By Todd Cohen
Troubled times have handed charities a rare chance to change the way they work.
Americans have dug deep to help victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, and some are willing to dig still deeper.
Yet the post-terrorism outpouring of charity, combined with the stumbling economy, likely will curb giving by many donors in the near future.
And even those willing to keep giving are finding it tough to get the information they need about the charities they want to support.
The challenge for charities is do a better job of telling their stories and engaging donors.
Telling stories requires that charities be clear and open about what they do, how they do it, what it costs and what difference it makes.
Charities need to fully disclose their tax and financial information, making it easy for anyone to get that information – whether on a Web site or by requesting it in person or by phone, email or regular mail.
American charity enjoys special tax treatment because lawmakers want to encourage charitable activity.
That special treatment carries with it a legal obligation on the part of charities to disclose financial information.
But as a practical matter beyond the legal obligation, charities should work harder to share information about their work.
Charity is rooted in trust, which is based on sharing. Charities want donors to support them, and donors want to understand and be part of the charities they support.
To win a donor’s trust, the charity must help the donor understand its operations and get involved in its work.
The result will be a donor who shares time, money and know-how with the charity, possibly for the long-term.
Simply making available the limited tax and financial information required by law is not enough, however, although charities can do a lot to make even that limited data easier to get.
In a time of unprecedented challenge, charities need to be much more innovative about spreading their message.
A charity no longer can treat communication simply as a minor task or burden, but instead must build the job of telling its story into the heart of its business strategy.
That means focusing the message and equipping the board and staff, and the organization itself, to tell it.
Technology, for example, is a powerful tool for sharing information and helping people plug themselves into an organization.
Yet many charities have failed to invest in the technology they need to manage their organizations, raise money, recruit volunteers, market their ideas and team up with other groups.
As the Sept. 11 attacks made clear, none of us works in a vacuum. However independent we may be, we also are connected. And charities must work hard to sustain and deepen the ties that connect them to the donors and volunteers they depend on.
The tale of charity is in the telling, and charities have a lot of homework to do to make sure they tell it well enough that it is heard by those who want and need to hear it.