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Taglines, the Predisposed, and Positioning
Tom Ahern

November, 2005


A tagline is also known as a slogan. And it has a delightfully bloodthirsty derivation. I'm told that "slogan" derives from the Gaelic term "slaughgaiirm," used by Scottish clans and meaning "war cry." An inspiring thought: Your tagline is your war cry! Shout it at the top of your lungs and charge into battle!

Swordplay aside, your tagline answers the same basic questions as your elevator speech: What does your organization stand for? What is your mission? Why does the mission matter?

And like your elevator speech, your tagline hopes to hook "the predisposed" (more about those special folks in a moment).

Consider the following four taglines (and the thinking behind three of them):

(1) "Helping victims become children again." Tagline for the Memphis Child Advocacy Center, which intervenes in cases of child abuse. I didn't write this particular tagline, so I can't offer insights into its crafting. But it is one of the very best I've encountered: it captures in five words the deepest hope of donors, that a child badly battered by sexual abuse, emotional torment, and violence can be restored to health and innocence.

(2) "Because facts matter in the fight for economic justice." This tagline was written for the Poverty Institute, a think tank that tracks the impact of taxes and legislation on Rhode Island's working poor. The Institute is about to start a capital campaign, to raise money for a permanent endowment. The tagline builds on one of the Institute's founding principles: that good information is the basis for fair and effective social policy. The tagline keeps the jargon to a minimum and uses short, direct words like "facts" (instead of "information"), "fight" (to suggest urgency, conflict and action), and "justice" (an ideal the predisposed might respond to).

(3) "A place of our own at the corner of hope and health." This tagline was written for a capital campaign conducted by Us Helping Us (UHU), a DC-based HIV/AIDS clinic and prevention center. The campaign raised money to consolidate the agency's operations, scattered across various rented quarters, into a single, refurbished, UHU-owned facility. The tagline turned a bricks-and-mortar project into an icon "of hope and health."

(4) "Quality, affordable homes for all." Tagline for HousingWorks RI, a collaborative campaign by business, government and NGOs to build sorely needed affordable housing for Rhode Island's low- and moderate-income workforce. This tagline was a direct copy of one used in Minnesota. Originally the tagline had a qualifier: "…by 2015." Committees debated, as committees do, and decided they could not guarantee delivery on that date a decade hence. The time-specific goal ("…by 2015.") was dropped in the final version, trading away a degree of urgency and commitment for a tagline that was safe but vaguer. Over-thinking is the trademark flaw of committee-juried creativity.


Who are "the predisposed" and why do they matter?

Someone is predisposed to give a gift if they intrinsically agree with your mission and vision. Keep in mind: they might not know who you are yet. But in their hearts, when they hear your arguments, they know you are right. And therefore they are likely to make a gift.

The predisposed are out there, hundreds, maybe zillions of them. They're scattered among those you call your "prospects" or "suspects." The only place you WON'T find the predisposed are among your opponents. Nor should you care.

Rookie fundraisers sometimes tilt at windmills, hoping to persuade EVERYONE to give. Don't bother. Debate is not a fundraiser's job. You won't turn National Rifle Association members into supporters of gun control. Pursuing that kind of unlikely alchemy is a conspicuous waste of your time and money.


Did I mention my new book on donor newsletters, just out from Emerson & Church? It's the ONLY book now available on the tricky (but profitable) business of using newsletters to help your organization raise lots more money.

The preceding statement is an example of positioning. The key word? "Only."

Your "position" is what sets you apart, the one thing you can say about your work that makes you different from every other organization. Uniqueness DOES count in fundraising. Donors prefer "the only." They are not nearly as interested in you if all you can say is: "We are one of a dozen organizations all doing pretty much the same thing."

Somehow your organization (or capital campaign) should be able to finish the following statement: "We are the only [fill in the blank]." Earlier you met the Poverty Institute. They offer a perfect example of positioning. The Institute can legitimately say that it is "…the only tax and policy analyst working on behalf of Rhode Island's lowest-wage earners."

Your positioning also helps you estimate the size of your prospect pool.

An organization that claims, "We are the only organization focused on child abuse in Petersburg, Virginia" will have relatively few prospects among individuals who live outside that city. On the other hand, an organization that makes a convincing case that it's tackling a national issue (Emily's List, dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women in the U.S., comes to mind) will find hot, predisposed prospects across the country.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America's leading authorities on how to make nonprofit communications consistently effective. He speaks frequently in the U.S. and Canada on reader psychology, direct mail principles, good (and not very good) graphic design as applied to fundraising and nonprofit branding. He is a writer and president of Ahern Communications, Ink., a consultancy specializing in capital campaign materials and other fundraising communications. He has won three prestigious Gold Quill awards from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). His offices are in Rhode Island and France.

Now available on The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, by Tom Ahern, released October 2005 by Emerson & Church, North America's leading publisher of how-to books for fundraisers and nonprofit boards.

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