As you might imagine, over the past 25 years, we have collected hundreds of case statements from organizations across the nation. We have samples of glossy brochures, die-cut folders, simple white papers and spiral bound booklets… each with a story to tell. But before there can be a case statement, there must be a case – a need, a vision to address that need, an organization with a mission and credibility, and a role for donors to play. No matter how well it may be designed, written or produced, the case must be clear and compelling enough to convince a donor to take out his checkbook and make a gift.

Over the years, our team has consistently found that it’s easier to raise money for strong organizations than for organizations which merely have strong needs. When we evaluate an organization’s case, we ask the following questions:

  • Does the organization have a well-thought-out strategic plan? A reasonable business plan? A succession plan for leadership?
  • What is the organization’s mission and how well does it accomplish it? How many people does it reach and how does the organization measure its impact?
  • What makes the organization distinctive? What makes the organization a philanthropic priority for its constituents? How well do potential donors understand the organization’s role in the community?

The answers to these questions should ideally point to a positive “return on investment” for the donor – something that needs to be clearly defined in the case for support.

Indeed, in today’s tough economy and competitive fundraising environment, donors are truly conducting “due diligence” about organizations and their plans, expecting a “return” in the form of impact. So, not only do nonprofit organizations face tremendous scrutiny, it is also easier than ever for potential donors to gather their own information about an organization’s performance, competitors and operating environment.

The case statement, the formal document, has become merely an introduction, the “outer envelope,” which invites a potential donor to dig deeper and learn more. Even the most creative and compelling brochure or video cannot stand up to the need for hard numbers and confidence-building information on an organization’s sustainability.

Why the Case Matters

The case is, in effect, a reflection of the organization – its past, present and future. And the case is where the integration of management, marketing and development really comes to light. If you have a sound plan for the future, effective communications can trumpet this to your audiences and a good fundraising program cashes in on it.

  • Strategic Planning: Boards and organizational leaders should think about strategic planning as the process of building a case for support. The case needs to motivate donors (and solicitors), it should reflect the organization’s aspirations and desires – and define the organization’s ability to see it through. The strategic plan and operational or business plan must provide for an organization that can address those goals and objectives. The case statement should be clear about the end results of the organization’s plans: A college that is building a new campus center or science building, for example, needs to articulate the impact this project will have on admissions, research awards or other key strategic goals – the return on the donor’s investment.
  • Point of Difference: The case should also differentiate the organization and indicate why it is the organization to address particular needs in the marketplace. A well-established organization should tout its achievements and its track record. A new organization should create credibility by highlighting the qualifications of its leadership, the pedigree of its methods and other unique assets.
  • Donor Interests: Often, we find that what is of interest to donors is not necessarily the same as what the organization’s staff believes to be important. Developing the case is an important opportunity for organizations to understand how they and their needs are perceived by critical external audiences. For example, in the 1990s when public broadcasting stations across the country were mounting campaigns for digital technology, the stations initially emphasized the improvement in signal quality as a reason for multi-million dollar investments. When we here at Schultz & Williams interviewed major prospects, they were more likely to focus on the opportunity for expanded content through multi-casting. Prospects generally believed this to be the element of the case that would help the stations become more relevant to the communities they served. Community focus, not picture quality, became the central ingredient around which effective campaigns were constructed.

Of course, we also evaluate case statements as communication tools. Part of our role as consultants is to advise clients how to position their case with key constituents and how to tell their story in a compelling way. We ask the following questions:

  • Is the case statement intellectually based and mission-focused, but also emotionally compelling? Is it clear to potential donors how they may benefit from what the organization does for its constituents?
  • Is the case statement as streamlined as possible – particularly if the organization is complex?
  • Does the case statement make the organization come to life? Does it “show, not tell” through stories and data? Does its visual element enhance the story?
  • A case statement that makes a strong first impression is an important tool for fundraising.

A Look Ahead

In the next decade, many trends affecting the nonprofit sector will be reflected in the case for support.

  • We will see more publicly supported institutions (libraries, parks, schools) raising supplemental funds through private philanthropy. Some might question why they should donate to such causes if they already pay taxes, but it is a fact that much public funding is being squeezed and these organizations, even after cost-cutting, cannot provide the same level of service with fewer funds. Publicly supported nonprofits will be making the case that private funds are part of the equation.
  • New organizations, or organizations pursuing philanthropic support for the first time, may need to make a case not only for themselves but for the issue they are addressing. Marketing and awareness building for rare diseases and disorders, new social problems and many other kinds of causes will be critical in order to secure a larger base of support. Multiple channels will be used to create awareness as part of long-term and sophisticated marketing strategies.
  • As more and more nonprofits experiment with new business models, strategic alliances and other outside-the-box ideas, a case statement can be useful in explaining these innovations.
  • Many organizations are finding the need to re-think their case, either after several decades of operating or after a founding period has transpired. If they have already accomplished their mission and vision, (e.g., creating more opportunities for women, building a new performing arts center, etc.) it may be time for a “Version 2.0.”
  • When it comes to presenting the case – as it becomes easier and cheaper to customize communications pieces, whether printed or electronic – organizations can personalize their case presentations to fit the interests of individual donors or groups of donors.

The case for support is the keystone of fundraising success. Boards can be made stronger, new prospects can be found and infrastructure can always be improved. But if the reasons for supporting the organization don’t move donors, if the organization’s financial sustainability is in question or if the fundraising priorities don’t deepen the organization’s impact, fundraising efforts will ultimately fall short. A case that stems from a strong strategic foundation will carry the organization across the finish line.