12/18/2013 03:55 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

The Static State of Philanthropy (Part 5)

As we come to the end of this series on the state of philanthropy, we want to turn away from the analysis and move to the proactive question: "Where do we go from here?" As with most things, it's far easier to diagnose a problem than to correct it. But the answer, we think, is not all that difficult to see. In an age when we tend to join in less, when we can easily use technology to create a barrier between us and the rest of the world, what we need are better, closer, tighter relationships. For the nonprofit, that means finding ways to build deeper connections with those who care about it.

We can and should do this by finding ways to generate valuable content using technology. Consider the spate of websites that define and verify the plight of individuals and ask supporters to respond to the specific needs of specific people. Another way is to use messages to encourage thoughtful, personal responses from donors to a need: "How and why does this touch you? What would you most want to know before you become really excited about helping this person or this situation?" It is much easier to use smartphones in a way that allows supporters to go deeper with you than to ask them to set the device aside and relate to you in person. Your goal should be to get people to open up, like they used to in old-fashioned diaries, sharing something genuinely real in their texts and tweets.

To North Carolina-based pastor David Brooks, building better relationships translates to doing a better job of storytelling: "We must recognize that, as a culture, we do not do a good job anymore of telling stories about our organizational or community identity. We assume, by someone's presence, that they already know what we're about, where we're headed and what we are like as a community." But David says those assumptions are wrong. People come to the door not knowing what's inside. You may think their presence comes with vast knowledge, but the reality is that they might know very little. "The single biggest issue is that we often assume we are being heard and that what we say is being received."

The lessons in this are straightforward but critical. Nonprofits must remember to communicate, to teach. They should not assume. They should understand that each person comes to them with a different level of understanding and that it is their job to make the individual a part of the community. In doing so, nonprofit organizations must remember that they are the conduits through which donors fulfill their desires -- not gifts to the organization but through it. Finally, it is important to remember to resist the urge to talk about the organization's needs, about what it is and what it does. Values and beliefs, along with lists of activities, soon blur together leaving little to stick or differentiate one group from another. The best story is the result story, beginning with individuals whose lives have improved. Let them say, for themselves, how and why the program enabled that to happen.

Stories have endings that are different from their beginnings. Many nonprofit narratives fail to show that distance, speaking about tactics instead of showing the results on behalf of those they serve. The key to nonprofit organizations engaging supporters is to take them on a journey.

Download the full paper that inspired The Static State of Philanthropy blog series.