Common Mistakes When Pitching Your Charity Startup

Updated: Dec 8, 2021



The importance of an excellent charity pitch cannot be overstated. It’s crucial for communicating your charity idea to stakeholders (eg., a donor, potential partner, politician, mentor, etc.), and could be the difference between getting a pivotal donation or coming away empty-handed. The gravity of pitches is appreciated in the for-profit entrepreneurship world, and should be taken just as seriously by charity entrepreneurs. This article will focus on 1-3 minute pitches.


STARTING WITH A HOOK


In our experience, charity entrepreneurs’ pitches are often most compelling during their first minute. The start of the pitch is arguably the most important: it’s a determining point, during which the audience makes a judgement call on you and your charity. We advise investing time and effort into crafting an engaging opening. ​ Every good presentation starts with a catchy hook. It can be a surprising, almost unbelievable “fun fact,” or you could frame your pitch as a narrative. For example, talking about how the issue at hand affects people and the tangible impact it has on their lives works nicely to engage the listeners and gives the pitch a good tempo.

INTRODUCING YOURSELF


Introducing yourself is fine, but keep it quick. Who you are doesn’t matter to most people, at least until they know your idea is valuable and has potential.

THE RULE OF THREE

In a one-minute time slot, you have time to cover three points, so make sure you know what they are.

  1. The problem

  2. How the charity solves it

  3. Explain why you’re a good fit for this intervention, or present the audience with an ask. The pitches that we’re discussing are relatively short, so it’s unlikely that you will have time to cover both. If there’s an obvious action point that you can request of your listeners, then include that. Otherwise, explain why you would be a good person for the project.


INCLUDING A SPECIFIC ASK

A great one-minute pitch typically does have an ask, but keep it modest. Think of it as a first step in the door rather than an endline goal. It would be a mistake here to ask for too much, or for the ask to be too strong. For example, asking the audience if they want to donate instead of offering the opportunity to learn more, which would be a more appropriate ask. Alternatively, in a bilateral pitch, the ask could be to schedule a call to discuss further.

BUILDING A PERSONAL CONNECTION

One common mistake is to come across as too distanced when presenting ideas scientifically. Building a personal connection with the audience is valuable, and it increases the likelihood that they will be receptive to your charity. Acknowledging audience questions during the Q and A is an easy way to do this; for example, responding first with "that is a great question" or "thank you for those questions." Not only does it make the questioner feel good, but it also buys you some time to structure a response.


SIGNPOST SPECIFIC WINS

Often, the audience won’t be familiar with the context of an achievement, and won’t have a good sense of the difference in magnitude between X small thing and Y enormous thing. As a result, it can be beneficial to explicitly flag wins, even if they seem obvious to you. The results of studies can appear particularly unimpressive to uninformed audiences, even though an improvement of even a small margin can have a high impact. An example of how to frame a statistic could be to say “...a20% increase in contraception, which is considered huge in terms of public health and saves X lives and Y QALYs”.

USE CONCRETE EXAMPLES AND STATE FACTS THAT FEEL EXTREMELY OBVIOUS

It’s harder for your audience to connect to an impact that seems abstract, so tie your examples to tangible effects. When discussing cost-effectiveness, for example, a good pitch might add that an intervention that is twice as cost-effective means the same amount of money can save two lives instead of one. Or for food fortification, stating that anaemia is bad because you would feel tired and sick most of the time. Even though some of these examples may be blatantly obvious, it can be easy for the listeners to forget the real-world consequences of your work. Providing them with concrete examples allows them to anchor their ideas about your charity to something tangible.

BUILDING GENERAL PRESENTATION SKILLS

Simple improvements in presenting have a high return on investment, so practice:

  • not rushing;

  • not coming across as rehearsed or as if you’re reading from a script;

  • appearing confident and speaking clearly;

  • using voice intonations well;

  • and using fewer hedge words (“urm” or “like”).

Usually, success is achieved through the laborious process of practice and feedback loops, but knowing the qualities of a good pitch is a start. Fortunately, public speaking is a soft skill that can be improved substantially with the right tools and mindset. We recommend the book “The Charisma Myth” by Olivia Fox Cabane for pragmatic advice on how to engage, influence, and motivate an audience. Online resources, including videos, are also plentiful. It may even be worthwhile to consider taking lessons with a presentation or voice coach, though this method would require an investment ranging from £50 to as much as £500 per hour.


BE MINDFUL OF YOUR AUDIENCE


It’s vital to focus on numbers and science, especially when pitching to evidence-based donors. However, be mindful of the context of your audience: do they have a quantitative background? Will the numbers you’re quoting seem effective to a non-EA audience? For an EA audience, signalling epistemic humility is important, and when talking to experts in the field, it’s necessary to signal scientific competency. However, note that when using technical terms and vocabulary specific to your field, try to find a balance between sounding credible and being unnecessarily verbose. Our incubatees prepare multiple pitches for different audiences (including Incubation Program alumni, an academic audience in an unrelated subject, and a Silicon Valley start-up founder), each of which presents the ideas in a way that appeals the most to that demographic.​


PREPARE Q&A ANSWERS

The Q&A section is challenging to prepare for, and unexpected questions can catch the presenter off guard. It can be testing to articulate answers to technical questions, especially if you’ve not been asked them before. There are ways to help prepare for this, but ultimately, the way to succeed in Q&A sessions is to know your charity inside out and have practice in explaining it to a variety of audiences. ​If a potential shareholder is interested, they will ask more questions. Be ready for them. As the Q&A is usually the hardest part of the pitch, it makes sense to have answers prepared to questions you anticipate being asked. Again, you don’t want to come across as too rehearsed, so bullet points usually work better.


TALKING TO SKEPTICS

Usually, when talking to skeptics, people tend to be either too confrontational or too quick to admit the skeptic is right. It can be difficult to delicately and fairly respond to critics such as an audience member who is doubtful about aspects of your proposed approach to tackling a problem.There are specific techniques you can use to respond to these challenging situations without sounding defensive, evasive, or dismissive. This Stanford Business article outlines some strategies we think could help navigate interactions with skeptics, including empathizing with their point of view, rationally countering emotional arguments, re-framing their perspective, and using analogies. Every case is different, so be careful to understand the root of the skepticism.

SUMMARY:

  1. The first minute is critical: start with a hook.

  2. Keep introductions short.

  3. Structure your pitch around the rule of three: the problem; how the charity solves it; why you are a good fit for it OR an ask.

  4. Include a specific ask, but keep it modest (eg., learning more about the charity).

  5. Think about how to build a personal connection with the audience. For example, say “that is a great question” at least once every Q&A, and try to frame your pitch as a narrative.

  6. Signpost specific wins to give listeners context around your achievements.

  7. Give concrete examples, even if they feel obvious. For example, stating that “twice as cost-effective” means “double the number of lives saved with the same amount of money.”

  8. Build general presenting skills. This is best done through practice and feedback loops, but you may try accelerating this process by hiring a presentation or voice coach.

  9. Tailor your pitch to the audience. Think about what you want to be signalling to them and which aspects of your charity they would be receptive to.

  10. Prepare answers to questions you anticipate being asked.

  11. Be mindful when talking to skeptics: invest time into thinking about the best way to approach these situations.