If you’re a nonprofit marketer, you’re doing something good, and you’re doing it for a reason. It’s a good reason: so good that you’re in communications for an NGO instead of a bank or a Fortune 500 company. It’s worth all your long days and long nights.

Your organization is the same. If you’re doing something worthwhile, you have a story to tell about why. And your audience is interested in your work, and shares your motivation.

Why, then, is your content not converting readers into donors?

Our problem as NGO content marketers

It might be because as NGO content marketers we often write as though we have something to hide.

Why? For sure, it’s a lizard brain thing (Seth Godin is awesome on this). Put simply: we’re scared, and it’s making us make bad content.

Our fears may be rooted in something reasonable. Perhaps we don’t want to miscommunicate our work. Perhaps our legal status in the field will be threatened if we use certain language. That’s part of working for a nonprofit; that’s okay.

But caution like this can become a habit that colonizes the rest of our work. We think we’re safer if we carefully weigh every word we use, so we examine our tone from every direction to ensure our content contains no hint of anything that might offend or be misunderstood.

The trouble is that, while this keeps us safe, it also keeps us impersonal. Caution leaches into our content until it’s less of a call to action and more of an anesthetic.

And people don’t respond to our content any more. Because they want to be excited and engaged. They want to feel a human connection. And human conversations do not take place in carefully-vetted terms.

Stop talking like a press release

Obviously I’m not talking about being offensive, and I’m assuming that the truth you have to tell about your work isn’t fundamentally hateful or disrespectful. If it is, then go forth and obfuscate yourself freely: I can’t help you.

But if you do have a good message and you’re wondering why your content isn’t converting browsers into readers and readers into donors, it might be because you’re so used to worrying about your language that you’ve stopped talking like a human being and started talking like a press-release.

This can change.

You can fix this

How? Talk openly about why you (personally) care like you do and why you (organizationally) do what you do. Share the process – the easy and the difficult as well.

Honesty is the last thing most people expect in marketing, but careful, slick, impersonal marketing is dead. It never really worked for our sector anyway.

Honesty is a risk if you’ve got something to hide, but it’s a powerful tool for building trust between you and your audience. And trust is something you need if you want people to come back to you and promote your work to others.

How to talk honestly: some tips

How can you put honesty into your content? Here’s a couple of ideas.

  • Talk about failure as well as success. Perhaps a project participant went back to sex slavery, or you’ve had to leave a certain region because security has just got unmanageable. By talking about where you struggle, you give people a deeper understanding of what it’s really like to have the impact you’re trying to have. They’ll understand – and celebrate – success far more when they know what failure looks like.
  • Include personal blogs from your colleagues about why they do their work. Try to only edit them for things that lie clearly outside your organizational aims, or things that are clearly damaging. Apart from that, give people the permission to publicly care about their work, and to talk about it in their own terms. Your audience will respond to the story of another person trying to make a difference.
  • Talk about the decisions you’ve made as an organization, and what informed them. Why are you working here instead of here? Why do you serve thatage group and not this one? You’ve made these decisions for a reason, and it was a good enough reason that it convinced you. Let it convince others. Pull back the curtain a little. It’s a chance to show yourselves as serious thinkers in your field, people who face the difficulties of nonprofit work head-on.
  • Engage in discussion in your sector. If there’s a debate about the right way to do things, weigh in with your view. You don’t have to speak disrespectfully, or start a fight with those who disagree – but you can speak honestly about why you follow a particular policy or approach.

At the core of all of this is the fact that you need to tell your story. Stories have arcs: they contain triumphs and letdowns, opinions and disagreements. In your ups and downs there is the making of a great story, a story that people will care about and will want to read.

Tell it truthfully. Make honesty your thing.