Let's Raise Some Money
Insights from Karen Climer about fundraising and nonprofit organizations

Hope Is A Dangerous Thing

July 10th, 2014 by Karen Climer

There is a line in The Shawshank Redemption where an old-timer prisoner tells the new prisoner, “Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing.”

I have dozens of samples where the organization tries to state its purpose as a one-word lofty aspiration.  This will cost you money.  Donors don't give to lofty ideals.  Donors give to concrete action.

I have dozens of samples where the organization tries to state its purpose as a one-word lofty aspiration. This will cost you money. Donors don’t give to lofty ideals. Donors give to concrete action.

Hope is a dangerous thing in fundraising and nonprofit branding.  Before you label me as a jaded cynic who wants to rain on everyone’s parade, keep reading.

Jeff Brooks, in his new book The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand, explains how nonprofit branding differs from for-profit branding.  If you are a shoe company marketing shoes, you can talk about the features of the shoe, but let’s face it, shoes are boring.  If you describe how the shoes laces are made of only the finest threads, no one is going to get excited about buying your shoe.  So shoe companies began thinking beyond shoes.  They looked upstream to why people buy shoes.  Why do they play sports?  This lead to achievement, which led to Nike’s Just Do It.  Now the shoe represents the triumph of the human spirit, which is much more exciting than a shoe.

Nonprofit staffers saw this and thought, “We are more than just a homeless shelter.”  So they began to look upstream to find something greater.  Why do people give to the homeless shelter?  To help homeless people.  Why do they want to help homeless people?  To make their community better.  Why do they want to make their community better?  To make the whole world better.  And on and on until they end up with their “Just Do It” equivalent, which in most nonprofits is the word “Hope.”

Here’s the problem: you have made something very tangible (giving homeless people a place to sleep) and made it into something very abstract that I don’t really understand.  Donors give to make specific things happen, not to abstract ideals (no matter how high those ideals are).

Furthermore, you have aspiration-alized (I’m sure this word will make it into dictionaries next year) your mission into the same word that every other organization in the country uses.  I get your postcard with the photo of a client next to the word “hope” and I can’t tell if you are a homeless shelter, an adult literacy organization, or a health clinic.  I just know you have hope.

Commercial branding is at odds with reality (news flash: no matter what shoes you wear, you will not play basketball like Michael Jordan).  Nonprofit branding is all about reality.  You need to show your donors the cold, hard truth about being homeless.  It’s not glamorous.  It’s not going to win any fancy dancy advertising awards.  But it will raise money.

Forget the abstract ideals.  Focus on giving your donors specific actions so they can make specific changes to the world.

P.S. Jeff Brooks’s book is one of the best books I’ve read in a while.  I highly highly highly recommend it.

Posted in Communication, Marketing

2 Responses

  1. Lauren

    Can I borrow your copy of Jeff’s book?!

    Thanks for the insight. There’s a few more words that are commonplace in nonprofit lingo that I wish we could get rid of or at the very least change how we use them. Small steps.

  2. Karen Climer

    Agreed. One of the other things besides aspiration-alizing (if we use this word enough, it will get into the dictionary!) is made-up phrases like “food insecurity.” We have a word like hunger that even a five-year old understands and replace it with a water-down version that is more confusing.

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