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January 20, 2022
Context Lets Nonprofits Make Their Case
By Michael McWilliams

Michael McWilliams
Michael McWilliams
Most stakeholders like to read your stories, but they want to see your numbers, and even if they don’t say it, they also need to understand the context, which an effective case for support provides.

A nonprofit’s stakeholders can be a diverse audience. Each will have different points of interest, but nearly everyone wants to see specific outcomes. Moreover, most will want those outcomes quantified, especially if there’s significant funding on the table.

Yet, even when your numbers look good, they may fail to impress. When that happens, it’s usually because they are missing some meaningful context. Human interest can help, but an effective case for support needs to do a lot more than just tell stories. It needs to make a clear, rational connection between mission, work, costs, and impact.

Your communications should be covering all that, of course. Yet, it’s a lot easier said than done. The good news is that it is doable if you pay attention to some fundamentals. The following should help.

Theory of change ”“ This is really the foundation. “Theory of change” gets a lot of attention these days for a very good reason: it explains an organization’s reason to be. This requires some careful structured thinking about the basic mission and the nexus of relationships that comprise core problems, practical challenges, and effective solutions.

In practice an effective theory of change defines beneficiaries, declares intended outcomes, and articulates how to achieve those outcomes. This is not the place for ambiguity. It has to be clear, sensible, realistic, and fully understandable ”“ to everyone. Of course, it has to be measureable too.

Logic model ”“ So, how does your organization plan to achieve its goals and ultimately create the needed change? An effective logic model sets out the different parts of the organization’s programs and how they connect to activities, objectives, and target outcomes. It should leave stakeholders clear about people and causes served, expected accomplishments, and the details on what needs to happen.

Inputs ”“ So what it take to achieve all that? Set it out in detail: the money, time, staff, expertise, resources, and facilities. A really good case for support will show it all in both the short-term and long-term.

Outputs ”“ This is where some nonprofits drift into trouble, so be careful. “Outputs” do not equate to “outcomes.” Most major funders, in particular, are quick to see when there’s some blurring of distinctions. Outputs demand clarity and precision. They encompass program activity, products created, services delivered, and initiatives undertaken. You can set the stage for how outputs affect outcomes, but don’t conflate the two.

Indicators ”“ How do you know what’s working and what’s not? Your metrics should be specific, observable, and measurable things that show progress toward your intended outcomes. Make them both “historical” and “predictive” to show funders where you’ve been...and where you are going.

Outcomes ”“ Yes, this is what everyone wants to see. Yet, it’s not entirely about the numbers. The most meaningful outcomes show a clear line between mission and results in both quantitative and qualitative terms. It’s important to articulate who your organization has helped and how it helped them, not just how many you’ve helped.

Impact ”“ Impact can be specific and systemic. It represents the collective and cumulative results directly attributed to your outcomes and validated by indicators. To be truly impressive, apply some statistical methods to isolate the organization’s work from broader factors and external influences, but be sure to explain it in plain language.

Michael McWilliams is the managing director of Rapporteur, a communication agency for mission based organizations. A veteran public affairs strategist, tactical consultant, and writer, he has worked internationally across the nonprofit, NGO, policy, philanthropic, and corporate sectors. Email him at or call 781-383-1041.
February 2015
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