If you work or volunteer in the not-for-profit sector, chances are your time is very valuable. You are probably performing the work of two or three (or seven) people, constantly split between competing priorities and trying to filling gaps in your resource-poor organisation. Given all of this, it would probably seem laughable if I were to suggest that you are wasting your time on unnecessary tasks.

Or is it? Take a step back and consider the work which is consuming your time.

In my years of working and volunteering at NGOs and community projects, I have seen many initiatives, and in some cases regular on-going work, which on the surface seem like great ideas, but on closer examination do not best serve the objective they are trying to achieve. Or worse, don’t actually have an objective at all. Somehow the organisations which are the most people and resource poor often spend the most time on things which in the end don’t yield concrete results.

In terms of communications, one of the biggest examples of this is printed materials. Many small, grassroots NGOs spend a significant proportion of their communications budget preparing, designing and printing flyers, booklets and similar without any clear distribution strategy. While having a stack of beautiful, glossy program flyers sounds like a great idea, if they’re just going to end up collecting dust a cupboard the entire exercise is essentially pointless. Similar conclusions could be drawn about newsletters with a small or out of date distribution list, or time consuming internal emails and reports.

Why am I doing this task?

So the question (or series of questions really) that you should ask before you get knee-deep in a task or project is:  why am I doing this task? What is the objective and ideal outcome I am trying to achieve in doing this? And more specifically when it comes to fundraising and communications: what is the ‘ask’?

Using the objective and outcome as a starting point and working back from there is a good rule in most situations. What are the steps you need to carrying out to reach that goal, how do you need to carry them out to best reach your goal, and when do you need to do them? Everything you do or think about doing should come back to this.

Define your objectives

Sometimes work starts a clear objective in mind, such as to raise a certain amount of funds, or to attract a certain number of donors. In other cases you may embark on a project because it seems like a worthy endeavour, or because you have seen other organisations doing something similar, without having considered the ultimate goal or outcome.

Either way, it is critical to take a step back early on in the planning process and clearly define that objective in order to keep it firmly in mind as work rolls out.

One issue I have seen in many NGOs is tasks and projects which have worthwhile and well-defined goals, but their objectives get lost in the execution. This commonly happens when a resource-strapped organisation tries to kill too many birds with one stone. For example, printing a program flyer which both conveys information to program participants and showcases the program to potential donors. These are two very different audiences which require completely different approaches, and in some cases two languages. Trying to cover both objectives in one piece of material risks both messages being lost. 

If what you are doing will not achieve your objective in the best and most efficient way, change your approach so it does. If what you are doing doesn’t meet any objective, then why are you doing it at all? Seriously – you have so many other things to do with your time!

Be clear on your ask

When it comes to communications, working to achieve your objective often boils down to the “ask”. What do you want your audience (stakeholders, donors, volunteers) to do? With the exception of some specific circumstances, most notably awareness-raising campaigns, you want to ask something from your audience rather than simply presenting information to them. While it’s great to send a newsletter to your mailing list, if you don’t want the people on that list to do something (either now or at some point down the line) this exercise is, in the end, a waste of time.

Your ask may be a direct outcome for you – like a donation or a commitment to volunteer – or it may be a step along the way, like asking them to share information with their network. Be aware that you don’t necessarily want to go all out on your first ask to a new stakeholder – you want to start by asking for a small “low-barrier” action, and then build up to bigger asks gradually in what political campaigners call the “ladder of engagement”.

Again, this ultimately comes back to your objective and ideal outcome. What is the outcome your organisation needs and how can the person you are communicating with help you to achieve it?

This doesn’t mean you should pepper every piece of communications with multiple calls to action (CTA) like a bad late-night TV ad (‘donate now’, ‘sign our petition’, ‘share our post’), though sometimes a healthy dose of these is beneficial. In other cases the objective may be indirect or long term, and the ask may be subtle. For example, getting back to the newsletter example above, you may not have a direct ask in every (or any) newsletter, but the objective may be to build a relationship  with your supporters, make them aware of your work, and establish your credibility so that at some point in the future you can ask them for a donation or for some other kind of support.

So, as you sit down at your desk today and go over the overdue tasks on your to do list, take five minutes to take a step back and ask yourself: why am I doing this particular task? If you don’t have an easy answer, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it at all.

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