As the founder of a public relations agency serving the nonprofit sector for almost two decades, I have always been focused on the exploration of ideas and insights that can propel our clients in the direction of their goals. These days, I am thinking a lot about the power inherent in language and how it touches so many areas of nonprofit communications. Below are five things every organization should have on their radar.
Stop Hero-ing. Many of the stories that are told, and the way they are told within the philanthropy universe, center on the heroic donor saving the day. Despite some organizations becoming more conscious of the harm hero-ing causes to those they serve, for example, by being creators of “poverty porn”, it still exists. Hero-ing reinforces a power dynamic, among other practices that are counterproductive to building an authentically more inclusive and equitable society.
Journey Mapping. In messaging, a one size fits all approach does not yield the strongest results in terms of catalyzing action. Do you understand exactly how key stakeholders engage with your brand? Is it through events? Media placements? Board relationships? Understanding specifically how each audience finds their way to you, and how they interact with your content, allows you to be intentional in what you share and how you share it, which in turn, leads to action.
Narrative Justice. The idea of building narratives and storytelling have long been part of how nonprofits have sought to engage audiences. We are working with our clients to take that a step further, by incorporating narrative justice into our messaging and storytelling. For us, narrative justice is taking responsibility for the stories we tell, moving away from the singular narrative and the voices historically used to tell those stories. Furthermore, it’s imperative to understand how those stories shape perceptions overwhelmingly and contribute to how audiences respond.
Our first exploration with narrative justice began a few years ago when we launched the Narrative Justice Project, a free community based media training and storytelling program for communities of color. Seeing firsthand the transformative power and impact of people telling their own stories, we knew that the application of narrative justice could be integrated more broadly into strategic communications. I see opportunities for organizations to embrace narrative justice, to shift conversations and strengthen support for the social issues they champion.
Moving from awareness to action. Many conversations with prospective clients begin with a fairly simple request to create “greater awareness” for their respective causes. While awareness is a great starting point, it stops short of creating the real momentum needed for change. Awareness still leaves many with the question, “now what? or even “so what?” Consider action as your ultimate goal. You want audiences to feel emotionally connected and empowered to do something on your organization’s behalf. You need to create specific calls-to-action for different audiences, or for different milestones, related to your goals.
Language Matters. Ethnographers and linguists agree that language shapes society. Nonprofits represent a microcosm society of people who are interconnected around a common goal of transformation. If we think about that through a diversity, equity and inclusion lens, it becomes critical that organizations give special care to the words and terms used to communicate about its work. From fundraising to programmatic goals, communication is at the core of how stakeholders engage. Through our Lexicon Project, we work with nonprofits and socially responsible companies who want to address their use of language but are not sure how, by developing organizational lexicons used to guide internal and external communications. These lexicons provide much needed clarity on messaging and positioning while helping to identify language that better represents DEI commitments across all communications channels .
Do any of these strategies resonate with you? Let me know what’s on your mind and if you’ve explored any of these concepts in your organization. As always, if we can be helpful in any way, email me at [email protected].
Vanessa Wakeman, Founder & CEO