Today I’m answering a question from reader Deirdre, who asks:
“As an organization with a mission that is a bit more abstract than, say, feeding hungry children or saving whales, we often struggle to make our work concrete. Are there any resources out there that are especially useful for organizations dedicated to civic engagement and/or research?”
I get this question – or variations on it – often. If you’re not an organization helping puppies and babies, how do you make your cause clear and compelling?
Here are my three tips.
1. Describe your mission as a destination. Don’t talk about your process or philosophy. Talk about your outcomes. Let me give you an example. Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Switch and Decisive, provide a great example from a breast care clinic as envisioned by Laura Esserman. She could have described her mission in ways that focused on the building or the philosophy. For example: “We are going to revolutionize the way breast cancer is treated and create a prototype of the next-generation breast cancer clinic.” Another poor choice: “We are going to reposition radiology as an internal, rather than external, wing of the clinic, and we will reconfigure our space to make that possible.” These all fall into the customary trap of talking about HOW your approach your work rather than WHAT the end result will be. (They also make the mistake of having no people in the description of their cause, but that’s the second point below.) What would be better? The Heaths nail it: “A clinic with everything under one roof—a woman could come in for a mammogram in the morning and, if the test discovered a growth, she could leave with a treatment plan the same day.” You can see the destination clear as day.
2. Give your mission a pulse. You have to talk about what you do in a way that makes clear its effect on people or animals. If you don’t have a heartbeat to your message, no one will care about your cause. Suppose you are advocating for quality schools. Don’t get so lost in descriptions of quality education and advocacy techniques that you forget to talk about kids! This is one of the most common mistakes I see. Always answer the question, “at the end of the day, whose life is better for what we do?” I like how Jumpstart talks about their work in early childhood education. They put it this way: “Working toward the day every child in America enters kindergarten prepared to succeed.”
3. Speak in story. Last, make sure you are describing what you do through story, not just facts and jargon. Stories make a cause relatable, tangible and touching. Remember, a good story has a passionate storyteller (you), clear stakes and a tale of transformation at its core. The NRDC – which is an organization focused largely on process and the work of lawyers and scientists – does an amazing job with storytelling all over its home page. There are heroes with a heartbeat to show every dimension of their work in story.
Photo via BigStockPhoto.