People who start, or work actively for nonprofits tend to have one major thing in common: they want to do some “good”.
That “good” could be anything from rescuing neglected dogs, to helping older people find a safe place for their final years, to digging wells in Malawi, to bringing children to museums, to funding cancer research… but the sentiment is similar at the core. You wouldn’t work to make a difference unless you thought a difference could be made… and not just a difference, but an improvement. That conviction is key to making your investment make sense.
The hardest thing to learn about our convictions, however, is that not everyone shares them — not for the same cause, not for the same reason, not for the same result, and often not enough to do anything about it. And when your heart is deeply invested, it can feel almost offensive when someone else doesn’t see the value.
But it’s not necessarily that they’re being cold or callous.
They’re just not invested in your “good”.
This is where things start to fall apart for many nonprofits:
The assumption that your “good” is, or should be the same good that matters to others.
The assumption that telling the story should do all the work of engaging.
The assumption that the ask should be irresistible because the cause is irresistible.
The assumption that everyone else should care.
Our backgrounds, cultures, priorities, and passions create a unique map in our minds and hearts. What resonates with us has a long journey to get all the way to our emotional core, through biases, beliefs, and sometimes, fear: the fear that we’re investing in the wrong thing, or that what seems compelling right now won’t always matter. Which is why the notion of “good” often fails to go the distance.
The most unsuccessful nonprofits are just as convinced as the successful ones that they’re pursuing an important vision. They dream of solving problems, of helping, of changing things, of moving forward.. all beneficial results. But unlike organizations that make an impact, they assume their passion should guarantee support.
Certainly, there will be donors and supporters who see a light in your eye… and they will invest in that glimmer.
The vast majority, however, need something more.
And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if it seems like the existence of a problem should be enough reason to care about the solution, it’s impossible to solve all the problems we see. We have to prioritize where we put our energy, or we’ll never move the needle on anything worthwhile. And those choices often come down to a sense of connection to what an organization does.
Which is why you need to learn about your constituents before you can reach them.
Is there something you do that overlaps with something they already care about?
Can you tell a story they recognize themselves in, or perhaps someone they love?
Is there a simple, practical way they can help — help they might not know you need?
Is there a difficulty they experienced that you’re working to prevent?
Is there an aspect of who you are that isn’t immediately obvious, but would radically change the way they saw you?
How might your brand halo add more shine to theirs?
And how are all of your different audiences actually perceiving your brand, period?
From our perspective, the brand you’re communicating is actually a Mosaic Brand: there are parts of it you can control, and other parts you can only influence. Ultimately, you want to control as many tiles in your Mosaic Brand as possible, in order to influence the tiles you don’t control… thus creating a Mosaic Brand that makes an impression, and one that provides multiple opportunities for connection… which brings us back to “ways in.”
There’s a lot of resistance to this “ways in” approach among some of the most dedicated people who work for causes, because they see it as an inferior point of connection to altruism. You should want to help. You should see the value intrinsically. You should know it matters. You should take my word for it.
You have to invest deeply to do the job well. And being “all in”? It changes your filters.
But hanging on to the value of your “good” — over the possibilities inherent in developing a whole range of “goods” — won’t advance your mission. And if you’re not advancing your mission, are you really doing the most… good?
Your value isn’t one-note. Your constituents aren’t one-note. Your possibilities aren’t one-note. So why is your call to action?
Maybe it’s time to learn a new tune.