By Brenda B. Asare, President & CEO of Alford Group
By Araceli Duran, Business Development Associate at Alford Group
Strength-based messaging is a term that has become increasingly common in both the philanthropic and communication space as the nonprofit community strives to center equity in their work. However, you may be wondering if these are just buzzwords, or you may be grappling with how to help your clients apply these principles to their work. So, let’s take the time to unpack what strength-based messaging really means and how as consultants we can help our clients incorporate it into their communications, planning and approach.
What is strength-based messaging?
According to Prosper Strategies, a leading communications firm, strength-based messaging emphasizes the strengths, opportunities and power of an individual, group or community. It represents people positively, in a way that feels true and empowering to them. Instead of focusing on the negatives of a community or a population, strength-based messaging seeks to uplift the positive and move away from language that can be stigmatizing or objectifying to the communities, populations and clients we serve.
In all internal and external communications, we should take care to avoid including language that is rooted in stereotypes or needs-based messaging when attempting to uplift and center the positive impact of our clients’ mission-forward work on the individuals and/or communities we seek to support. When we as firms and consultants to the nonprofit community focus the narrative of our communications on the needs or challenges a group or population is facing, we continue to perpetuate systemic injustices by defining them by the challenges and needs they are currently experiencing. This centers their pain and strips away their dignity – in turn limiting audience perceptions of the individual or community’s horizons.
As consultants, we frequently use individual and community stories as a call to action to inspire donors or volunteers to support our clients’ organization or cause. A strength-based approach to language ensures that when we are representing individuals or a community, we are empowering and uplifting who they are and who they could be and not depriving them of positive human qualities.
Tenets of strength-based messaging and how to use it effectively
Now that we have a better understanding of what strength-based messaging is, let’s look at some basic tenets and how we can incorporate strength-based messaging strategically into our everyday life and communications. Of course, how you reflect this work will vary somewhat depending on your client and what their goals are and what they’re trying to accomplish, but let’s take a look at some general principles that we should keep in mind when you’re writing a case for support for a fundraising campaign, or you’re helping a client put together a newsletter to keep volunteers and program partners up to date on a new program’s impact.
Here are four centrals principles to keep in mind as identified by A Progressive’s Style Guide:
- People-First Language: People-first language aims to make personhood the essential characteristic of every person. People-first language views other descriptive social identities that people may hold as secondary and non-essential.
- Examples of people-first language: Person with a disability, person who uses a wheelchair, person who is in recovery from a substance abuse disorder
- Self-Identification: Wherever categorization and labels are used to oppress groups of people, self-identification becomes an act of resistance. At the same time, people who are robbed of opportunities to self-identify lose not just words that carry political power, but may also lose aspects of their culture, agency, and spirit. Progressive writing, as much as possible, should strive to include language that reflects peoples’ choice and style in how they talk about themselves. If you aren’t sure, ask.
- Examples of self-identification: Race/ethnicity status, LGBTQ, veteran status, disability status
- Active Voice: A grammatical voice in many languages, active voice puts the “actor” of the sentence in the role of performing the action. Often lauded for contributing to more dynamic writing, active voice may also be key to naming perpetrators of violence and harm directly. An opportunity to scan for active voice should be taken as an opportunity to root out implicit bias toward status quo systems of power by naming the actors of oppression, whether human, institutional, or cultural.
- Example of active voice: I will pick up the mail (active) vs. The mail was picked up by me (passive)
- Proper Nouns: Names used for and by individual places, persons, and organizations convey respect, understanding, acceptance and clarity. At the same time, common nouns and pronouns can dilute an issue or simply create confusion. While conversational tone is often well utilized in campaign writing, great care should be taken to avoid misleading readers. For example, the overuse of words such as “it,” “that,” and “this” may leave the reader wondering who the writer is talking about at a critical point in the story.
- Examples of proper nouns: Names of a particular person, place, organization or thing such as Abraham Lincoln, Chicago and the National Mall
As we can see from these four central principles, to truly embody strength-based messaging is to focus on giving agency and voice to your clients, audiences and the communities we serve. As consultants, we should be centering and wherever possible uplifting their voices and identifying them in a way that is respectful and feels right to them. Our writing should be specific, clear and take care to name any actors of oppression. Of course, intentionally bringing an equity-centered lens with strength-based messaging requires taking the time to partner with clients and truly understand the communities they serve and how to continuously engage them in effective storytelling and representation.
If you’re considering making the move to strength-based messaging, then you’re in good company. As we all work to ground equity in all of our work, then strength-based messaging can ensure that as consultants we are helping our clients avoid the type of language that demoralizes and dehumanizes communities, populations and groups. It is key to making sure that our clients are treating their communities with respect, and that they are naming and calling out injustices when they appear. The work of centering equity is continuous and ongoing and using strength-based messaging ensures that collectively we’re taking the necessary steps to calling out the inequities in our system and taking care to uplift the communities we belong to and serve.
Looking for more resources as you navigate your DEI journey? Check out our Alford Group Resource Center on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion here.