There are three common types of messaging used in the nonprofit sector: stereotype-based messaging; needs-based messaging; and strength-based messaging.
Stereotype-based messaging exploits or overgeneralizes the condition or experience of a person or group encountering disadvantages. This is the type of messaging we want to eliminate from our communications immediately.
Needs-based messaging emphasizes the needs and challenges of an individual, group or community. This is most commonly used in fundraising communications, however, it’s not the only way.
Strength-based messaging, also commonly referred to as asset-based messaging, emphasizes the strengths, opportunities and power of an individual, group or community. It represents people positively, in a way that feels true and empowering to them. And, while strength-based messaging is a growing trend among nonprofit communicators and fundraisers, particularly in light of recent social unrest, there are some common misconceptions about it as well.
Here we’ll break down those misconceptions, so your nonprofit can leverage the power of strength-based language to advance equity and move your mission forward.
Myth 1: I won’t be able to demonstrate need with strength-based messaging
The number one misconception I hear about strength-based messaging, even from those who are encouraged to make the transition, is that they won’t be able to demonstrate the need for their organization or its services. It’s the idea that because you’re taking a strength-based approach to your communications, you can’t say anything “bad.” Strength-based messaging isn’t about painting the world through rose-colored glasses, but it is about how you talk about and frame the issues.
For example, with a strength-based approach to messaging, you don’t frame needs as weaknesses. So you wouldn’t say “hungry kids are incapable of learning,” instead you might say, “Every child needs a nutritious meal to start the school day.” You also don’t want to define people by temporary conditions or circumstances. In this case, you wouldn’t say “homeless person,” you would say, “a person experiencing homelessness.”
Strength-based messaging leans on facts, rather than vague descriptions, like “wrong crowd” or “bad neighborhood,” which evoke stereotypes. And, it recognizes individual strength and agency. Nonprofits and their donors aren’t “saving lives.” Every human needs the same foundations and support systems to thrive, which can come in many forms, and services from a particular nonprofit might be one of them. For one organization to take full credit for an individual’s success fails to acknowledge the complex nature of systems, society and human development (just to name a few).
Finally, many nonprofits are built to address systemic issues that perpetuate oppression and racism – these aren’t issues that should be sugar-coated, but rather addressed intentionally by the language we choose and how we choose to use it.
Myth 2: Strength-based messaging doesn’t work for fundraising
Fundraisers are often concerned that if they make the transition to strength-based messaging in their fundraising materials, it will be more difficult for them to demonstrate urgency, and therefore, their appeals will not be as successful.
This is simply not true.
Strength-based messaging relies heavily on first-person stories that are supported with facts. This combination is incredibly powerful, and often evokes an emotional response from the audience, which in turn leads to donations and longer-lasting donor relationships.
As an example of a powerful, strength-based story, check out the Oregon Food Bank’s blog post about Mecca, who is taking a leading role in ending hunger. They write:
At Oregon Food Bank, we know that hunger is not just an individual experience; it’s also a community-wide symptom of unequal access and barriers to employment, education, housing and health care.
That’s why our work to build community connections that help everyone access nutritious, affordable food is so important. And that work is most effective when people like Mecca are in the lead — those who have faced hunger and know what it takes to build stronger communities.
The blog goes on to explain that Mecca was one of the thousands of people whose federal food assistance was being threatened by strict work requirements. He had experienced heart failure and homelessness, lost his sight and couldn’t walk, so he found himself in and out of hospitals. Then, he was connected to proper medical care and housing support, and he found the stability to change his nutrition and exercise. This led him to become a volunteer at the Oregon Food Bank, and he built a food distribution program at his housing complex. The article quotes, “My volunteer work is what I’m proud of right now,” Mecca says with a grin. “The feeling of helping people like I was helped. It gets into you and you want to keep doing it.”
This story demonstrates both need and urgency by connecting why the work of the Oregon Food Bank is important for supporting individuals, like Mecca, in creating his path to stability, while also empowering him with the opportunity to help others.
At Prosper Strategies, we have seen many organizations make the transition to strength-based messaging and still achieve equal, if not better, fundraising results. In addition to the Oregon Food Bank, there are also major fundraising organizations adopting this approach, including Girl Scouts, St. Jude and charity: water, to name a few.
Myth 3: There is one right way to do strength-based messaging
Strength-based messaging is as varied as the communities and individuals nonprofits exist to serve. As long as you eliminate stereotype-based messages, there is not a right and wrong way to do strength-based communication. However, it’s important when we’re describing experiences that are not our own, we involve those with lived-experience in that process and understand not just IF they want to be represented, but also HOW. Communication should take into account individual preferences about references to race and ethnicity as well as sex and gender identity.
When communicating about your work more broadly, you want to be mindful of the fact that the language you choose can perpetuate stereotypes and evoke biases (unconscious or not). It also has the ability to marginalize and the ability to misidentify. For these reasons, we always recommend developing a strength-based messaging guide that provides guidance for your nonprofit’s communicators to follow based on the preferences of your organization’s stakeholders. Just keep in mind both language and individual preferences can change, so the work of strength-based messaging is never done, and your guide should be revisited on a regular basis.
Myth 4: Strength-based messaging is not succinct
It is true that strength-based messaging doesn’t always ask the communicator to take the easy route. For example, when we write “under-resourced communities,” a phrase like this begs the question, what is it we are actually trying to say? And, since we want to avoid defining people or communities by temporary conditions, these instances require us to elaborate on the systemic inequities at work. That being said, phrases like this can be addressed on a case-by-case basis. For example, maybe you’re writing a piece about students experiencing learning loss as a result of the pandemic, and instead of writing that these learning losses are greatest in “under-resourced communities,” you might write learning losses are greatest in “communities most affected by COVID-19 school closures.”
Moreover, not all strength-based messages need to be long. We’ve developed one-line strength-based appeals. For example, instead of writing, “When you donate you’re building a brighter future,” which is donor-centric, you could write, “Donate and support them in building their bright futures.”
The long and short is that even though actions speak louder than words, language matters. A strength-based approach to messaging is a powerful way to leverage communications to lift up and empower the communities you exist to serve and further advance your mission.