Jargon-aught: Unite to alleviate overused mission statements

Singer Taylor Swift made headlines in February when her legal team applied for U.S. trademark protection for many of the titles of her currently popular songs. Trademarking “Party Like It’s 1989” seems reasonable and, let’s face it, nobody’s done that for 25 years, except maybe Rod Stewart.

But, trademarking “Nice To Meet You. Where Have You Been?” seems almost like a limit on free speech. It’s a good thing Faith Hill didn’t trademark “Breathe” or else what would yoga instructors, delivery room nurses, and EMTs be able to offer as advice?

It’s also a good thing neither of them trademarked “alleviate suffering” because dozens of nonprofits use that as a key phrase in the mission statement. It’s become the phrase “du jour” on websites and in annual reports. Did they all hire the same mission statement consultant?

Just for fun, match the mission statements below with the organizations that use them. You won’t have to pass the second page of a Google search on “‘alleviate suffering’ mission” to cheat, but don’t.

“… alleviating human need and suffering in the United States and around the world.”

“… alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found.”

“… alleviate suffering.”

“… alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.”

“… alleviate poverty through lasting solutions…”

“… alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression…”

“…alleviate suffering, hunger, illiteracy, and diseases worldwide regardless of color, race, religion, or creed”

“… alleviate suffering, promote self-reliance, and instill hope.”

“… alleviate suffering of all animals.” (OK this one is a gimme.)

“… change lives and alleviate suffering glocally” (yes that’s a word.)

Possible answers: (a) Care for Life; (b) Catholic World Mission; (c) FINCA; (d) Operation Blessing; (e) Islamic Relief USA; (f) RSPCA – UK; (g) Mercy Corps; (h) American Red Cross; (i) Southeast Pennsylvania Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; (j) Glide Memorial Church, San Francisco.

Answers: 1-D; 2-H; 3-B; 4-J; 5-C; 6-G; 7-E; 8-A; 9-F; 10-I

“Glocally” at least shows innovation. As it sounds, it’s a mashup of “think globally, act locally.” It must be new because Google only shows 27,600 pages with that word. “Taylor Swift” results in 279 million pages, and she’s only been around since late 1989.

Twenty years or so ago I had lunch with the membership director of The Wilderness Society. Or, maybe it was The Nature Conservancy. I forget, and that’s part of the story. We discussed member retention. I said, “When someone doesn’t renew, it’s probably not because they decided that clear-cutting forests is a cool idea, or that they joined the National Association of Polluters. They just got mad at you, or, perhaps, found a similar organization with a better mail package.”

She told me a story that proved the point. She said that frequently friends who learn where she works smile and say, “I LOVE your calendars! The photos are awesome.”

“Rick,” she said, shaking her head sadly, “We’ve never sent a calendar. That’s from the other guys.”

The number of 501(c)(3) nonprofits has roughly tripled since that lunch. The Urban Institute statistics show the sector grew 25 percent between 2001 and 2011; GuideStar figures indicate another 14 percent growth since then, to over 1.7 million Internal Revenue Service-recognized organizations today. The number of unique problems to be addressed by these nonprofits has not grown at the same rate.

Rather, there has been a Balkanization of nonprofits, each one focusing on a narrower and narrower mission. That’s a good thing. It gives the donor more choices and provides more opportunities for donors to direct their money to specific causes. This is vastly different from our parents’ generation, when they threw coins in the red kettle and “gave at the office” to United Way, trusting them to solve problems as those behemoth organizations saw fit. Want to help improve literacy among left-handed Muslim girls in Tibet? There’s probably a nonprofit focused on that today.

This smorgasbord of charitable opportunities requires greater precision in nonprofits’ communications, as they articulate exactly what they do, and why they’re different than the nonprofit down the street (or in the same bundle of today’s mail, or in the same page of Google results). So, if you’re all about “alleviating suffering” then you’re in good company, but you’re all about everything … which means nothing.

Let’s alleviate the suffering of poor, confused donors. Let’s tell them exactly what we do, and give them clear choices.  NPT

Rick Christ is a direct response fundraising consultant with more than 30 years of direct mail marketing and fundraising. Follow him @FundraisingRick or write to Rick@RickChrist.com