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Say what? Finding the Right Message to Move the Field

Publication date: 
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Heather PeelerVice President of Member and Partner Engagement, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

The language we use to convey our ideas and engage people in dialogue can catalyze change.  In fact, many of my favorite moments from GEO’s 2014 conference featured a new frame or fresh way to talk about an old, complicated concept.  Thanks to Jessica Bearman, Carol Cantwell and Molly Shultz Hafid’s discussion of fake funder budgets, many of us changed how we think about the due diligence and reporting process.

Those of us seeking to disrupt the nonprofit starvation cycle and change practice around overhead caps recognize that if we want to see field-wide change, then we need to fine-tune our messaging.  We need to use persuasive language.  We need to frame the issue and solution in a way that engages.  In too many instances, when I speak with grantmakers about the importance of eliminating overhead caps, my words get in the way. Indirect costs.  Overhead.  General support.  Each of these terms had different meaning to audience members.  Eyes gloss over and my words fall flat.

In fact, one of the key insights from the Real Talk About Real Costs community of practice hosted by the Donors Forum and The Bridgespan Group (and discussed at the conference) is that changing the frame is the first step when changing behavior.  The community of practice included grantmakers and nonprofits working together.  They began to make progress once they shifted their discussion from one about overhead to one about understanding what it costs to achieve meaningful results.

There are many indicators that a movement to change mindset and practice around overhead caps is building.  Across the past few months, conversations between nonprofits and grantmakers have been taking place at the national and local level.  The two sessions on overhead at the GEO conference featured many engaged grantmakers eager to address the overhead problem head on.  However, to take our collective action forward, we need a set of tools to fuel our individual advocacy, including a messaging framework that is clear and compelling.

Building upon the Donors Forum community of practice, several of us are taking another step by crafting a draft message document that we can use to align our work and advance our vision for systemic change.  Now, we need you to take the next step. Give us input (does it resonate?) and test it out (is it helpful in sparking dialogue?).  Let me know what we can do to create an effective messaging platform that will help us all speak in a way that leads to understanding and action.

You can contact me with your thoughts at [email protected] and follow me @hapeeler on Twitter.


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