Lesson 6: Who are your believers?

This is part of a series introducing you to Claxon University, where nonprofits can learn everything I know for $949.

Claxon University’s first course is Words on a Mission. Each of the twelve lessons in the course asks a fundamental question a nonprofit needs to answer in order to develop high-impact messaging. In each post in this series, I’ll share what the question is, along with a snippet from the video lecture.

Lesson 6: What are your believers?

Lesson 6: Three Types of People from Claxon University on Vimeo.

Please step away from your Mission Statement!

engagement, connection, marketing, fundraising, strategy
Engagement Cycle

We’re going to try out something new–Mini-Mission Makeovers. The purpose of these is to get more out of your Mission Statements.

Let’s talk about those Mission Statements, shall we?

Every nonprofit has one. Most are quite wed to them. Organizations invest hours and hours into both creating these statements and then having everyone memorize them.

Organizations undertake this memorizing of the Mission Statement with a view to staff and board being able to repeat the statement word for word when someone asks what your organization does. It is considered a success when all board members and staff can, in fact, repeat it word for word. Never mind that most people sound like robots when they repeat the Mission Statement. And that the statement itself is usually long, boring, and not very interesting. Never mind that it’s not anything anyone outside the organization would ever repeat. Never mind.

Don’t get me wrong–you should have a mission statement. It’s a very useful tool. But most Mission Statements don’t generally do a good job of succinctly and compellingly communicating what you do and why you do it to people outside of your organization.

Therefore, I beseech you to please step away from your Mission Statement!

Yes, you read that correctly. Stop worrying so much about your Mission Statement and start focusing on coming up with a really good response to the question: “What does your organization do?” that really answers the question “What do you want to be known for?”

Let’s pause on this because it’s important: People don’t generally wander up to you at a bbq and say, “It’s been a while, Harry, remind me what you want to be know for again, will ya?” Nope. People wander up and say, “Reminder me what you do again for work, will ya?” So that’s the question you’ll get. Your job is to use the opportunity to make sure they leave the conversation knowing what you want to be known for so that they can talk about that to others.

By coming up with a concise and compelling statement about what you want to be known for, not only do you make it easy for people to decide if they want to engage with you and your organization, you also make it easy for them to talk about your work with others who may be interested. (Note that a robotic recitation of your Mission Statement is neither concise, nor compelling. It is, therefore, not repeatable.)

Am I talking about your Elevator Pitch? Kind of, but not really. The idea of an Elevator Pitch is kind of weird, when you get right down to it. It implies that someone will go from first hearing about you to writing you a check in short order. #Creepy

Really what you need are a collection of statements that align with each point along the Engagement Cycle (see spiffy graphic above). You want statements that invite questions. Why? Because when someone asks a question, you get to know exactly what interests them about your work. That makes it easy for you to personalize what you tell them, thus quickly and efficiently moving along the Engagement Cycle. Neat, right?!

The toughest statement is always the “Know Statement”. It’s a humdinger. Ideally, it’s 10 words or less. If those 10 words are of interest to the person with whom you’re talking, you might move them along to an “Understand Statement”, whereby you help them understand what you do, why you do it, how you do it, etc. If they still look interested, then and only then, might you invite them to engage with you in some way–visiting the website, coming to an event, whatever.

Coming up with your “Know Statement” is no easy task, I’ll give you that. And that’s why we’re going to start doing the “Mini-Mission Makeovers”! We’ll give you specific tips for how to make-over your Mission Statement (because they are often a handy starting point for creating your “Know Statement”), so it becomes a useful tool for engaging people outside your organization, e.g. donors, supporters, volunteers, etc.

For our first Mini-Mission Makeover, we have Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County.

“We are dedicated to strengthening families and individuals by providing a wide range of social services and programs, including therapy, information and referral, support, education and advocacy.”


  1. Find an alternative to provide: You knew that was coming, didn’t you?! I’ve written about this a lot, so won’t bust out my soapbox in this post. If you aren’t sure why provide is so bad, you can read all about it here.
  2. Get rid of the “to be” verb: Whenever I see “to be” verbs (e.g. is, are, am) in a mission statement, I start by figuring out how to get rid of them. Lots of the time, “to be” verbs make a sentence duller than it needs to be. For instance, rather than saying “We are dedicated to strengthening…”, Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County could simply say, “We strengthen…”. Boom.
  3. Ditch the ‘Services Laundry List’ and decide on the one thing for which you really want to be known: This is a tough one, I  know, but if you tell someone your everything, they’ll remember nothing. You want people to remember you and talk about your amazing work to others. Thus, the need to pick one–or at most two– things to highlight from the cornucopia of awesomeness that you do. (If you’re stumped by this, check out the Messaging Toolkit and/or the Organizational Lexicon, both free and available in our DIY section.)

Here’s how implementing the above recommendations might look:

“We strengthen families and individuals through therapy, education and advocacy.”

Now, I haven’t chatted with the folks at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, so I’m not sure what they want to be known for, but you get the idea–fewer words, spunkier verbs and no laundry list.

Want help making over your Mission Statement? Post it on Claxon’s Facebook page and we’ll see what we can do!



Making them think or making them feel

Part of our jobs as do-gooders is to make people feel things. Because feeling things makes people do things…good things. One feeling that is particularly effective at generating engagement and action is empathy—the  ability to experience the feelings of another person.  Helping your audience feel the feelings of those they are—or can—help helps them see themselves in the story and encourages their participation.

This mailing from the UK’s National Asthma Campaign, circa 1991, is a good example of involving an audience in the story. Few can resist the invitation to experience 30 seconds of asthma, even if just out of curiosity. And then they immediately imagine their life with asthma. And they realize that life with asthma ain’t easy.

Don’t get me wrong, making people think is important too.  But we frequently bombard people with facts, when sometimes what we need to do is help them feel.

Videos: from ho-hum to mee-wow!

There’s no doubt that cat videos are all the rage online. There’s even an Internet Cat Video Film Festival. This feline obsession is for reals.

There’s something about cats that effectively mirrors the human experience. Obsession, surprise, melancholy.  The cats, they know how you feel.

In this clip from the Social Good Summit, Jessica Mason from YouTube for Good explains 3 lessons non-profits can learn from cat videos:

  • Tell universal stories
  • Engage regularly
  • Be surprising (yes, folks, this might require taking some risks and getting a little outside your comfort zone)

Taking a few lessons from cat vids might be the purrfect way to add a little mee-wow to your message.

Two quick apologies:
1. To the dog people: dogs are cool too. Totally cool.
2. Those of you who, like me, are totally allergic to cats and, therefore, get itchy just watching these vids. All in the name of making the world a better place, right?

(Photo credit: mashable)

Engagement starts with goats

goatI’ve been thinking about the concept of “engagement” a lot lately and boy do I have some      opinions on thank you notes that are engaging (or not), which I shared in a guest blog post over on Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog.

Here’s a little history lesson, word-nerd style: the term engagement came into popular use in the 1600s and referred to a “formal promise”. It makes you think about the lead-up to that promise, doesn’t it? I mean, people don’t just willy nilly enter into formal agreements with other people unless they feel there’s a darn good payout on the other end.

Whether you’re talking about marriage, a business partnership, or a pinky promise at recess, when it comes to a formal promise, there’s an exchange of something that both parties value.

In the seventeenth century, when all this engagement business got its start, it could have been some goats or a parcel of land—each. But think about it today, in the context of your work. Supporters are gifting you their money, their time or their attention.  What are you doing to hold up your end of the promise?

(Image courtesy of chrisroll / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Brand is Lame

I’ve been thrilled to hear more and more mission-driven organizations talk about their brand. It’s downright happy-making.

In this day and age, understanding your organization’s brand is imperative if you want to stand out while staying grounded. When the three elements of brand (visual, narrative and experiential) come together in a compelling and consistent manner, you create an engagement-rich environment.

Here’s what doesn’t thrill me. When someone uses the word ‘brand’ instead of  ‘organization’. To illustrate:

“Donors just love our brand!”

Really? Have you heard a donor say: “I support Organization Awesome because I just love their elevator pitch.” Or perhaps, “Organization Awesome is my #1 partner-in-good. I mean, look at their logo!” Might how you talk about your organization (narrative aspect of your brand) and your logo (one piece of the visual aspect of your brand) resonate with a donor? You bet. But it’s that you are effectively speaking to what they care about through these things that makes their hearts go pitter pat.

What donors–and anyone else engaged with your organization–love is your cause and your mission. They care about what you do and how you do it (your mission) and why you do it (your cause). (Here’s more on the difference between cause and mission, if that last sentence made you furrow your brow.)

The word ‘brand’ is trendy. That’s fine. It risks ending up on the Banished Words list, but it’s fine.

What’s not fine is if you let its current celebrity status distract you from the whole point of having a clearly articulated brand–so people can connect with your cause and engage in our mission!

In Sum: Brand for brand’s sake is lame. Brand for the purpose of connecting with supporters who are passionate about your cause and lit up about your  mission is awesome.

[DIY Moment: If you’d like some help figuring out your brand, here’s a free resource.]



Meaningfully engaging with donors, corporations & strategic plans

Engagement--WAY more than a sparkly ring!

Last week could’ve been called Meaningful Engagement Week. Early in the week, I facilitated a board and staff retreat that focused on how to meaningfully engage with each other and a new strategic plan.

Thursday, I was at AFP Washington’s Symposium on Major Gifts where Bernard Ross of the UK’s Management Center walked us through how to use psychology, language and humor to meaningfully engage major donors. (That guy is Funny with a capital ‘F’! Whew.)

Then Friday, I found myself hypnotized by Tammy Zonker’s explanation of how she–and her talented team at the United Way of Southeastern Michigan–meaningfully engaged GM in revitalizing Detroit’s “drop out factories’, otherwise known as high schools. (Ouch, right?)

You’d think it’d be different to engage with a major donor, a corporation and a strategic plan. But when you got right down to it, the similarities outweighed the differences by a long shot. It really boiled down to this:

  • Be prepared: Know your donor. Understand what motivates the corporation (and the people who work there). Know the intricacies and opportunity costs of each strategic direction.
  • Sell impact: What will be different in the world if the donor donates, the corporation invests or the strategic plan works?
  • Focus on what you believe: Start with what you believe and then seek out the partners and strategies for bringing it to life. Not the other way around.

Setting the inanimate strategic plan aside and focusing on animate (and sometimes animated) interactions between humans, it’s interesting to reflect on the what makes engagement meaningful. It’s tempting to think it implies that each and every interaction needs to be profound. But that’s not necessarily the case. The impact needs to be meaningful, not necessarily each and every interaction that leads to impact. The interactions leading up to that impact vary dramatically from light touch–think Twitter–to in-depth–think one-on-one conversation. The meaning becomes clear when you look at the impact of all these interactions as a whole.

Whether it’s a donor, a volunteer, an elected official or a strategic plan, are you engaged meaningfully or just meaning to engage?



Hearts and Heads


Mark Phillips writes A Bloody Good Fundraising Blog. (It really is a bloody good blog.)

Among the many gems on his blog is The Idiots Guide to Fundraising. The stick figure at left comes from this post and it really says it all. It was the inspiration for this week’s Tune-Up Tuesday video about speaking to people’s hearts rather than their heads.

Then I read the ebook, Homer Simpson for Nonprofits, by the smart folks at Network for Good, Sea Change Strategies, and event360. This awesome little read bolstered my conviction that we need to stop trying to get people to engage by stuffing their brains with facts and figures. It also gave very specific, practical, effective ways to speak directly to people’s emotional  minds.

Are you making people’s heads hurt or their hearts sing?

Engaging in diffusion, differentiation and dissonance

This Wednesday, I had the pleasure of being in the room with some of Seattle’s leading thinkers on all things nonprofit, philanthropic and do-good-y. How’d I get so lucky? Well, late last year, me and my colleagues Peter Drury and Zan McColloch-Lussier kicked off something called The Lab. We decided it was high-time that super-smart do-gooders had an opportunity to think deep thoughts that would lead to great action.

The first time we met, we talked about listening. This week, we talked about engagement. We picked this topic because listening leads logically to engagement and yet the word engagement seems to mean a whole lotta things to a whole lotta people. Given its meteoric rise to ubiquity, we decided it was important to come to a shared understanding of this popular word (lest it end up on the Banished Words List!).

There were more good points and astute observations than you could waggle a mission statement at during our two hours together–these were my three favs:

  1. Diffusion: Technology makes it easier to engage. This is great in many ways; it also means individuals are bombarded with engagement opportunities. So, although it is technically easier to engage, it is more difficult to get people to engage because their attention is drawn in so many directions. Don’t let ease of access trick you into believing engagement is easy.
  2. Differentiation: Arcs, spectrums, ladders, pyramids. Whatever you call it, organizations benefit from thinking about how to differentiate their engagement opportunities by audience and then getting clear on how engagement leads to more engagement for each group. Be explicit. Be specific. Then you know where you want which folks to go and they know where they’re going. Happy, happy.
  3. Dissonance: We agreed that engagement is a two-way street, that both parties derive mutual benefit from engaging and have skin in the game. Engagement is active. All well and good. And yet organizations and individuals usually seek different benefits from the engagement. Or at least that would seem the case. Unless, of course, you can stay focused on the benefit you both care about: advancing mission. It was fascinating to see how this end-user vs. organizational-initiator dynamic played out in the conversation. Rigorous focus on mission mitigates dissonance.

To get more highlights and tidbits from the convo, check out #nplab on Twitter. Also, check out Zan’s great summary here. And last, but certainly not least, see what Beth Kanter (yep, THE Beth Kanter!) had to say about engagement when we interviewed her at Tech for Good, where she delivered a totally amazing training.

How do you like to engage and be engaged? How does your organization engage? What does ‘engagement’ mean to you?

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?