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Want to Expand Your Community Foundation's Reach? Start by Telling the Right Stories.

Learn how to use storytelling to craft narratives that better communicate your community foundation's purpose. The right messaging makes all the difference.

Eric Ressler
July 14, 2020
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Your community foundation performs a vital function. Yet you may struggle to communicate what your organization does and why it matters.

We get it. From nonprofits and donors to investors and financial advisors, you must connect with and inform a broad range of audiences. And it's hard to speak clearly to each of your individual audiences while at the same time presenting a unified brand story that holds it all together.

Unfortunately, community foundations that fall short in terms of their storytelling ultimately fail to engage their communities deeply and effectively.

In short, they suffer from a perception problem — one that can only be remedied with the right messaging. Here's what you need to know to tell stories that clarify your position, raise awareness, and drive impact.

More Audiences, More Problems: The Community Foundation Communications Conundrum

Communications are key to the success of any social impact organization. So much so that we believe all social impact organizations should think and act like media outlets in terms of spreading their message. That means investing deeply in creating and sharing compelling content that raises awareness and triggers engagement.

The media outlet mandate is every bit as relevant for community foundations as it is for other nonprofits. In fact, the very nature of community foundations — with so many different audiences to speak to — makes it all the more critical. Unfortunately, community foundations often have a harder time “owning” their messaging for that very reason.

Rather than distinguishing between each of their individual audiences, many community foundations attempt to address them all at once. The result is vague, generic language that fails to address the needs of any one audience. Combine that with a poorly structured, overstuffed website, and you have a recipe for confusion.

In addition, community foundations often fall into the trap of talking about themselves instead of the people and organizations they serve. To do that is to get messaging all wrong. Rather than talking about your foundation, you need to tell stories that make clear how the people you are trying to reach fit into your foundation’s bigger picture.

The Benefits of Clear, Focused Storytelling for Your Community Foundation

When you invest in sharpening your foundation’s communications, you benefit your organization and your community by:

Helping nonprofits raise awareness — and funds. Your communications can act as an amplifier for the nonprofits you serve. By telling their stories in a way that offers proof of impact, you can help the organizations you support spread their message, raise awareness, and attract more donors.

Building synergistic relationships. Your community foundation has the unique ability to aggregate nonprofits and other organizations in your area in order to build synergistic coalitions. With purposeful messaging, you can create a platform for cross-promotion and advocacy that extends your reach further into the community.

Increasing engagement with your foundation. As your community starts to see that their dollars can go further by investing in your community foundation, you’ll see an uptick in donations and engagement.

Operating more efficiently. As you produce clear, informative educational materials for your target audiences, your staff will spend less time explaining the basics of what you do and how your process works.

Rapid-Response Messaging: How to Use Messaging to Coordinate an Effective Response to a Local Emergency

Use the following checklist to raise awareness and coordinate a rapid response in an emergency situation.

Identify Your Community Foundation’s Audiences to Tell the Right Stories

If you want to reap all of the benefits listed above, you must figure out how to successfully communicate all your community foundation has to offer. The key? Shift your focus so that your community — not your foundation — is the hero of your stories.

The first step in telling the right stories is to identify and get to know each of your target audiences.

Chances are good that your target audiences include:

  • Individual donors and community members
  • Nonprofits
  • Investors
  • Financial advisors
  • Students

Once you’ve identified your core audiences, it’s time to dig deeper into each audience by conducting target audience interviews. Your goal is to develop empathy for each audience as you gather information about them. Who are they? What are their values and needs? Why might they want or need to engage with your community foundation? What information do they most need from you? And what channels do they interact with?

Next, you’ll want to develop a messaging strategy for each audience, including an overarching narrative and top-line messaging. As you begin to stage content for each target group, focus on the value and the benefits you provide to those audiences. Do that by telling their stories in a way that demonstrates your community foundation’s impact.

Finally, consider the impact on your community foundation’s website. In order to create the most user-friendly experience, you’ll need to do more than just distinguish between your audiences. You’ll need to consider what actions your visitors might want to take and create a hierarchy among them. Which actions are most important in terms of furthering your foundation’s mission? Prioritize among them, then build your information architecture in a way that reflects those priorities.

How to Craft Your Community Foundation’s Brand Story

Once you have your target audiences hammered out, it’s time to focus your messaging and storytelling throughout your website and across your chosen channels.

Your first order of business is to refine your own brand story. Why does your community foundation exist, and why does it matter? How do you connect with and support your local community? What is your impact? And why should community members invest in your foundation rather than donating directly to a local nonprofit (for example, do you accept unusual donations or enable other creative giving strategies)?

Do you have a larger theory of change that guides your decisions in terms of which nonprofits you support? By distilling your theory of change, you enable your potential donors and long-time supporters to tell the story of how your community foundation drives solutions for your local community. Be sure to identify key metrics that your team can track to help tell the story of your foundation’s impact on the lives of local people and the local environment.

Once you’ve refined your brand story, you can begin the process of crafting stories tailored for each of your target audiences. As you do so, remember to make your local donors and nonprofits the heroes.

The stories you tell have the power to clarify your community foundation’s role within your local community and expand that role, all at the same time. Tell your stories with empathy and intention, and you’re sure to broaden your foundation’s reach and multiply your impact, too.

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