Words Matter: Finding a Better Narrative for the Sector

If you had to sum up the nonprofit sector in just a few words, what would you say? You can probably give an elevator pitch for your own organization, but what about the ecosystem in which you work? In a sector this vast and diverse, it can be hard to explain where you fit and what difference it all makes.

It can be hard, but it matters. In a nation that seems increasingly fragmented and noisy, the nonprofit sector could offer a powerful counter-narrative of unity and hope, but not until we find a better way to tell our story.

That’s why Independent Sector recently launched the sector narrative project, a multi-year effort to uncover the messages that tie us together and resonate with the broadest range of stakeholders, from funders to policymakers to volunteers and media gatekeepers. In addition to a high-level narrative, we’re also looking for effective messages around common pain points, such as overhead costs or funding constraints.

It’s probably the biggest communications challenge IS has ever undertaken, but we’ve partnered with two top communications firms, Ogilvy and Springboard Partners, to ensure that the process is rigorous, open, and innovative.

Michael Briggs, Ogilvy’s Head of Insight & Strategy for North America, shares his take on why this project matters – and why the world might be a better place when it’s done.

BriggsPhoto400aOgilvy is one of the biggest, most recognized names in America for advertising and public relations. Why would you invest your time on a relatively small job like the nonprofit narrative project?

Because nonprofits are such an important part of advancing the common good and creating the sort of society that we, and our clients, want to live in. At Ogilvy, our mission is to make brands matter –– and in today’s hypercompetitive communications environment, it’s essential that we create a sector brand that matters as much as its work. We are excited to be working with IS to change the way people think and feel about such a diverse and consequential community.

For someone who isn’t familiar with branding, how would you explain this task?

Some people think a brand is simply a visual identity or message, but it’s so much more than that. Our founder, David Ogilvy, defined a brand as “a complex symbol” that is “the intangible sum” of everything an entity is and stands for, of all our experiences with and impressions of it. The task we have with Independent Sector is to find the essence of an extremely diverse sector, the core truth that accurately reflects all that you are and all that you do –– and also resonates with people outside the sector in ways that build both understanding and support. It’s no small challenge, but it’s one we know we can meet together.

For someone who sat through all 7 seasons of Mad Men, how would you counter the perception that all of this is too “slick,” that the charitable sector really shouldn’t worry about things like a narrative or brand platform?

The world of Mad Men doesn’t look anything like Ogilvy, or any other agency I know. I — it’s a highly stylized portrait of a long-vanished era. Modern communications agencies like ours, and the clients with whom we work, recognize the tremendous importance of having a distinct brand and a compelling story, and we put a lot of hard work into developing them. Things like “brand platform” and “narrative” are not just ad-man buzzwords –– they are the essential building blocks of the integrated communications plans needed to stand out and inspire action in a very fragmented and noisy environment. We are proud to be able to bring all of our resources, and decades of expertise in working with the private and public sectors, to this project.

Finally, what changes if this project is successful? How might the world be a better place?

We take the success of this project very seriously because we know that your members are already making the world better, and that you have entrusted the Ogilvy/Springboard Partners team with helping you more effectively communicate that. We believe that a more unifying, compelling narrative will not only increase understanding of how you work but also the perceived value of what you accomplish. The world will be a better place when the sector can spend less energy on defending its worth or competing against itself and put more energy into making a real difference in people’s lives.

Michael Briggs is executive vice president and head of Insight & Strategy, North America at Ogilvy Public Relations.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: IS Staff, Nonprofit Capital, Organizational Relationships
  • I work in the social enterprise part of the sector, particularly in support of for profit social enterprise that puts mission before profit. At the present time we are a niche so it is particularly hard to give anyone a one or two word description of our niche. Our work is the same as the nonprofit sector in many ways but we are not a nonprofit so I truly believe that we need a name that covers all names that appeared on Sept 29 as a result of IS daily Digest poll – Nonprofit, Social, Charitable, etc. Thirteen in all. However, I think the answer is in front of us – number thirteen – Independent Sector. Why reinvent the wheel when we already have a great name? Lets put our energies into a marketing campaign to get everyone using that name. I am not sure who came up with the name years ago but if you think about it it covers all of us who basically think of doing something for others as a first priority. It does not matter whether we are for profit or non profit or any of the other nuances it just defines our priorities. Sometimes the simplest is the best, lets just be the Independent Sector

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