The demand, I suspect, originally started with donors asking for details of how their money was spent. And since non-profits work in tough areas where decades of work make up small yet significant achievements, they needed to come up with an answer. Hence they supplied details of wells dug, number of people employed in the digging of wells, people from the community who benefited from the water, and so on.
The demand by the donor was legitimate. “How has my money made a difference?”
The response from the non-profit was equally legitimate. “This is how our work has changed lives: so many people, so many wells, etc.”
But somewhere along the line, non-profits fell in love with the business – or rather the busy-ness – of documentation. To understand this, let’s consider an example.
Let’s say you have a to-do list for the day. The list might contain suchlike items:
- Write business plan
- Schedule meeting with donor
- Write blog-post
- Clear desk
If someone asked you what you did that day, it’s unlikely that you’d say, “I cleared my desk.”
In other words, we all prioritise the information we give out, according to what the listener is interested in. But many non-profits have lost the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. And somewhere, the good stories, achievements and testimonials are buried under the rubble of documentation.
On a recent trip to a non-profit’s work to gather stories and take photographs, we met people who had stories to tell, some others who spoke of their challenges, and we witnessed the change that had taken place in their lives. We got some good photographs.
But a refrain we heard through the day was: “Please take a photo of XX official putting a stamp on the book.” “Don’t you want to take a photo of YY official opening the register?” The people in charge of the programme had a list of ‘steps’ and wouldn’t be satisfied till every step had been well and truly ‘documented’.
At the end of the day, a good deal of excruciating detail had been forced upon us by programme staff who clearly had no clue about communication. We finally had to spell it out that we were not interested in photos of officials signing documents.
Documentation of this kind that so many non-profits do as a matter of routine, serves little purpose. If at all, you can produce a manual or guidebook that helps others replicate what you’ve done. But it will not help you communicate better to your donors.
Your donor is not interested in such detail. The woman who sends you Rs 2,500 a year does not want to see the pipe you’ve installed from four different angles. She wants to see the happy face of child who now has water.
Don’t let your message lose its way in the morass of documentation.
What do you think? Write in to us, and feel free to violently agree or disagree.