What can non-profits learn from the campaign?

I started to write a post about title tags (sounds boring, but they actually matter), but I am just too excited to focus on something that granular.


Several weeks ago, Lucy Bernholz, who writes Philanthropy 2173, asked:

What can philanthropy learn from political campaigns?


Her post is worth reading, but here are three of my take-aways about what the most recent presidential campaign demonstrated:


1.     The message matters. 

A powerful message isn’t just dressing up an idea in new clothes.  It comes from understanding underlying values:  what people really want, and what they are concerned about.  Savvy product marketers and advertisers understand this when they sell cars as reflection of personal identity rather than a set of features.  With its message of “saving lives every day,” the American Cancer Society understands that people want hope.  The Humane Society understands that many people care deeply about the animal-human bond.  The Elizabeth Hospice in San Diego, which must talk about death in a culture of youth and invincibility, speaks to the underlying value of comfort that people have found in hospice when facing terminal illness:  “We listen, we care, we comfort.” 


I don’t want to pick on any specific philanthropies, but often organizations are too abstract (“expanding horizons through the power of one-on-one friendships”), too focused on describing what they do (“a powerful voice…”) or too focused on the features (“we are the crucial first link in the system that…”).  We fail to move people.


2.    The message-carrier matters.


One of the first things that a crisis communications expert does is to identify the spokesperson – someone who will be seen as credible, and who at least offers a sympathetic public face.  That’s why nurses are preferred as hospital spokespersons rather than old white guy administrators for many issues.  On more proactive messages, some of the best message carriers are the beneficiaries of the organization’s efforts.  March of Dimes understands the power of personal stories, and has found an innovative way to collect and share them through its “Every Baby Has a Story” interactive story map.  CARE uses videos and testimonials from women around the world as part of its “I am powerful” campaign.  Going in to this election, voter turnout was running less than 60%, in part because many groups felt disengaged or disenfranchised.  Who better than Barack Obama to convince people who felt cynical about the political process that their vote – their one vote – could matter?


3.     Finally, the medium matters.


Showing a grasp of electronic communication and social networking was crucial to attracting younger voters (even ones not all that young).  And that isn’t just because these voters use and prefer these modes of communication.  It’s that a candidate simply isn’t seen as “with it” if he or she doesn’t demonstrate a level of comfort through their campaign organization.


So what can philanthropists learn?  Too often, we restate or spice up mission statements as the basis of our message, rather than identifying and speaking to underlying values with evocative language.  Too often, our executive directors are the voice of the organization, rather than spokespersons who not only carry the message but live the issue or problem.  And too often, websites and social networking are seen as less than critical because we think that our donors are older and aren’t using electronic communications.  Not only do we miss an important part of the communications equation, but in doing so, we’ve just told a whole segment of the market that we aren’t “with it” enough to engage them.


What do you think non-profits and causes can learn from the election?  What organizational or cause-related websites convey a powerful message, and demonstrate that they’re “with it”?


Filed under Messaging

3 responses to “What can non-profits learn from the campaign?

  1. I just wanted to comment on your 3rd point, the idea that non-profit groups should engage social media to reach their audiences. I couldn’t agree more. For companies who want to cut costs, and effectively communicate to a large audience, the way to do that now is through social media and online editorial outreach. This also works in times of crisis, as it is also the fastest way to get your messages across.

  2. Thank you for such a good post. It really puts a different, but really important slant on something that so many non-profits don’t think about enough As for us – the animal house jamaica.org – we have gone through five hurricanes in only four years yet despie the difficulties have managed to keep caring for our 150 plus of theisland’s once-forgotten animals. However, we seriously still need help and obviously need to speak to people’s underlying values with some dynamic and evocative language. Any ideas?

  3. Maureen, you have a valuable mission and a difficult task. With respect to your question about HOW to speak to people’s underlying values, begin with thinking about WHICH people are most likely to be receptive to your message. Certainly, you will be interested in people who are interested in animals, and there may be a subset who is interested in disaster relief. Or the other way around. It can be very helpful to actually write a profile description of the kind of person who is interested and able to support what you do. Think about their age, their education, their habits and hobbies (including whether they are pet owners themselves). Think about what kind of philanthropy moves them. Then, if you can, have some deep conversations about why they care about animals. Could be in person, by telephone, email or over a blog. It can be very helpful to develop example statements or copy and ask them which they like best. What moves one person is not the same as what moves the next. Market research – even the free and less formal kind — is a good way of experimenting with messages.