Better and Best

We were travelling on the Docklands Light Rail.  The sign above the door exhorted passengers to make the DLR “faster, cleaner, safer.” “That seems wrong,” I commented to my husband.  “Now I’m thinking that the DLR is somehow slow, dirty and dangerous.”

“It could have been worse,” my husband said.  “They could have left off the ‘er’ at the end of each word, making passengers really nervous.”

Good point, but still.  The message would have been stronger if they added one word.  Make the DLR even faster, cleaner, safer.  That  would have changed my perspective.  Now I would think the rail system was looking to build on its already impressive accomplishments.  It was, for example, fast—but we want to get there even more quickly.

The truth is that most people support winners.  Nonprofits who raise the most money, continue to raise the most money.  And those who are in danger of closing their doors either do so or hang on by the proverbial thread.  Given the choice to support something that is hoping someday to be good at what it does and one that is looking to get even better, odds are the support will flow to the latter.  While there is a joy in helping an organization “Build Excellence,” there is a comfort level in supporting the one that is “Building On (already existing) Excellence.”

The danger here, of course, is hyperbole.  Overstating your strengths can backfire.  You must, therefore, choose your words carefully. Even more importantly, think about what it is you are trying to convey.

While I would love for all of you to believe that I am the best nonprofit blogger in the whole world, I do know that would mean that you would have to have as rich a fantasy life as I.  In truth, what I really want is that you find the information I provide useful (and that you enjoy the way in which that information is given).  To convince potential new readers that the information may be, indeed, useful, I would focus on my many years’ experience in the field (my strength) and connect that to the advice I offer.

Think about the messages you use.  Are you building on your strengths or are your words making people wonder how good you really are?  Even more critically, are you giving the messages that matter?  If you want to talk about the quality of your service, does it matter that your offices are in a “verdant park-like setting?”  If not, don’t tell me about it.  If it does impact your services, make sure you connect the dots.

Sometimes, because we know so much about our organizations, we think in implied strengths.  But the people (and other organizations) we are inviting to become involved with us may not have that level of understanding.  Try to look at your messages through their eyes and not yours.

In short, while it is commendable to strive for competency, it is far more marketable to have your expertise be the starting point, and be building on that to bring better services or programs to your clients and provide an opportunity for your donors to be supporting the best.

Janet Levine is a consultant, coach and trainer working with nonprofits to increase their capacity.  Learn more about her services and classes at