When resources are limited and pressure is high, it’s easy to fall into bad habits with our communications.
This is especially true in the nonprofit world, where communicators are constantly having to raise enough money to keep the lights on while also achieving the mission.
So we take shortcuts.
We regurgitate old press releases and repurpose the same templates for our annual reports and donor communications.
We mistake activity for true action and wonder why we’re always working so hard without ever achieving the results we aspire to achieve.
If you feel like you’re stuck in this rut with your communications, it’s time to take a step back. It’s time to think about your communications through a different lens.
Rather than relying on the same tactics that have been guiding your work for decades, nonprofits and other social-change organizations can generate much better results if they truly approach communications as part of our organizations’ missions.
You might think you already do that – that the stories you tell and the actions you ask your audiences to take are all supporting your mission.
But this is about more than just pulling some levers – generating tweets, sending email newsletters, and pitching news stories – and expecting people to magically support your work.
This is about truly embedding mission into every story we tell and every word we utter.
This is about involving the people whose lives you’re hoping to help improve with your work in the communications. It’s about making your potential donors and volunteers feel as though they are contributing to a movement.
Don’t Just Show: Involve
Rather than using the storytelling technique of “show, don’t tell”, I believe nonprofits would be better served if they adopted a new credo for their communications: Don’t just show, involve.
It’s not enough to simply tell powerful stories.
The real magic comes when we invite our audiences to help us shape the narrative. It’s about relinquishing some of our power — and inviting our audiences to exercise theirs.
Movements like the Ice Bucket Challenge and GivingTuesday stand as high-profile examples of the power of this credo. For both campaigns, organizers made a conscious decision to unleash the reins and let the audience control the story.
While these are powerful examples, however, the results are largely transactional. After all, both campaigns were centered around raising money.
This is a worthy outcome, for sure.
But your nonprofit’s mission isn’t about raising money. It’s about something more.
What if your organization is looking to change a system, or build trust, or involve a community in taking ownership of its future?
This takes more than a clever hashtag or an emotional personal story.
It requires truly involving your target audience in the outcome.
It’s not easy to do. But when it happens, it can be transformative.
One of the most poignant examples of this comes from the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation in Detroit.
There, in the Motor City’s Brightmoor neighborhood, the foundation has spent years working to improve early-childhood education. Along the way, it found ways to partner with the community — and it ultimately decided to hire a respected voice in that neighborhood to serve as a key liaison.
The liaison was given the title of “network officer” — a title that, in foundation-speak, seemed perfectly appropriate and reasonable.
But when the network officer began explaining her role in the neighborhood, she was greeted with questions.
The word “officer” carried a negative meaning in the neighborhood — as if she was connected with patrolling and keeping order, rather than helping to build partnerships and improve education.
Here’s where Don’t Just Show, Involve took over.
When confronted with such feedback, most organizations would go into spin mode. They would prepare talking points about why they chose the title and how it connects with its traditions.
This foundation, however, didn’t spin.
It listened to the feedback and worked with the neighborhood to develop a title that worked both for the foundation and for the community.
In doing so, it told a strong, powerful story to the neighborhood — a story that showed the foundation as an organization that was willing to relinquish some of its power in the spirit of true cooperation.
It wasn’t here to tell them what to do. It wasn’t there to show them what to do. It was there to involve them in shaping its future.
As communicators, we have the opportunity to think more deeply about the messages our organizations send through our actions.
If we do that, we can affect change in remarkable ways.