People I met (ten years ago): What do you do for a living?

Me (ten years ago): I’m the Executive Director of the Partnership for Warrenton Foundation.

People: Oh. What’s that?

Me: It’s a nonprofit organization that’s part of the Virginia Main Street Program. We promote historic preservation and economic revitalization in the historic district of Old Town Warrenton.

People (with glazed looks in their eyes): ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzz.

I was passionate about the work I did as a Main Street manager, but it wasn’t something I communicated well. It was also something, I noticed, that my board could not communicate well. Which meant that our community would never have a clear image of our organization and what we did, which makes fundraising much more difficult.

I realized that our nonprofit wasn’t like many others; we didn’t feed the hungry, heal the sick, house the homeless, or save puppies. When your nonprofit doesn’t tug on heartstrings, when your mission is a string of sleep-inducing trendy terms, how do you make people care about it? How do you get them to care enough to donate? To volunteer?

Communication is key. I had to think about it. What was it that made me keep coming back every day to do that job? It wasn’t the paycheck, I promise. (Well, it kind of was, but it definitely wasn’t making me rich!) For me, the passion for Main Street was the community; anything that I did that brought more community to our historic district made me happy. Busy stores and restaurants, large outdoor events, street beautification projects that were carried out by groups of partners and volunteers – those were the reasons I kept working so hard. THAT was what I needed to learn to communicate to people.

I developed an Elevator Speech that helped people understand my organization, what we do in the community, and why and how they can help and then I set to work getting my board to do the same. When I teach workshops, I coach people to develop their own elevator speech (I never call it a “pitch” – no one likes to be sold to, so no pitching please!) and I made a few guidelines.

Your elevator speech should be:

  1. This is your chance to make your work sound more interesting and important than people expect.
  2. Make them jealous! Make people wish they had a job as great as yours. Make them want to get involved.
  3. Be sure to mention your organization by its full name; more than once, if possible, and state the organizational mission in plain English, no jargon.
  4. Be sure to say something about your mission or why you love your work that anyone could identify with.
  5. Does anyone know why we call it an elevator speech? Your message should be no longer than the length an average elevator ride would take. This is approximately how much time you have to capture someone’s attention and make them care about your organization or cause.

The objective is to create something that’s easy for you to remember, but that doesn’t sound stiff and scripted. Encourage your staff, board and committee members to do the same. If there are two of you from the same organization in a networking group, the message should be similar but unique. It should be something that others can easily connect to; give them a reason to care.

Once I’d established this for myself, when people asked what I did my message went something like this:

I’m the Executive Director of the Partnership for Warrenton Foundation. The buzz words we use regarding our mission are historic preservation and economic revitalization for Old Town Warrenton, but what we mean is that we are dedicated to making Old Town an exciting and vibrant place to work, enjoy and do business while maintaining its historic charm. What keeps me going with this organization even in the face of extreme challenges are the faces of the children when they come to GumDrop Square; for some of them it’s the only Christmas they’ll have. Some families send their kids to Santa’s Secret Shop to do their entire holiday shopping because it’s all they can afford. And some families can’t even afford that, but there are always other community members who realize this and hand $10 or $20 to the parents and wish them a Merry Christmas. What our organization needs most are caring, dedicated committee members to ensure our events and programs continue and grow each year.

No matter how many years pass since I’ve worked for this organization and give this speech as an example, I still tear up – that’s because it really did mean that much to me, and it shows. You may not have a “why” that brings a tear to the eye but find one that evokes some emotion for you – it might be joy, excitement or even sadness or anger. When you get fired up about your organization and learn how to exhibit it, others will, too!


About the Author

Jennifer E. Goldman established Resonance, LLC, a management consulting firm, on April Fools’ Day 2015 – no joke! Once a Main Street Manager in Tiny Town, Virginia, the nonprofit world never left her mind even though she moved on to greener pastures – pun intended. She derives great joy from using her Business Management education and Nonprofit Management experience to coach organizational leaders to run their nonprofits like a business. Jennifer is a Certified Nonprofit Manager, an Accredited Small Business Consultant and a Certified Tourism Ambassador – her mother is proud.