Few people in the country have studied nonprofits brands as methodically as Nathalie Laidler-Kylander, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. I gained plenty of new insights when she presented some of her research insights on campus more than a year ago, and today I enjoyed hearing how she’s pulling it together nicely during a workshop for folks at this year’s Massachusetts Nonprofit Network (MNN) annual conference in Framingham.

Some of the takeaways from Nathalie’s session:

Brands are assets, and as such deserve cultivation, protection and investment. Paradoxically, brands may have value for an organization but are truly owned by customers and external stakeholders — something she admits is “very freaky.”

Everything has a brand, whether you think so or not. After all, a brand is an idea that lives in the minds of people outside your organization. People have a notion of you.

Brands play a critical role for nonprofits. Specifically, they set you apart;  offer a shortcut for decision-making; bring cohesion and (welcome) limits; elicit emotions, responses and action; and create trust and loyalty.

The highly performing nonprofit brands have three elements: integrity (an internal alignment between identity and image); democracy (that allows for stakeholders to shape and own the brand idea); and affinity (that welcome partnerships and collaboration).

Later in the day, Shaun Adamec provided a nice bookend with his workshop on storytelling. The former press secretary for Maryland’s governor, Shaun was well-versed in the art of using narrative to frame the issue at hand, and provided with simple but effective exercises to demonstrate. Some of my takeaways from his session:

The elements of a good story must include people (characters); a solution or resolution; and process (journey) to get from the first to the second.

In writing, we should give our audiences more metaphors, more imagery and more stories — and fewer facts and figures, fewer acronyms, and less wonk language.

Frame every conversation you start so you’re set up to succeed. He clearly is a fan of George Lakoff and the Frameworks Institute, as am I, and gave several examples of how frames work.

I was thrilled to see this year’s agenda feature both topics so prominently, and hope it reflects MNN’s belief in the importance of brand, storytelling and communication more broadly.

brand_idea_cover2Buy Nathalie’s book, The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy and Affinityhere. Visit Shaun’s company, Adamec Communications, online here.


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Even simple stories, provided they are compelling, releases in us neurochemicals like cortisol (focuses our attention) and oxytocin (makes us more empathetic). Getting an audience’s attention and empathy is, unsurprisingly, essential for most nonprofits seeking to rally supporters and gain donors.

Thanks to Brain Pickings.

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Thanks for sharing: Caryn Stein and Network For Good.

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Paul Westerberg is reuniting the Replacements, or at least he’s playing again with the bass player which, for wistful fans of a certain age like myself, is enough.

Why is that? Westerberg writes songs that stick with you. Catchy, yes. Clever, sure. But as he explains in a recent New York Times essay, the trick is to keep it simple.

“My own creed is simple or impossible,” he explained.

I’ve become a Simple person (not be confused I trust with simpleton). The more I think about how to communicate, the more I want to strip things away.

Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity is a new book that makes the case. The authors, Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn, Siegel and Etzkorn define simplicity as the rare sum of convenience, clarity, usability, timeliness and beauty.

Unfortunately, they see a world where simplicity is in short supply. Needless complexity, especially in language, is holding back our economy and our democracy.

Take the disclosure statements from banks, or terms of service from web services, or instructions from tax agencies. They are poorly worded and jargon-filled.

It’s as if the writers intended to confuse you. “Complexity is a failing,” Siegel and Etzkorn write, “unless it was intentional — in which case you’d really better watch your step.”

The long word counts of disclosures, service terms or tax instructions, supposedly needed in the interest of transparency and disclosure, serves neither. People just tune it all out.

“When inundated with information, people are apt to lose sight of what’s important and stop paying attention,” Siegel and Etzkorn write. As an example, they point to the growing length of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which have reached an all-time high in words but also are notable for failing to provide clear guidelines for lower courts, according to judicial experts.

Another new book, Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass R. Sunstein, uses the author’s own experience guiding the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to champion the benefits of going simple, especially in government.

Sunstein is a liberal and progressive but of a certain kind. He believes that government must play a significant role in society to protect safety, educate children and provide the infrastructure for modern life. But he believes that it must do so in ways that nudge people as often as it mandates. Government must “ease people’s choices” to do things like apply for a license, get food assistance or sign up for health insurance.

He believes language is key to achieving these goals, but also key is what he calls “choice architecture,” defined as the “social environment against which we make our decisions.” For example, a book store’s choice architecture includes which books are on display when you enter the store. For a website, it would include the labels given to the main pages in a site navigation.

The Simple Movement — and let us hope that indeed it’s a movement — obviously applies to the work of nonprofit and cause communicators as it does to government bureaucrats and corporate lawyers. You may spend most of your waking hours thinking about nuclear arms control, but your audience most definitely does not. Same goes for climate change, or labor rights, or education reform.

So keep it simple, or it’ll be impossible to hum your tune.


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How to make your audience the hero of your story, well explained by the folks at Free Range.

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“If we only can message this better,” more than one client has said to me, “we can be more effective.”

It’s sure tempting to believe that the reason no one is buying is that we’re using the wrong the words to sell it.

Of course that is often true. The words you use to get a target audience to take a desired action — my definition of messages — are keenly important for causes to succeed. But when they fail, the fix might not simply be new words.

The Republican Party is facing such a failure. As parodied so well by John Stewart this week (see above), party leaders loath to adjust their policies. They don’t want to reflect on their organization’s core identity, either. So they hunt for new words to describe the old stuff.

What they forget is that messages, like brand identities, must be rooted in authenticity. Audiences catch on pretty fast, especially in our information-rich, deeply cynical age. Truth and clarity are so powerful because, sadly, they can be so rare.

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It certainly looked bad.

Last week, political watchers fully expected the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act. The country was about to go back to square one on healthcare.

Democrats seemed resigned to the loss, and the back-up plan seemed to consist solely of saving parts of the law.

Republicans had no plan. Which I later realized was exactly the plan.

So what should be the progressives’ play? After exhausting the least-bad options, return to what made sense from the start, of course: expanding Medicare to cover everyone.

Such a move — also known as Single Payer, referring to government’s role as the only payer to independent hospitals and doctors — was endorsed by President Obama when he was State Senator Obama. It was the favorite solution of President Truman and Sen. Edward Kennedy, too.

The Progressive Caucus in the House already signaled it was ready to present Single Payer as the alternative. But the corresponding bill, HR 676, only boasted about 80 cosponsors.

The grassroots activists championing Single Payer have been at it a long time, especially the doctors behind the Physicians for National Health Plan (PNHP). But none of them wield much clout in Washington — partly because they don’t involve themselves in the dirty business of raising and giving money away.

Normally, a three-piece ecosystem of nonprofits support successful campaigns, usually dominated by several 501(c)(3) educational nonprofits able to accept tax-deductible donations but limited in their ability to lobby; one or more 501(c)(4) nonprofits unable to accept tax-deductible donations but less limited in their political activity; and political committees that give money directly to the campaigns of candidates or get otherwise involved in elections.

But Single Payer lacked the third piece. So late last month, anticipating a court decision that could re-open the healthcare debate, Hairpin set out to create a political action committee. As we set to work, we tried to follow some of our own advice.

First, a name. We were well aware that “single payer” is a tad jargon-y. “Medicare for All” explains things well to a broader audience. But if we were to raise the hardest kind of money — political money that gives no tax benefits — we needed to speak to a more narrow, more dedicated audience. We bet that that audience will respond to “single payer.” Similarly, our second audience — members of Congress and their campaign staff — know the term. They would have no confusion as to what message was attached to the money. So we let our audience guide us.

Then we grabbed the Facebook and Twitter handles for “singlepayerpac,” and the website URL for the same. So we prioritized internet real estate.

Next, we got clear about our identity in words, starting with a single sentence that might appear in a news story or in our Facebook “about” block. We settled on one that both explained its purpose and the void its filled: “Single Payer PAC is the only political action committee focused on electing candidates who will champion an expansion of Medicare to cover everyone.” So, with the use of an “only” statement, we defined ourselves in a way that set us apart.

Fourth, we created a visual mark. True, we hadn’t raised a dime yet. And with only 48 hours before the court was to hand down its ruling, we hadn’t yet recruited impressive endorsers. All the more reason we needed to signal that we meant business. A professionally rendered logo, we knew, covers numerous sins.

Hairpin Senior Designer Aaron Bouvier took the lead, working off concepts from the group. The mark’s icon image plays off the familiar medical cross but combines the number 1 (as in single) and gives it a third dimension with a shadow — enough to make the point but simple enough to work from distance and in various sizes. It also filled a square space nicely, ideal as a Facebook and Twitter identity and meshing with our vision of an internet-powered organization.

He added a bold typeface, slightly tweaked, in Futura Bold for the full name and identity. We coupled it with a declarative tagline that, following the Supreme Court’s (expected) ruling, reminded audiences of one of Single Payer’s new assets: it’s legal.

Next, we created a national press list from Hairpin’s database service, culling it down to a tidy 700 reporters, bloggers and producers covering healthcare reform, the Supreme Court, U.S. politics and left-of-center activism. We drafted a pithy, one-page release.

With time running out, we succumbed to reality and used a pre-fab WordPress template. We chose “Reddle” by the folks at Automattic because it was super clean and browser responsive, so its look adapted automatically for viewing in smartphones, tablets and traditional computer screens. We added an email sign-up form from MailChimp and a PayPal button to accept donations. We loaded basic content, including the launch day news release, and pointed our newly minted URL to the site but hidden behind a password wall until the court’s announcement.

The announcement was unexpected. As everyone knows now, by a 5-4 vote, the court upheld the law. The political opening for single payer had, for the moment, closed.

So we never launched. But should the Affordable Care Act be repealed, we’ll have Single Payer PAC at the ready.

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The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence represents virtually all of the statewide coalitions in its field, yet suffered from low profile in Washington DC — troublesome, since the alliance is focused solely on federal legislation. To punch above its weight in a crowded marketplace of inside-the-beltway players, NAESV needed a fresh start.

The organization’s stakeholders needed to believe in the identity and help us shape it from the get-go. So Hairpin surveyed volunteers and allies, interview board members, studied their peers before any design. The identity had to follow bedrock principles of good branding: be authentic, be relevant to target audiences, be clear and above all, be different. Projecting the identity had to succeed within very real constraints for our client, since it operated within a limited budget, staff time and an environment that required cooperation among allied nonprofits.

We virtually banished the use of the group’s unmemorable acronym and focused on the name’s action words — “end sexual violence” — a mission statement and call-to-action in one. On a whim, we checked on the phrase’s availability as a URL and, surprisingly, it was available. We re-wrote the organization’s stock descriptor and elevator pitch to echo that language and cut out unnecessary detail. We designed a simple square mark built around the bumper-sticker phrase that formed a natural wedge while reflecting the activist, tenacious personality of the organization.

We embraced the color teal, adopted by the broader movement of anti-sexual violence activists as their official color — a nod to the organization’s desire for cross-organization solidarity. We took full advantage of the block design by creating a brochure and business card as squares. The website, too, melded the signature teal within a no-nonsense, black-and-white design.



Website set to launch in February 2012:

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GOOD magazine offers up a slide show of infographics for the Occupay Wall Street (and Occupy Boston, Occupy Peoria, etc.) crowd. Nice.

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In preparing my recent seminar at the University of Virginia on nonprofit branding and messaging, I relied on a number of good source books. Here’s the list I shared with the class participants:

Breakthrough Nonprofit Branding by Jocelyn S. Daw and others.

Brandraising by Sarah Durham.

Branding for Nonprofits by D.K. Holland

Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout

The Brand Gap and Zag by Marty Neumeier

Words That Work by Frank Luntz

Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler

Message Matters by Rebecca K. Leet

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