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Standing Out Isn’t Really the Problem Your Nonprofit Needs to Solve. Here’s What Is:

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fury messaging

I get asked all the time about what non-profits can do to stand out in fundraising and communications. For a long time, my understanding of why people ask me for advice about this boiled down to the increasingly noisy space non-profits are operating in. We’re all on the same social channels, all building email lists, sending everyone direct mail, and so on. No doubt about it, the noise factor certainly impacts your non-profit’s strategy.

But it’s not just the noise that non-profits are dealing with and in fact, there may be a more pressing issue at hand that organizations need to address. As Ted Fickes, Director of Bright+3, recently pointed out non-profits are also operating in a content landscape of extremes and this too is impacting organizations’ abilities to get attention and donor dollars. This a content trend even beyond our sector with sensationalized news and click-bait all over the internet, but I digress.

This often plays out in a very specific way in non-profit fundraising. Fickes writes, “As a sector we’ve long highlighted worst case scenarios to raise money and get people to take action. It’s worth considering whether earning support requires driving people into a fury. If so, we can and should do better.” As I see it, the problem many organizations need to solve is how to step off the fury hamster wheel so that they can find authentic messaging alternatives.

I’ve worked at non-profits where fury messaging was the modus-operandi. For non-profits where this is the case, it often contributes to a fundraising culture where the house is always on fire. But this isn’t sustainable messaging and eventually the temporary momentum that this creates will grind to a halt.

So what are the alternatives to gaining support without driving people into a fury?

We can start by looking at the narrative we construct and the stories we tell. As I wrote in my last post on the Bloomerang blog, narrative helps us build consistency, clarity, and continuity in our fundraising and communications. If you look back at the last six months of fundraising appeals and donor communications, what messages are you sending to donors? What emotional buttons are you pushing to drive action? Is your organization feeding into the fury? These are the tough questions we must ask ourselves.

Once you identify the narrative that’s been playing out, you can start to shape the narrative moving forward. What other ways can you earn support from donors? What other emotional buttons could you push? What other visionary stories can you tell about the future to inspire action?

Let’s look at American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), which is a good example to use as we discuss narrative and how language choice shapes it. If you were visiting their About page, here’s what you would read: The American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) is dedicated to preserving American wild horses and burros in viable free-roaming herds for generations to come, as part of our national heritage. There’s urgency and purpose to this without being fueled by fury. How did they achieve this? By tapping into the nostalgia that’s evoked from the idea of national heritage.

For contrast, if you were to visit their Issue page, you would read this headline: American wild horses are under attack. The costly and cruel federal program seeks to wipe out mustangs and burros from our public lands. The tone of this coupled with words like “attack,” “cruel,” and “wipe out” evoke a very different emotional response than the earlier example we looked at.

Now, is one of these approaches better than the other? It depends on your goals, your brand, and your audience. What I’m suggesting is that rather than keep our foot on the negative emotions gas pedal, we pause and get intentional. As fundraising professionals and leaders, we need to ask ourselves if this approach is really the right approach for our organization in an era that is calling us to greater authenticity.

Nonprofit Sustainability

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  • Michael F Cade

    Great points Vanessa! With so much negative information currently driving narratives, it is helpful to be reminded that the best storytelling focuses on the improvement, not the ailment. Nonprofits need to build messaging around their successes, their passion and the impacts they create. Leave negative campaigning to the politicians!
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