Message Matters: Succeeding at the Crossroads of Mission and Market

Moving people to action is critical to achieving the mission of most nonprofits, but in this age of information overload and nanosecond transmissions, that goal is increasingly difficult to accomplish. It takes a strategic message to cut through all the static and noise.

According to management and marketing expert Rebecca Leet, strategic messages grab a target audience's attention in a matter of seconds, drive the conversation with that audience, and result in fairly immediate action that is mutually satisfying to both the individual and the organization. Lest there be any confusion, Leet, the author of Message Matters: Succeeding at the Crossroads of Mission and Market, makes it clear that a strategic message is not a mission statement, a framing message, a slogan, a brand, or the quintessential "elevator pitch."

Consider the mission statement versus the strategic message. The former is written from the perspective of the organization and has two purposes: to state why the organization is in business and to help it make decisions about how to allocate its time, money, and personnel to achieve its goals. The latter, in contrast, is worded from the perspective of the target audience and has one only one purpose: to persuade that audience to take action consistent with the organization's goals.

Perhaps because she's a consultant, Leet is careful to stress that the creation of a strategic message represents a major commitment on the part of an organization. In her experience, an interdepartmental team of six to nine people — not just representatives from the communications and marketing staffs — should meet three times with a neutral outside facilitator (and at least twice for a full day) to achieve its strategic messaging goals. Over the course of those meetings, a well-led group will cover five steps:

  • Identify the action desired by your organization. Failure to do so could lead result in the organization talking to people who are unable to effect the change it desires — or talking to the right people about the wrong things.

Example: Mothers Against Drunk Driving achieved much more success in reducing the number of drunk drivers on the road by changing its goal from making people aware that drunk driving was a problem to actively working to encourage the use of designated drivers.

  • Identify no more than three target audiences. The core of the strategic message should address the self-interests of your target audiences; three or fewer short subset messages can then speak to the desire of each of those audiences.

Example: A disease-fighting organization might group volunteers, directors, and staff into an "internal" audience; create an "external" audience comprised of paying members, donors, and policy makers; and designate researchers, medical institutions, and medical funders as a "researchers" audience.

  • Identify audience desires — that is, what audience members want and need, not what your organization wants them to have or do. Remember: Desire motivates action.

Example: Desire can be a feeling ("I am doing my civic duty when I help register voters"), a material benefit ("Maintaining my association membership will give me access to the latest developments in my profession"), or an anticipated benefit ("Being part of the coalition will give our group greater visibility").

  • Find the mutuality between your organization's goals and your audiences' desires.If there is an overlap, a successful strategic message can be created.

    Example: A local hospice wants to increase its visibility in the community and learns that the Visiting Nurses Association needs materials to help some of its clients deal with end-of-life issues. So the hospice chooses the association as a target audience for its outreach campaign.

  • Express your message briefly and in words that are easy to understand and jargon-free.A successful message should be twenty-five to thirty words in length and make no more than three major points.

    Example: The Arlington (Virginia) Community Foundation sought to create a strategic message to strengthen its institutional identity and provide a quick way to start a conversation with its targets audiences. The result: "We are building a permanent reservoir of charitable funds to ensure that Arlington remains the community we treasure." The words speak to the desire for an "insurance policy" for the town and the notion of leaving a legacy for future generations.

Message Matters devotes a chapter to each step involved in creating your strategic message and provides useful examples, summaries, and discussion questions. Subsequent chapters offer an in-depth case study and additional applications for the strategic message framework.

Whether you're the leader of an association, a nonprofit organization, or a foundation, the concepts in the book are likely to resonate. And by following Leet's five simple steps, you too can end up with a powerful message that grabs your audiences' attention, drives the conversation about your products and services, and leads to improved fundraising results.