Nine quick tips for sharper messaging

You don’t need to wait for a pandemic to hit to sharpen your messaging. That said, difficult moments often reveal the cracks in the foundation of organizations, and it is up to you to stop these cracks from growing. These evergreen tips will not only help you today, but they’ll remain relevant long after things are back to “normal.”

  1. Make your messages easy to say and recall. Use common language and avoid jargon. If it’s easy to say, it’s easier to remember. (Jargon is not memorable.) If it’s easy to remember, it’s easier to repeat. And repetition is good. You’ll see this repeated below.
  2. Be clear and concise. Headlines (and Twitter) are popular because they demand brevity and directness. Can you make your point with fewer words? Try. Harder.
  3. Stick to the facts. Your messages should be supported by facts, but facts alone do not make a strong message. Don’t try to convey loads of complicated information – save that for a white paper or research report. Boring (or worse, confusing) people to tears with data is not what great messages do. Pick out one key captivating fact, and build from there. Keep it short and avoid jargon. Repetitive? Exactly.
  4. Show emotion. The human brain is literally hardwired to respond first to emotion, then to facts. Speaking of facts, it’s only human to react to emotion with emotion. That’s why rage giving is a thing. Your most emotional supporters will be your most ardent, so give them something to pour their emotions into.
  5. Inspire with big, bold, and aspirational ideas. On the topic of emotions, let’s be clear: while fear is an effective emotion, fearmongering is not productive nor is it advisable. Paint a picture of something that will quell – not stoke – fear and anxiety. Leave people with feelings of inspiration and hope. Give them a call to action they can feel good about.
  6. Have a clear call to action. Use active voice and strong verbs. Limit adverbs and be intentional with your adjectives. Make it clear what you want people to do and how they can do it. Test your process so you experience it as a user would. Is it easy to donate, download, or sign up? Is it free from unnecessary hurdles?  Can you do it with fewer clicks? Fewer questions?
  7. Repetition is good. We already covered this, but we’re making a point here. When you reach the stage of being sick of saying your message, you just may be starting to break through.
  8. Convey urgency, not hopelessness. When people feel that the problem is so big that nothing they do is going to help, they are likely to shut down instead of getting involved. After all, who wants to throw money on a sinking ship?
  9. Connect to organizational values and mission. Always, always bring it back to who your organization is and why it exists in the first place. If you don’t have a compelling and clearly articulated mission, make it your top priority to develop one.


This post was written and contributed by Graham-Pelton

Crisis Management for Nonprofits

In our headline-obsessed, gotcha culture, misconduct, cover-ups, and accusations of reputable nonprofits are dominating newsfeeds with an increasing – and alarming – frequency. Of course, the most responsible organizations have put in place safeguards, leadership structures, accountability measures, and dedicated teams to prevent a crisis from happening in the first place. But even the most well-prepared, best practice-driven, and finest mission-oriented nonprofits may find themselves in the unwelcome position of making the front page with a less-than-flattering – or worse, more-than-devastating – headline.

While you can’t plan for every possible scenario, strategic crisis response planning during your best day can bring structure and clarity on your worst. And responsible response planning requires the careful consideration of who is around the table during those moments as much as what is discussed.

Whatever the nature of the crisis, it will inevitability demand uncomfortable levels of attention, scrutiny, and involvement of leadership (assuming they are not themselves the headline) along with an elevator full of lawyers and public relations pros. Often overlooked, however, is the role of development leaders. The most astute organizations recognize that development leaders belong in every phase of crisis planning and response, including – especially – in the initial hours and days of triage. Your donors need to hear from you on your worst day. Because it is likely one of their worst, too. Waiting to speak with them is not an option.

Below are a few tips to keep in mind when developing – or implementing – crisis response, communications, and management strategies for your top donors.

Communicate, communicate, and communicate. Do it early, regularly, and often. In the first hours and days following a crisis, acknowledge the issue (and tackle it head on, see tip #2) to donors and share what the organization is doing to develop a response. Granting a glimpse of the work being done behind the scenes is a positive, valued first step.  

Tackle the issue head on.  Do not skirt around the issue or communicate with overly obtuse, formal, or legal language. Best to skip the hyperbole and euphemisms, too. Speak to the hearts of your donors in a way that shows your humanity, and they will respond with theirs.

Keep asking. Action is worth a thousand “official” statements. Any pause or delay in routine appeals conveys to your donor base that your mission is not worthy of their support. Assuming you believe that your organization’s mission still matters, continue with planned asks, incorporating context-appropriate messaging. Smaller appeals should continue as well.

Invite your community to the table. Your most ardent supporters will want to help. Harness this energy in ways that are most strategic for your crisis response plan. Can alumni make donations ending in their class year? Can Board members lend their names to bylines of editorial pieces?

Build avenues of collaboration. Larger organizations often have in-house public relations and crisis communications functions. Collaboration between them and development is always vital, but especially before a crisis happens. A weak relationship between vital branches of your organization pre-crisis means a non-existent one during a crisis. Grease the wheels between offices regularly so that when the stakes are at their highest, clear roles, consensus, and communication channels are already in place.

Continue to invest in fundraising. The only way to prevent incoming dollars from slowing down following a crisis is to further strengthen donor communications, engagement, and cultivation and solicitation. Cutting the budgets of fundraisers may prevent short-term cuts to programs but will only lead to more cuts across the board.

If you find yourself in the thick of a crisis, Godspeed, and remember, it does not automatically mean the end of a donor relationship. Stewarded properly, donors will emerge with you on the other side, perhaps even stronger, more loyal supporters than before. People are funny that way.


This post was written and contributed by Graham-Pelton

It’s 2020 – so, who CARES? What the CARES Act means for nonprofits

At a time like this, when we live with so much uncertainty and under a new normal of isolation, it’s not a stretch to suggest that we are more aware today of our roles as members of society – our connectedness to something bigger than ourselves and our interdependence upon each other – than ever before. Often it is only when something is taken away that we realize how much we depend on it.

The $2 trillion economic stimulus package passed by Congress and signed into law by the President in the Spring of 2020 presents an opportunity to embrace our interconnectedness at this trying time by ensuring that taxpayers can give to help others and that the nonprofits serving our communities can survive, even as many face economic hardship due to lost revenue.

For taxpayers, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act – the CARES Act, as it is informally known – includes two legislative provisions designed to encourage charitable giving in 2020. The first allows for the deduction of up to $300 in giving per individual this year, whether that individual itemizes their taxes or not. The second lightens the load on those who itemize in 2020 by lifting the cap entirely for deductions relative to adjusted gross income.

The CARES Act also includes provisions that reach nonprofits and their employees directly.  It makes Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans accessible to nonprofits through the second quarter of 2020, providing expedited eligibility determinations, fee and credit requirement waivers, interest rate caps, and increased government loan guarantees. It also expands eligibility for SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) grants to include nonprofits, loosening eligibility requirements and providing expedited advance funding of loans due to COVID-19. Finally, the CARES Act provides funding to states for emergency reimbursement of unemployment expenses incurred in 2020 for nonprofits forced to lay off employees.

For taxpayers, the CARES Act encourages and incentivizes giving to ensure a strong philanthropic response on the part of all Americans during this unprecedented time. For nonprofits, it seeks to mitigate losses and shore up organizations, helping both nonprofit employees and the communities they serve by making financial support accessible and the process for receiving it faster and easier than before.

The net result: opportunity. If there is one silver lining to come out of the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps it’s this: recognition of our connectedness and concern for others may finally make a comeback.  It has always been there, even when its level voice has been eclipsed by the noise of vitriol to which we have all become so accustomed in our daily lives.

We are being called to respond. It’s time to listen.


This post was written and contributed by Graham-Pelton

How to Fundraise During Uncertainty

Four truths to consider before your nonprofit stops fundraising during COVID-19

As fundraisers, we thrive on asking the BIG questions. Amid COVID-19, however, we find ourselves on the receiving end of questions equally significant. What may be the effects of the pandemic, the upcoming election, and market fluctuations on the nonprofit sector and the communities we serve? How do we continue to approach donors during this time? And, perhaps most glaring, should we approach donors at all?

These are the right questions to ask. It is our job as fundraisers to consider the concerns, needs, and perspectives of donors and to shape our asks accordingly. It is equally our responsibility to frame our response with the appropriate level of sensitivity, transparency, and boldness that cultivates trust and nurtures relationships.

Four fundraising truths inform this most important work of deepening connection and honoring mission during times of uncertainty.

  1. We have been here before. In addition to concerns for health and safety, part of current speculation is the potential effect of a pandemic on the global economy, and as a result, on philanthropic giving. Albeit with a quite different cause, our industry faced and emerged from this threat during the Great Recession just over a decade ago. Historically, while significant market downturns do impact philanthropic giving to some extent, the losses in philanthropic dollars are never as dramatic as the market downturns that drive them. For instance, the recession of 2008 resulted in a decrease in giving of 7%, considerably less than the 38% decrease the S&P experienced that same year. And yet, though giving did decline, experience tells us that the decline was at least in part due to a pause in asks. Had fundraisers continued to ask with the confidence and clarity with which they were asking before the market downturn, the nonprofit sector would have seen even less of a decline in giving.
  2. Our missions do not pause. No matter the external forces at play, need does not cease during times of uncertainty. If anything, the needs of those served by the 1.5 million hospitals, universities, schools, social service organizations, and religious communities nationwide only intensify during times of crisis. When the national mood oscillates between the unpredictable at best and the frenzied at worst, nonprofits continue to serve. The richness of the nonprofit sector in the U.S. knows no day off. In fact, humanity depends on it.
  3. Humans are wired to give. Even during the status quo, individuals pursue the gratification of giving. Numerous studies demonstrate the positive and compelling effects of gifting one’s time or resources. Scientists describe the “helper’s high” and the “giver’s glow” as the neurological response, visible on brain scans, that accompanies making a gift of self. In such studies, the “glow” results regardless of the impact of the gift, or the level of need. Imagine the multiplier of a gift tied to impact, especially when beloved missions face an external threat. This impulse towards goodwill must not be ignored.
  4. Our words matter. Donors want to give, and it is our responsibility as fundraisers to keep asking. As with any crisis, however, tailored and targeted donor communications are integral to our response. Proper stewardship demands as much, and it need not occur in person. Moving forward requires a refined approach that speaks to the concerns and needs of our donors and leverages the use of technology to replace face-to-face communication if needed. Regardless of setting, address anticipated questions head on, invite donors into a conversation, and execute asks from the heart. Donors will respond with theirs.

During windows of uncertainty, nonprofits’ missions are as relevant as ever and fundraising must continue to be a priority. Without the critical work of nonprofits, not only does the world we envision slip further into the distance, but the world as we know it ceases to exist – such is the interdependent nature of our world. When viewed in this light, the answer to the weighty questions we face becomes immediately clear.

Standing still is not an option.


This post was written and contributed by Graham-Pelton

Thinking BIG: The Collegium Way

Collegium’s mission is to be a trusted source for problem-solving whose work results in a meaningful impact on society.

Collegium partners are grounded in the belief that our communities, colleagues, and client partners want a world where our children have a better future than ours. We are equally passionate and ambitious about addressing this vision through our collective expertise in philanthropy, brand reputation, communication arts, and business management.

Collegium isn’t organized for shareholders nor for Wall Street. As a sophisticated system of independent firms, it is organized for providing critical solutions to our clients’ most pressing needs. The University whose planned enrollment suddenly plummeted by 73% due to the pandemic. The grassroots racial justice nonprofit unexpectedly receiving an influx of donations that it is unprepared to process. The health system trying to balance patient safety and satisfaction with increased productivity – alongside severe budget cuts. The city, broken by a cycle of poverty, lifted by the combined efforts of its two professional sports teams to provide academic resources for at-risk youth.  

Collegium’s work is enabled by a dedication to what we call BIG thinking – that is, solutions that are Bold, Interdependent, and Generative. Our aim is something bigger, more transformative, more impactful than what can be achieved by a single entity. We align our people and systems in a mutually supportive way that brings results and clear value not just to our clients, but to the world around us. And yes, even ourselves.

Simply put, it’s The Collegium Way. And it’s big.


Pushing beyond the status quo.

Go big or go home.  As you learned in the school of hard knocks, “good enough” is not good enough. If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing, right? Bold requires a leap of faith. Conviction. Tenacity. Perseverance. Bold thinking, bold solutions, and all-in commitment are how big ideas are realized.


Sharing and optimizing what we have.

We celebrate our independence every day, but we take greater pride in our interdependence. The dependent rely upon others. The independent can go it alone. But the interdependent create synergy. This propels the interrelated and combined efforts of multiple partners to achieve big results – exponentially larger than the sum of what’s possible going solo.


Creating new ideas and opportunities for others while creating value for ourselves.

We know we don’t have all the answers. Nor have we cornered the market on wisdom. Corporations and nonprofits alike understand they can’t do it all. The challenges and the needs are just too great. People, opinions, and ideas are diverse and – when channeled purposefully – are powerful. The numerical representation of generative?  1+1=3.

That’s big.

A pain in the ask

How to make big asks less painful

Have you ever found yourself in the position of asking someone for 50 million dollars? Five million? Five thousand? However big a “big” ask typically is for you, chances are that you don’t relish the task. In fact, an entirely unscientific study suggests that most people would rather have a root canal performed by a first-year dental student than ask someone for a significant amount of money.

For fundraising professionals, making big asks is an important and necessary part of their jobs. But executive directors and board members – often without formal fundraising experience or training – also find themselves with the unwelcome responsibility of asking an influential prospect for a large sum of money.

But there’s a distinct difference between making a big ask and making a BIG ask. A big ask is asking someone with a boatload of money for a boatload of money simply because they have a boat and you need the money. If it feels icky it’s because it is.

By contrast, a BIG ask is one that is Bold, Interdependent, and Generative. A BIG ask is not defined by the number of zeros, but rather by the relative impact the gift has on the organization and its community, as well as on the donor. A BIG ask recognizes that we are, cliché as it sounds, all in this together. Whatever, exactly, “this” may be.


If your mission is a worthy one, be bold and confident in your ask. It’s the only way to push beyond the status quo. But remember, there is a difference between boldness and carelessness. Your position to be bold is directly tied to your due diligence and attentiveness; if you’ve done the appropriate research on your donor, you can afford to be bold because you’ll know not only what they can afford but what motivates them to give. Being bold tells a donor that you’ve done your research, you’re confident in your organization’s worthiness, and you value their commitment.

To be clear, being bold is never an excuse for being insensitive or arrogant. You should always be professional, courteous, and humble when interacting with prospects and donors (or anybody, for that matter). It might sound counterintuitive to be simultaneously bold and humble, but the late and honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg has proven it not only possible, but deeply powerful.


If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all connected. That, and how to make sourdough bread. But while independence is often celebrated as the pinnacle of success, interdependence is in fact the mark of the most mature, advanced organization. As organizational guru Stephen Covey observes, interdependent organizations “have access to the vast resources and potential of [others]. Interdependence is a choice only independent people can make. Dependent people cannot choose to become interdependent. They don’t have the character to do it…”

As you strategize your ask, position your organization as an independent and autonomous one, rather than one dependent upon your donor. When you openly share that combining your efforts with that of a donor will achieve greater success than you could achieve on your own, you project humility – a virtuous characteristic becoming of any cause. (And especially powerful when paired with being bold, but we’ve already covered that.)

Your organization can’t achieve its worthy mission alone. Wealthy individuals can’t save the world alone. But, together, you can be truly generative, which is what puts the “G” in BIG.


To be generative means creating new ideas and opportunities for others while simultaneously creating value for yourself. It’s about activity that yields more than it consumes. The challenges of our day are too complex, too intertwined – interdependence is a double-edged sword, after all – for any one entity to tackle on its own.

Connect the dots of your collective potential for a donor. Start with the end and paint a picture of what is possible. It’s ok if it’s ambitious and lofty. Bold. In fact, it’s better if it is. 

When you’re faced with making a big ask, be upfront with your donor. Acknowledge that it’s a BIG ask and explain how that is different from a big ask. Tell them that they are worthy of such a BIG ask. Break BIG down for them: an opportunity to be bold. To play a meaningful role in an interconnected system. To generate something that couldn’t exist but for their contribution.

Approaching a big ask as a BIG ask can profoundly change a person’s willingness to make one. A fundraiser’s willingness to make an ask and a donor’s willingness to make a gift.

Together, that’s BIG.