Times have changed since I first started campaigning, marketing and fundraising (was it really 40 years ago? OMG!)

In the 1980s and 1990s, we lived in the Age of Boasting. Whether the medium was broadcast or print, some anonymous ‘announcer voice’ would speak on behalf of the company trying to tell you something. That unidentified voice would extol the virtues of the product as if it was God’s gift to mankind. “Tide gets your clothes whiter than white!”

And you know what? That boastful approach worked back then. Back in a time when the marketplace was populated largely by trusting members of the Civic Generation (those born before 1946), customers would pretty much believe whatever they were told. The trick back then was simply to have enough money to get your message in front of your audiences – and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Charities, NGOs, and non-profits pretty much copied what was happening in the corporate world. We got in the habit of tooting our own horns – and expecting our donors and supporters to accept without questioning. I suppose that approach worked for us, too, twenty or thirty years ago.

But it’s not working now!


Today, the philanthropic marketplace is occupied largely by Baby Boomers (1946-1966), who are VERY different from their Civic parents. Boomers question everything and everybody. We grew up with the slogan ‘never trust anyone over thirty!’. We simply don’t accept the words of people in positions of authority as truth the way our parents did.

And – if you think Boomers are skeptical – consider the mindset of Gen Xers (1967-1982) and Millennials (1983-1998). They’ve even LESS likely to accept messages by anonymous pitchmen from companies, charities or political parties.

If you want to persuade your audience that you’re really great at what you do, you need to re-frame everything from the outside in. By that, I mean that the voices extolling your virtues need to be from OUTSIDE your organization. Most audiences today will trust a donor, a volunteer, or a program recipient as a more authentic voice than your Board Chair or Executive Director (or that anonymous corporate voice I mentioned earlier!)

Real messages from real people in their own words are going to cut through today’s clutter and actually persuade your audiences that your organization really IS great at what it does.


Here’s a bit of easy homework:

  • Take your organization’s last newsletter or annual report. Can you pick out every instance where some claim of competence or greatness is made – and determine who it’s from? If it’s in anonymous corporate speak, you can assume it’s not working. If it’s from an organizational leader, you can assume its impact is fair at best. But! If it’s from someone without a vested interest in your organization, you’re moving the persuasion needle and achieving your goal!
  • The second exercise you can try is the ‘First Person Test’. Take that newsletter or annual report and estimate what percentage of the words on those pages are written in the first person – BY someone. And then estimate the remaining percentage that’s not attributed to anyone’s voice – in other words, that journalistic-style corporate voice. The more you can speak in the first person, the more effective you’re going to be.

So please: convince everyone in your organization to stop boasting – and let others who love you tell the world just how truly wonderful you are!