inner image.

Sometimes, the society may not see the good itself. Petrom can do a positive action in the society, and others may criticize it. The question is – will the direct beneficiaries criticize it? If Petrom helps a school do better, will the pupils and teachers say bad things about Petrom? To me, this is unlikely.

If I were in charge with communication on an NGO, I’d try as much as possible to connect the action done by a donating person with the end result and the end beneficiary. The rest are irrelevant in the context. It doesn’t matter if the press finds out, if the donation is public or anonymous. But it matters a lot, to the institution or person donating, what was the real impact. And by impact I don’t mean “look, the children got a gift, this is the impact”. Show the happiness of the child with the gift, let him describe. Go deeper. If possible, ask for a short email from either the child or a person around him to describe things one month after. Is the child still using the gift? Talk experiences and emotions, not necessarily facts.

If someone donates money to build a house, I’d show pictures with the house. I’d invite the person to see the house. More than this, I’d focus on the beneficiaries. I’d connect (electronically or in live person) the final beneficiary and the donor. I’d follow up years after. I’d write a story presenting how the new house affects the lives of the people who benefit from it. How is the family’s life impacted by having a roof above their heads?

If someone donates blood, but wants to make this anonymously, me, as a web site, I would get the email address of the donor and send a text written by the beneficiary or a direct relative. A photo would also help. People tend to donate blood for lots of reasons. But actually seeing the person after you have donated (in an electronic form), actually hearing from it makes the experience so much better for the donor. Hearing from the mother / father / other relative of someone you helped makes a huge different. You don’t need to talk back, but listening to such a message does great to you.

It’s about what the potential donor gets in return

I think you should find similar mechanisms as above for the potential donor. Let’s say I visit the site of an NGO. Why would I donate? Try to find out the reasons and help me focus on them.

But also give me an idea on the real, very deep impact of what you do in other people’s live. Help me understand that if I give something to you, this and that will happen. And talk experiences, not facts. Don’t say “a house will be built”, but “a family will have a shelter, which impacts their life so and so; look at what we have done in the past and what other people have said when they first saw their house; look at those families 1 year after; look at those families after 5 / 10 years have passed; look at this child, who would have been separated from his family, and now is a successful …”.

It’s about what you want the visitor to do

On a web site, you should clearly state what you want your visitors to do. They can do lots of things:

  • Spread the word.
  • Donate money / time / resources.
  • Connect you with other parties.
  • Sponsor you.
  • Subscribe to the newsletter.
  • Contact you for more information.
  • Read more about the situation you are trying to solve in the world with the presence of your web site.
  • Make friends with you on social networks.
  • Comment on your blog.

It should be clear for you what you want your visitors to do. And you should help your visitors do those things.

It’s about not tiring your visitor

There are two scenarios:

  • You either have a single call-to-action, and put lots of emphasis on it (“donate” – and that’s the only message).
  • Or you have multiple call-to-actions, leaving the visitor to decide.

I’m not advocating for any of the above solutions. The best idea is to put things to the test. There is a risk of having a single call to action, by not providing a good networking person help you with his network (you ask for money, they have a good network of people, but you don’t clearly ask for this on your web site). There is also a risk of having multiple calls to actions – people might feel frustrated after a while (“I don’t have time right now, I don’t know anyone who would help them, oh, they also want donations, well, I don’t feel like it anymore”).

I don’t have an answer, the answer would be to just try and see what works best.

Also, surely, merely by existing, a web site disrupts something. Things tend to be more natural without the web site being there. The presence of the web site, in one way or another, disturbs things. The question is, thus – “sure, we disturb; but is it worth it?”

It’s about answering to fears

I’d try to find out what are the most fears people have for not donating. This may refer to donations in general, as a good deed, or specific to your NGO.

For example, people might not donate, in general, not specific to your NGO, for one or more of these reasons:

  • Money not well spent.
  • Thinking they will better spend money in the future.
  • Thinking a small donation won’t count.
  • Not wanting to be anything like X, who donates money, but has a problem with …
  • Thinking others won’t appreciate the help.
  • Considering that there is so much pain in the world, that saving a single person won’t matter.
  • Thinking others don’t deserve to be helped.

Specific to your NGO:

  • Thinking their money would go on salaries and bureaucratic tasks, rather than actual help to the problem.
  • Not trusting you in spending the money wisely.
  • Thinking you are not experienced enough.
  • Wondering about your secret agenda.
  • Not wanting to help an NGO which has done, in the past, an association with X, who, everybody knows, is …
  • Not knowing how you handled previous projects.
  • Thinking that, after the donation is made, you won’t follow-up.
  • They’ve never heard of you.
  • Considering you either too corporate-ish, big NGO, nothing personal, or, as a reverse, so personal that you don’t handle corporate procedures well, and you’re chaotic.

I’d try to answer as many issues from this list as possible. Find out other fears, also. It’s tricky to find out the real reasons. Try to get them, still.

It’s about you

Why is it about you?

  • It matters who runs the NGO. It matters who are the employees. It matters who volunteers. It matters who are the one being helped. It matters who partners with you. Make it visible. Put yourself out there Have a voice. Speak, no matter how high or low in the chain of doing things you are. You should have a voice for each party involved.
  • Be a specific voice, not any other voice. Differentiate by being you.
  • People don’t donate necessarily to a specific cause, they donate to a specific NGO, who does specific things with specific people, helping specific people. Help your visitors understand the specificity of each.
  • Practical steps – have an online presence with each volunteer. Be on LinkedIn. Be on Facebook. Have a blog. At least, have a blog post on the company’s blog post. Post something on the Internet each week.

It’s never about you

Why, yet, is it never about you?

  • I think working on an NGO has lots to do with never being about you. It’s about your ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes. It’s working so that other will do better. It’s your fight not for yourself, but for others. It’s about giving up your ego.
  • This should also be transparent on the web site. Present beneficiaries, show how your actions shaped the world. But the focus should be on the results, not on yourself.
  • You’ll have lots of excuse for not succeeding. Actually, you have no excuse. It’s not about you anymore. It’s your failure to do well to others. It’s not about you anymore. If you fear to do X, this will affect the success of others.
  • When you write about you, try and focus on what the real issue is, and, most likely, that’s not about you. (for example, you may not have the resources to do so and so; but that’s not the issue; the issue is, first of all, you want to do so and so; focus first on this, and then state that you need resources for that, and you need people to help you for this)

It’s about what you write on your blog about you

  • I would create a blog focusing on two things – past events (what we’ve done until now) and future events (what we plan to do).
  • I’d try to be as detailed as possible – present pretty much every action you make.
  • I’d try to keep a system in place and connect things – “see this event we announced in January? We’re in June now, we can present the results”. Follow-up after an event. Mix the future with the past. “We did and delivered, we promise we’ll do and will do it.”

It’s about what you write on your blog – never about you

  • And, again, you have to have the ability of not speaking about you anymore. Give practical steps. For SMURD – have videos (made by you or others) presenting how the general public can tackle some common emergencies. For donating blood – write resources on why the society benefits from people donating blood. If you build houses, help others do this on their own.
  • I would separate the two types of blog posts – about you and not about you – on the web site. Have a “Blog” section listing things referring directly to your activity, and have an “Articles” section listing things which are general.

It’s never about logic – STOP doing this to you!

  • There is nothing more against human nature than giving up your ego and helping another human being. You have to have the ability to give up on you.
  • If you truly believe there is a logical process by which people should volunteer and help you with various things, stop it right now. It’s never rational. It’s, actually, one of the most illogical things ever. Donating things is anything but logical.

It’s about reinforcing logical steps to an illogical decision

  • Still, people love to lie to themselves, and your place in online communication is to help them convince themselves they do a good thing. You should try to find out the reasons why people lie to themselves when they donate and reinforce those.
  • For example, people may want to keep things to themselves, not go public. Clearly state that donors can remain anonymous. Some people think that by helping others, they may benefit themselves in the future. While karma and placebo might exist, the affirmation is rather illogical. Still, you need to make it. It is illogical to donate just because others have donated. Still, people think like this – “Oh, look, 49 people already donated. I’ll donate too, so we’ll make it a round number”. At times, people think that 20 USD is a big sum of money. At times, people think that 20 USD is a very small sum of money. If you need the 20 USD, help them think that 20 USD is a small amount of money. With it, they could only buy some food in town. Isn’t it a better investment to change the world? Rationally, no. But this is not about rationality, it’s about reinforcing irrationality.

It’s a thing in the past

  • Focus on the past. Prove things. Demonstrate. Show with your past actions.
  • For example, give numbers with the projects. Then show big numbers, annual ones. Have testimonials, and, with them, some data about the persons writing them. Use photos. Use videos. Get third parties to vouch for you (partners, institutions, organizations). Give results of your work. Show the impact.
  • In the end, prove that your past gives you the right to promise something for the future.

It’s a thing in the future

  • Some things are not in the past. Some things are about the future. You need to promise. As much as you can write about the past, part of the experience is about the future.
  • Promise a good experience. Promise that you’ll put your passion in every project you’ll make. Have a good of ethics and clearly state that you’ll abide by it. Say your wish regarding the world.
  • Whenever the future becomes something in the past (so, a promised event actually happens), make it clear. Do follow-ups.
  • Never ever forget to balance the past (we did this and we can prove it) with the future (we plan to do so in the future, and we promise we’ll do it like this and like that).

It’s about the long term, it always is!

  • The donor wants to see impact on the long term. He wants to transform the world. He wants to have an impact. It’s always about the long term. You help today, and you reap the benefits tomorrow.
  • Sometimes, it’s so far long, it’s for the descendants. For the future generation. For your future child.

It’s hard work – keep this to yourself

  • The blogs aren’t going to write themselves. The follow-ups need to be made. There are photos to be taken, videos to be made and presentations to be presented. The bureaucracy can be discouraging.
  • Make it easy for others to see the results of your work, not your work itself. This should be deduced, but, in my opinion, not seen. As a curiosity, sure, I want to know the kind of knives the chef uses. But, in the end, I mostly want to feel the pleasure of food, the smells, the joy of a good dinner. Work on making this on display – the end results, the changed world – not your own trouble in making the world a better one.

It’s never been easier

  • You now have tools which, 10 years ago, weren’t dreamt of. Use them. Find ways to work more efficiently and do so. Be productive & efficient. Use online collaboration tools (Google Docs, Google Groups, Google Wave). Communicate on instant messaging (one that is used in your community a lot; either Yahoo! Messenger for personal use, in Romania, or Skype for businesses), have an efficient email system (I like Gmail a lot), use sharing services for files (Dropbox).

It’s about more than you can really offer

  • One is never ready to do NGO stuff. To help the other. To be so good on themselves that they can now also focus on others. To have so many things to share, and so much experience, that others will surely benefit.
  • At any time in your career, you’re a beginner. You’ll always “not know” stuff. You’ll miss something. You’ll make beginner mistakes.
  • And yet, volunteering is about more than you actually have. It’s about giving others things which you don’t have yourself. It’s about teaching others things you don’t actually know. It’s about being very experienced, making childish mistakes, and still wanting to do it, knowing that you’ll never get to “expert” stage.
  • You need courage to admit this, but volunteering is offering to others something you don’t already have. And you should clearly state this.
  • Example – “We will go and teach some children in rural areas how they should … We’re not experts, but we’ll learn in the process. We’re good with kids, we graduaded good schools. We’ll learn by doing and by answering specific things. And two months from now we’ll be much better. And two years from now we’ll be above average. And 10 years from now we’ll be experts. But we need your help to get this started. We’ll make mistakes, but we’ll do better than if we hadn’t tried”.

It’s about having power and saying so

  • You’ll change the world. Make it clear on your web site. Clearly have a mission, in plain English words, saying why you want to change the world.
  • You need to have a guiding mantra. Make sure that a child could easily understand yours. Watch this 5 minute video on how to write it.

It’s about admitting you don’t have the power

  • You need help, on every level – work / money / resources / networking. You need help on being a better you, also. When you admit you aren’t perfect, you don’t have all the needed resources, and you actively ask for help, you may receive it. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s a necessary step.
  • It’s easier to do when you think you do this for others – you admit you aren’t SuperMan, so that others can give you their superpowers to make the world a little better.

THANK YOU for doing what you do.

P.S., 2014.12.31:

The challenge for real philanthropic growth, then, is to either change the culture so our marketing psychology is to donate to things that are neither close nor now, and that offer little in the way of thanks, or to create change that hacks our current perceptions of what’s important. (Seth’s Blog: Cutting through Singer’s Paradox)

Final note: I post things related to NGOs here: ONG in Romania – Yahoo Groups.


Note: Also see the Yahoo! Group on which I present similar issues:IMRo. To join, email imro-subscribe@yahoogroups.com and reply to the confirmation email.

I am a Freelancer. My expertise is in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) / UX (user experience) / WordPress. Co-founder of lumeaseoppc.ro (series of events on SEO & PPC) and cetd.ro (Book on branding for MDs). On a personal level, I like self-development - events, sports, healthy living, volunteering, reading. I live in London, and lots of things live in me.

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