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How to write a nonprofit Case for Support? Start by putting your pen down.

When working with nonprofits to develop their Cases for Support, I find that many development leaders grapple with the same recurring questions: how do you talk about all those competing needs and many funding priorities when some are inevitably more attractive and, I’ll say it – sexier – than others? And what about when those priorities change – as the result of a global pandemic, for instance? And what to do when you don’t even know what the priorities are but the edict from leadership is clear: launch a campaign. Oh, and make it a big one.

The Case for Support is often described in terms of its deliverable. I hear it referred to as a brochure or a prospectus. Sometimes it’s a website or a video. And while it typically culminates in well-designed, polished outputs, it’s in the process of its development where the true value of the Case for Support exists.

The most important – and often overlooked – aspect of the Case for Support is the true, intended outcome. And no, I’m not talking about dollars raised.

I’m talking about deep, meaningful relationships between people who share a vision for the future. It’s to fulfill those most enduring and elusive human desires of connection, meaning, and purpose. As a designer, writer, and facilitator, I’m drawn to this work because I believe in the power of language, story, and vision. More than anything, I believe in the power of human connection, and that is what building a Case for Support is really about.

Writing your Case for Support can be an arduous and complex process. It can also be joyous and remarkably clarifying. But before you write a word, put down your pens and close Microsoft Word. Here are three things that will help you really build a meaningful Case for Support:

  • Harness the power of vision
  • Start with why
  • Design for the outcome (not the output)

Three steps to build a meaningful case for support

Harness the Power of Vision

There’s an ancient parable about a drifting traveler who happens upon a worksite with hundreds of men, bloody and sweaty, laboriously splitting rocks. Curious, the traveler asks the first man he encounters what the man is doing. The man doesn’t even look up as he grunts, “I’m splitting rocks.”

The traveler moves on and approaches a second man. He repeats the question. The second man pauses long enough to say, “I’m splitting rocks…I think it’s for some sort of wall.”

Determined for more information, the traveler moves on to a third man. He repeats the question. This man, as sweaty and bloody as the other two, stops what he is doing, puts down his ax, and smiles with pride as he looks at the traveler. Putting one arm around the traveler and spreading the other arm across the sky in a dramatic gesture, the third man says, “I am splitting rocks for this small section of a wall, which will be part of the most magnificent cathedral that has ever been built. I know I will never see the cathedral built, nor will my children, but I will die knowing that I was part of something that will be here for generations. I will be part of something eternal. That is why I am splitting rocks, and I will do it until I die.”

The laborer lingered for a few moments as he admired the empty sky he had filled with visions of his beautiful cathedral, then picked up his ax and went back to work. The traveler, so moved by the idea of being part of something eternal, put down his sack, picked up an ax, and without a word, began the laborious work of splitting rocks.

This is the power of vision. And that is precisely what a strong, well-conceived Case for Support is about: a vision so inspiring that it moves someone to engage in the arduous, tedious work of splitting rocks. It gives to people: a sense of purpose, of belonging. Of inspiration, hope, and meaning. A sense of humanity.

The Case for Support is about your gift to your supporters, not their gift to you.

Start with Why

Notably, the traveler in the parable asked each laborer what he was doing. But did you notice how the third laborer answered? He told him why he was splitting rocks.

Through his popular TED Talk, Simon Sinek introduced the idea of the Golden Circle — a simple concept that codifies how people are inspired to act: why, how, what. To illustrate the concept, he uses three concentric circles, with why in the smallest, innermost circle. In the middle circle is how, and what goes in the largest, outermost circle.

Representation of Simon Sinek's golden circle

According to Sinek, most people communicate from the outside in – that is, they start by telling people about what they do, or maybe how they do it. “But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations — regardless of their size, regardless of their industry,” Sinek posits, “all think, act, and communicate from the inside out.” In other words, they start with why.

He goes on to say, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” While he was talking about the marketing and sales of products, the same holds true for the fundraising efforts of nonprofits: donors don’t support what you do; they support why you do it.

Research on the brain bears this out: the part of the brain responsible for decision-making responds to emotion, not logic or reason. In fact, the part of the brain that drives behavior has no capacity for language; it has no capacity to understand numbers or complex data. Yes, we rely on these things to rationalize or validate our decisions, but only after we have had an emotional response that drives our behavior.

Here’s the rub: all organizations, of course, know what they do and many even know how they do it. But few of them can articulate why they do what they do.

So, if your Case for Support details what needs to be done – the (many, many) rocks that need to be split – know that you’re not alone.

Take a step back and ask yourself: why are we doing this? Better yet, ask your staff, your leaders, your board members. Ask your donors and your volunteers. Talk to the people your organization supports, not just the people who support your organization. Better yet, have them talk to each other.

A Case for Support is not meant to be written in the isolation of one person’s office, cutting and pasting sentences and paragraphs together from the website, donor letters, and different versions of past strategic plans. It’s not meant to be circulated by email, asking people for comments and edits. And if you’re using Google Docs or something similar to collect your feedback, it may feel efficient and appear inclusive; but in actuality, it’s a good way to end up with a Frankenstein’s monster that nobody particularly likes.

Design for the Outcome (Not the Output)

A cornerstone of the Case for Support design process is the visioning session – a dynamic, facilitated discussion that centers on why you do what you do and explores that which could be.

Like any adept facilitator, I have my Mary Poppins bag of tools, techniques, and exercises to facilitate this discussion, but no two sessions are alike: each is thoughtfully designed with the context of the organization, stakeholders, and audience in mind.

This means that sometimes Case for Support visioning sessions are two hours long; sometimes six (yes, really). Sometimes there are eight people; sometimes there are 30 (12-18 is the sweet spot). Sometimes there are multiple sessions; sometimes just one. Sometimes there is homework; sometimes there is not. I used to insist that these sessions be in person, but over the last two years, I’ve loosened my position on that (thank you, COVID-19) and will conduct them virtually (thank you, Zoom) – though I do still insist on one or the other (no thank you, hybrid).

What all sessions have in common is that they are designed to create the conditions for a meaningful and rich discussion, to create the foundation for profound human connection. They are designed so that the voice of each participant is heard whether they speak or not. And they are designed to uncover as many questions as they aim to answer.

It’s the questions that keep the dialogue going and create the opportunity for further engagement: that prompt your participants to put down their sack, pick up their ax, and get to work alongside you.

And yes, your organization will raise more money, I promise you that. But at the end of the day, that’s not why we’re really doing this, is it?