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Is Your Brand Built Around Pity or Potential?

October 2, 2005

This is the fifth article in a six-part series regarding nonprofits and branding.

(Oct. 3, 2005) Have you ever stopped for a moment and tried to look back with a fresh set of eyes at the last several communications you've sent out to your pool of prospective donors? Perhaps asked a friend or spouse to offer their unvarnished opinion about the story your communications tools tell about your organization, its worldview and its relative state of health?

Does the story you tell paint a picture of an organization that appears to be struggling to survive or frantically trying to save its constituency from eminent doom? Or, do you look like a place with a plan - a community of people on a mission with the strategy, traction and resources to actually make a difference in the world?

Have your attempts to create a sense of urgency begun to look, instead, like desperation? Does your call to action look more like a plea for help or a promise of hope?

You shouldn't fault yourself if, in hindsight, a bit too much 'drama' might have crept in to your conversation. After all, even the biggest nonprofits in the world have had to occasionally sit around the conference table - usually around fourth quarter - lamenting the fact that there's not quite enough money, people or resources to really make the difference you'd hoped to make in the world?

So a little drama, a bit of emotion to get people to respond, can't hurt can it?

Well, to the extent that drama is seeking to exploit a moment, with the intention of creating a sense of personal 'you can't let this happen' obligation, then you're allowing your message and your organization's brand to 'live' in the most base and reactive part of your prospective donor's brain. You are, in essence, asking people to react out of pity or anger or fear.

If, on the other hand, your use of emotion is seeking to build a compelling case that a donation to your organization is a true investment in something bigger than oneself, then you are appealing to people's finest sense of hope and possibility.

Let History Be Your Guide

If you look back at some of the most compelling social 'movements' of the last century, there's one thing that's common among all of them. In every instance - whether putting a person on the moon, climbing out of the great depression, marching on Selma, or preferring to sleep in London subway stations rather than abandon that city during The Blitz - people were willing to make incredible sacrifices when asked to join together around a vision, a chance of hope or possibility.

When they are asked to help build castles rather than moats.

John F. Kennedy committed the U.S. to putting a man on the moon, '?not because it [was] easy, but because it [was] hard', and by doing so he called upon American's finest concept of themselves. Martin Luther King Jr., built a social movement around a dream of what equality really meant. Churchill asked the outgunned, out-resourced, bone-tired people of London to make a stand for freedom over fascism. Nelson Mandella and Fr. Desmond Tutu guided people away from revenge-fuelled anarchy by appealing to peoples' willingness to look ahead rather than backward.

It seems these days we've allowed ourselves to develop a sense of learned hopelessness about ever moving the middle again. We've given ourselves too much permission to rely on formulas, demographics and sophomoric descriptions like 'soccer mom.' We've profiled those most likely to respond to our mission and our pleas for help, tested and re-tested messages until we've found the one that yields a 1 percent or 2 percent better response rate and then we've stuck to that message for dear life.

Our politicians, our civic leaders and the nonprofits that have the potential to give the world so much hope, have all, in one way or another, seemingly thrown in the towel when it comes to compelling John and Jane Doe to act in any way other than some narrow version of 'enlightened self interest.'

By giving up on them, we've essentially allowed ourselves to give up on the hope that our organization will ever truly reach the level of critical mass to really make a difference. Because without the 'middle', there will be no true change.

It Doesn't Require a Martin Luther King Jr.

There's no question that the charisma and character of the leaders referenced above were important to the success of their causes. But what's more important than a Kennedy-esque spokesperson is a Kennedy-esque strategy. A strategy that's based upon hope and possibility - that taps into our desire to act for the greater good - is something all of us could use a little more of when we're communicating about ourselves.

So the next time you are thinking about what message would best work to compel people to donate, allow yourself to think big. Allow yourself to paint a picture of what's possible. Speak to that higher sense of self we all have inside of us. The part of us that wants to believe. That holds out hope that there is a way.

Help us to see you that way.

Bill Toliver is executive director of The Matale Line, a company devoted to helping nonprofits with communications and fundraising. Visit them on the web at, or write Bill directly at

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