The coronavirus has made us want to reach out. For the rest of 2020, we’re going to share a new article every week that explores a topic in case development and fundraising communications, drawn from the work of our Communications team.
Most will have nothing particular to do with you-know-what—we just thought it was a good time to share as many resources as we can. We hope they may be of service, and we’d love if you would subscribe to the series and reach out with questions or ideas. Hang in there.
As we kick off our new Fundraising Communications Weekly series, there’s only one place to begin—the idea we return to most frequently in our work and share most regularly with our clients. Here it is:
A robust and comprehensive case for support will have strong core messages in six key areas: Context, Impetus, Vision, Plan, Credential, and Appeal. These are the six elements of your case for support. This is a big topic, so we’re going to break it into two parts. Today we’ll introduce the six elements, and next week we’ll show how they work in practice with a sample case.
Why six? Why these?
The six-element framework wasn’t handed down to us on a stone tablet, and we didn’t deduce it from first principles. Rather, the six elements emerged from real-world experience taking draft cases through the gauntlet of reviews with staff, leadership, board members, and ultimately donors—and seeing where challenging reviewers would routinely poke holes and identify blind spots. (Our sector’s extremely inclusive review and decision-making processes don’t always yield the most elegant final products, but they’re very good at exposing blind spots.)
This is helpful, because as any fundraiser knows, any single hang-up with your case can be the thing that keeps your donor from giving or your volunteer from stepping up in their fundraising role. The more you can anticipate those challenges and strengthen your case on the front end, the more likely you are to see it succeed.
With this in mind, we begin almost every case development exercise by thinking about and challenging a case from these six directions.
What are they?
As you dig into developing your case, you can think of the six elements as six distinct questions your case must answer.
Context: What story are we in?
What is going on in the world or community that makes an organization like yours necessary? What problem do you address? The Context element consists of framing information about the world around you that gives your case meaning.
Organizations frequently under-develop this area of their messaging, jumping too quickly into describing their brilliant plans without first setting the scene for why those plans matter.
Impetus: Why now?
What makes your mission, campaign, or project urgent instead of just “nice to have?” Your case is asking a person to change their behavior—to start giving, to give more. What would compel them to do so? The Impetus element is often somewhat rhetorical in nature and involves how you tell your story to create a sense of moment and urgency.
Vision: What will be different?
How will the world look as a result of your organization’s successful work (and the donor’s gift)? What’s the before and after? The Vision element is a depiction of a future state that your donor can picture in their mind, and it is probably the most challenging and important of the elements, especially in major gift work and campaigns.
Plan: What will we do with your gift?
What projects will we advance? What will dollars be used for? What impact will they generate? The Plan element conveys programmatic substance or detail that builds an interested prospect’s excitement and confidence that their gift will make a tangible difference.
Credential: Why us?
Assuming the prospect cares about an issue and wants to see it addressed, why is our organization the right horse to bet on? Your Credential consists of information about your organization that ensures the prospect’s trust and confidence.
Many organizations default to leading with this—rattling off their superlatives, longevity, legacy of impact, etc.—without sufficiently developing the other elements. The key is to recognize that your Credential is part of your case, but it isn’t your case all by itself. People don’t give just because you’re good.
Appeal: What are we asking the audience to do?
This is the ask, and while it can be quite simple, it’s worth appreciating that there are many ways to frame it, and each casts the donor in a different role. Are we asking them to stand up for what’s right? Live their values? Give back? Pay it forward?
The main thing donors “get” in exchange for their giving (beyond recognition tchotchkes) is the story they get to tell themselves about themselves, and the Appeal in your case suggests what that story can be.
As you may have noticed, some of these seem to go with each other. The six elements boil down easily into three broader categories:
- Context and Impetus are the “why” of your case, establishing why someone would care to learn more about your work.
- Vision and Plan are the “what” of your case, laying out what you plan to do in the world to deliver on the challenge identified in the “why.”
- Credential and Appeal are the “who” of your case, establishing that your organization and your donor are the changemakers the world is waiting for and are partners in the work you envision.
Six can be a lot to remember or build an agenda around, so sometimes—e.g. when you’re doing case development discussion exercises with your board—it can be helpful to use the simpler three-part framing instead.
How do I use them?
Once you’ve done the work of defining the six elements of your case for support, you’re ready to start using them in donor communications! A few guidelines as you begin putting them to use…
Establish Context and Impetus early in your case.
I haven’t read Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why,” but at least one person on every nonprofit board has, and they will not miss their cue to tell you about it if you start the case by diving into your plans before establishing why anyone should care. They have a good point.
Beyond that, don’t feel bound to use them in strict sequence.
The point is to make sure they’re all present to a satisfying degree—but you can weave them together in a number of different ways.
Try putting your vision statement in the first line to grab people’s attention—and then zooming out to establish context and impetus. Try weaving credential information throughout the case rather than stacking it all in one big brag section that will be boring to read. Heck, you can even lead with the appeal if you want the donor to see their own role first.
You don’t always need to use all of them in every donor communication.
For a complete major gift solicitation or proposal, you probably need all six. But outside of that, if you are cultivating and communicating with your prospects over time, you have multiple opportunities to build their understanding of your six elements.
You could even imagine a multi-part series of communications that takes one or two elements at a time, culminating in an ask. The key is to communicate all six along the way to solicitation, whatever that path looks like.
Think of them as ingredients.
Every communication you make from your six elements—a speech at a gala, a major gift proposal, an annual fund appeal—is like a recipe using the ingredients in a distinct way. But most recipes don’t work if you’re missing an ingredient, and better ingredients make better food!
With a case that is strong across all six elements, you’ll be ready for every donor communications opportunity ahead of you. Take the time to develop yours today—and keep an eye out for part two of this article to see how they work in practice.