Protest or persuade?
That is the question your nonprofit should be asking as our nation’s political and cultural war intensifies. How you answer could help define how you are viewed by the public and your donors for years to come.
In the past few days alone, we’ve seen a flurry of highly charged issues make headlines, light up our Facebook feeds, and spark emotional protests, including:
- the separation of immigrant children from their parents;
- Supreme Court rulings on the Muslim travel ban, abortion, and organized labor;
- the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy;
- police violence in Pittsburgh;
- the escalating trade war;
- and, of course, the controversy over the Red Hen restaurant’s decision not to serve dinner to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Depending on your organization’s mission, any one of these issues might already have a significant impact on your organization, the people you serve, and your donors.
And if they don’t, have no fear because your time is coming (if it hasn’t already).
If you are a human rights charity or work on immigration issues, your advocacy and services are likely needed more now than at any time in your history. The same is true if you work for a religious group, a social services organization, or even a wonky policy group.
Times like these are when your organization matters most.
But how you talk about and respond to your specific issue — and what you ask your supporters and potential supporters to do — should not be taken lightly.
That’s always true, of course. But it’s especially true now.
Every call to action and statement you make sends a message — both to your supporters and to those who oppose what you do and what you stand for.
Even if you work on a mission that everyone would seemingly support, it’s easy to become the target of vitriol from those on the left or right.
For some groups, earning protests from right-wing conservatives or hard-core liberals is worn as a badge of honor. For others, though, protest and dissent don’t align with your mission or values.
Regardless of what you stand for and who your supporters are, it’s important to have a strategy in place for dealing with the almost inevitable controversy that will be facing your organization in the coming months. Otherwise, you could get caught in a controversy similar to the one that hit Boy Scouts of America in 2017.
If you’re already embroiled in a controversial issue, it’s also important to take a step back and assess whether your communications are helping you achieve your goals.
Which brings us back to answering that crucial question: protest or persuade?
In some cases, the answer to this question is obvious — it’s time to get loud and start protesting. This is especially true if an action or policy immediately threatens the people you typically advocate for or work with (a current example is a group like Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights).
But not every issue is clear cut. Even if you personally believe a decision or policy is wrong, putting your organization out front to protest might actually work against your mission.
For example, while your social service organization might strongly oppose a number of recent policies that seemingly work against the people they are looking to help, speaking out on each and every one of these issues can distract your team and your supporters from the work you’re supposed to be doing.
You also run the risk of donor or advocacy fatigue when the time comes for your organization to step forward on an issue that connects more directly to your mission.
There’s also a longer-term issue to consider as you grapple with this question. Some organizations are charged with changing minds and policies — with missions such as ending childhood hunger, curing a disease, or creating sustained economic success in a community.
If your group is looking to achieve lasting change, you need to bring a broader coalition of supporters under the tent with you. You might be more effective in building that coalition if you find ways to connect with people who might otherwise have an opposite political ideology as your core supporters. To make those connections, we might have to get outside of our ideological bubbles and find ways to establish common ground rather than taking up arms.
And, yet, there might come a time when persuasion is no longer the preferred path — even if it normally aligns with your organization’s mission and culture.
The answer to whether to protest or persuade is different for every organization.
But it’s one that you should discuss and build a strategy for before the next controversy or crisis comes.
Here are some questions to help you frame that conversation:
1. What is our organization’s mission?
2. What is our organizational culture? Are we typically vocal and controversial or do we aim to keep a low profile?
3. Who are our supporters and what do they believe in?
4. Do we need to reach more people who are like our core supporters — or do we need to build a more diverse array of supporters?
5. Who are we likely to turn off if we take a strong stand on a specific issue? Is your organization comfortable turning off this group? Will it help or harm your ability to achieve your mission?
6. Who is likely to rally behind us if we take a strong stand? Are these people likely to help us achieve our mission?
7. If protest isn’t in your organizational DNA, is there a red line that will make you take a public stand? Are there specific issues that will make you switch from persuasion to protest? What would that look like and what can you do now to equip your organization to handle this shift?
8. If you default to protesting, are there ways where you can also engage those who disagree with you in meaningful conversations? Is there any strategic value for your organization or the people you serve to begin working outside of your ideological bubble?
9. Are you offering your supporters, your donors and volunteers, your board, and your employees appropriate avenues to channel their passions for your cause?
10. What steps do we need to take to ensure we have the right messaging and gameplan for when a controversy or crisis happens related to our organization or our mission?
Even if you can’t answer all of these questions, it’s important to take time now to discuss them and develop key messages and approaches that will guide you as you deal with the almost inevitable challenges that lie ahead.
At a time when almost every issue is getting its moment in the sun in our country’s ongoing cultural and political war, you can’t afford not to know what you stand for and how you’ll respond.