As a non-profit marketing and development professional, I have spent my career figuring out how to cut through the noise of a crowded marketing space. In doing so, my job is to write and design to connect and motivate my audience: be it to volunteer, donate, sign a petition, engage, et cetera. Like many nonprofit professionals, capturing my audience’s attention with copy is one part of a litany of other job responsibilities, not limited to graphic design, social media, communications strategy, public relations, event planning, donor stewardship, volunteer recruitment, staff management, organizational strategy, budgeting, and on and on. 

Too often, I sit down at my computer for 30 minutes between tasks to crank out some compelling copy. With an inbox full of distracting urgent messages and not a single moment to stop and think, I fall on the tried and true standbys that can work just enough: my assumption of other people’s fears and dreams. And, oh boy, when you guess right, those things can really rev people up and spur them to act. 

But, even when you guess right, it’s possible that your marketing is creating harm. And when you don’t guess right, your marketing is both harmful and ineffective. 

There is another way. Let’s start by exploring why the ethos of fear and dreams work. 

Effective Marketing

There are 5 elements of effective (not necessarily ethical) marketing:

  • Need: Most often shared as a threat (pandemic, Supreme Court decisions, et cetera.), need explains to your audience who is affected by a situation, the stakes and gravity of inaction/benefits of action, and why it is important.
  • Impact: Communicating impact effectively doesn’t just propose a solution; it also defines the audience’s role in implementing it. 
  • Urgency: Urgency tells us why this problem matters right now.
  • Relevance: When we know who our audience is and what they value, and use our creativity to connect to that identity, we display relevance.
  • Authenticity: Authentic communications use the speaker’s voice to focus on issues and actions that make sense given who the organization is, how they affect change and the relationship with the audience.

When these five elements are balanced, a marketing and development professional can create communications that tell a story, engage the audience, motivate them to take action, and grow their connection with a movement. These elements, when carefully crafted, can raise a lot of money and awareness, and they can ethically elevate the stories of those most impacted by inequity. 

And yet…non-profits function within a system, marketing mediums function within a system, fund development and access to capital definitely function within a system, and systems can be (and are) corrupted with unjust and inequitable practices and harmful outcomes for the people our organization seeks to serve. 

Focusing on assumed fears and desires might adequately display need, impact, and urgency, and completely miss relevance and authenticity. And this focus might work. It might bring in donations or create a viral social media post that raises awareness. However, effectiveness shouldn’t sustain our work if it causes harm. As a person who has been trained in the marketing and fund development practice, I hate to admit it, but traditional marketing + fund development can reinforce stereotypes, leverage white supremacy, exploit suffering, and otherwise do real harm to those across our community we actually seek to support.

As we look at communications and storytelling that lean into relevancy and authenticity, it is imperative first to center the community your organization seeks to serve. 

Centering Community In Marketing

In 2021, M+R published the Guide to Effective and Ethical Direct Response Creative. In reviewing this guide with non profit clients all over the country, we felt connected to the clarity provided. Over the last seven years, Gladiator Consulting has held non profits accountable to centering racial equity, social justice, and community in their fund development and communications. 

With this guide in hand, we continued our exploration of how the ethical creative might place impacted communities at the center of their marketing strategy. We reviewed creative pieces of fund development campaigns of our clients and organizations within our networks to consider where relevancy and authenticity surfaced.  We explored where organizations centered the voices of those they seek to serve. Below, we have compiled a list of principles compiled from M+R in combination with our hands on experience: 

Do not create for the community. Create with the community.

Community-based… 

  • …is a philosophical approach in which community members actively participate in highlighting and addressing issues that matter to them.
  • …means being in the community that you serve geographically and philosophically. 
  • …invites communities to actively design, develop and deliver their strategies and re-allocates resources to support this work. 

Community-Based marketing recognizes this approach by…

  • …allowing community members to tell their own stories in their own words.
  • …inviting community members by including them in strategy sessions, giving them access to your social media and marketing tools, asking for feedback and taking their advice, et cetera.  
  • …delivering asset-based messages as opposed to deficit-based messages.
  • …having difficult conversations with donors to ensure that the community-based messaging is central to their understanding of your work.

Promote Dignity for Your Subject, Speaker, and Audience.

  • Acknowledge the systemic problems or history that impact the people you serve or the challenges they confront.
  • Let people write their own stories, and avoid overly editing or changing them to fit your narrative or tone. 
  • Even positive stereotypes are problematic. Avoid stereotypes and the exploitation of suffering. 
  • Eliminate white saviorism. 
  • Tokenization is not a substitute for representation. 
  • The people you serve are not a problem to be solved. 
  • Use inclusive language. 
  • Consider which stories you are telling and why you are drawn to them. 
  • When you are elevating need, impact and urgency, be honest and transparent with your audience about why. 

Do Not Take Power from the Less Powerful.

  • Actively promote voices that must be heard.
  • Clearly explain how someone’s story, words, or photos will be used, and get sincere and informed consent at the beginning and throughout the process of creating marketing elements. 
  • Compensate people when using their stories or photos.
  • Give space and credit to other organizations in your issue space. Amplify the voices shared in the marketing of other non profit organizations. Share their learnings and encourage donations to them. 

“Do No Harm” is Not Enough. We Need to do Active Good.

There is risk in focusing so much on avoiding harm, or the perception of harm, that we do…nothing at all.

  • Do not shy away from naming issues of race, discrimination or bias directly in your work. 
  • Develop creative that is anti-racist. 
  • Actively promote your organizational values and ask your community to hold you accountable to them. Learn from criticism that is rooted in accountability to those values. 
  • Educate yourself, your teams, and your supporters, and be okay with the fact that this will be an ongoing, active, lifelong process.
  • Name the moments when we fail to uphold the principles and make a plan to do it better moving forward.

How can you apply these principles today?

In considering shifts in marketing strategy and community focus, I am often confronted with the reality that we have a lot to do without a lot of time to do it. And while we might all agree that these principles are important, we often fail to implement them. It is overwhelming to begin this process or make a shift with deliverables due in 30 min. It’s important not to let “perfect” get in the way of the good. Pick a place and get started today. Below are some actionable steps you can take right now as you begin your next drafted piece:

  • “This is not about you.” Don’t cast yourself in the leading role.
  • Give local voices and communities ownership in the communication of your projects.
  • Acknowledge and compensate your lived experience experts.
  • Highlight community partners and leaders.
  • Be creative. Not everyone has internet access.
  • Your community is the canvas; Bring them into the process.
  • Read the room. Why are you telling the story?

What else would you add to the principles of community-centered marketing? How do your fund development and marketing strategies or practices do active good?

Ann Fisher Jackson is the Managing Director at Gladiator Consulting. Tapping into 10 years of communication leadership experience, Ann helps Gladiator clients define who they are, reach their target audience, and grow their donor base. She combines a deep commitment to improving her community with her gift of organizational and communication strategy. She loves to look outside the box and consider how other industries or organizations might solve the same problem. To read more about Ann, click here. 

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