Why Every Nonprofit Needs a Manifesto

Nonprofits, especially those in the social sector, do wonderful, life-changing work. Yet, living at the heart of the ultimate in "change management," they often struggle for funding, volunteers, and other resources. Frequently it's because they are unable to effectively communicate their vision, purpose, and value to their communities.

Like so many enterprises, nonprofits fail to effectively communicate their worth. They make lists of their programs. Maybe they even highlight a few compelling stories about their work. But such efforts don't have much impact because they don't articulate the bigger change that the nonprofit strives to bring about in the world.

Nonprofits are not in the business of delivering programs. Rather, they seek bring about some kind of change through those programs, whether by altering behavior, circumstances, attitudes, or some combination of all three.

Change happens when people are motivated to act, when they understand an issue, and when they can rally around it. Powerful, compelling and clear communication is the linchpin to bringing about meaningful change. And that is why every nonprofit should consider writing a manifesto.

Perhaps one of the most brilliant manifestos ever written was the Declaration of Independence, which we honored and celebrated just a few weeks ago on July 4. This document didn't just give birth to the United States, but also influenced the birth or rebirth of so many other nations worldwide. It offered a magnificent formula for constructing manifestos on three pillars: Vision and Belief, Context, and Action Statement.

1) Vision and Belief
State the problem that must be changed and your beliefs about it. In the first few paragraphs, the document tells us that the time has come for people to dissolve current political ties with Britain and then outlines very clearly why. The second paragraph begins with "We hold these truths to be self evident..." and then goes on to lay out what the colonists believe, what they are striving for-- "life liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

2) Context
You must provide a context for your work. The Declaration lays out why its writers have come to this decision, explaining the wrongs that the King inflicted on the colonists and recounting the colonists' pleadings.

3) Action Statement
You must articulate your actions. The Declaration of Independence is a perfect model for advancing a cause by clearly defining a course of action, stating without compromise that the colonists are going to separate from England.

Writing a manifesto that articulates the bigger changes you are trying to bring about and how and why the world, your community, and your neighborhood will be better, stronger and different is an essential building block for your communications efforts.

Break out of the list maker syndrome that ticks off all the programs you have. Instead, make your case by talking about great things that can and will happen through your efforts. Then be clear about how your key audiences can help. Get people excited about the big things so that they understand why all the smaller things you do every day are so important and how they fit into making things better.

As you begin to craft your manifesto, consider these questions:
  • What truths does your organization find to be "self evident?"
  • How has your organization arrived at that truth?
  • What change do you believe is possible?
  • What do you want your audiences to do to help you make that change? That is, what needs to be done and in which ways should we act?
We are looking for good examples of nonprofit manifestos, so please share if you have one. Viva la change!