In Era of Trump, Nonprofits Need Clarity

In tough or uncertain times, many nonprofits fall into the nearsighted trap of self-righteousness and self-congratulation.

By Todd Cohen

Many nonprofits fear President Trump will engineer cuts in funding for them and causes they care about.

The good news is that the new political order can serve as an incentive for charities to do a better job telling their story.

Whatever happens to government funding, nonprofits still will face the challenge of communicating more clearly and effectively with prospective supporters and partners about the needs they address, the way they operate and the difference they make for the people and communities they serve.

The 1.5 million charities in the U.S. – most of them small, compared to big hospitals, universities and museums – traditionally have been expected to do a lot with a little, while struggling to meet rising demand for services and make ends meet.

Fundraising consumes a big share of their time and attention, and charities get little support to build their operations, develop strategies and partnerships, or equip their board and staff to improve their work.

Nonprofits that provide health and human services, or education, to name just a few critical needs, fear government will spend less to address those needs.

Cuts in taxpayer funding will increase demand for nonprofit services from clients no longer able to turn to government programs. And greater demand will make it even more critical for nonprofits to find private support.

Competition for charitable dollars already is fierce. The number of nonprofits keeps growing, and donors increasingly want and expect nonprofits to be more effective, efficient and productive in addressing social needs and running their organizations.

Donors and other investors, including individuals, foundations, companies and government, want nonprofits to use creative strategies that improve communities by engaging more partners, whether charitable, for-profit or taxpayer-supported.

Donors want to see nonprofit business plans that explain exactly how and why they will work. They want to see the “metrics” that nonprofits will use to show their progress and impact. They want nonprofits to be clear and candid about their projected costs, the real hurdles they face and the realistic social returns they expect to generate from the investment they get.

In tough or uncertain times, many nonprofits fall into the nearsighted trap of self-righteousness and self-congratulation. Instead of being clear and honest about the social and operating challenges they face, they hype their role and the impact of their work. They emphasize their own needs as organizations over those of the people and communities they serve. They pander to donors, using vague, feel-good jargon, rather than precise language, as if simply touting the worthiness of their cause were enough to justify support.

In today’s often harsh and demanding political, economic and social climate, nonprofits need to be more clear, blunt and passionate than ever about the needs they address, the work they do, the way they operate, the challenges they face, the supporters and other partners they count on, and their impact.

Nonprofits can inspire the donors and organizations they need to better serve their communities through the stories they tell, the language they use, the facts they share, and the awareness they raise of community needs.

The key is to make it easy for their prospective investors and partners to see the difference they can make by getting involved, and to understand why they should provide their support.

Good stories about doing good raise awareness, show impact, and inspire support. Philanthropy North Carolina, the consulting practice of Todd Cohen, works with nonprofits to create those stories. Contact Todd at 919.272.2051 or

Originally published on Philanthropy North Carolina; reprinted with permission.