By: Sheela Nimishakavi, MA, MPH
In many ways, 2018 was the year of the story. Nonprofits were encouraged to share the impact of their work with supporters by using narratives that read almost like short stories. Appeal letters featured heartwarming tales of struggling protagonists who were helped along their journey by a nonprofit organization, with the donor as the hero.
But 2019 needs to be the year of questions. I’m not saying we need to throw stories out of our toolbox this year. But, if we are going to use them, we need to question the narrative. Does our story empower those we serve? Does this story unintentionally perpetuate racism, sexism, ableism, and other –ism’s? How can you be sure you’re telling a compelling true story and not disseminating poverty porn?
In addition to moving past stories and creating empowering narratives, questions can help us gain clarity of purpose and clearly articulate impact. As a donor, I want to know how my support helps. This doesn’t mean I need a log of how my $200 paid for lunches. I want to know: What change did I affect with my giving? Did I contribute to making the world a better place? What did we accomplish together and what remains to be done?
Importantly, nonprofits must keep a finger on the pulse of their field, having a ready answer to the question: Does your nonprofit treat a symptom or solve the root cause of a problem?
Both types of work are absolutely needed. Symptoms need to be treated until we can figure out how to solve the root cause of a problem, which will likely need to occur through advocacy for systemic changes. However, where does your nonprofit fall on this spectrum? What is the root cause and is anyone in your community tackling it?
If your organization goes through a facilitated strategic planning process every three to five years these questions are likely raised at that time. I would argue that this is not sufficient. Questioning what, how, and why we do our work should be a constant dialogue in our offices. Questions ensure we not only stay on track but are on the right track. Questions help us become better leaders, fundraisers, front line staff, board members, community members. Questions help us solve problems.
As you sit down to write your goals for the year, make sure to add this one to the top of your list: Ask more questions.