Rock-Star Branding for Nonprofits

ImageSee if you can stay awake to the end of this sentence: "When data are aggregated across programs, services and institutions, a broader picture emerges that can be used to assist families and other constituencies in a more efficient and effective manner."

Still with me? Okay, try this one: "Our programs and services utilize various treatment modalities drawn from evidence-based best practices that have been thoroughly researched and formalized through the establishment of precise protocols by experts in the field." (Click here for even more egregious verbiage.)

Feeling understood, invested, eager to donate money, time and resources? Me neither.

Nonprofits need to be more like rock stars. Rock stars (pop and hip-hop stars, too) have a gift for connecting with people, moving them, making them want to be involved — branding themselves. Yet, aside from Bono and a handful of like-minded luminaries, rock stars are better known for bad behavior than good works. Furthermore, the artistry of these so-called artists, the very thing that has afforded them a public platform, is a perennial topic for debate. The reason many of these folks are household names is because they got lucky, not because they have something worthy to contribute.

The worthiness of nonprofits, however, is not in dispute (though I'm not crazy about, say, Pat Robertson's). They're saving the world, day in and day out with very little in the way of glory. Nonprofit personnel don't do it for the fortune or fame; they do it because it's the right thing to do. They contribute in a way that's downright heroic and unquestionably deserving of self-promotion (if not SHAMELESS self-promotion). Even the weariest among them maintain at least a glimmer of the compassion, moral urgency and sense of justice that led them to their cause in the first place. I contend that those who make their living at nonprofit work have infinitely more reason to claim a place in the spotlight than rock stars do. They're rock stars in their own right and have every right to seize the stage. The question is: What do they say once they grab the mike and more importantly, how do they say it?

(In this conception of a "rock star," what defines stardom is being all that you can be, owning your awesomeness, and working it. Barack Obama became president because he's a rock star [John McCain, not so much]. Tiger Woods is a rock star [who should have stayed away from the groupies]. Übernerd Bill Gates is a rock star [as a software magnate AND philanthropist]. My handyman is a rock star. He happens to have a cherry-red goatee and goes by the "stage name" Sporty Ralph, but the reason he's a rock star is that he ROCKS at what he does and he relishes his rocking. Being a rock star is about infectious enthusiasm for, and unwavering commitment to, your work.)

Rock stars of the musical persuasion enjoy an emotional bond with their audiences based largely on how they communicate with them. Yes, they have charisma (and tight leather trousers) — but it's their ability to speak directly to their fans in a language they understand that makes them such a persuasive force.

Rock stars speak directly to their fans in a language they understand.

Nonprofits, on the other hand, tend to hide their light under a bushel, a bushel made of words like "manner" and "utilize" and "modalities" and "best practices." For the moment, that works on a B2B level; many, if not most, successful grant proposals bear dense academic language and references to "populations" and "thought leadership" and "operationalization." But in the B2C arena, defined by the down-and-dirty business of getting money out of people, the language of the people has far greater potential to win hearts and minds and thus dollars. This understanding is becoming increasingly important as the philanthropic old guard gives way to new generations of would-be do-gooders (many of whom are dot.com millionaires sans Ivy League book learning). When it comes to branding and promoting a nonprofit, then, it's helpful to think of your stakeholders as fans and to communicate with them ... well ... without calling them "stakeholders."

Of course, with a rock star, the content of the message is frequently "me, me, me"; with a nonprofit, the upshot is "you, you, you." But I'm not really talking about content; I'm talking about the PRESENTATION of the content. I'm talking about presenting that content in a way that forges a deeply felt relationship between the nonprofit and the nonprofit supporter. This CAN be achieved without "dumbing it down" (I concede that rock stars, on balance, aren't necessarily the most articulate among us, though they can surprise you). It's just a matter of considering your audience, talking the way they talk, being someone they can relate to. That means using contractions and colloquialisms and even the occasional sentence fragment (it does NOT, however, mean using comma splices, writing "principal" when you mean "principle," or stooping to text lingo).

The Rolling Stones are a brand; your nonprofit is a brand. Why not take a page out of the Stones' book? Yes, they made "Beggars Banquet," "Let It Bleed," "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street" (all between '68 and '72, no less) — but YOU'RE making A DIFFERENCE.

Next time: What nonprofits can learn from Christmas letters.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: "Rock-Star Branding for Nonprofits" was adapted from a workshop on boosting the impact of nonprofit newsletters, which Editorial Emergency collaborated on with Kathy Crabb, former director of marketing and communications for the California Association of Nonprofits and a very smart cookie.