The Engagement Cycle: Know, Understand and then (and only then!) Engage

engagement, connection, marketing, fundraising, strategy
Engagement Cycle

In writing my book, Pitchfalls: why bad pitches happen to good people, I encourage people to let go of the idea of having one elevator pitch (creepy!) and instead map their pitches to an Engagement Cycle (see image to the left).

It seems forehead-slappingly obvious when you stop to think about it. Of course a donor would need to know you and understand you before she would engage with you.

But it’s stunning how frequently nonprofits leap straight from know to engage. And that leaping isn’t good for your mission.

This leaping comes from a good place. We love what we do so  much, that we sometimes (often?) have a “to know me is to love me” mentality.

“But of course someone will want to support our organization! How could they not?! We save animals. Who wouldn’t want to save animals?!” 

A lot of people, it turns out. Because not everything cares about animals…or feeding the hungry, or the arts, or education, or whatever your cause is.

Even if, by chance, you got someone moved from knowing you to supporting you in short order, if you didn’t take the time for them to really understand you, the chances they’ll renew their support go down. Dramatically, precipitously down.

You want your renewal rate going up, not down, right? You want more people more deeply engaged in your mission, right? If so, let’s take a look at each step of the Engagement Cycle so you can start using it to achieve those goals.

1.  KNOW: The ‘know’ pitch answers the question: ‘What do you do?’ You want a pitch that is remarkable—meaning interesting enough for people to remark on it to you and (pay attention because this next part is very important in terms of word-of-mouth marketing) to others.

2.  UNDERSTAND: Once you’re on someone’s radar, i.e. they know you exist, you need to make sure they really, truly understand what you do and why you do it. Of all the organizations out there, why should they engage with yours? What makes you special? Compelling? Unlike any other? Your ‘understand’ pitch answers these questions. It answers the question: ‘Why you?’

3.  ENGAGE: Donate. Advocate. Volunteer. Buy. This pitch answers the question: ‘How can I engage?’ This is the pitch that moves people from learning to doing.

Is it simple? Yes. Is it easy? Not always. Is it worth it? Yes.

***If you want to master this process, check out Claxon University’s Words on a Mission course. In this self-paced course, your organization can create a collection pitches that will effectively and efficiently move donors through the Engagement Cycle!***

Mini-Mission Makeover: Association for Supportive Child Care

I recently did a follow-up webinar to a keynote I gave at the Alliance for Arizona Nonprofits’ Annual Membership Meeting. I invited participants to send in their response to the question “What do you do?”, so we could chat about them.

The Association for Supportive Child Care sent in the following sentence: “We work to enhance the quality of care for children across Arizona.”

This is very similar to their Mission Statement, which is “to enhance the quality of care for children across Arizona.” It’s great that their Mission Statement is so short and sweet, isn’t it? So rare and wonderful!

My advice–stick with that short n’ sweet Mission Statement of theirs. They *almost* stick with it but commit a common messaging mistake–they use a qualifier. In their case, the qualifier is “work to…” Other examples of qualifiers include: striving, endeavoring, and trying.

Qualifiers function as little, tiny apologies. They make your work seem like it has less impact, less oomph, than it really does. They don’t enhance your messaging. It makes it sound like you’re kinda, sorta doing the thing you’re referencing, but you’re not all in. People want to support organizations that are all in for whatever they’re doing. Sitting on the fence isn’t inspiring. Best to eliminate qualifiers.

For the Association for Supportive Child Care, they could simply say, “We enhance the quality of care for children across Arizona.” Simple. It begs the question, “How do you enhance the quality of care?” And remember–when it comes to using language to engage people in your work, questions are good!

? = : )



Branding Basics for Nonprofits: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget

The following is an adapted excerpt from Maria Ross’ new book, Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget (Norlights Press, April 2014).  Maria uses lots nonprofit examples in her book.  I thought this bit on branding and your reason for being would be particularly valuable to my mission-minded readers. If you like this, I’d encourage you to buy Maria’s book. It’s available online on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other major book websites or at her website, Red Slice.


BrandingBasics-2ndEdition-Front-560x865What’s Your Reason for Being?

When it comes right down to it, your organization is either in business to make money, raise money or influence people to act in some way. But unless you know the true essence of what your business is all about and its personal impact on people’s lives, you’ll be stuck on the lowest rung of the ladder. In a competitive market where many unknown and new organizations fail, that’s a death sentence.

Marty Neumeier, director of transformation at Liquid Agency ( and author of The Brand Gap and Zag suggests giving yourself the Obituary Test to figure out your reason for being: write the obituary of your organization in twenty-five years and outline what it did that was great and why the world is a better place because it existed.

“When you do this, you see something bigger. You see how every symbol, message, and action you put out into the world creates a brand legacy in the minds of customers, which is really where brand lives in the first place,” Marty says. He advises this will not only attract the right employees to grow your business, but will impact everything you do. “When you open a business just to make money, you can lose heart.”

Please don’t overcomplicate how you express your reason for being. It doesn’t have to be big, momentous, or heavy. Alexandra Franzen, a communication specialist and author of 50 Ways to Say You’re Awesome (Sourcebooks), advises that the clearest way to express an idea is best. “Think about the last time you read a blog post, heard a TED Talk or listened to a story at a dinner party that really impacted you, that made you want to do something,” she asks. “Was it long, convoluted, unnecessarily detailed? Or was it simple, clear, direct and conversational?” Alexandra adds, “Writing about the work that you do—your ‘reason for being’—is a form of storytelling. And if you want to inspire people to take action, a simple story is best.”

In her work with entrepreneurs, she finds that many people—especially those with a purpose-driven, passion-driven business or organization—get overwhelmed when it comes to describing their work. Many business owners feel their “reason for being” ought to be “bigger” or “more complex” than it actually is, she says. But again: simplicity is best.

“Maybe you’re an illustrator and your ‘reason for being’ is to add more beauty to the world. How refreshingly simple is that?” suggests Alexandra. “Or maybe you’re a yoga teacher and your ‘reason for being’ is that you’d like to help one thousand people in your lifetime feel more comfortable in their own skin. Once you release the idea that your ‘reason for being’ has to be dense or complicated, it’s like a huge weight off your shoulders. Things start to make sense—for you, and your audience, too.”

When writing about our organizations, we tend to overcomplicate and seek something that sounds big and meaningful, when what is really meaningful is often expressed in the simplest way.

A clear Brand Strategy, based on your larger reason for being, makes it easier to focus your organization’s activities around one true cause. It helps you easily determine which products or services to offer, how to price them, what your logo should convey, what experience your website should evoke, and even which people to hire. Making such decisions without a strong brand foundation is akin to throwing darts at a moving target. You’ll waste time and money with designers, website programmers, and writers because either everything will look good, or nothing will. And more importantly, people will tune out your message because they don’t have the time to unravel what it is you really do or mean and how it applies to them. Without a guidepost, any road looks like the right one, even if it leads to a dead end!

More about Maria

MariaRoss_AuthorPhotoMaria Ross is a consultant, author and speaker who believes cash flow and creativity are not mutually exclusive. As chief brand strategist and creator of Red Slice, she advises start-ups, solopreneurs and small to midsize companies on how to craft irresistible brands. Maria is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business and her humorous and heartfelt memoir, Rebooting My Brain. A dynamic speaker, she delights audiences ranging from The New York Times to the Chamber of Commerce to BlogHer with her wit and wisdom and has appeared in numerous media outlets, including MSNBC, ABC News, The Huffington Post,, NPR and Entrepreneur Magazine. Maria lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, their precocious Black Lab mix and a new son on the way Spark a convo with Maria @redslice or join her Facebook tribe at

Paralanguage: The power of non-verbal communication

How you say something is as important as what you say. Paralanguage is the non-verbal communications we send out as we use verbal communication. Is it affecting what you’re saying?

Paralanguage: The power of non-verbal communication from Claxon Marketing on Vimeo.

Name That Event!

Event season is upon us, and many non-profits are planning events from breakfasts to art auctions in order to get noticed—and get funded.

It’s always fun to learn from the best. That’s why we turned to Shanon Doolittle (@sldoolittle) for some insight and inspiration.

Emerald City and Disco Inferno

Shanon is in charge of Group Health Foundation’s Gift of Health Gala, one of the Northwest’s most successful fundraising events. The name of the event is always the Gift of Health Gala, but she changes up the theme each year.

In 2010, it was ‘Journey to the Emerald City’.

In 2011, it was ’10! A Disco Inferno’.

In 2012, you’ll have to wait for it. But it’ll be just as awesome. Fresh and fun…yet still the Gift of Health Gala.

Shanon’s wisdom:

“Approach your event as its own brand. You can’t build equity or supporter loyalty if you confuse supporters each year with a name change or a completely different event experience. The name of the game is making it easy for your donors to identify your event and cause. A consistent name does that. And if you really want to get strategic-licious, hold the event on the same day every year (second Saturday of October for example). Donors will then know to save the date way before you send it.”

Our Recommendations:

  1. Keep the same name and logo each year so funders and donors can remember your event, and hopefully your organization as well. Never forget: your event reflects who you are as an organization.
  2. When you’re planning your fundraiser, decide what actions you want your donors and funders to take. Donate money? Volunteer? What’s the ripple effect you want from the event, ultimately? Make the event match your goals. (Sounds like a ‘no duh’ but staggering how often this doesn’t happen.)
  3. Keep it simple. Attendees want to relax and enjoy themselves at your event, not try to figure out what it is exactly your organization does. That should be apparent from the brand of the event. Definitely change the theme to make it fun, but keep in mind the event should be as consistent as you are.

What suggestions do you have for successful events?



The Consistently Compelling Seattle Aquarium: How Do They Do It?

Being consistently compelling is key when it comes to creating a lasting connection with your supporters. It’s what makes good brands great. It helps you stand out from the crowd and keep you at the forefront of people’s minds. It’s also really hard—especially when you have so many audiences and channels to juggle!

That’s why we wanted to interview Marsha Savery, Director of Marketing for the Seattle Aquarium. Whether it’s a billboard on the side of the road or an octopus in a glass tank, the Seattle Aquarium is consistently compelling no matter the setting. We were lucky enough to get Marsha’s tips on how they work their magic.

© Seattle Aquarium 2011
  1. Be able to clearly describe your brand: Marsha describes the Seattle Aquarium’s brand as clean, consistent, family friendly and professional. The graphics are very strong and vary according to the Aquariums’ three main audiences: families in the tri-county region with children under twelve, volunteers and donors.
  2. Have a common thread: The Director has the final say on visuals, which for families are tailored to be fun, vibrant artwork. Graphics for volunteers are photographs of the ocean and fish, and those geared towards donors are photos of the ocean, children and marine wildlife. The thread that keeps the visuals consistent is the Aquarium’s message of preserving marine wildlife, which is embedded in all they do.
  3. Have one conductor: Many people create content throughout the organization, but when it comes down to it, Marsha manages to make sure it all works in concert—social media, web content, billboard graphics, etc. The message never gets diluted because she keeps all the pieces working together. Even advertising done by an outside agency, as for the Aquarium’s summer outdoor ads, is managed solely by her.
Marsha’s biggest piece of advice–especially for smaller non-profits–is to have well-designed materials and messages!
She recommends reevaluating your organization’s messaging, including the graphics, as well as your logo. For the materials, preferably have them done by a marketing or graphics professional. While organizations are often pressed for money, having a pro craft your materials will go a long way to helping your image.
“I think non-profits should find someone they trust who can give them advice on how to present themselves in a polished manner. It’s so important to look like you’ve got your act together so somebody may help fund you. And graphics can do that.”
Marsha isn’t alone in being a fan of a strong logo. A Child’s Right felt so strongly about it that they have a full-time designer on staff, something the Chronicle of Philanthropy picked up on in their recent article on the organization.
Thanks to Marsha for telling us how we can all be consistently compelling!

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?