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Be more painkiller, less vitamin.

This post was contributed by Bill McKendry, Founder of and author of the upcoming book DO MORE GOOD | Moving nonprofits from good to growth.

It’s more important than ever for nonprofit leaders to be good stewards of dollars and resources used for growing awareness and support. In our current pandemic-shaped and media-saturated world, it’s essential. One of the keys to being a good steward is to spend less time and money on messaging that doesn’t resonate with your donor audiences.

The news cycle has become seemingly endless doom and gloom. Fear and negativity dominate discussions of all kinds, and there seems to be no end in sight to our high-tension atmosphere and divisiveness. During these times, people want solutions, and they want to know there are difference-makers out there.

The author of the international bestselling book Sell Like Crazy, Sabri Suby, who heads Australia’s fastest-growing digital marketing agency, wrote in a social media post how brands can be a ray of sunshine in the storm and can thrive during times like these.1

He said the secret is to understand that in tough moments, people don’t want candy or vitamins. Rather, they are looking for a painkiller.

Candylike brands and candy messaging are representative of organizations that are very nice and that people enjoy, but they aren’t positioning themselves as a solution to a burning problem. So while they can get support during good times, they’re not seen as essential in more challenging seasons.

Examples of nonprofit “candy” brands are fine arts organizations, theater groups, symphonies, galleries, performing arts venues, zoos, and planting trees. While many people feel strongly about the need for these enriching activities and events (count me in that crowd), they’re not universally seen as essential to support when times get tough.

Vitamin-like organizations are known to have a very positive impact over time, but they’re also not seen as solving issues of urgent need. Therefore, like candy organizations, they are not positioned well to grow during economic contractions.

Examples of nonprofit “vitamin” brands are hiking trail associations, after-school activities, junior athletic programs, nature preserves, museums, and fitness programs. These would all fit into the vitamin cause category. They’re all seen as good for participating individuals, but they’re not perceived as critical. 

Painkiller brands and messaging, in contrast, are seen as coming from causes that offer immediate solutions to vitally important and pressing problems. These are problems that the majority of donors recognize and agree need to be alleviated promptly and urgently.

Examples of nonprofit painkiller organizations are those dealing with hunger, emergency housing, healthcare, and community safety. These are all painkiller causes that thrive during tough times. Painkiller organizations are seen as solving urgent issues. They are perceived as critically important—now.

Tough Times Require Tougher Stances

Suby also says when situations are dire, you don’t want to position your organization as anything but a painkiller. Think about it this way, he says: “If you’re feeling crippling pain, your focus goes quickly to finding immediate solutions.”2

In other words, you might be a vitamin type of cause, but you’d better find someone or something you serve that has an urgent need or you will miss “moments of opportunity” during challenging times to capture attention and support when people likely have more time and empathy than they do during stronger economic cycles.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lisa Sherman from The Ad Council noted: “This is a moment of irreversible empathy. As the number of people who find themselves in tough situations soars . . . so does the number of people who understand at a visceral level what instability feels like.”3

Painkillers Are Always Needed

Charity Water is an organization often admired for its messaging and positioning. One of the reasons it’s been so successful is that its mission was founded on a painkiller platform—the recognition that many diseases being treated in Third World countries were caused by unsafe drinking water. And though it has bold goals of providing clean water for 100 million-plus people, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it shifted the messaging in its ads to focus on delivering lifesaving hand sanitization resources and education for vulnerable communities. That education was about the importance of handwashing, using clean water, and killing germs, and it was a message that Americans could relate to. In short, this organization dealt with a new pain using a different painkiller message and shifted from just drinking water messaging to the need for clean water for handwashing to prevent COVID-19, as well as its ability to provide sanitation and hygiene training for people in great need. 

But it’s not the only organization that had timely and powerful painkiller communications resulting from a reaction to COVID-19. I’ve watched during the pandemic as performing arts venues encouraged people to buy gift cards to support them in a moment of great uncertainty and help support out-of-work performing artists. These venues connected the message about supporting the arts with why performing arts is an urgent need right now. 

I’ve seen a hiking trail association change its messaging from supporting growth to supporting maintenance and providing safe trails for people seeking a healthy escape from being in lockdown in their homes. I worked with an organization that provides deaf people with Bible translations, and I encouraged them to shift their communications focus to helping deaf people who are hungry during these difficult times—since they have language barriers, their challenges were temporarily greater to get the basic needs such as food and water.

That shift in communication focus has made these organizations’ campaigns successful! 

The bottom line is, when people are feeling pain, a vitamin won’t provide immediate relief. Candy is out of the question. Instead, they are looking for painkillers. And while that may have been more evident during a pandemic, the reality is, there’s always someone in pain and there likely is always the need to message accordingly.

What’s it going to take to strengthen your messaging—another pandemic?

So how would donors characterize your organization? 

Would they see it as candy that’s sweet and nice, and an investment that tastes good and makes them feel instantly happy?

Would they see your organization as more of a vitamin that’s healthy, needed in the long run, and an investment that they might make over time because they believe that it’s important? 

Or would your donors (and potential donors) view your organization as a painkiller that’s needed now and communicates to them not only with urgency but as an immediate and practical solution to the problems they are already aware of?

So often it’s not only a matter of who you say you are, but how you present yourself.

1 Suby, Sabri, Sell Like Crazy: How to Get As Many Clients, Customers and Sales As You Can Possibly Handle, self-published, 2019.

2 Ibid.

3 Sherman, Lisa, “5 Ways to Find Inspirational News and Mobilize People During the Pandemic,” The Ad Council, Accessed May 5, 2021.

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