Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

The Messenger Matters

By Laurie Wolf

Last week, a headline caused me to ruminate on a persistent challenge for us in how we do our work. The headline was: How 5-year old Sophia Cruz Changed the National Discourse on Immigration with a Note to the Pope. The challenge is: How do we know the right messenger for our stories?

This is a question I find myself asking in a variety of contexts. Like me, you have likely found yourself in different roles within an organization – as a board member, staff member, volunteer, parent, ambassador, participant, advocate, or paid or unpaid advisor. On the inside maybe nothing changed – after all, you were still you. But the reality is that different roles create the opportunity for different voices to be heard.   There are days in my work when I find myself reflecting back to a group the answers they already had but didn’t necessarily believe were true.  One of the key differences in the group’s ability to hear the message was a new messenger.  I am certainly not always “the right messenger.” However, understanding this concept can allow us all to have this tool in our toolbox to use internally with our board and staff and externally when building new funding relationships or working as advocates to create change through public policy.

We certainly can do more to create a whole team of messengers for our mission and the larger causes that we champion. After all, one of the primary roles of board and staff is to be an ambassador for the organization through the consistent use of the key messages. But sometimes being ambassadors is not enough. We need to also be advocates. While ambassadors represent our mission, cause or idea, an advocate wants change. We can all be advocates, but the reality is that to be effective we have to be the right advocate at the right time, with the right message. The 5-year old girl met all these criteria. Make no mistake, this takes planning.

In 2013, we focused our entire Leadership Summit on crafting and refining our messages. We focused and continue to focus on helping nonprofit leaders tell more compelling stories that draw in the listener and create a variety of wonderful partnerships. But, when it comes to the messenger, there are far fewer tools that help us know who the right messenger should be to make the change we want to see in the world. At our last Leadership Summit in 2015, Zaid Hussan encouraged the room of 500 people to think about an issue they wanted to influence and identify the 35 people who could make it happen – then gather them together, get a plan, and get it done. The piece that I have held onto from that session is that it takes the “right” 35 people. These are our advocates who can be the tipping point to a conversation, who can open a new door, who can ask a question in a way that can be heard. Not just one person, but a team of the right people. The messengers matter.

Our ability to hear the message is tied directly to the messenger.  The popular saying, “it’s not what I say but what you hear” comes to mind in this context. Who delivers the message has an impact on the listener and their ability to hear that message.  It is the perception of which role I have in the conversation that gives the messenger the credibility to not just say what must be said, but also to be heard.

What this can mean is that the right messenger in some cases may not be you. I say that carefully, knowing full well that each of us has passion and commitment in our work. Yet, as I see organizations, projects or ideas get stuck, it is often because we picked the wrong messenger to deliver the concept, idea, theory, or request.  These challenges present us with the opportunity to ask ourselves, “am I the right messenger, right now, and if not me, then who? The responsibility likely is still ours to make sure the idea moves forward, but our role may not be as the spokesperson.

We have certainly had this experience at Foraker when considering our role as spokesperson on an important community issue.  Like many of you, your nonprofit is in the business to be “the” advocate on a particular mission or larger cause. As the state association for nonprofits in Alaska, when we are faced with an advocacy opportunity we have a set of criteria that we consider before we act. Those  criteria ensure that we are the right messenger  and that we have the ability to follow-through on our commitment.  One consideration asks us to contemplate if we are a credible voice on the issue.  Knowing our credibility tells us if we should continue to explore the topic as the lead messenger or engage in a different supporting role.  Your organization likely has your own criteria for deciding your advocacy role. Do you use the same criteria when assessing your role as an individual messenger?  If not, then let’s examine a few scenarios and the questions we might consider to establish the right individual messenger for the times when your voice alone may not be clearly heard.

  1. In relationship-based, donor-centered fundraising, we ask: Who is the right person from the donor’s perspective? This will often lead to a conversation about a peer to the donor or someone they believe is a credible voice, like the executive director or a board member.
  2. In public policy, we ask: Who has the most credibility on the topic? Who has the respect of the decision-maker? Who appears to have little or no self-interest in the argument? This can lead us to seek an “outside voice” or ally for our cause. Our internal team can be ready to coordinate and provide the necessary resources for success and may even provide the second wave of messages for consistency and follow-through on the topic. And, our grassroots team of community messengers certainly can make a huge impact on our success.
  3. In a hierarchical relationship, again we ask about credibility and respect but we also need to consider who has an emotional connection to the person. This is certainly harder to discern at times but it often leads us to a peer from a different organization who operates in the same level of hierarchy – or an outsider who is well respected and has “been there, done that” and come out the other side with a positive story – or a paid advisor who has sensitivity to the circumstance and the experience and credibility in the eyes of the person you wish to influence.

These scenarios certainly don’t provide as much clarity as an advocacy decision matrix, but they do provide a few criteria like credibility, respect, and peer-driven as a start.  These scenarios also suggest that the other consideration we need to have in determining the right messenger is a clear understanding of not just what to say, but why we want to say it. Knowing the “why,” or the difference the conversation will make, helps us know our messenger.

Certainly, there are many times in a day when you are the messenger because it is your job. That is fine, but equally true is that this perspective can lead us to forget our intended audience and who they want to hear from – or we get so focused and passionate about our own perspective that we forget to listen to the person we are talking to. Sometimes, these moments are hard to see without the perspective of others.  A true gift we can give to each other is helping our colleague, friend or partner strategize about the right messenger when they are feeling stuck.

I encourage all of us to consider the issues we are challenged by in our daily work and in our efforts to influence large-scale change. If you are frustrated or just not moving as fast as you think your organization could move, then stop and think: Who is truly the right messenger? We can all be ambassadors and advocates for our mission, our cause, and our immediate project work. The question is: How will our voice be heard?