Big Fish, Small Fish

May 1, 2020

We have two big dogs at my house. They eat tons of food. They need to get haircuts (because they’re extremely shaggy!) and occasionally, they need daycare when we haven’t had enough time to play with them.

Now, there’s a PetSmart just a couple of minutes from our place that does all those things. It’s a clean, well-run store and we have no complaints about the service there.

But, we drive further down the road to another place called Ruff House. It’s owned by a great young guy named Jon and managed by a wonderful woman named Sophie. John and Sophie – and all of the staff there – love dogs, and it shows.

My wife and I give Ruff House all the business we can for three reasons:

  1. We know four people there on a first-name basis.
  2. We love how enthusiastic everyone there is when they see our dogs.
  3. We prefer to patronize locally-owned, independent businesses whenever we can.

Enter the pandemic: I’m pretty sure that when it’s all said and done, PetSmart will still be standing in the big box mall down the street. I’m not so sure that Jon and Sophie will be able to hold out long enough to rebuild. After all, how long can ANY small business like that afford to keep its doors closed without going under?

I have the same fears for the local butcher shop I shop at. And the stylist who cuts my hair. And the little Mexican restaurant in Vanier that Sylvie and I like to go to on Friday nights.

Can these small enterprises hold out until June? Until August? Until September? Sadly, many of them won’t – they’ll starve for cash and close their doors for good.

So, when the lockdown eases, more of us will be buying our dog food at PetSmart. We’ll be buying all our groceries at Food Basics. And, we’ll be eating at Milestones or Montana’s.

What about charities? How will giving hold up as we begin measuring this lockdown in months instead of weeks?

If you’re going to survive through the long haul, you’re going to need to make sure that your messages and stories are highly relevant to the pandemic world in which we all live. Charities – especially smaller ones – can no longer afford to speak in platitudes and generalities. Every word your supporters hear from you must from now on be authentic, specific, and real.

So, what can your charity do to help increase its odds of survival? Here are five ideas:

  1. Focus tightly on the friends you already have – namely your most LOYAL DONORS. This is a time to circle the wagons – not to reach out and try to grow. You overextend at your peril in my experience. Spend your time and your money on the people that you already know care about you.
  2. With your messaging, stick very close to your CORE MISSION. If you’re a homeless shelter, now’s the time to talk about the work that brought your donors to you in the first place – namely warm beds and hot meals. Save the job training program and dress for success program descriptions for another day.
  3. BE RELEVANT. Everything you talk about needs to be framed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic – at least for the next few months. You need to demonstrate as simply and powerfully as you can that your work matters just as much – or even more – than it did before the lockdown.
  4. Steward like never before. The best way to show that relevance I’ve just been talking about is to place a tight focus on showing the OUTCOMES and IMPACT of your work. Make it crystal clear that your cause is still important – that your mission is needed – and that your work is getting great bang for your donors’ bucks.
  5. TELL STORIES. When many of us think of communicating impact on donors, we think in aggregates. We start building charts and graphs to show how many meals we’ve served, how many hip replacements we’ve done, or how many abandoned puppies we’ve saved. But the real power of demonstrating impact is showing the power of one. Talk about that one homeless guy and how he feels safe and healthy now. Talk about that husky/lab puppy that almost died but found a loving forever home. Once you’ve told your story, then break out the charts and graphs. But, use the big numbers to support the story – and not the other way around!

We’re all facing very uncertain times – and many small Canadian charities could well be more vulnerable in the months to come.

We think these five steps will help you solidify your base – and keep your doors open so that you can keep delivering on your much-needed mission.

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Fraser Green

Fraser Green

Former political campaigner and current fundraising strategist with a knack for understanding how audiences will react to messages.