Strategic Messaging with Doug Spencer
In episode 34 of Mission: Impact, Carol, her guest, Doug Spencer talked about:
Douglas Spencer is president of Spencer Brenneman, LLC, which helps mission-driven organizations reframe their focus and remaster their messages to thrive in any environment. In 2021, Douglas launched the podcast, Messaging on a Mission. In it he talks to leaders of nonprofits, social enterprises, associations about their journeys and the messages they’re using to thrive. He is also the author of Do They Care? The one question all brands should ask themselves, continually, a book that shows leaders how they can create meaningful connections with everyone important to their organization's success.
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Doug Spencer. Doug and I talk messaging for nonprofits. Why it is so much more than branding and branding is so much more than just a logo, and why it is so important to help everyone in your nonprofit get on board with a clear message that everyone can understand. Welcome to Mission Impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Welcome Doug. It's great to have you on the pod.
Doug Spencer: I am thrilled to be here. Thank you for having me.
Carol: So I like to start with asking the question of what drew you to the work that you do. What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Doug: Yeah. Okay. Well, let's see. It's convoluted. It's not as easy as, oh, I woke up one morning when I was a child and I knew that I had to do A, B or C. So, I will start there. My parents were volunteers, they just volunteered at different organizations. And so they set a really good example for me, that way. And, I did that throughout high school and college. And after that, I've always been a volunteer, at least in organizations that I cared about. I did work in nonprofits for awhile, but then I got sucked into the for-profit sector and worked there for many years and, but continue to continue to volunteer. I served on the board of directors of a hundred million dollar health center. And, even was its board chair for a while. So I continued doing that, but after a while I left my corporate job, I started working on my own, doing branding. And, really it was last year in the heart of the pandemic where I took a step back and thought. All right. What am I doing? What I really want to do. And it was then that we made a shift to focus exclusively on mission driven organizations. So mostly not-for-profits, but also, social enterprises, the organizations that are trying to. Solve some sort of societal challenge, and, and, and are focused on doing that. There's the environment. There's education there's it's there, there's some really great folks doing some great work in pretty much all, all areas. And so, yeah, that's why I've shifted to mission-driven organizations. There's a lot of things I can't do, but, such as I can't, take care of kids who have been abused. I can't work in biotech. I can't do a lot of things, but I can help them. I can help the people who do. I can help them talk about their work and get their message out there so that more people join them on their mission.
Carol: It doesn't, it doesn't do anyone any good if, it's it's, the organization is hidden and no one knows the good work that they're doing. It's interesting. I'm thinking about my career and I've been in the sector for most of my career and, if you had talked to an organization about branding, when I first started, it was a dirty word. Branding, marketing, all of those things, were, oh, that's what, that's what those for-profit people do. I think that's changed a lot in the number of years that I've been in the sector. but still, it can be. Somewhat neglected or siloed and the fundraising arm or the marketing arm, the communications arm of the organization. Why would you say that it's really important for organizations to get, get those messages, get, get those messages is really integrated through the whole organization.
Doug: Sure. Well, there's many reasons for that. one of which is consistency in order for any message to take hold. And when I think of branding, by the way, I really think of strategic messaging. People sometimes think of a logo when they think branding, but that's just one tiny element of it. So it's really about how you think about your organization, how you think about the relationships you have with all the people. All the people most important to your success. And then how do you talk to them? And when I say all the people important to your success, that's where I think your portion's going. that starts with employees. I wrote a little book a few years ago about branding and the first chapter is all about employees, because if your employees don't understand what you're really about, if they can't talk about it in a way that gets other people excited, then. Wow. You're walking away from a whole lot of great connections, a whole lot of great energy, a whole lot of great information because communication is two ways. But, but, so, so it's important that everybody understands the message for consistency. But also, so they can do their jobs better so they can feel more connected to the organization. So that if you're a volunteer, you can't stop talking about it. And more importantly, you can't stop talking about it correctly. And if you don't have that focus on messaging in the very beginning, people are going to go out, go out, about in their daily lives. And they're going to say whatever they think is right. And sometimes it is, but a lot of the times it's not. So that's why messaging is so important that everyone has to understand it and everyone has to feel it. They have to really feel it and get excited about it.
Carol: Yeah. Oftentimes you think about board members or board members are, are really, encouraged to be ambassadors for the organization, but you make a great point about all those people who are working there. All the folks who are volunteering, it may not be at the board level. It may be in a lot of different aspects of the organization. but any of those folks, any of those stakeholders only kind of, yeah. It sees the elephant from whatever position they're in. Right. So they may just get a bit of the puzzle and not the whole thing. How do you help organizations go about that and get everyone on message?
Doug: Well, the first, the first way to do that is involve them, involve everyone in the development of the message or if it's not development and it, at least it's the. fine tuning or validate or validation of the message. So we have a process that is really research heavy. We focus a lot on research, both qualitative and quantitative, and you bring people into that process to make them feel heard because they do need to be heard. And you're, if you don't. Get input from all the people most important to you, six successes then, wow. You're not doing your job, right? not, I'm sorry to be blunt, but that's just the way it is. You've got to get everyone involved and just that first step does help build that momentum and build that excitement. And then the end product, ideally. We'll have some reflection of what all of those folks have said and input and input, obviously you're not going to just automatically do or say whatever everybody says, but it's, it's the totality of everything they say. So if you do it right, they're going to see a little bit of themselves in there. They're going to see a little bit about the part of the organization that, that they, no. when I was working in the for-profit sector and that's the other reason just, not to be completely stream of consciousness, but that's the other reason that I like what I'm doing now, because when I was working in the for-profit sector, I got a ton of great experience that the nonprofit sector isn't seen there's approaches in this way, just think about that really can benefit the non-profit sector. So I'm, I'm excited to share that where it's appropriate for other organizations, but where I was going before I interrupted myself, right. Where it was, where I was going was that I had a client when I was working with for-profit companies. And he said to me, if I asked every one of my partners, what we do. Every one of them would come up with a different description. And I worked with Harvard medical school and one of their divisions and their executive director had the exact same problem. All the leaders of her. Programs would only talk about the entirety in the perspective of what they did for it, never in how that all adds up to be the organization's true message. So if you get people involved and get them to see how they connect to the greater picture, the greater mission, then they're going to be all that much more excited to be part of it.
Carol: And that that process of research has a very similar to, when you were starting out with a strategic plan. And, the other thing that that brings to mind is that. There's the input process and coming to some conclusion around what are your strategic messages, but through that process, you're also shifting people's perspective and almost going through an education process with them as they talk to other people in the organization and see, see the other sides of things. And then how does it, as you're saying, add up to the total?
Doug: Right. Right. And, and that totality that if you want to call it your mission, you want to call it your why statement, whatever you want to call it, that brings people together and that can actually help, come to life in many other ways. So for example, sometimes there's a lot less bickering in an organization because everyone understands, okay, what they're really there to accomplish. They may all have different approaches to get the organization. There are more different contributions. But they all agree on the end goal and a lot of organizations aren't operating with that. They're just operating little silos, because they think it's more efficient or it's just really, it's just really icky to have to talk to somebody and, and really hear them out and feel what they're saying. And when you just want to focus on your own stuff, but, yeah, it's the mission. And, given the name of your podcast, mission impact, it's got to be the mission, it's gotta be what drives you and your mission’s gotta be what drives your message too.
Carol: So oftentimes, an organization's messaging doesn't keep up with how they've evolved. why don't you say this happens and, and how, how can you kind of, what, how can, what can organizations do to make sure that those two things match.
Doug: Oh, gosh. Yeah. This is something that everybody struggles with from time to time. And there are three main reasons. I see why organizations miss messages that fall out of line. The first is we forget what we know that nobody else knows, and we do our jobs day in and day out. We live, breathe them. Think about them, wake up in the middle of night, thinking about them. And that's what makes us really good at it. But what we all do. Forget that not everybody has that level of detail. And so sometimes we go about talking about what we do as if we're explaining a Netflix show, season three, episode 12, to someone who's only seen season one, episode two.
And so, we forget what we know and nobody else does. So that's the first one. The second one is that we all have to change a little bit here and there. I mean, life comes at us and throws us things that we have to adapt to, global pandemic, anyone, so a little change here and a little change. There is probably not that bad and something you need to do, but your message probably doesn't change a lot. Right. And then the third reason I see is what I call the squeaky wheel syndrome, especially with organizations that are lean and are running, all hands on deck. These squeaky wheels come up and you have to pay attention to them, but sometimes it's at the expense of the entire machine. So what that leads to is over time, sometimes convoluted. confusing and just basically inaccurate message because you've been going slightly different direction, all of a sudden, and then bam, your message hasn't changed and it's still pointing backwards. So those are the three reasons. I think that the organization's message gets out of sync here.
Carol: Yeah. And that makes sense. And as you're talking about those different silos of people, not knowing if they've forgotten what they're doing. So in the details of, episode 22, season three, and they forget the whole long storyline, it seems to me that processes like you lead groups through and, and the work that I do where we're there doing strategic planning and kind of, again, always taking a step back, bringing a larger group of people. Cross-functional groups of people together to think through these things. It helps people reconnect with the why of the organization, whether it's through messaging, whether it's through setting priorities. yeah. It helps them get a better understanding of what everybody does in an organization, oftentimes I'll have board members who've just started and they think, well, I can't contribute anything to this strategic planning process or a messaging process, but they do contribute something and that. One, they're bringing a new perspective and to the whole process they're going to, they're going to be so much further up to speed on the organization than if they had gone to an equivalent number of board meetings. So there's, there's all sorts of other benefits from these processes than just the product at the end. Right? The ripple effects in the organization.
Doug: Right. And one of the things that I think is one of those benefits is focus. So when you step back and really think about your messaging framework, what are the things that we are known for, or want to be known for? What are the things that we contribute to the world that nobody else does exactly the same way? And if you come up with three to four of those, and a new idea comes along, someone says, oh, we should totally do this. Or totally do like adopt a highway program like we do, but for, for, but for rabbits, then you say, okay, well, does that fit into any of the predetermined categories of what we've claimed we do best? And if it doesn't, then you don't do it. And that helps. That helps you stay focused. So you put a line in the sand and say, okay, this is who we are. This is what we do. This is how we talk about it. And anything else. You just have to politely say, sorry, we can't do that. Or, an obviously better option would be to point them to someone who does, not just leave them, leave them hanging, but help them somehow. But don't take that on if it's not who you are.
Carol: So what are some ways that organizations, what are some steps that they can take to get clear about their messaging?
Doug: Yeah. First is, as I alluded to earlier, to do some research. You got to ask questions, you gotta ask questions. All the people who are important to your success. Again, your employees, your volunteers, the people you serve, the people who fund you, the people who used to be on your board and are on your board, or, obviously not everyone, but you have to have a reputation or a representation from everybody that has some sort of a stake or something. A point of view that has value. You have to ask the questions and some of them have to be tough, you know? Do you think, do you have confidence in the executive director? Do you think the organization is prepared to meet the needs of the community in five years? do you think they do the work better than, and then list in some other organizations? So you have to do that work. You have to understand. And the other thing that a lot of organizations don't do that I think is really important is. Take a look at their competitors. And when I say competitors, I know a lot of people go competitors though. We don't have those that's for profit, but no you're competing for the time, talent and treasures of a whole lot of other folks. So, if who else, who else is going to. foundation and applying for the same grant you are, who else is looking for individual donors in say the art space, if that's where you're in or social justice space. So that's where you're in. So you've got to look at what they're doing, what they're saying, and then find a way to authentically position yourselves relevant or relative rather to those other voices, because those voices are out there and you are competing with them before people's time, talent.
Carol: Yeah. And I think people only think about competitors as those direct ones. So an arts organization to an arts organization. And, but if you're a local, a local organization, you're competing with all the organizations that are trying to get donor donations from local folks. So sometimes you have to think kind of, there may not be some, someone who does exactly what you do in your locality, but your, that competition may be maybe slightly.
Doug: Right. And it goes back to your episode, it goes back to thinking about those people who are most important to your success. You got to get in their heads, who is it that they work with? So if you are talking to corporate foundations or you are talking to some sort of a major donor, who else are they supporting? You've got to get a sense of where their attention spans are. Pointing and then thinking about how you fit into that. And it's gotta be authentic as I, as I suggest, is it can't you just can't, you can't be that car salesman. That is all things to all people. You've got to find your authentic voice and speak that in a way that connects with those people in a way that everyone else doesn't.
Carol: So what gets in the way?
Doug: What gets in the way? Well, like I said, just the day-to-day work, people are busy, especially at not-for-profits because they tend to have very lean staffs and sometimes they tend to not sometimes, and they tend to work with some, some really life and death situations. And so if you have to. Getting people into, housing for the, for the night versus, having a conversation with people that might donate, it's, you, you gotta, you gotta balance. And so the day to day really gets in trouble, gets you in trouble sometimes, but you've got to find that balance. That's just part of the job. I had a boss that used to, she used to always say to us, put on your big boy pants and do it. And, Gender aside. I just liked the image of that. But, anyway, that's part of the job and you've gotta stay. You gotta, you gotta do everything. unfortunately, so, just the day to day really does it. The other thing is it's not. Fun necessarily the pre-work, it's almost like some people have fashioned it like going into therapy and who wants to do that? and I, people joke that I'm some, sometimes I'm a therapist, which I am so not because I'm so not qualified, but I asked a lot of questions and I listened. So, I guess there is a parallel. But it's not always fun to really do that soul searching, even if it's not about you personally, but it's about the organization that you love and breathe that you are, it's so important to you. That soul searching can be uncomfortable. And then of course, change is uncomfortable too, for a lot of people, if they don't know. If they're not initiating it like you and I have had conversations and you brought up a great point that a change is great for the people who are initiating it. It's everybody else that gets, gets a little weirded out about it. So, those are some of the reasons, those are some of the things that get in the way. I think of people staying on top of their message and really embracing it and using it as a way to further their work.
Carol: And I love your point about, especially at organizations that are in direct service where, whether they get food to people or housing or all the things, that day, the immediate needs that are right on their doorstep, they need to deal with them. And I guess, as an and other organizations, That are working on issues that can feel like that too, even though they may not have the one person at their doorstep. and yeah, if you can take the perspective of. We're going to do a better job of serving all those people. If we're able to connect with other people who will support us, and, and not have it be a competitive, a competitive thing within the organization of, of competing priorities to say that, no, we need to do both because, that little bit of time that we're taking or that amount of time that we're taking to get clear about all these things is going to serve us in the long run. It may be that. See that, that immediate gratification of helping somebody right there. But over time, it will, it will help them help a greater number of people.
Doug: Okay. It's that, it's another variation on that, that classic, river, metaphor, right. If you're busy pulling people out of the river. One after another is to keep them from drowning. You don't have time to go upstream, downstream, upstream, and figure out why these people are getting in the river in the first place. So it's just another version of that, of that middle.
Carol: Absolutely. So on every episode, I like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. So one for you is what is something you think everybody should do at least in their lives?
Doug: Oh gosh, that's easy. And I say this all the time and that is. Get into some therapy, talk to a therapist. Oh my God, you have no, you don't, you don't. And nor should you be in therapy forever in my humble opinion, but again, what do I know? But, oh my gosh, our world is so complicated and the pressures that we put ourselves in, the world changes so fast and our parents always do the best they can, but you know what. That doesn't mean that everything was right. So you get to talk to somebody else once in a while, at least once and just help them, help them, help them, help you sort things out in your head, so that you can get a better grip on how to be your best self and how to live your best.
Carol: absolutely. I've often joked with my daughter. I was like, well, I'm just, I'm just helping out your future therapist. Well, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you and emerging in your work.
Doug: Yeah, what's exciting. Well, I'm just excited, excited rather that we are very slowly, more slowly than we should, but more slowly getting a hold of the pandemic and starting to move forward and at least starting to feel more of a comfort level with it. So I think, so we're talking now in August. I don't know when you're going to when this will air, but in August we're I think we're, you've got the Delta variant going on, but I think that people are. Racing themselves for another fall or winter, but it's not going to be as. Awful as it had been. And so I'm looking forward to ideally not having that happen, but if, even if it does, I think it's going to be better than 2020, but I do see the world opening up. I'm really excited. I know this is probably inappropriate to go, get all political, but I'm really excited to see what's going to happen with the infrastructure bill that seems to be going on. I think there's some real, incredible opportunities that are going to come from that. And so I'm really eager to see what this is. Has, and how that benefits, the people that are doing the work that we support. Right? Cause it's not in a vacuthe infrastructure, isn't just something that's over there. The infrastructure is something that impacts everybody and how they do their jobs and how they service the people they serve and how, and the environment is a perfect example. so I'm really excited about that. And, am, in sending positive vibes to Washington that they don't screw it up and that it actually happens.
Carol: Absolutely. It's certainly long overdue. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Doug: This is fun. I'll we should do it again. And you've been on mine and I appreciate your time on my podcast and, yeah, happy to do it anytime. All right. Thanks a lot. Thank you.
Carol: I appreciated what Doug said about stepping back and help people understand the bigger picture of the story of your nonprofit. It is too easy to start with all the details – as he says – assuming your audience is in the middle of the season that you have been bringing with you, instead of setting the scene and giving the big headline – the tagline that folks will be able to remember. Not getting lost in the weeds and the details. And how to connect with what the person you are speaking with cares about. Not to fundamentally change your mission – but to find that point of connection to help pull that person in and help them relate to what you are describing. Getting into their shoes and seeing it from their perspective. Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Doug as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed the episode I would greatly appreciate it if you would share it with a colleague or friend. Send them a link to the episode - We appreciate you helping us get the word out.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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