Mon, November 19 2012

An anonymous letter: Is this you?  Here’s my advice.

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

Filed under:   Marketing essentials •

I got this letter a few days ago.  I agreed to keep the sender anonymous - and the sender let me share the contents along with my thoughts.  Does this sound like you? 

Here’s the letter—and my advice.


I need help.  I’m the marketing manager for a county-wide organization which serves frail elderly people by providing services to help them remain in their homes and avoid nursing home care.  We are a fairly large organization with almost 70 staffers and not an ample budget but an adequate one.  I am middle management - I report directly to the executive director and he does listen to my ideas with an open mind, but I am not senior management. 

I dream of changing our organization from the middle.  We wildly, desperately need to teach our staff about branding.  Right now, each department operates to a large degree in a vacuum without any unifying thread about what the organization does and why we do it.  I want to create a culture where we all have a clear view of what our mission is and recognize the importance of aligning our behaviors and our work with that mission. Everyone going their own way has led to a very chaotic, focus-lacking overall message in our community, to the point where many people truly do not understand who we are and what we do.  I see this problem in almost everything we do.  Our volunteers, for example, sign on with us to serve in our nutrition program because they want to help people - but we reward them with logo-ed merchandise and coupons for free cookies, instead of stories about how their time and passion is helping us change lives.  We are missing so many opportunities to shout from the rooftops about all the good we do and inspire people to give and do more, and in my opinion we could address many of these communication problems through proper and passionate branding.

If I could change the culture here so that everyone around me would get on board with our brand and how they support it through their everyday actions, we could do so much more!  We could serve more people.  We could all have more passion about our jobs.  We could change the world (in our county). smile

My problem is that I need to persuade others (especially those above me) to see the value in giving up some of our existing, we’ve-always-done-it-that-way methods to make room for some growth.  I need to persuade them to see the value in uniting everyone behind the same brand and mission even if it means they might have to change the way they do some things. 

Do you have any advice on how to start pushing this particular boulder up the mountain?  Do you know of any great books I could read or branding success stories I could review that would help me implement the change that our organization needs?  If you were me, and you were trying to change the world from the middle, how would you start? 

(Name withheld)

To the sender: Thank you.  For caring so much, for daring to do things different and for seeking a constructive way forward.  Here’s my advice to you.

1. Don’t try to change your culture.  It’s too hard.  Work within your culture to get everyone on board with one identity.  The way you unite people around a single brand idea is to find the common passionate thread that winds through the existing culture.  What does everyone have in common?  What value is universal at your organization?  If you aren’t sure, walk around and ask people.  Start with their answers.  It’s a solid foundation on which to build a united, emotional feeling.  Nothing is more motivating or bonding than that.

2. Don’t try to get people to value your perspective - show how your perspective relates to their values!  You say, “I need to persuade others (especially those above me) to see the value in giving up some of our existing, we’ve-always-done-it-that-way methods to make room for some growth.”  I think that’s a tough message.  You’re telling people to change, to stop doing things their way and to give up something they value. That can’t be sold easily!  I think you need to listen first.  Ask people what they most treasure in terms of their current approach.  Ask them what it achieves and how it promotes their priorities.  Then figure out how your ideas can feel like a complement - rather than a challenge.  You don’t want to dismantle people’s sense of identity.  You want to connect to it.

3. Show rather than tell your ideas.  All sorts of brain research shows that stories and emotion engage people in a way that an analytical case never can.  Make your case with story first, facts second.  Even better, demonstrate the story.  For example, record interviews with donors and prospects and share those first-hand observations.  Interview volunteers about why they help and how they felt about that - vs the merchandise.  Capture those first-hand, front-lines stories.  Think about ways to bring to life the challenges you face.  If you’re losing most of your donors each year (which most charities are), put a bunch of objects representing donors on the table and take away the amount that isn’t given the next year by the same set of donors.  Talk about how your ideas can help fix that.

4. Put your case in the mouth of someone your boss likes and respects.  You may not be the best messenger for your case.  Who has your boss’s ear?  Let them do the convincing for you.

5. Ask for permission for a very small experiment.  Start tiny and show a result.  That kins of ask is less threatening to others, and it gives you real success to highlight in order to build a case for bigger initiatives.

6. Create a way to boost communication.  At my organization, we have cross-functional teams hold brief, 15-minute stand-up meetings first thing, several mornings a week.  (People literally stand up - it keeps meetings short and energy high!)  How can you create an environment where people are interacting, sharing what they are planning that week and starting a conversation about how their efforts inter-relate?

7. Find a common aspiration - or enemy.  Nothing unites and concentrates and organization like a highly ambitious and specific goal or a threat to avoid.  What is the destination you all need to attain this year?  How can you work with the leadership of the organization to define a tangible social impact measure that everyone must support and achieve?  This gets people working together far more tightly.

Last, my reading recommendation.  Switch by Chip and Dan Heath is the best book on getting organizations to change!  Buy it here and get free resource guides and the first chapter here.

  • Comment: (6)   



This is an excellent post and one that I think resonates with a lot of people, whether in the non-profit world or not.

I completely agree with your comments on the letter, especially point one! I don’t think this person can alter the culture of their organization, but I think that if she takes some of the small steps that you outlined above, then he/she’ll be able to slowly alter coworker thinking, and thereby change the organizational culture.

It’s also important to note that culture can’t be the target of change, nor can it be specifically created. Culture evolves from organizational practices and beliefs, it’s what grows out of what an organization does.

I would recommend that this person also read a book called Suddenly In Charge: Managing Up/Managing Down, by Roberta Matuson.

Available here:


Posted by Shane Francescut  on  11/19  at  09:25 AM

This is a great post. I appreciate your insightful and pragmatic approach to the challenges the letter writer laid out. We can all learn from this. I’m inspired to implement some of your suggestions in organizations I’m involved with.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/21  at  11:54 AM

I’d recommend reading Good to Great for the Social Sectors by Jim Collins.  If you can get the organization to see the benefit of adopting a structure like this it would help a great deal.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/27  at  03:40 PM

I second the recommendation about reading the book, Switch. I actually created a spread sheet with the points in the left hand column and then used other columns to track my projects to make sure I didn’t miss any points.

I would edit your number one point to make it read, “Don’t try to change your culture NOW.” I really think that’s what you’re saying. Don’t make me go all Margaret Mead on you. You know there are plenty of examples where one person did just that:-) Cultures can be changed by one person, if that person has the right knowledge, skills, influence, and the timing is right.

Posted by Glenn  on  11/28  at  11:40 AM

I came to Guidstar for a totally different reason and just happened on to your blog. You hit it right on the mail for me trying to initiate a new direction as a new non profit, umbrella for a long standing child-adult health and social problem. Your spotlight will help me as I meet and talk with other people. Thank you

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/29  at  10:36 AM

Great advice.  Also, work with what you have and build on it.

Posted by Cynthia C  on  12/04  at  08:58 PM

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