Elevator PitchNothing strikes fear in the heart of a nonprofit staffer or board member more than the dreaded question, “Tell me what you do?” After almost two decades of training on storytelling and now with our webinars provided free online, I have pinpointed why it is so hard. Most people see the elevator pitch as a sales-driven process, rather than a relationship-driven one. And that perspective can be scary and overwhelming for the social sector, which is mission-driven. But no one ever sold anything in one elevator ride – not even Elisha Otis, the inventor of the elevator pitch. While elevators had existed for centuries, they were mostly used for objects because the rope used to hoist the elevator would often break, causing goods to plummet and be destroyed. In 1852, Otis invented a safety brake that would catch and secure the elevator from falling, making elevators a viable way of safely transporting people as well as goods. However, Otis couldn’t get any buyers. Undeterred, he decided to organize a demonstration in New York City. He stood in an elevator three stories off the ground and had his assistant purposefully cut the rope with an axe to engage the safety brake. The crowd gasped, expecting him to fall to his death, but instead he was stopped by the safety brake. He exclaimed, “All safe, gentleman. All safe!” Of course, the rest is history – with 3 billion people using Otis Elevator Company elevators every day – but that success was built upon the initial connection Otis created with his audience during that first “elevator pitch.”

Otis clearly got it right – the elevator pitch isn’t about sales at all. It is about connection. As Seth Godin aptly puts it, “The purpose of an elevator pitch is to describe a situation or solution so compelling that the person you’re with wants to hear more, even after the elevator ride is over.” To help you craft your elevator pitch, we have developed 6 C’s to help you get started.


The most important thing about a pitch is to share YOUR passion for the cause. It may be your own personal story. When I worked for the American Heart & Stroke Association, my pitch included that my grandmother died of a stroke when I was 8 and I was working hard now to ensure all grandchildren got to spend time with their grandparents. You may need to cultivate a story through a personal experience with a client. Whichever you do, use a story that lights you up when you tell it. It will get people to pay attention.


If you know your audience, design something that will connect with their interests. For example, business people like data, so start with an unexpected question based on a statistic. When I worked on childhood obesity, I would ask my listeners, “Did you know that this generation is the first that will not outlive its parents?” and pause for them to consider this new piece of information. The goal is to create a positive connection based on similar interests. If you do not know your audience, you might want to ask them questions (e.g., “What issue are you most passionate about?”) and find a way to connect your cause to their passion.


In general, your pitch should be short – no longer than 60 seconds – but the conversation can last as long as the other person seems engaged. It is important that it is a two-way conversation, so stop and engage them in the discussion. To make it easier, keep it conversational, rather than scripted. Also, as we discuss in our storytelling workshop and webinar, don’t share everything, but instead focus on ONE thing and draw them into a conversation.


The biggest mistake nonprofit staff make is getting lost in lingo. Technical or industry-specific lingo serves a purpose, but to a listener unfamiliar with it, that same lingo often goes over their head and creates a dreaded disconnect. Practice your pitch as if you are speaking to your family, and you’ll be in safe territory.


Nonprofits have a lot of credibility, so be sure to pepper your pitch with data, results and stories. There is a risk in sharing something too complicated and boring your audience, so use information that is memorable and clearly supports your case.


Never end without a closing invitation. Offer to take them on a tour or to lunch to learn more. Share what you need in an interested way that doesn’t feel transactional (e.g., “We are always looking for great board members – if you know anyone, let me know.”)

Remember that elevator pitches, especially for nonprofits, are invitations to a deeper relationship. You are inviting your listeners to share in your passion. But to do so, the story you tell has to be worthy of igniting a spark that will inspire them to support your cause. Please share your ideas on how to craft a dynamite elevator pitch. Or feel free to use our special pitch-writing exercise with board and staff for a fun exercise at your spring or summer retreat.


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