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One perennial curiosity of the nonprofit world is: why—in a sector full of missions that change lives and lift up communities, unfold the limitless potential in every person, and channel our most humane instincts into profound impact—do we write so much boring stuff about excellence?
We’ve all seen it, we’ve all read it, and heaven knows I have written my fair share. Higher ed and healthcare have it the worst, but the gray light of excellence touches all areas of our fine sector.
A Culture of Excellence
Where excellence inspires everything we do.
Across 150 years, what sets us apart is our commitment to excellence.
At first glance, the boringness would seem to be the problem. Having tried many times, I am here to report: it is not possible to construct an entirely interesting sentence whose primary subject is “excellence.” But I’m not convinced the boringness is the real issue here. Along with its cousin triteness, boringness is a venal sin of promotional writing, and frankly impossible to avoid entirely.
And there are mission spaces—mostly healthcare—where projecting a certain less-than-exciting reliability is a positive. You don’t want your surgeon to be an exciting, unpredictable maverick. You want them to act like someone who has done the same procedure 10,000 times and stands ready to do it 10,000 more. When healthcare institutions write boring things about excellence, they at least convey: we make risk go away. That’s worth something, even if there may be better ways to say it.
The real problem with “excellence” is its lack of any rich meaning or evocation. It is a gleaming shorthand for “being good at stuff, ” and that’s about it.
A Culture of Being Good at Stuff
Where being good at stuff inspires everything we do.
Across 150 years, what sets us apart is our commitment to being good at stuff.
This is probably not the revelation your audiences have been waiting for.
Setting aside my cranky quest against an innocent word, there is actually an important question here:
Why is it so hard to write about the quality of the work of nonprofit organizations? And what does it take to do it well?
Lots of nonprofit communications—in fundraising, enrollment, marketing, etc.—hinge to some degree on conveying the credibility, quality, and yes, excellence of your programmatic work, whatever it may be.
But how is a normal person supposed to evaluate quality in the mission spaces we work in? What makes one education demonstrably more valuable than another? How do you know where your doctor stacks up against all the other doctors like them? What does the best food bank do that an average food bank doesn’t?
Most people can’t actually answer these questions in any rigorous and independent way, so we use things like reputation, testimonials, rankings, and frankly a lot of more dubious impressions and biases to form an impression of quality.
As communicators, the contingency of all this is an opportunity and an invitation. Our audience’s perception of the quality of our organizations usually isn’t coming from rigorous evaluation or, for that matter, from the verdict of the masses on Yelp (can you imagine the panic of waking up to find that your organization has dropped below 3.5 stars?).
That means we have some latitude to use our communications to shape how people understand and perceive the quality of our work. We simply have to show what excellence means in terms, images, and stories that a normal person can understand and feel.
Here are some approaches that I’ve seen nonprofits use to great effect:
Show the process of excellence, not the end state.
What does it look like in action? What are the behaviors? What are the stories? Excellence may be boring, but all sorts of interesting and dramatic things happen along the way to it. Show us your people pushing harder, asking questions, trying new things, refusing to accept less for the people you serve.
Use your awards and recognition, but make sure your audience understands what they mean.
I don’t know what it means to be a Gold Level 3 Alpha Medallion Certified Center of Excellence in Trauma Podiatry, but if you tell me there are only two in the state and you’re one of them, or that only 10 percent of hospitals achieve this highest-level designation, or that it means that someone in a dire situation can come straight to you rather than traveling four hours to the next bigger hospital, I suddenly feel grateful that you’re here. (This is related to the broader challenge of managing jargon.)
Don’t overplay it.
In most nonprofit communications, quality should be a supporting point, not the main point. This is especially true in philanthropy. Most donors don’t do a rigorous assessment of the quality levels of every organization in their community and then decide who to give to based on their spreadsheet.
Most of the time, they feel some emotional or values-based pull toward a mission—evoking that is the first job for your communications—and then just need enough information to trust that you’re good enough, you’re legit, and you will credibly turn their gift into impact. This should influence where the quality/credibility points come in the flow of your donor communications (usually not the lead paragraph).
Don’t hang too much weight on the word itself.
Like most overused words, “excellence” still has its uses—and it works best where it’s asked to carry the least weight.
When you say “Recognized nationwide for excellence in care…” in a body paragraph, the point of the sentence is national recognition, and “excellence” is a lead-in to a list of proof points and rankings you’re probably about to cite. That’s fine. When you elevate it to a tagline or campaign name, however, it usually clanks where it is asked to roar.
Illustrate the difference between good and great.
In the taxonomy of fundraising campaigns, “good to great” cases and “margin of excellence” cases are well-populated genera. This is especially true in mission spaces like education where threat-based messaging feels inappropriate.
See if you can push your depiction of quality to a place where the difference between good and great or before and after feels vivid and tangible. Good schools hire strong teachers but great schools develop them. The researchers we support go on to earn NIH funding at a far higher rate than others in the field. We take on the cases that other juvenile programs turn away.
These are mostly rhetorical approaches; many more could be added. What they all have in common is showing, not telling—and using your creative capacities, empathy, and understanding to help your audience see and feel what excellence means in practice.
It’s worth noting that this takes a bit of time and thought. There is no way to replace the one-word concision of “excellence” with another magic word that does all of this, and figuring out what your quality means to people is both a soul-searching and storytelling challenge.
But nobody said it was easy to capture the enormous power of nonprofit missions in simple human language. Such is the work of communications excellence, and if it allows you to do justice to your organization’s work, it’s worth the effort.