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June 1, 2020
Nonprofit Advocacy Needs to Go Beyond the Heart
By Shaun Adamec

Shaun Adamec
Shaun Adamec
When it comes to nonprofit advocacy, following one's instincts is not always the best approach, because we often end up triggering unproductive mindsets and beliefs in our audiences that keep them from supporting our missions.

Formulate your messaging and communications campaigns in the context of broader organizational goals. Doing so will help you align these efforts with the long-term mission of your organization, and ensure that your audiences are thinking, talking, and behaving in ways that further your mission for years to come.

Consider the following.

1) Define the problem and solution in systemic terms.
Nonprofits need to fundraise, get people to the gala, score legislative wins, get that op ed placed. These interim goals along the path to success may feel like victories in and of themselves, but when we treat them this way, we can lose sight of the broader vision.

It may be tempting to share the sad story of the orphan who goes without Christmas in order to get money in the door for your organization. It is tempting because it works. But sad stories also reduce hope that long-term solutions are possible. This depresses engagement and support for systemic solutions over time. Conversely, stories that put the problem in context and promote relatable commonalities with an audience will also increase donations and will increase hope at the same time. This leads to increased engagement and support for systemic solutions, which creates repeat donors and an engaged public.

2) Resonate in the right direction.
Social science shows that people come to conversations about social issues with certain mindsets. These are shaped by culture, lived experience, knowledge, and other factors. Understanding the dominant mindset is critical when communicating about a social cause, but not for the reasons we might think.

Henry Ford famously said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said —faster horses.’” That is to say, a person’s mindset on a given subject, and the extent to which they support a particular solution, is constrained by what they know. We have been taught, therefore, to meet people where they are. If we use this as a guiding principle, however, we could mistakenly create messaging that licenses people to stay in their own unproductive mindsets. Messaging should instead speak to those beliefs and values that people may hold, but which also may not be driving their dominant thinking on a given topic.

3) Balance urgency with efficacy.
In the social space, we work with some heavy issues, each carrying an urgency felt keenly by advocates, and not enough by the general public. It can be easy, therefore, to deploy messaging campaigns that convey this urgency. But we must understand what that does to our audiences.

Typically, when people face a crisis, their default response is not to fix the crisis. It is to get out of the crisis. When, for example, advocates for privatizing the public education system use crisis framing to describe the state of the school system, they do so deliberately. They want to trigger a sense of fatalism in their audiences, because that moves people to a place where the only solution is starting over. But when advocates for the public system use the same crisis framing, they drive audiences further away from their position.

4) Don't assume your audience will understand your larger point.
In attempting to change the world, advocates use examples of individual heroes, e.g., the champion teacher who changes the life of a poor child, or we tell stories to depict the problem in the world we seek to solve, such as the story of the patient who could not afford the care for their cancer.

These stories may be illustrative of a larger lesson—i.e., the cancer patient highlights the need for more robust health insurance— but our audiences don’t necessarily see it that way, because they often may not make the connection we have in mind. When we individualize the problem, audiences will individualize the solution, e.g., "Maybe I should send that patient some funds," and be less likely to support systemic solutions.

5) Tread carefully when countering false or misleading information.
Never allow misleading information to go unchallenged. That is a golden rule of communications. This must be combined, however, with careful framing and thoughtful structuring. Simply throwing counters at an argument actually causes people to dig deeper into their existing beliefs and prevents them from considering new arguments. Human cognition is not logical. Our goal when countering claims is not to refute directly, but rather to offer an alternative, more compelling frame that helps move people to a more productive place.

When countering false information, first open with a myth-busting phrase, such as “Contrary to what has been stated....” Continue from there with a clear, concise, affirmative statement of what is true, e.g., “Undocumented workers in America contribute substantially to the economy and the tax base.” From there, elaborate with further explanation, data, or a helpful metaphor: “In fact, unauthorized immigrant workers and their employers contributed $13 billion in payroll taxes in 2010.” Conclude with a statement that kills the myth: “It is clear that characterizations of undocumented immigration as an economic drain on our country are simply false.”

Shaun Adamec, founder and president of Adamec Communications, supports mission-driven organizations through strategy, messaging, and reputation management. Call him at 617-888-2213 or email

December 2017
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