Empathy: The overlooked key to nonprofit marketing

It's an occupational hazard of the nonprofit world to know too much about the problems you're trying to solve. When you're an expert, facts have great resonance for you.

Why is this a hazard?

Because when you're trying to reach people, facts are not much use. Then, you need to know not facts, but feelings. That's because it's emotions, not information, that drive our beliefs and behaviors.

So, for a nonprofit communicator, it's critically important to practice the skill of imagining how the world looks to the person you're trying to connect with: to be empathic. Then, you can talk to them in a way that will connect.

Here's a great example that I often use in presentations and trainings -- it's one of the classic "Don't Mess With Texas" anti-litter PSAs:

Texas had tried a variety of approaches before this, based on "telling people what they should know:" Don't litter, because it's ugly and bad for the environment.

It didn't work -- in fact, litter went up.

The problem was solved by ad agency GSD&M -- by applying empathy for the 18-24-year-old, pickup-driving males who were the state's the worst litterers. Here's the story, via an article in Texas Monthly:

...It began in 1985, when Tim McClure, of the Austin advertising giant GSD&M, was trying to devise a slogan to pitch to the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation—now the Texas Department of Transportation—for its new anti-littering campaign. Research showed that the main culprits were young truck-driving males, and McClure needed a catchphrase that would grab their attention.

“I was up before dawn one day, walking outside and racking my brains for the right words,” recalls McClure, who grew up in East Texas. “As I was walking, I noticed that even the sides of the road in my nice neighborhood were piled with trash. It made me mad. That’s when it hit me: Texans wouldn’t call this litter. The only time I’d ever used the word ‘litter’ was with puppies and kittens. Instead I was reminded of what my mom used to say about my room growing up. Real Texans would call this a mess.”

Almost immediately, four simple words—“Don’t mess with Texas”—coalesced in his mind, and a battle cry was born. Since then, the phrase has become embedded in the collective psyche not just of Texans but of the whole country.

Ironically, the for-profit world often does a much better job of empathizing with its customers than nonprofits do with their clients. That's because for-profit companies can make a ton of money by learning and catering to every teeny little quirk of the members of their target market.

Lacking the profit motive, nonprofits need to find the motivation to match that level of attention and concern: resist the urge to tell people the facts, and start by listening to what's in their hearts.