EPISODE 1: How to make a stellar impression in 300 words or less
Updated: Jan 4
In the competitive social impact space, organisations need to make their mission, work, and story stand out—and fast.
Welcome to our new series all about communication tools for social impact organisations, Step change: a road map for new fundraisers. In this 10-article series, we will provide guidance and resources for fundraisers to effectively share their story and inspire action.
In Episode 1, we’re going to start small. Really small, as in, 300 words or less.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of the ‘elevator pitch’ in the corporate world, but what may be unfamiliar is the application of the concept to NGOs. There has always been a divide between the non-profit and the for-profit sector, and I can understand the hesitancy to confuse the two types of organisations. However, it would be a disservice to non-profit organisations to not draw from the toolbox of for-profit companies.
One specific tool is designed for an organisation to explain quickly and succinctly what they do, their mission, and ethos. That tool has many different names, but I’m going to call it an ‘elevator pitch’.
What is an elevator pitch?
An elevator pitch comes from the idea that you might be in an elevator with someone and they ask you “So, what do you do?”. From this point, you only have a single moment to explain what your organisation does, and what it wants to achieve. In situations like that, most people’s minds go blank and they fumble for words. NGOs in particular often struggle with this question. This is because NGOs do many different activities, and might have several projects running at the same time. It can be difficult to decide which single activity is the most important, and why. How can you quickly pick out the key messages and communicate them before the hypothetical elevator doors open and the opportunity is lost?
Even the most well-spoken and focused person would have difficulty stringing the words together in this situation. Preparing (and practising) your elevator pitch can ease the tension and ensure no opportunity to share your organisation’s story is wasted.
Why is it important for social impact organisations?
This situation may seem unrealistic, or irrelevant. Most people, especially representatives of NGOs, are probably not spending a lot of time riding around in elevators and waiting to pitch their organisations to unwary passers-by. However, outside of the elevator, there are ample opportunities to pitch your NGO to potential partners, donors, and supporters - and of course, to explain your work to beneficiaries. Often, there won’t be a lot of time to go into the specifics. You only have a few seconds to grab the attention of the listener and ‘sell them’ on your concept. It sounds impossible, but it isn’t. Not if you have a strong elevator pitch. Explain your mission in a succinct and compelling way, there is no reason you can’t inspire others to join it.
In addition, by taking the time to craft a compelling elevator pitch, you are making your life easier. A snappy elevator pitch is perfect for your website, grant applications, or on general fundraising communications.
How long is an elevator pitch?
I suggest aiming for 200-300 words. Keep it short and sweet.
What are the elements of an elevator pitch?
Why you exist
Who are your beneficiaries?
What you want to achieve
Where you work
What makes you unique/special
Of course, it’s always easier said than done. Let’s look at some examples:
Example 1: We are the Natural Classroom Enthusiasts, and we believe learning should not be limited to the classroom. For the past eight years, we have been designing and delivering outdoor education programmes to young adults with special education needs in England and Wales. We partner with support-focused NGOs to run programmes on leadership, nature conservation, and mental health. Our vision is to transform education and inspire the next generation of environmentalists.
Example 2: At the Purple Moth Conservatory we preserve critical habitats for key species in the heathlands, which provide a refuge for endangered species, preserve biodiversity, and serve as an indicator of the overall ecosystem health. We coordinate teams of volunteers who build, restore, and monitor these habitats, preserving this beautiful, diverse landscape for future generations.
Example 3: Since 2015, Coding without Borders has delivered coding training to secondary school students in Nigeria. We have two centres in Lagos where we provide training sessions, career guidance, and engage with the community. Our organisation has been recognised by the UN for our exemplary work empowering youth to lead the digital revolution in Nigeria.
Three ways to make your elevator pitch shine:
Don’t go overboard on adjectives: It can be tempting to drown your pitch in flowery adjectives. If you’re doing amazing work, can’t you just say, “We do amazing work”? Unfortunately, no, it’s probably not going to land.
Bad: Our work on species conservation is innovative and unique.
Think about: What are your innovations? Why would you consider it unique?
Good: We are the only organisation based in the healthlands that directly engages with landowners to build shelters for critical species.
Don’t waste a verb: While adjectives are generally overused, verbs are often overlooked. Sure, simple is fine, but adding a verb is a quick way to make your sentences pop. Verbs also don’t have the same clunky, self-congratulatory feel of an adjective. For example, try: empower, encourage, engage, elevate, drive, deliver, improve, build.
Bad: We help youth develop self-confidence.
Think about: How do you do this? ‘Help’ is vague and doesn’t convey much information.
Good: We deliver leadership programmes that empower young people to engage meaningfully in civil society.
Be as specific as possible: Pick out a few key details and add those to your pitch. Specificity will paint a picture of your organisation, which will make your organisation easier to relate to and, crucially, remember.
Bad: We are a small organisation that works with teachers.
Think about: ‘Small’ is vague and it’s just as easy to give the number. What makes your team unique? What work are they actually doing? Are there any major accomplishments you can point to?
Good: Our five-person team of education experts have delivered training programmes to four schools and 70 teachers.
With this in mind, are you able to create or improve your NGO’s elevator pitch? Do you have any other tips to share? Feel free to share your draft in the comments below and I will provide feedback.
Eager for more resources? Follow our series, Step change: a road map for new fundraisers, and keep an eye out for episode 2, which will explain how to create a compelling ‘Case for Support’.