January 17, 2013

Can You Sum Up Your Charity's Work in One Simple Tag Line?

Amnesty International has a simple and concise tag line: exposing and preventing human-rights abuses.

Some nonprofits are able to articulate what they are and what they do quickly and clearly.

Amnesty International, for example, has a simple and concise tag line that is front and center on all of its communications: exposing and preventing human-rights abuses.

It's easy to understand what Amnesty International is and what it does. But all too often, nonprofits—and even big businesses—make the mistake of failing to have an effective tag line.

Attention spans are short, and you have only a few fleeting moments to grab the attention of someone who is visiting your Web site, reading your appeal letter, or meeting you in person.

Often the ability to explain what you do starts with something basic, like a mission statement. But the tag line needs to be much more concise.

Even major corporations sometimes fail to formulate a clear expression of their identity. Read the response given by Hewlett-Packard chief executive Meg Whitman to Kai Ryssdal, host of the American Public Media radio show Marketplace, when asked to describe her company in five words or fewer:

HP is the largest information technology company in the world that provides hardware, software, and services to organizations of all sizes and has a big consumer business as well. What we do is we try to provide enterprise needs better than anyone else and deliver the hardware and software and services that those enterprises need. And put together a series of devices that customers want as well for their printing and personal systems needs.

Whoa, what?  Did anyone follow that?

Mr. Ryssdal gave Ms. Whitman a second chance, but she still was not able to come anywhere close to five words, nor did she deliver anything memorable or concise. But Ms. Whitman wasn't alone. Check out the response to the same question from AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong a few weeks later.

AOL will be the best connected, most shared, and most impactful brand and media company with a technology platform in the world.

Does that provide clarity or resonate emotionally with you?

Some people might suggest that since AOL and HP are both notorious for having identity crises, they make poor examples. Unfortunately, though, the challenge that companies as well as nonprofits face is all too common. It’s almost always difficult to distill an organization’s purpose, ideals, values, and services into something that’s both meaningful and concise.

One of the biggest obstacles comes from trying to say too much.  It isn’t necessary to spell out every detail to capture the soul of an organization.  In an attempt to communicate everything that is seemingly important, we often destroy the chance of communicating anything meaningful.

Look at the examples below, and see if you can construct a single idea or feeling for your organization that will resonate with people. Next, make sure it’s well understood by anyone speaking about your nonprofit group—CEOs included. Then use that statement on your group’s Web site, in its marketing materials, in appeal letters, and when talking to people in person.

Below are some examples of nonprofits that effectively articulate what they do in easy-to-find places on their Web sites.

Habitat for Humanity - A world where everyone has a decent place to live

Southern Poverty Law Center - Fighting hate, teaching tolerance, seeking justice

World Wildlife Fund - Protecting the future of nature

How do you talk about your organization? Show off your clear explanation or offer up your muddled paragraph for some needed revisions.


Matthew Scharpnick is the co-founder of Elefint Designs, a strategic design studio that works with good causes.