Nonprofit marketing must preach beyond the choir

As a consultant, I do a lot of work helping nonprofits craft their messaging to their audiences.  Many - probably most - organizations are mainly thinking about how to reach people who essentially have already agreed with their cause: donors, potential donors, people who have signed up for their newsletter, thought leaders in the field.  This "preaching to the choir" is designed to fill up the giving bucket, to generate letters to the congressmen, or in some other way to translate existing allegiance into action.

Preaching to the choir is fine and necessary for the social sector to survive.  But it is not nearly enough for social change to succeed.  Change occurs when new constituencies who are not currently allied to your cause -- those sitting beyond the choir -- are taken by what you say, and moved to change their views.

One of the phases in my all-over-the map career was serving as a pastor who actually did a fair bit of preaching.  And one of the things I learned from that experience - one that translates very helpfully as a messaging consultant - is that you need to have a broad repertoire of motivational appeals to persuade new people.  Different people respond differently to different kinds of persuasion. 

My general observation has been that the nonprofit crowd operate with too few motivational moves.  Evoking guilt, fear, or compassion define the vast majority of persuasive efforts.  That's too small of a range and will leave many unaffected.  Guilt works best if people already subscribe to a worldview; psychologically speaking, fear actually tends more towards paralysis than action; compassion can be effective, but when everyone else is pressing that button, it loses its effectiveness.

I don't have space here to describe the broader range of motivational appeals possible, but suffice to say that nonprofits don't nearly call enough upon basic human sentiments like amusement, hope, humor, affection, and others.  And perhaps because nonprofits operate in a field that is supposedly "non-selfish," they faill to capitalize on one of the most basic human sentiments: self-interest.

Self-interest is a powerful driver of human behavior.  And many causes can be helped by at least partially positioning the message in those terms.

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