Is your messaging undermining your cause?

Think about the cause you care most about. When did you first commit to that cause? What was it that tipped you from vaguely interested to a committed advocate?

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that economic benefit to yourself wasn’t what did it. Probably not even the broader argument of cost benefit for the economy.

More likely, something resonated deeply with in you.

We’ve all seen campaigns that frame doing good in terms of helping ourselves – “save the earth, save money”, “donate now and win!”, “It’s good for the economy” – but is this the best way to motivate people? Could this strategy even be hurting our work in the long-term?

How can we help our supporters find the same deep motivation we did?

Seeing the success of marketing campaigns driven by goodie bags, prizes and other incentives, it’s unsurprising that non-profits too have turned to these as a way to engage more people.

Values underly our Behaviour

A large body of research pulled together by Common Cause has shown that our values guide our behaviour.

If you work for a charity, then your work probably promotes values of social justice, caring for others, and protecting the environment.

But when we talk about prizes and money, it speaks to values of self-interest.

Reinforcing counter productive thinking

The pathways in our brains are like muscles: the more you use them, the stronger they get, and the more likely you are to use them again, and (as you may have guessed) the less you use them, the weaker they get, and the less likely you are to use them.

So by creating messages that get people to think in terms of money and self-image we are strengthening those values in their mind, and weakening the values that we really want to resonate with people.

It may work in the short-term, that’s why we keep doing it – it helps us hit fund-raising targets, get the number of signatures we need on a petition, and so on.

But, long term, we’re encouraging our supporters to think in terms of self-interest. This means that when we face complex challenges, they’re more likely to think about the self-interest aspect than the caring for others aspect, which can be devastating for our cause.

The Common Cause HandbookIf people see our issue as conflicting with their self-interest, they’re less likely to support it. This won’t matter for our hard-core supporters who, like us, connect to the deep values that motivate their interest in the cause, but for those on the edge – the people that are critical when we face big complex challenges – they’ll be more likely to think about the cost-benefit and self-interest.

It also means that our supporters will likely reinforce that emphasis as they start explaining things to others drawing on the self-interest arguments that we’ve used.

We saw a big example of this recently in Australia when major victories on climate change were wound back because people thought it was costing them money.

Don't Think of an ElephantCommon Cause provides a framework to help think about what values we communicate in our messaging, and help people connect our cause with their deeply held values.

This post barely skims the surface of the work of Common Cause. Read their reports for a more in-depth understanding, or you may also want to start with George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant.