Communication Breakdown

“I no longer support Autism Speaks and this is why.”

Those were the words a friend posted on her Facebook timeline a few months ago. This is a friend whose son is affected by autism, a friend who has dedicated thousands of hours to raising money to find a cure for this terrible condition. For her to be moved to reject a charity committed to her common cause, the crime must have been serious.

Intrigued, I clicked on the link she shared and read about how Autism Speaks has partnered with Google to organise a conference described as “an attempt to link private investors like venture capital, private equity and even hedge funds to inject innovative autism-related business development.”

My first reaction was as someone influenced by an early career in investment banking. I believe fervently in the power of market forces to uncover meaningful solutions to real problems. From medical advances that have resulted from R&D by pharmaceutical companies to practical advances like better kitchen gadgets developed according to the principles of inclusive design, I am convinced the world is a better place because of privately funded innovation. To me, the article she shared seemed inherently positive: surely harnessing the power of private investment would accelerate the pace of change?

My next reaction was as a friend. I could see my friend was clearly in pain. I hoped that gently suggesting the potential positives in this development might give her some comfort. But first, I listened.

I listened as she explained how abandoned she felt by a charity she had previously supported. She talked about her sense of betrayal that energy would be invested in helping promote private profit when so many families affected by autism face genuine financial hardship trying to care for their children. I quickly realised that nothing that I said was going to erase her anger, so I simply offered my support.

My next reaction was as a fundraiser. Something clearly went wrong in the charity’s communications. Was there something I could learn?   I went to the charity’s website to see what they were saying about their Autism Investment Conference. Initially, what I found was a well-executed blog, with rich multi-media content and lots of user-generated material added almost daily.

Warm and supportive in tone, the blog includes inspiring stories about adults who have overcome their autism and established flourishing lives; advice from parents sharing how they’ve learned to support their children; and regular features on how the charity puts its donors money to work. It’s the kind of content most charities would kill for. And it contains no mention of the investment conference.

To find what I was looking for, I had to dig deep. Eventually I uncovered a reference within the “Press Releases” section of the website, which was buried under layers of navigation. The tone and content in this section was entirely different – corporate and clinical. I strongly suspect that the team responsible for this section of the website is completely different from the one who prepares the blog, which is clearly aimed at donors and service users.

Only after all of this did I allow myself to experience my most visceral reaction to the article. Because I am not only a former investment banker, a friend, and a fundraiser. I am also a mother of a child affected by autism. Our beautiful middle son received his diagnosis last year, at the tender age of two. I know from the hours of research we have conducted trying to understand his condition that early intervention is critical. We are lucky to have caught it extremely early, and we have thrown every available resource at trying to help him develop the skills he will need to thrive.

But it’s not enough. There aren’t enough developmentally appropriate resources available in the market today to give him everything he needs. We need more apps and games and tools and insight. And we need them now. It wasn’t until I reflected on the possibilities of private investment that I realised that now was even possible, which somehow made the reality of not now even more poignant. And then I cried.

I am sharing this experience with my fellow fundraisers because I think it reveals two important lessons:

  1. We must all be ever-vigilant of the dangers of communication silos in our organisations. We don’t live in a world where our diverse audiences exist within hermetically sealed bubbles. Assume that all of your audiences can, and will, eavesdrop on all of your conversations. Don’t dumb your messages down, but be aware of how what you say will land with your most sensitive listeners. Adjust accordingly.
  1. Remember that your supporters are aching for radical change. How many of us have bold organisational visions but continue to budget for 3% growth and get excited when we deliver 5%? That’s something to be proud of, but what really inspires donors is a solution. A cure. An eradication of the problem. Understanding the depths of the challenges that we confront can numb us to the possibility that achieving our visions is actually possible. But it is! Keep looking for the game-changers. And when you alight on one, don’t let poor messaging keep you from communicating the great news effectively to your most passionate advocates.

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