By: Allison Weber, Allison Weber Consulting
For decades, nonprofit organizations have championed equity—the idea that everyone should have equitable access to the tools needed to build a fulfilling life. Yet it’s only recently that many have adopted language that truly reflects this commitment.
Nonprofits are transforming their messaging because they know that something needs to change. They are making big gains, yet many communities are still unable meet their basic needs. At the same time, public discourse around social issues has become increasingly divisive.
Here’s the good news: Nonprofits can help elevate our national conversations on poverty and opportunity. By raising our voices with messaging that promotes equity, we can persuade others to join us in building a society where everyone has the chance to succeed.
Do your nonprofit communications promote greater equity? If you want to assess your existing language, it can be tough to know where to begin. Here are a few questions you can ask as you get started.
Am I appropriately framing my nonprofit’s key issues?
It matters tremendously how nonprofits frame the social challenges central to their work.
What is framing? According to The Frameworks Institute, framing refers to the decisions we make in what we say and how we say it.
- What we emphasize
- How and what we explain
- What we leave unsaid
If they are not carefully framed, your messages will be misunderstood. Potential donors won’t grasp why your work is necessary, and they will remain unmoved by your stories.
Thoughtful framing, on the other hand, can make a world of difference. By giving your readers the information they need to understand your mission, you can raise important questions, spark new discussions, and transform how people think.
Crucially, it can help you welcome in many more loyal supporters.
Browse The Frameworks Institute’s Equity page for specific guidance on how to frame discussions about equity.
Am I using a strengths-based approach?
As you tell people about the populations you serve, do you focus on their strengths or deficits? It’s important to highlight people’s assets in your communications to recognize their dignity, skills, traditions, and history.
In your messaging, call out special traits in the people you serve that others can identify with. A desire to protect loved ones. Passion for one’s work. Uncommon expertise on a special topic.
You’ll not only show respect for the people you support, but also help your audience see more of themselves and their own aspirations in your stories.
Am I playing into stereotypes?
It’s important to not only offer a nuanced profiles of people in your storytelling, but also steer away from stereotypes.
By relying on narratives that many others have used, you may unintentionally reinforce negative and inaccurate beliefs—such as misconceptions about why people are poor. You may also provoke compassion fatigue, leading some of your donors to stop listening to you.
To connect with your audience on a deeper level, share stories from people from all walks of life. And when you encounter a story that calls a common stereotype into question, take the opportunity to highlight it. You’ll encourage your audience to think more critically and openly.
Am I highlighting the role of systems in determining outcomes?
Nonprofits should continue to share stories that explain at a micro-level the problems and choices facing individual households in need. But they must also take care to zoom out and describe far-reaching systems and laws that have continually caused many people to stumble.
The social sector has a responsibility to tell how realities like systemic racism have impacted society. Nonprofit communicators should explain how these problems have led to policies that leave many families without equitable access to critical resources—such as good housing, health care, and job opportunities.
Am I uniting people toward shared goals?
Your target audiences have varied backgrounds and beliefs, yet they share many things in common. And your nonprofit likely meets needs that many people can understand, whether that’s providing warm meals to hungry people, educational support in marginalized communities, or trauma care to victims.
In these polarizing times, remind your supporters that people are more similar to one another than they are different. Take it a step further by casting a vision for the future—created in part by your organization—where everyone has the resources they need to thrive.
By rallying support for a society that’s better for all people, you’ll demonstrate your commitment to equity.
Read Nat Kendall-Taylor and April Callen’s piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy to learn how bringing donors together helps fight racial inequities revealed by the pandemic.
What happens when we promote equity together
Every day, a growing number of nonprofits are transforming how they communicate. They’re doing more than ever to ensure their language fully recognizes the value of the people they serve and the complexity of the obstacles they face.
Your nonprofit can start updating its messaging today to encourage greater equity. By reviewing your current messages with the above questions, you’ll move closer to convincing more donors that a kinder, more just world is within reach if they support your work.
Language has incredible power, inspiring people to change how they engage with each other and with their communities. Nonprofits can use their platforms to show that all people deserve an equal opportunity at success—and convince many more donors to support their work.
Let’s work together to adopt language that brings us closer to creating inclusive societies.
About the Author
Allison Weber is passionate about helping mission-driven organizations to improve their storytelling so they can build a better world. Before launching Allison Weber Consulting, she spent nearly ten years helping nonprofit organizations raise millions and reach more people. Through working at Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the United States, and Opportunity International, one of the first nonprofits focused on providing banking services in developing countries, she has developed the skills to write for a variety of audiences and channels.