Why should you challenge urgency in your communications?
Urgency can present itself in a number of ways and is a key characteristic of white supremacy culture. Former senior strategist Laura Fisher, and chief growth officer and partner, Farra Trompeter, discuss how urgency can impact your organization’s team and offer useful ways to question it in this episode of the Smart Communications Podcast.
Sarah Durham: The first episode of the Smart Communications Podcast aired back in 2018. And since then we’ve released almost a hundred podcasts on all sorts of communications topics. All of our podcasts strive to develop the voices of determined nonprofits, people like you. And if you’ve been listening to our podcast for a while, you may be used to hearing my voice in particular. I’m Sarah Durham and I created this podcast so my colleagues at Big Duck and I would have a way to celebrate, share, and learn even more from incredible nonprofit communications leaders. And to celebrate the third birthday of the show, we’ve decided to add a new layer of dimension into it. I’ve invited a number of my colleagues to conduct their own interviews and solocasts for the show so we can broaden the depth and breadth of perspectives and voices we share with you even further. So get ready to hear more smart communications insights from even more voices and as always let us know what you think by emailing us at [email protected]. Thanks for listening.
Farra Trompeter: This is Farra Trompeter, chief growth officer, and partner at Big Duck. I have the pleasure of hosting today’s conversation with Laura Fisher, one of our senior strategists, who has been at Big Duck for almost six years. And today, Laura is going to join me to talk about why you should be questioning urgency in your communications. Laura, welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast.
Laura Fisher: Hi Farra. Thanks for having me.
Farra Trompeter: We’re recording this podcast in May of 2021. It’s over one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. It has certainly been an incredibly intense time for so many of us in our personal and professional lives. And while the vaccine rollouts are in progress and cities are starting to reopen here in the US, we’re starting to field a lot of questions from nonprofits about their communications. And in particular, one thing we’ve been talking about is the issue of urgency. Laura, you recently wrote a blog for us all about challenging urgency in your communications. We’ll link to that in the transcript. And that’s really what I want to talk about today. So before we dive into urgency and communications, let’s just start by defining what we mean when we’re talking about urgency.
Laura Fisher: A sense of urgency is one of a lot of different traits to find as common characteristics of White Supremacy Culture by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, and they are linked to in the blog post as well. These are all elements of culture that can promote white supremacy thinking. And today particularly, we’re talking about how they can show up in the workplace, and specifically how they can show up in communications work. So a sense of urgency is just one of those traits but specifically means reinforcing the idea that things need to happen quickly. Those quick things that happen, happen at the sake of inclusivity and democratic thinking. Speeding things up can often leave out valuable perspectives and reduce folks involved in the process and can lead to team burnout and really lead to problems with the health and well-being of your staff.
Farra Trompeter: Right? So let’s talk about it now, when we think about this characteristic of urgency, and I appreciate you talking about how it shows up in our lives and sort of day-to-day moments, how do you think it shows up in the world of nonprofit communications?
Laura Fisher: In the post I wrote, I wrote about how urgency can show up internally when how folks are working together to actually create the communications and externally in the tactics and activities that are often used in nonprofit communications to inspire people to take action. Today, particularly I’ll be talking about fundraising, as urgency in fundraising is a really a common practice. So just to share a couple of examples of how it might show up, internal urgency may have been present in your organization when your team was trying to get out of response to George Floyd’s murder or other news events over the last year. So things like AAPI violence, a lot of organizations have been responding to those news events and reactive responses to those events can often feel like they’re rushed. Externally, common fundraising practices do also perpetuate a sense of urgency. Even something as simple as a countdown clock to giving really inspires, perpetuating this idea that a gift needs to happen right now that leads to urgency. And I’ll dig in a little later into why that kind of urgency is bad, but even small tactics like that externally perpetuate this idea of speed and quickness.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. And let’s just zoom out for a second and come back to team health. You mentioned that in the beginning and talked about culture. What do you think is really at the heart of what Jones and Okun are trying to get us to think about? How does urgency actually impact people’s teams?
Laura Fisher: I think when we work quickly, a couple of things happen. The first is that you run the risk of leaving out valuable perspectives. And you kind of, as I said earlier, create the possibility of team burnout and strains on team health. So the first part about leaving out valuable perspectives. Without inviting the right people to respond, team members can feel excluded, and the content itself that you’re putting out or the project you’re working on can lose value if only certain perspectives are centered. And often at a lot of organizations where white perspectives are dominant, you’re leading into centering white perspectives and you can lose valuable other perspectives in the organization like staff of color. And then on the other hand, in terms of straining the health of your team, rushing to get things done, creating unrealistic deadlines is asking a lot of your staff and can put a strain on physical and mental health, especially during a really challenging year. So thinking about both how you might reduce the value of your own internal communications by not being as inclusive as you should be and how you’re straining your team when you do really put strict deadlines on internal projects.
Farra Trompeter: Great. So let’s say folks are ready to start examining this issue of urgency within their team. What are some questions they might ask to try and figure out where they’re at and what they can do?
Laura Fisher: In the blog post, I wrote about a number of different questions that you could ask, but I kind of want to highlight just one of them being, what are we sacrificing by working towards this strict deadline? And I think this is something that you could use as a useful question and starting point to think critically about at the start of any project you’re taking on. Like, consider if there is a perspective of value or team health at stake by creating some kind of strict deadline, rushing to get something out the door, what are you letting go of? What are you sacrificing? What is the risk of doing it that quickly and doesn’t need to actually happen that fast? Just consider that question, what it means, and consider if there is a more realistic work plan you can make that would be more inclusive and healthier for everyone on your staff.
Farra Trompeter: Right, so it’s about balancing both what we need to do, but also the health of our staff and trying not to put one over the other. Or if anything, really kind of trying to prioritize the health of our staff who are crucial to advancing our mission.
Laura Fisher: Exactly.
Farra Trompeter: Let’s come back to the external element. I think it may be fair to say that the biggest place we see urgency come up with our clients, which are all nonprofit organizations, is as it relates to donor communications. So can you speak about urgency as you see it showing up in fundraising?
Laura Fisher: If you were to Google a list of 10 fundraising “best practices”, urgency would certainly show up as a thing that people have been using in fundraising as a tactic to try to get people to give. It comes up in things like last chance to donate language, even the strict deadline of December 31st, that so many organizations use in holiday giving. Any kind of general language you’re using to create a sense that the gift must happen right now. It’s really just a common tactic everywhere in fundraising. And I think the thing to consider is what that sense of urgency can perpetuate. So it can perpetuate a couple of things. But the one I want to talk about in a little bit of detail is how it reinforces harmful narratives. So oftentimes you see, and even I did a quick Google search of urgency examples in fundraising, and you see a lot of immediate organization examples of, if you don’t give right now, X bad thing will happen. Someone will go hungry, something will happen that’s bad. And that really reinforces the idea that the donor is the savior, is the hero. If the donor gives right now, this bad thing won’t happen. So it’s really reinforcing this idea of donor-centrism, which more and more we’re trying to move away from and focus on something more community-centric that uplifts the community instead of centering that donor. So the sense of urgency intersects with other harmful fundraising practices, for sure, but I think in combination it can really start to perpetuate a lot of donor-centrism.
Farra Trompeter: And I think for folks who are trying to again, dig into this topic of donor-centrism and community-centric fundraising, we talk about it a lot on the podcast and on our blog, but you can definitely check out more about the Community-Centric Fundraising movement at CommunityCentricFundraising.org. And we’ll be sure again, to link to that in the transcript.
Farra Trompeter: I want to share a quote from Lila Tublin, who’s a senior copywriter here at Big Duck, which was a tip she offered in a post I wrote recently that was about how nonprofits can manage communications as we emerge from the pandemic, and what Lila said when I was collecting those ideas was “We’ve all been through a lot. We’ve been worried about our health and the health of loved ones. We’ve been fighting to protect black lives. We’ve been grieving and bombarded with news about death, unemployment, and so much more as you craft your nonprofit’s communications question, how and why you’re using urgent language. If your ask truly requires immediate action, be clear about what’s needed and why so that your audiences can easily determine if they’re able to help.” So with that idea in mind, this advice from Lila, what are some questions you think organizations, or at least one question, organizations might consider when they’re crafting those external communications when they’re thinking about using deadline language or that time clock or anything like that?
Laura Fisher: Definitely. One interesting question to think about is, are there activities or messages beyond a rush to act that might excite your community even more than urgency? We’re so used to, I think, so many “best practices” that I wonder if we were to stop and think about what is actually motivating, there might be more effective ways to drive donations or any other action. One thing I think about is values-based messaging, considering the values that connect your community, that connect your mission, the things that you’re all aligned on, the vision that you’re working towards, using messaging that aligns with what you believe, what your community believes to inspire action versus something like a countdown clock, or a rush to behave in a certain way. I think when you can kind of open up beyond what you’ve heard of as best practices and really think critically about what might actually inspire action, not only will you move away from some of that donor-centrism, you also could potentially be more effective.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah and for folks who want to dig into that idea of values-based messaging, not only do we talk a lot about that on our blog at bigduck.com/insights, also The Opportunity Agenda has put out a lot of great content on that, and we’ll be sure to link to that as well.
Farra Trompeter: One of the other questions that you surfaced in the blog that I really appreciate, that I just want to amplify here on this conversation, is this question of, “Is now the right time to send this message? What’s going on in the world of our audiences?” And without going off on a whole other tangent, because Laura and I often talk about the idea of audience mindsets and what’s going on, I think just want to highlight that pausing every now and then, and not just thinking about what’s urgent for you, but what’s urgent for your community and what else is going on in your community’s lives and really questioning even that send date. Whether it’s an email, a post on one of your many social feeds, something you’re about to drop in the mail, whatever it may be. I just want to sort of offer up this idea of questioning that and remembering that it’s not just about you, but it’s also about what’s going on in your community. But Laura, are there other things that people can do to challenge urgency within their organizations or their communications? Any other tips you’d offer?
Laura Fisher: I think the last thing I would say, which has kind of been a theme throughout this, is just to think about how you can prioritize more inclusive and democratic decision-making. Like, if you’re not sure if the work plan you built for your team is realistic, ask them, discuss it, decide what makes sense for you as a collective. Decide if the deadline and the work plan make sense, or if it will require a lot of sacrifice. If you can’t tell, you know, if you’re deciding on a subject line or a tactic to put in an email, if it’s perpetuating urgency, discuss it with your team, consider their reactions to that tactic, decide if there are other alternatives that people might have that you haven’t thought about. I think it’s really all about slowing down and making time for conversation and discussion and collaboration. Obviously, sometimes there are things that need to happen quickly, but there’s also tools and spaces to collaborate quickly. We use tools like Slack or meetings to have those conversations in real-time and have them faster than other sorts of strategies allow. So I think it’s about finding ways that work for your staff to be inclusive, have conversation in a way that works for your team and in a way that works for the projects and the deadlines that you have.
Farra Trompeter: Great. I really loved this conversation. I loved your blog post. Again, we’ll link to it all. You can check it out at bigduck.com/insights. Laura’s also written a lot of great posts about the purpose of communications in your organization, different thoughts around research, so if you haven’t seen those, give it a view. And Laura, thank you again for joining us. Have a lovely day.
Laura Fisher: Thanks for having me, Farra.