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Does Negativity Work in Your Nonprofit Messaging?

Posted by on June 5th, 2013
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Copywriting, Nonprofit Messaging   

In an earlier post, I commented on Doug Hattaway and Jenn Henrichsen’s recent article in Stanford Social Innovation Review about how simple wording strengthens complex ideas.

Their piece also touched on the power of narrative. One of the striking things about their article was their belief that great nonprofit communication relies on more than just “the power of positive thinking.”

We see this often in our own practice. In our Minute Message Model™, we teach nonprofit leaders that a good Problem Message highlights the societal challenge each organization exists to solve. In other words, you should speak about problems rather than solutions. The Problem Message explains WHY your organization needs to exist.

For example, a good Problem Message might sound like this:

There are few cultural centers designated specifically for the education and enrichment of our youngest children. Parents need access to a world-class, expert institution that can connect them to the wide range of experiences and outside resources that will help them raise healthy, happy kids who have a lifelong love of learning.

Often we get pushback from our clients about this aspect of their messaging. Leaders are uncomfortable talking about problems. They’re eager to shout from the rooftops about their organizational successes. In fact, they’re afraid to sound too negative. Why talk about problems when you can talk about success?

Yet Hattaway and Henrichsen argue:

“To be motivated for your cause, people must imagine an inspirational goal and understand the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving it. For years, leaders have been told to motivate people with the ‘power of positive thinking.’ But studies show that people actually spend less energy trying to reach a goal if they picture only the rosy outcome. The best way to avoid that dynamic is to offer a vision of a desired future, explain the challenges that must be tackled to achieve the vision, and show how those challenges can be overcome.”

In order to understand opportunity—in order to see success—we must first understand the barriers that lie in our way.

Learn more about creating your Problem Message by taking a look at our marketing guide: Messaging That’s Memorable.


Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.

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