3 min Read
November 30, 2012

Sing it: five ways your nonprofit is like an a cappella group

Long ago in my checkered past, I was the musical director of my college a cappella group. There’s no video evidence (at least, none that my fellow Ducks have managed to find), but think Andy Bernard on The Office and you’ll have a pretty good sense of what it was like.

I’m not sure it quite counts as “relevant experience” on my resume, but I’ve discovered over the years that a cappella singing and nonprofit communications have quite a lot in common–at least when it comes to the strategies that help you succeed. Here are a few of my favorites: 

  1. Keep your audience engaged.
    We sang a concert every week or so, and the contexts varied widely–from elementary schools to cocktail parties to retirement homes. It was my job to look at our repertoire and put together a set list that would get the audience paying attention and tapping their feet to the music, even if they didn’t recognize or love every song.

    Well-crafted nonprofit messages are no different, really. You start by showing your audience that you speak their language and know what they’re interested in, and then when you’ve earned their attention, you can share more and give them ways to get to know you better. (By the way–working this way meant that we almost never used the same set list twice. There were always some tweaks based on past experience to make it stronger or more appropriate for the specific audience. Useful guidance for nonprofit communicators, too.)

  2. All together now…

    We sang without sheet music, so it was critical for us to all know the music in advance and be crystal clear on what parts we were expected to sing. Let me tell you from experience–it’s pretty awkward when you start two different songs at the same time.

    It may not always be as immediately (or painfully) obvious when your nonprofit’s communications are out of tune, but it’s just as confusing to your audience. If they’re not hearing consistent messages from everyone at your organization at every touchpoint, they won’t be able to tell what song you’re singing. And they probably won’t recommend the show to their friends.

  3. Choose songs (content) appropriate to the space (channel). 

    A small, intimate audience of a few people will probably be overwhelmed if you bellow a power ballad at them from three feet away, and your most subtle, sophisticated piece will get lost in a noisy auditorium full of restless twelve-year-olds. Sometimes your favorite song just isn’t right for the space in which you’re singing.

    Same goes for nonprofits choosing when and how to communicate your message. Email is probably not the best tool for sharing a wordy, complex breakdown of your theory of change, and your major donors are probably expecting more than 140 characters when they pick up your annual report. Think about the limitations (and opportunities) of the space in which you’re communicating, and choose content that will really sing (pun intended).

  4. Every voice matters.
    My group had 20+ members and egalitarian approach to solo assignments, which means everyone had a song to sing. To build a good group sound, we had to coach people as they learned new music and give them the support they needed to sound their best.

    Everyone in your organization is a communicator, on some level. Make sure they have the tools they need (e.g., key messaging points and clear visual guidelines) to represent you well–and feel confident and proud–every time they stand in front of an audience. 

  5. Enjoy yourself–and believe in your message.
    Our best concerts, hands down, were the ones in which felt most confident and had the most fun. Enthusiasm and energy will bring even the most reluctant audience along, and an eager crowd will be quickly disappointed if your heart isn’t in the performance.

It’s the same for you, nonprofiteers. If you really own the messages you’re using and feel proud, impassioned, and clear, it will come across to your supporters. And they’ll be excited to be a part of your work.

Is there anything else that nonprofit communicators and singers have in common? Share your thoughts in the comments. And happy singing.