Blah, Blah, Blah. You're in Trouble If You Can't Master the Elevator Pitch

The fundraising field relishes a good story. A good story acts as the basis for communicating an organization’s mission, for explaining its successes, and for providing a quick and simple way to preface an ask. Without a good, succinct story—the fabled "elevator pitch"—getting potential donors excited about what you're doing can prove challenging, if not impossible. So why is so hard for nonprofit leaders to master this art form?

The term 'elevator pitch' is widely credited to fashion editors Ilene Rosenzweig and Michael Caruso (then of Vanity Fair). They had imagined a scenario of an accidental meeting with a person of importance in an elevator. As the elevator doors close upon entry, there is limited time to extol the virtues of any topic, so a basic and effective summary is in order. The outcome of the chance meeting, before the doors open again and one party exits, should be a willingness to meet again and probably an exchange of business cards or contact information.

The term spread like wildfire and became the darling of salespeople everywhere, and morphed into a building block for nonprofit consultants to make a mint by teaching succinctness and clarity about programs and organizations. Their battle cry is, “Does your elevator speech suck? Well, for $150 an hour and a day of your time, I can fix that.” An industry was born.

But, boy, that industry still has its work cut out for it. 

Last year at a conference, I sat at a table and initiated a conversation with an executive director on my right. Oh, how I wished I had turned left. After ten minutes, I still had no clue as to what his organization did, although with certainty, it concerned education. One of his board members approached, and, rather than clarify, interjected with something new and exciting about the organization concerning film, somehow related to education. What? Seriously? These were senior leaders fumbling to describe their group's mission. 

Have you ever worked for an organization where board members each had different ideas about the work they supported? The scenario is frustrating at best and damaging to the organization at worst—and that's especially true when senior staff aren't giving the same basic pitch, either. I've seen that problem, too. 

“If your idea is so big and broad that it takes more than a couple of sentences to describe, you haven’t honed it enough to know the golden thread that ties it all together,” says consultant Josh Flanders. Without that thread, your explanation is at risk of unraveling.

So how is it that employees and executives can't get their acts together and tell a concise story? The reasons vary. Some organizations are overrun with programs, with minutiae and details overshadowing the big picture. Organization leaders, enmeshed in this work, may be great at selling the trees at fascinating length while missing the forest, creating a fragmentary view of what an organization does.

Unspoken disagreements about mission and priorities is another problem. When an organization's leadership isn't truly on the same page, different board members or senior staff are likely to tout different goals or programs—and it can be a toss up as to which one comes out on top.

Then there's the more basic problem that an organization's purpose may be taken as a given and not much attention is paid to ensuring that leadership and staff can actually describe that purpose. There may be an assumption that everyone is telling the same story when, in fact, they're all stumbling to get it right and ending up with a bowl of mush. 

Whatever the issue, know that it impacts your bottom line. Development needs to communicate concisely and consistently—not just the development team, but all who support it. This means board members, executives, and staff. 

Crafting a strong elevator pitch and getting everyone on board to deliver it isn't rocket science, nor is it easy. Leaders with deep expertise on an organization's work often balk at boiling things down, losing details and nuances along the way. Also, searching for those few magic sentences can surface tensions about an organization's mission and priorities. 

Still, this is work that has to be done. Organizations that don't have a strong elevator pitch not only need to make the effort to craft one, they also need to do the work of training everyone to deliver it. And by everyone I mean everyone, since rank-and-file staffers circulate out in the broader world, too, meeting potential donors and partners, and they can be important ambassadors for an organization if they're well-trained. 

People love a story, especially in the development field. So here's one: A guy walks into an elevator… and leaves with a meeting that led to a donation.

Now, that’s a good story—with a happy ending.