Was it Your Mail I Opened?

By Carrie Fox

Given my line of work, I receive a significant amount of mail from social good organizations. That means I’m on the receiving end of a lot of fundraising appeals, annual reports, and marketing materials—some very well-produced and others less so. But, I look at them all very carefully, and most follow a similar formula:

  • Start with a story
  • Describe what the individual or family needed
  • Show how the organization helped
  • Ask for money

The words aim to say one thing, but the way in which most of the stories are told say something else.

Over the last couple of years, especially, something hasn’t sat well with me about this formula. It clicked last month when I received a solicitation from one well-intended social services nonprofit organization.

For people working to create change in communities, there are a few terms that get tossed around regularly. Terms like promise, social capital, equity, initiatives, injustice. We talk about investing in initiatives that help build community, and we work to build equity in the communities we serve. We recognize injustice and we see the importance of social capital for communities to thrive.

But, where is the humanity in those words? If we believe that building equity and investing in community is key, why do we very rarely hear from community members in their own words, not through the filtered lens and carefully crafted voice of an organization? 

There’s a curious line between what we say and do when it comes to building equity.

Since the inception of Mission Partners, we have been on an intentional journey toward the practice of inclusive marketing. We believe it is our responsibility, as designers of messages and marketing materials, to ensure that the words and images we use do not reinforce negative, false, or misleading stereotypes. On the contrary, they must build a better understanding of the human experience. We believe communications has the power to change the world—if that communication can be used to bring people together, not to push us apart. That means being intentional and aware about how stories are told in marketing materials: who is telling those stories, who is being included in the creative process, and who is being overlooked.

Earlier this year I wrote an article on building equity and breaking bias in storytelling in which I wrote that “as writers, we inherently believe that we’re telling our best stories. If asked, we’ll say we conducted multiple interviews and sought out several sources, but the reality of implicit bias is that we bring it to the table without realizing it is there.”

As I continue to add to my own knowledge on this topic, I wanted to share a few more thoughts for consideration before you hit send on your next fundraising appeal:

  • If you have featured even one individual or family in any one of your publications in the past year, how often have you compensated them for sharing their story, given the way you use their story to drive resources to your organization’s bottom line? And perhaps the bigger question is: what is your organization’s policy for compensating talent? Do you have an equitable definition for even defining the term “talent”?
  • Are the people in your fundraising appeals given an opportunity to review and edit their stories? How many people have you asked to fact check their success story? How might the story look different if you had? And again, perhaps the bigger question is: What is your organization’s policy for reviewing materials before they are published? Who gets to hold that red pen?
  • Rather than feeling tied to the frame set out above, what do you think might happen if you flipped the narrative to be from a different perspective? What voice other than the carefully crafted executive director or beneficiary could you consider that delivers your message in a compelling way?
  • When is the last time you authentically connected with your community? Not on your terms, but on theirs. We all make assumptions based on who we believe our community is, and what they need. To reduce those assumptions, how often are you authentically connecting with your community; asking them to share their own narrative, in their own way? And how often are you asking your community if they feel adequately and factually represented in your marketing materials?

These are tough questions, and not standard for most nonprofit organizations. But, if you believe that equity and inclusion are important to your organizational culture, the actions you take to the above questions are ways to prove your commitment.

Like what you read? Want to learn more. Join me next Tuesday, July 17th at the American Marketing Association’s Nonprofit Marketing Conference, or join us for our next Equity + Design Thinking Day on September 6.