In their desire to give voice to the vulnerable and underserved in society, most cause-driven organizations fail to include their supporters in the equation. By failing to do so, they are denying others a golden opportunity to see themselves in the same light.
A few years ago, an agency for pregnant women/healthy newborns came to us for help with a fundraising campaign. The agency's volunteers visit pregnant women in their homes to teach them about prenatal care and how to take care of a newborn. The agency's typical supporter is someone who wants to give babies a healthy, safe start in life.
At the same time, the agency was committed to a program focused on fathers-to-be. Nowhere in the program materials was there recognition or an acknowledgment of how invested the agency's volunteers were in giving babies a healthy, safe start in life or, indeed, any mention of the volunteers who were lending their time and experience to reassure and help pregnant women who often have no one they can turn to for help.
Not surprisingly, the overall campaign was not as successful as it could have been. Potential supporters who might have seen themselves as "people who think every baby deserves a chance at a healthy beginning" instead heard "we are an organization that wants to help men be good fathers." Both sentiments are laudable, but only one truly resonated with the agency’s most important constituency.
If you've been reading my articles here on PhilanTopic, you know how important I think it is for supporters and potential supporters of a cause to know that others believe in the same cause and are actively doing something to advance it. The reinforcement of belief is a powerful factor in deepening an individual's involvement in a cause or issue and in creating a powerful sense of identity among a group of like-minded people.
One organization that is especially good at acknowledging the shared identity of its supporters is the Surfrider Foundation. Surfrider refers to its supporters as "Champions of Surf and Sand" and praises them as "a community of everyday people who passionately protect our playground — the ocean, waves and beaches that provide us with so much enjoyment."
Consider this recent message from the organization:
Over 30 Surfrider Chapters participated in #HandsAcrossTheSand events — joining thousands of activists around the world in saying ‘NO’ to offshore drilling and ‘YES’ to clean energy.
The identity of the Surfrider community is unambiguous and empowering:
We're people who love and want to actively protect the oceans and beaches. When we band together and fight, we win. We are stronger together.
The appeal of such language is irresistible to someone who is passionate about the issue of ocean conservation. And it's effective because it comes directly out of the experience of the organization’s supporters, rather than from the organization's CEO or development director.
I've said many times that sharing authentic, compelling stories about the people who benefit from the actions we take is at the heart of every successful movement. I stand by that statement. However, most organizations focus their energies on telling stories as a lead-up to an ask or financial transaction and neglect to include messaging around supporter identity.
Your messaging should play a dual role: articulate purpose and give voice. Purpose in narrative makes it clear what supporters can do and why they should do it. Voice captures who and what they believe in, through stories that resonate because they see themselves in those stories.
In taking such an approach, we put supporters at the heart of our cause or issue. We show them that they are not alone in their passion and enthusiasm. We enable them to talk to each other about what they have done as a collective (as in the Surfrider example). Such an approach reinforces the beliefs of like-minded people, encourages them to openly share those beliefs, and gives them opportunities and the tools to connect with others.
Calls to action are necessary, of course. But in between appeals, your need to help your supporters maintain their enthusiasm for your cause or issue by speaking to and highlighting those who support it. They're the people who build movements.
Here some examples:
- "Volunteers registered more than 5,000 new voters in April. This is what we do: We give people a voice to fight for change."
- "The oceans and beaches are where we live and play, but plastic has pushed us into crisis. We give 10,000 hours each year to cleaning them up."
- "Each one of us has signed the pledge to change the way we eat and shop for food."
This is how supporters, not your cause or organization, become identified with a cause. Here are a few other tips:
1. Listen to your supporters and then share with them what they told you. You'll never be as effective as you can be if you don't know what motivates your supporters. Listen to what they have to say and then create personas that capture the different motivations of the people who believe in and support your cause (and not just financially). Using those personas, you can then engage them to serve as storytellers on your behalf.
2. Capture and share images of your supporters in all your messaging. Marketing, calls to action, social media activity, and any other type of communications activity should include photos and (when possible) video of a diverse cross-section of your supporters.
3. When you don't have anything new to share, share stories of people engaged in the cause. As you're creating your organization's narrative and voice, be sure to tap into and share the stories of those most deeply committed to and engaged in the cause. You can even combine them with a call to action, but do so sparingly.
By sharing the stories of supporters of the broader cause, you'll be helping to build and sustain the movement even as you're recruiting new people to it. First-person messages from committed individuals that communicate their support for your cause mixed in with stories of the people who have benefited from your work create a powerful connection between what supporters of the cause do, why they do it, and how much change they're making in society. And at the end of the day, that's the bottom line.
Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, and lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence.