What is Strength-Based Messaging?

4 min read

If you work in the nonprofit sector, you’ve probably heard the term “strength-based messaging” thrown around a lot lately. We’ve certainly been talking about it a good deal around here. Or perhaps you’ve heard it called some of its alternate names, such as “strength-based communication” or “asset-based messaging”. But do you really know what those terms mean?

These are more than just buzzwords. They describe the direction every nonprofit that cares about equity and inclusion should be looking to take its communications into this year and beyond. So let’s break down what we really mean when we say “strength-based messaging.”

Strength-Based Messaging (definition):
Messaging that 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.

Strength-based messaging can indeed also be called strength-based communications or asset-based communications. These terms are interchangeable.

Strength-based messaging is perhaps best understood in relation to its alternatives, stereotype-based messaging and needs-based messaging. So let’s define those terms as well. 

Stereotype-Based Messaging (definition):
Any type of communication that exploits the condition of a group that experiences disadvantages in order to generate the necessary sympathy for increasing support and charitable donations for a cause.

Needs-Based messaging (definition):
Messaging that emphasizes the needs and challenges of an individual, group or community, typically in order to generate support from donors and volunteers.

All nonprofit communications exist on a spectrum. Historically, most organizations have been somewhere around this point on the spectrum, between stereotype and need-based messaging:

All nonprofit communications exist on a spectrum. Historically, most organizations have been somewhere around the spectrum between stereotype and need-based messaging. Click To Tweet

Here are a few examples of the types of stereotype-based messaging nonprofits have historically employed. 

   

Stereotype-based messaging is almost always harmful, and we believe it should be done away with entirely.

But what about needs-based messaging? Here is an example of needs-based messaging in action:

Needs-based messaging has been the bread and butter of nonprofit communications for a long time, especially fundraising communications. And it still has its value. Communicating about needs can be an effective way to compel donors to give, but it only works for so long before compassion fatigue sets in. More problematically, it can do more to harm than help the people and communities you aim to work with by exploiting their conditions to solicit donations.

That’s why we feel that most organizations should consider moving down the spectrum and landing somewhere between a needs-based messaging approach and a strength-based messaging approach. It’s our hope that over time, we as a sector can move away from communicating about needs and focus on strengths alone, but that process will likely take time, especially for organizations that have been living on the left side of the spectrum. 

Let’s take a look at a few examples of strength-based messaging:

As you can see, these examples have a few important things in common. They focus on the good that can come from the work of their organizations, rather than the problems that caused that work to be necessary in the first place. They center the stories of real people and position them as whole human beings, not as victims. They avoid defining people by their challenges (ex: “those who have faced hunger” rather than “the hungry”). Those subtle distinctions between these examples and the earlier ones can make all the difference.

One common misconception is the idea that strength-based communication is about painting a falsely positive image of the lives and conditions of the people your nonprofit works with. It’s not. It’s about focusing your message more on their future than their past, and more on the opportunities that exist for them than on the challenges they face. A skilled communicator can do that while still acknowledging reality and compelling donors to give.

Lastly, it’s important to note that strength-based communication often centers equity and lays out guidelines around preferred terms and ways of referring to various groups and communities that have historically been marginalized. This doesn’t have to be something you come up with from scratch, either. Resources like the AP Style Guide and Sum of Us’ A Progressive’s Style Guide have laid out recommendations that all nonprofit communicators can follow to ensure they’re referring to the people they work with in a way that aligns with research about how they want to be identified.

Strength-based communication isn’t rocket science, but it IS an adjustment for many organizations. If you’re interested in getting started, you can see an example of a guide to strength-based messaging here, and learn how you can work with us to create your own here.

 

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