Turning Your Mission Into a Message

Future employees want a clear sense of your association’s mission. So do those who work with you now. So how are you delivering it?

If you’re an entrepreneur, you know what an elevator pitch is—it’s the explanation you give about what your company does and why it matters, distilled to the length of the average elevator ride. (Not easy; also, imagine how likely you are to be sold while stuck with a stranger in an elevator.) In Silicon Valley, a successful elevator pitch means a round of funding and the chance to make your business sustainable.

Thing is, you always need an elevator pitch.

I mention this in light of a couple of recent stories in Fast Company about the future of nonprofits. One article, “What It Will Take to Get a Nonprofit Job in 2020,” argues that there’s an overall uptick in interest among college graduates in nonprofit work. That’s a potential opportunity for associations, but that growth in interest means more competition for talent—and alongside that, a need for organizations to better sell their story.

You need to have a strategy, data should drive your strategy, and you should be able to defend your claims.”

Anna Maria Chavez, chief executive of Girl Scouts USA, told the magazine that “nonprofits [need to] be crystal-clear on their value proposition and what makes them unique—and be able to articulate these in a compelling way. Once an organization has this message down, it can incorporate it into strategies and communications that will attract the right talent.”

That’s all the more important because nonprofits, including most associations, can’t beat for-profits in terms of pay and benefit; it’s the mission that will have to capture the imagination of potential staffers— not to mention members, sponsors, and other stakeholders. As Thomas Tighe, president and CEO of Direct Relief, told the magazine, “the mission matters, but fulfilling it provides meaning to everyone involved, and connecting those pieces is an important part of the bargain when calling people to serve.”

Not all storytelling about an organization’s mission is created equal, though. Like some critics, I wasn’t particularly enthused by last year’s much-discussed ALS Association Ice Bucket Challenge. True, the prospect of having a bucket of ice water poured on my head doesn’t do much for me; but the main problem is that the challenge’s viral flareup didn’t do much to send an enduring message about ALS and what’s needed to help research it. (Heck, even Fast Company called the campaign “baffling” while deeming the association an innovative nonprofit.) The ALS Association enjoyed a spike in donations, yes, but when was the last time you heard about the ALS Association before reading this paragraph?

When it comes to delivering a clear and resonant message, I have higher hopes for initiatives like the one that Carla Balakgie, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the National Automatic Merchandising Association, discussed late last month in the video below from CEO Update:

In the interview, Balakgie says bluntly that NAMA’s effort is an “image rehabilitation campaign” for consumers, addressing the assumptions that vending machines aren’t perceived as the go-to stop for healthy food options. But clarifying that message made sense for various people touched by the industry: manufacturers saw the upside of improving its image (“they were going to sell more things”), consumers saw a business more interested in diversifying options, and businesses saw an organization that was trying to step ahead of regulation efforts.

But while the message is simple, it doesn’t get generated without a lot of behind-the-scenes work. “You need to have a strategy, data should drive your strategy, and you should be able to defend what your claims are and what you’re saying,” Balakgie says. If you can identify the message you want to send about your association to all its stakeholders, and distill it to its essence, you have a strong tool for rallying various players in your association and its industry—and, because the message is a lasting one, perhaps also a way to attract those who will serve it in the future.

What’s your strategy for delivering your association’s mission statement in a way that’s clear, simple, and resonant with multiple groups? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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