Explain Yourself


A client of mine wanted his management team to answer his question, “What will cause people to support us?” That’s an evergreen question for fundraising organizations, and the pursuit of an answer has launched a thousand rebranding exercises. But my client knew it wasn’t enough to figure out “who are we?”–they already knew. The real problem, he told them, was that “it’s not at all clear exactly what we do without a lot of explanation.” What that meant was that in order to improve their fundraising prospects, they were going to have to rethink how they tell their story.

Successfully rethinking your story means, first, facing a few facts:

1. Don’t assume people know you

Call it the culture of expectation: most museums believe on some level that audiences intuitively know who they are and will support their work. They don’t because the conventional branding tactics you tend to use (the taglines, designs and advertising) aren’t adequately explaining what people really need to know about your organization. You have a voice: engage people with stories about your expertise; tell them why you have an impact. Explain yourself.

2. Your brand is not about you

Your brand is about “them”, the people to whom you’re trying to explain yourself. Your goal is to get people to identify with you, but actually it’s you who has to demonstrate that you identify with them; that your work focuses on problems they care about. Community gathers around ideas; when you put your organization at the centre of a vital public conversation–giving them information they care about and a forum to learn and discuss–you are addressing their needs.  In so doing, you will be recognized (and supported) for identifying with your audience.

3. Leadership is a catalyst

Success at fundraising depends on a compelling message that gives people a reason to support your work. Do they see you as a leader? People want to associate with the organizations that give them leading ideas–and they’ll support the organizations that provide them with something meaningful, relevant and important to think about. Community gathers, and trust builds, around organizations that explain why they are leaders, so don’t just have a tagline that says you are a leading voice; develop content that ensures your organization is the place to interact with leading ideas.

In short, if you want to identify with your audiences’ needs, explain yourself by developing worthwhile content. Elite organizations know superficial content robs organizations and their brands of what makes them interesting. People crave deep, rich, thought-provoking content that invites reflection, stimulates learning and drives engagement. Delivering good content will cause people to support you.

And if you don’t, your competitors–or your antagonists–will. Most research organizations haven’t been speaking sufficiently clearly, vividly and publicly to a popular audience about why their work matters. When their leadership goes unrecognized, their credibility can be questioned. These organizations need to remember what Aaron Sorkin once wrote: “People want leadership, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone.”

Digital technology has broadened our access to information; there are no more barriers, no more excuses holding organizations back from offering sustained engagement with leading ideas. Give people something to talk about and you won’t be up at night worrying, “what will cause people to support us?”

And you won’t have to keep explaining what you do.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles Bv02 is producing about the reshaping of “the story” online: how content has gone wrong, and how to change it. Rob Ferguson is Bv02’s branding and content specialist who focuses on helping clients understand “who are we?” and the impact their unique ideas and content have on developing identity and extending brand awareness. With years of publishing, brand strategy and content development leadership behind him, Rob is helping us develop strategic and authoritative narratives and will inspire BVO2’s dynamic team of storytellers, content creators, and producers through the process of developing new digital experiences for clients so they can effectively and actively engage stakeholders in the lasting purpose of their institution, showing them to be distinctive and uniquely worthy of support.

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