Working with nonprofits, I’ve noticed a funny thing that sometimes happens when I start making suggestions for how they can make their messaging more clear, specific, and targeted.

Let’s say I’m on a job with an organization that helps people climb out of debt.

“You’re getting some really positive responses from younger people,” I might inform them after combing through the data. “You could see a lot of growth by talking more about the rising costs of college tuition.”

But this opportunity, I will find, strikes my client as dangerous.

“What if people outside their twenties see the ad? Or people who don’t have college debt,” they’ll want to know. “Single moms in their forties, families with medical bills. They’ll think we don’t support them, that we’re only here for you if you have student loans. We’ll lose them, and we’ll lose the donations of anyone who cares about them.”

“We could focus on single moms,” I might offer, if the data also supports this option.

“But then what will the college students think?”

The upshot of this back-and-forth is that my client wants to keep their messaging as vague as possible, wary of excluding anyone.

It’s an understandable impulse, especially for smaller organizations. Why not create a welcoming environment for everyone? Why alienate anyone who might be able to benefit from your services or help you do some good?

But as you may have already noticed, there’s a problem with this mentality: When you’re so busy worrying about driving people away, you aren’t able to take the kind of actions that bring them in to begin with.

Held back by fear

I understand why some nonprofits fret about becoming too niche. It’s hard enough to sustain interest when they’re drawing from a pool of everybody. How small will their support base shrink if they zero in instead of zooming out?

In fact, though, this thinking is actually backwards. They may believe that they’re appealing to everybody, but that isn’t actually how their conservative approach to marketing functions.

Their caution allows them to successfully project an image that’s inoffensive, unobjectionable—and, also, utterly unmemorable. It has no distinguishing characteristics. It offers no reason to really care.

And it’s not just bland; it’s suspiciously bland. As a nonprofit, you’re asking people to put their trust in you, to give of their time and money—but you won’t really let them get to know you.

That’s not going to win you any favors. It’s like a politician who only speaks in pre-polled, committee-approved sound bites; does anybody believe that’s the guy with the passion and conviction to fight for their needs?

My clients aren’t wrong that there’s a risk involved in choosing to stand for something. But at the same time, they don’t notice that there’s an equal, if not bigger risk involved in failing to stand for something.

Creating your own market

Steve Jobs once said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” He also quoted Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

The idea here is that if you try to give people only what they ask for, you’ll never be able to offer them anything new. But if you really have something valuable to offer, you’ll find that people are capable of recognizing it.

A restaurant opened up near my house recently. It was in an area that was already home to a couple of small eateries, but it had never been a hugely popular spot. Knowing this, the other places seem, in retrospect, to have kept their ambitions small. The food was decent and the tables were clean and nice, but none of them put effort into distinguishing themselves in any way.

The new place, in contrast, wasn’t guided by the existing level of traffic. Unlike the other, more modest operations, they invested heavily in their presentation, from a total renovation of the space to the details of their table settings and menus. And lo and behold, people starting appearing to fill the seats.

If you’ve never put yourself out there authentically, you don’t actually know how much support your organization could attract. You may think you know the size of the market, but it’s possible that no one has ever given your supporters a reason to show up before. And if everybody continues to play it safe, they never will.

So, what do you stand for? And are you willing to say so out loud? Let us know what you think.

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