This is Lesson 4 in the This is for my Corporates Series.
If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series is for you!
Lesson 4: People are not props.
The work we are doing is about the real-live people featured in the glossy photos in the donor brochure, not about the dollars or euros or pounds or yen that the brochure brings in. It’s about the real-live people whose stories are used to grab attention in that catchy advocacy campaign, not about the number of addresses you are going to add to the email solicitation list. It’s about the kids who are going to be able to stay in school, and the fact that their children’s health and education will probably improve because their parents attended school, not about the fact that you are going to get a ton of PR because a big celebrity is giving a big donation for those children.
So don’t lose sight of that. This is about people. About Real. Live. People. They are as real as your husband. As real as your wife. As real as your children. As real as the neighbor you don’t get along with. They are just as complex and imperfect as people who you know personally. Just as intelligent. Just as irritable and even irritating sometimes, like all people. And those of us who work on the ground work personally with them on a daily or weekly basis.
So when you get push back from us on how you want to portray people in your marketing campaigns, on how you want to simultaneously simplify and exaggerate (or make up) their stories to get a bigger “lift” in your direct mail piece, try to understand. We are picturing our friends, our neighbors, people in communities that we work with regularly, our own children in those campaigns. In those advocacy photos. On those TV commercials.
Imagine if it were your child on a billboard.
No, I mean really, stop and imagine.
Your kid was playing outside last night, went to bed without a bath. They come around with a camera in the morning. You say wait, let me tidy him up first. They say no, this is more realistic. You don’t want say no because you’re afraid it will seem rude. They go ahead with the photo shoot. You sign some consent forms in legalese, and next thing you know, there’s your un-bathed child up there on a billboard, maybe smiling or laughing, maybe not. Possibly his nose is running a little or he has sleep in his eyes. His hair is messy. The label next to him says “POOR and NEEDY”. Feels great, huh?
Or someone photographs your beautiful daughter. They put her face on a direct mail piece. Sure her name is changed, but there’s her face. It’s next to big red letters saying “desperate” or “trafficked” or “abused” or “HIV positive”. It tells a story about how you and your community are incapable of protecting and caring for your children and need outside help. Depending on the imagination of the creative director of the marketing piece, you as a parent are either a villain or a martyr or an uplifting hero. No one actually asks you for your real story, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the story that the target demographic wants to hear. The story that moves them to donate. Now your daughter’s photo and this made-up story get mailed out to hundreds of thousands of people in another country, and emailed to another huge number of people. Maybe it even goes up on the home page of a big organization’s website.
Since you’re good at this imagination thing, turn back into yourself in your current job at your INGO or imagine that you are a community outreach staff person.
Picture yourself going out to the community where you’ve taken photos and film recently. Arrange a community assembly. Stand yourself in front of the whole community and show them what you’ve done with their pictures and their stories. Translate it all into their language so that they can read or listen to every word that you’ve said about them. See what they think of it.
Yes, yes, you’ll say, but we need to raise money! But this is what works! This is what people respond to!
And I will say back to you: Find another way. Stop marketing to the lowest common denominator because it makes you the lowest common denominator. If you can’t get people to support the real work you do on the ground, you are not doing your job. The real work is way better than those stupid commercials and those pathetic direct mail pieces. Figure out how to get people to understand it.
People in communities are not props.
More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates Series!
Lesson 1: Watch your language
Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?
Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?
Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout
*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings (often with the helpful prodding of my assistant Al Cohol). In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over the span of a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.