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Telling the Intermediary’s Story

Posted by on June 1st, 2021
Posted in Blog, Foundations, Nonprofit Communications, Storytelling   

If you have attended one of our Minute Message Model trainings, you know that we are big proponents of telling stories to engage people more deeply with your mission. But what do you do if your organization doesn’t provide direct services? Is there still a story to tell?

Many organizations in the nonprofit world are intermediaries — a conduit for good, but not actually providing services themselves. The United Way is a perfect example of this: it solicits donations from employees across the country and redistributes charitable giving across hundreds of agencies. Perhaps your organization is similarly focused — leading, funding, and inspiring organizations that provide direct service, but on the sidelines when it comes to the day-to-day programmatic implementation. It’s great work, but is there a compelling story in it?

Yes. Telling your story as an intermediary depends on these 4 keys:

  1. Start with the “Why”
  2. Focus on the end result and work backwards
  3. Point out systemic failures
  4. Highlight benefits instead of features

Start with the “Why”

What is the challenge that makes it necessary for an intermediary to exist? Why can’t a direct service organization solve the challenge on its own? 

Take a look at how the nonprofit HERE to HERE clearly states a challenge that they exist to solve in this message:

There are many organizations thinking about the future of work and education, but it takes financial resources, trusted relationships, and a strategic perspective to redefine the systems that unfairly burden Black and Brown students as they pursue their career ambitions. The issues we face are complex, and there are limits to what any single organization can do on its own. New York City needs a leading organization committed to examining interrelated issues, mobilizing people and organizations, and demonstrating how their collective efforts to create a just and inclusive talent development system will create lasting economic change.

The message makes a case for the intermediary, explaining the gaps that only an intermediary can fill. By talking about WHY they are needed, rather than WHAT the organization does, the message is more compelling and the organization’s importance easier to understand. 

Focus on the End Result and Work Backwards

Oftentimes intermediary organizations are reticent to talk about the individuals whose lives are changed by their work because they want to avoid taking credit for the work of an organization they supported, but that ultimately delivers the program. For instance, imagine two organizations that we’ll call “The Housing Intermediary” and “A New Way Home.” 

The Housing Intermediary is an intermediary organization that brings together housing and employment organizations like A New Way Home. The Housing Intermediary may want to tell the story of an individual who is better off now that they have a home but fears doing so because it may be taking credit for A New Way Home’s work. 

Yet, we would encourage The Housing Intermediary to do exactly that. It’s a story in three parts: Share the story of the individual. Link that person’s story back to A New Way Home, and then talk about how A New Way Home can have greater impact thanks to The Housing Intermediary. Credit A New Way Home, as well, and both organizations benefit from the story.

It may end up looking like this ad we once created for REDF.

By starting with the individual you make the story more accessible. You can honor the organizations providing services, and still demonstrate how your work amplifies theirs.

Point Out Systemic Failures

We’ve been writing a lot about asset-based framing and how to share a story that puts the blame on failed systems, rather than those who are victims of those systems’ failures. Whether the challenge is housing, employment, education, crime and policing, or food security, frequently individuals are caught up in larger systemic challenges. Blaming the system rather than the individual puts accountability on those systems, and avoids perpetuating stereotypes and biases in your stories. 

Intermediaries are often in the best position to address these systemic issues because they have both the perspective and connections to consider the broader issues at play. This means that the story the intermediary should share isn’t just about the issue of homelessness, per se, but rather about how all of the different organizations working on housing in a community can work together to ensure that everyone who wants a home has a home. 

Highlight Benefits Instead of Features 

Avoid talking about HOW you do your work as an intermediary and instead tell a story that focuses on the impacts of your work. Likely, the details of what you do are complex and varied. While brilliant, they may also require a significant amount of explanation. Instead, link the features of your work to results. 

A simple example of this is to compare these two offers:

Please purchase this nylon cord that is double reinforced at both ends and has a nickel-plated hook. 

OR

Please purchase this dog leash because with it you will be able to keep your dog close in public, make sure she doesn’t run away, and keep her safe. 

We buy the dog leash because of its benefits—safety and connection—not its features — double-reinforced nylon cord with a nickel-plated hook. The same is true as you talk about your work. Avoid the technical complexity and focus on the impact. 

More:

Learn how to tell your intermediary story in a way that’s compelling, meaningful, and easy to understand at our free webinar: The Intermediary: How to Talk About Your Work When You’re in the Middle. Register here!

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Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.

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