On the Relevance of Non-Profits

Relevance is a big issue in the non-profit sector, as most of us are highly dependent on contributions from our supporters, and people generally don’t write checks to organizations or causes that they deem irrelevant.

Communicating that relevance can be a challenge, though — especially for those of us who work in the arts and cultural wings of the non-profit sector.

Nobody will die if they don’t get to see a particular piece of art. The illiterate will not learn to read by visiting a botanical garden. Nobody will go hungry if they don’t get to see a particular symphonic performance. The homeless can spend an afternoon at a museum, but they will still be homeless at closing time. Nobody’s illnesses will be cured by a poetry reading.

So why do we matter? Why, in a world of finite resources and nearly infinite need, should people give to arts and cultural organizations?

At bottom line, the answer falls somewhere in the “man (and woman) cannot live by bread alone” spectrum of arguments. We can aspire to lives that are about something more than mere sustenance or survival. We can empower an educated, literate citizenry that will develop and implement policies to care for its more vulnerable members. We can teach our neighbors about history so that we avoid making the same mistakes again. We can inspire the creative urge in our young people by sharing the treasures of our culture with them. And we can foster tolerance by embracing the myriad cultures of the world around us, which may be most eloquently captured and communicated through art, music, design, literature, architecture, dance, and a panoply of other artistic expressions.

That being said, most nonprofits in the cultural sector could not roll out that list of general, aspirational objectives on their marquees and expect the contributions to come pouring in. Each and every one of us within the sector must make our own case for relevance, and then we must communicate that case to the particular subset of citizens who would be most moved by hearing it. And that’s surprisingly hard work, especially in a tight economy like the one the nonprofit  sector has been struggling through for most of the past decade.

As a non-profit CEO, one of the first things I always do when I come into a new work situation is to try to create a case for relevance, and do it in a way that can be readily, quickly communicated. While the classic model of the “ten second elevator speech” is important, I think that the case for relevance needs to go a bit deeper than a soundbite, and I have found that taking a “Top Ten Reasons to Support [Your Nonprofit Name Here]” approach is a good way to get a collection of building blocks that can be assembled in various configurations to resonate with various prospective supporters.

My favorite room at Salisbury House.

What does such a list look like? Here’s the case we developed for the Salisbury House Foundation, my current employer. The list was compiled after an all-staff meeting where I played the role of the grumpy donor, pressing staff to craft compelling narratives with unique, compelling hooks in them to engage me. They tell a deep story about relevance if you go through all ten items, but each item can also be deployed on its own as well, should I find myself in an elevator with a billionaire librarian . . . or historian . . . or gardener . . . or architect . . .

Personally, I was sold on the relevance of Salisbury House the moment I walked into our library, since that’s the element of the House that resonates most strongly for me on a personal basis, as a writer and reader and lover of books. I had a “wow” moment, and I wanted to become a part of promoting it, right away.

Professionally, I need to be able to make a case for relevance that speaks to all of our prospective donors, to create “wow” moments for them in a variety of ways and places, and to have those moments resonate strongly enough to make folks want to invest in our continued success here at Salisbury House.

I believe strongly in the relevance of Salisbury House & Gardens as a treasure trove of culture, a tremendous research and teaching tool, and a tourism destination that always leaves unsuspecting visitors awed at what we’ve got tucked away down here in the quiet South of Grand neighborhood.

We matter, and we make Des Moines a better city by being here.

About J. Eric Smith
Executive Director, Salisbury House Foundation.

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