What To Do When Your Organization Feels Like “The Best Kept Secret in Town”


A lot of small nonprofits feel like they’re “the best-kept secret in town.”

They’re established. They do good work. But they’ve never experienced real growth.

This post is about a big idea for those small nonprofits.

I’m going to start out with some strong – maybe even bitter – medicine. And I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Because in my experience, all the tactics and best practices in the world won’t help much until a small nonprofit learns this lesson.

So here it is…

If you feel like the best-kept secret in town, it’s usually your organization’s own fault.

Specifically, it’s your communications that are causing your organization to remain secret.

Something about your communications is not resonating with anyone outside your core group of donors. Or outside of the people you can personally reach.

So you need to change what your organization communicates to donors and to potential donors.

In my experience, there are four main ideas that small organizations have that ensure they remain “the best kept secret in town”:

  1. The reason that the Founder/Board/ED/Staff love the organization is the same reason that donors support the organization. This results in donor communications that are organizationally-focused. Effective donor communications – the kind that helps your organization grow so that it’s not a secret anymore – are focused on what donors care about. And donors are not experts like you are. They tend to care about and be motivated by different things than core stakeholders.
  2. Your communications need to be professional and you need to sound like experts. This results in complex communications that only a subject-matter expert would read. These are the organizations that send letters and emails written in perfect grammar, by PhDs, that a donor needs extensive experience in your field to really understand. To have a broad appeal, you want to get good at talking to donors, about things donors care about, in language that donors use.
  3. You can’t “bother” your donors very often. This results in not enough direct communication with donors about what their gifts can do and have done. I’m talking to you, Mr. Organization-That-Sends-Two-Appeals-A-Year. For people outside your core, you need to communicate with them more often than you think, in order to keep their attention.
  4. Your organization should not stand out too much, or say things that get attention. This results in not being willing to fight for attention. It is a crowded fundraising marketplace! All those donors you’d like to have? They are busy doing other things and you have to work get their attention! Use drama. Use bold colors. Use emotion. Use matching grants. Use multipliers.

These four ideas, taken together, result in a lot of deserving organizations staying a secret. All of these ideas are held by organizations for rational reasons. But these four, in particular, do not stand up to rigorous examination or testing.

In fact, they have been proven NOT to work.

My encouragement to you is that you jettison these ideas and replace them with proven ideas. Like donor-centeredness. And repetition. And vulnerability.

Those ideas free you up to fundraise with confidence. They free you up to communicate more with your donors – and love it. Because you remember that when you fundraise, you’re adding value to your donors’ lives, not taking it away, right?

Then you’ll no longer be a secret. And then you’ll raise more money and do more good!

If you’d like help gently showing the ineffective ideas the door, and help building a real culture of philanthropy (and starting to raise more money right away), get in touch!


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

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