Nonprofit Narratives for Personae non Gratae

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Image of red vs blue tug of war illustrates nonprofit narratives for personae non gratae

The previous post in this series defined personas and personae non gratae and why researching unsupportive audiences is important. This discussion focuses on the culture that underlies and reinforces the negative responses of people who oppose your nonprofit’s cause / clients – and how to create nonprofit narratives that bridge these divides.

Culture can outweigh both reason and emotion

In this context, culture refers to ethnicity, religious affiliation, social and economic class, as well as political culture. Understanding the cultural aspects of people’s opposition to your work is critical. Because in addition to emotions like fear or aversion, values play a huge role in how people assess risk and attribute blame. It goes without saying, that understanding does not imply agreement or acceptance. It can be difficult, even distressing, to get into the mindset of those with whose views violate one’s own values. However, it is an essential part of effectively addressing personae non gratae.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

This quote from Peter Drucker and Mark Fields originally referred to organizational culture. However, it applies here, too. In the eyes of your opposition, your nonprofit may seem to be part of a larger culture that threatens them. So, the second important piece of research into your opposition is to look at your work from their cultural perspective. They may view your organization as a part of a secular or elitist culture that violates their beliefs. They may see your organization as having failed to show solidarity or even awareness of their economic crisis. You need to frame your narratives for them accordingly.

Reason alone doesn’t change peoples’ minds

Several studies of human reasoning have shown that culture is far more persuasive than logic. Researchers hypothesize that it’s far more important for us to be included in collective endeavors than it is to prove our positions logically. We also benefit from relying on culture when it comes to using technology. For example, the people who invented toilets made them super easy to use, even if we can’t really explain in any detail how they actually work. Otherwise, imagine how long it would take to get through the line outside women’s public restrooms!

Unfortunately, this adaptation can get us into trouble when we need to evaluate complex public policies.

“If we…spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views.”

One strategy is to set up a safe space in which we challenge our opposition and ourselves to explain how the ideas we support would be put into effect and what the results would be. Another strategy is to create stories that bridge cultures.

How do you construct nonprofit narratives that speak to your opposition?

There are religious leaders, including those from the same or similar denominations as your opposition, who can speak about the teachings that move them to do inter-religious work or to fight against right-wing religious violence. Their narratives may work better than more abstract and secular arguments about the separation of religion and state.

Similarly, individuals whose property, jobs, health, families, and communities have been hurt by pollution may offer a bridge to those who see environmentalism as a threat to those very things in their lives.

Another approach would be to hold community events in which your clients / volunteers take part in activities to improve the whole community. Making a video and taking photos of the event, including short interviews of all kinds of community members’ will give you a chance to show a range of reactions that diffuse the us versus them dynamic.

These are just a few suggestions, but there is a great deal of room for creativity and trust building that can grow out of using story lines that resonate across negative perceptions.

Some dos and don’ts for nonprofit narratives that relate to the opposition

First the dos:

  • If there have been incidents of vandalism or violence – or even threats – toward your NPO or your clients, report it immediately to the proper authorities and get their help.
  • Listen, and remember that in your opposition’s narrative you are the villain. Your goal is to build understanding and trust.
  • Start by addressing people who are on the fence or only expressing misgivings about your work.
  • Find common ground in the experiences of your nonprofit and your opposition. For example, both devout Christians and Muslims may share concern about the influence of popular culture on their teenagers’ values and behavior. Immigrant breadwinners and displaced American born workers may share feelings of helplessness and loss of efficacy. Simply telling your clients stories that include these elements may resonate with your opposition.
  • Look for the right story tellers as well as the right story. Your opposition may be much more willing to trust a member of their own community, a person they see as being like them, or at least someone they see as neutral.

Now the don’ts:

  • Never express interpersonal disrespect, even when there is strong disagreement. That means no labeling, condescension, or disparagement of people.
  • Don’t engage in tit-for-tat. Not only is it ineffective, but by repeating what your opposition believes, you are inadvertently reinforcing it.
  • Never stereotype your opposition.
  • Most critically, never speak of or treat your opposition with contempt, no matter how tempting it may be as a tactic to refute them.

Marketing pay-offs for creating nonprofit narratives for personae non gratae

The best possible, if least likely, pay-off is that you will develop narratives that turn detractors into supporters.

However, even that doesn’t happen, you might convince some people to think about your cause differently. You can certainly blunt the impact of the opposition on your stakeholders. Lastly, you may succeed in creating stories that move your supporters more deeply and engage them more actively.

*This post was updated on March 7, 2017


Check back in coming weeks for more posts on Upholding Truth in an Age of Lies. Meantime, here are some helpful resources:

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