I recently had the chance to lead new research on generational messaging related to voting. Our big takeaway: empowerment is key to participation, plus it also influences giving and other key types of engagement nonprofits seek from younger generations.
In Driving Voter Turnout In 2020: Research on Effective Messaging Strategies for Each Generation, the Ad Council and the nonpartisan nonprofit Democracy Works sought to uncover nuances in voting-related messaging. Together, we looked across the generations—Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers—to determine which messages most effectively inspire people to vote, with an eye on 2020 and beyond.
We analyzed the effectiveness of five message “frames,” the dominant themes used by get-out-the-vote campaigns during the 2018 midterm election cycle:
- Issue: “Important issues deserve my attention.”
- Empowerment: “I matter, so my vote does, too.”
- Identity: “Proud to be a voter.”
- Companionship: “Inspired by the people around me.”
- Plan/Ease: “Logistics of voting can be a hurdle.”
In every finding and recommendation, the impact of empowerment on the likelihood of voting was clear, especially when it relates to young people. Empowerment affects how deeply an individual believes they can create change, which has direct implications on philanthropic giving and cause engagement.
Before a person will give to a cause, they must believe they’ll make a difference.
The Surfrider Foundation is one of my favorite examples of how a cause can empower people to act for social good. They tell the story of a young American college student who heard about Surfrider from a friend and began following their activities on social media. When he moved closer to the coast, he started cleaning up the beach as a form of meditation, a way to escape the stress of studying and working full time.
More than 8.75 million metric tons of plastic are sliding into our oceans every year. How could fighting such an insurmountable problem be relaxing? And whatever gave him the idea that he could make a dent in the massive problem of ocean trash?
The Surfrider Foundation did. Surfrider made this individual supporter feel empowered to create change.
After attending a few monthly chapter meetings, this young man formed an official Surfrider club at his university. The result: He is empowering other college students to act and help clean oceans and beaches.
How did Surfrider capture this young supporter’s attention and inspire action? Let’s look at the power of belief, and then we’ll see how Surfrider and other nonprofits can use it to engage people in their cause.
To influence how anyone sees your issue, you must first influence how they see themselves. When they believe they can be the change they want to see in the world, as Gandhi’s famous quote goes, then they will feel empowered to act for the benefit of your issue.
Sources of Belief
In my research and work on influencing millennials, I’ve seen time and again how making someone believe in their own power to make a difference is directly related to how involved they get in a cause and how much they are willing to give in time and resources to help others.
As with all successful influence, we must start from where people are. People of all ages come from one of two basic positions:
- Personal situation
An individual believes in your cause because they’ve had some experience with your issue (themselves or someone they care about)—for example, a woman who had breast cancer, or a man whose father developed Alzheimer’s.
- Personal belief
An individual inherently believes in your issue even if they have no personal relation to it whatsoever—for instance, someone who believes that human trafficking is wrong, even though they’ve never known or met a victim.
Converting a person who has some belief in your issue from a personal situation into someone who believes in your particular nonprofit’s mission in their heart of hearts is often challenging, yet the personal situation donor is your strongest supporter—especially when you empower them to believe they can truly make a difference.
One of the best examples I can think of is Fred Guttenberg, whose teenage daughter was killed by the gunman in the Parkland, Florida high school shooting in 2018. This terrible situation prompted Fred to begin speaking out in favor of gun control. Since then, this real estate agent and auto broker has become a relentless, pivotal voice for changes to gun laws, inspiring people around the world every day with his advocacy, actions, and courage.
Power of Belief
How do we help someone believe they have the capacity for creating change? The causes that accomplish this best are those that engender an emotional reaction in supporters and donors. Once you’ve influenced a person enough that they say, “I believe in (your issue),” then the next step is to produce a consistent feeling that belonging to your mission is imperative to serving their belief and turning it into meaningful action. Let’s look at some examples.
Here’s an example of a very effective public campaign that aims at a person’s belief in girls: The Girl Effect.
Original statement: “The Girl Effect empowers girls with innovative opportunities to learn.”
This approach focuses on the organization. Where does the supporter fit in? Will “innovative opportunities to learn” strike an emotional chord?
Instead of messaging filled with business speak, use conversational language and show, don’t tell.
Better statement: “This is the year to make girls impossible to ignore. Are you in?”
This approach turns the spotlight onto your supporter, which gave the campaign a huge boost in impact and engagement. The statement speaks directly to a belief in an emotional, empowering, inspiring way. The message is simple and persuasive. It also implies that the donor is joining a large group of other like-minded people—a powerful reinforcer of belief.
Here’s another: a video with no narration, simply shots of kids a nonprofit serves. At the end, text appears on the screen: “Help us save every last child.” Do you see any room for improvement there? The video worked well … but the words didn’t, primarily because of where the emphasis was placed. A better statement would have been, “You can make the impossible possible. Give an hour of service to save a child….” That’s empowering language.
Even the biggest causes follow this formula. Causes as well-known as Susan G. Komen for the Cure don’t rely on the public’s knowledge of their brand in their messaging. Instead, they talk about belief in their issue. “Breast cancer is unacceptable.” Feeding America says, “One hungry child is too many.” As opposed to something like, “We give people the opportunity to access free, healthy food,” which may be more straightforward and descriptive, but most people would agree that it’d be much less empowering.
In the case of Surfrider, they shared an effective message of empowerment:
“WHO WE ARE – Champions of Surf & Sand.
Surfrider is a community of everyday people who passionately protect our playground – the ocean, waves, and beaches that provide us so much enjoyment.”
BOOM! The young surfer could immediately see himself in this organization. He plays in the ocean. He’s already regularly cleaning up the beach. He’s an “everyday” person and would have plenty of incentive for joining a group of others like himself. He knows exactly what he’d be doing and why.
You won’t find a more effective empowerment statement by a cause.
Causes both large and small can adopt this approach as a model. The message is simple and straightforward. It’s easy for your supporters to talk about with their friends. The sense of personal power it imparts is unmistakable and unambiguous.
When you craft messaging for Millennials, focus on belief, emotion, and simplicity. Over time, you can help them become more thoughtful and start talking to them about larger financial gifts. For now, focus on influencing how they feel about themselves and reinforcing their belief in your issue.
Derrick Feldmann is a speaker, researcher, and advisor for cause engagement and social good. He is author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change and co-author of Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement. Feldmann serves as the managing director of INFLUENCE|SG. He leads the research initiative Cause and Social Influence and founded and led the Millennial Impact Project, a decade-long study of how the next generation of supporters and consumers engage with causes. His chapter Moving Millennials to Act appears in the newly released 2nd edition of Nonprofit Management 101.