At Winnipeg airport on my way home… and having a think. I’ve just been working with an outstanding group of senior non-profit leaders here in Winnipeg on the issue of Personal Presence and Credibility – organised by AFP Manitoba. (BTW 5 stars to them for speaker care.)
We talked in my session about cool ‘tricksy’ psychological things to impress people and build credibility – body language and eye contact and personal branding etc. (See my next blog for more on that.) But actually I’m not sure that’s the whole plot.
Some people asked me to recommend a book with advice on the topic … so I shamelessly promoted my own The Influential Fundraiser. It’s a good book… but again I’m not sure that’s the whole plot either.
I wish I had also recommended a challenging book I’ve literally just finished here in the departure lounge with the slightly unsettling title of They call me Naughty Lola. The title doesn’t obviously connect to charity credibility but I think the slim volume has lessons for non-profit leaders. (A note of warning if you buy the book – one elderly couple moved away from me in the lounge when they saw the title of the volume I was reading.) Don’t move away gentle reader while I explain how I got to my conclusion that Naughty Lola can teach non-profit leaders a lesson.
My headline thought? Honesty – and maybe even brutal honesty – is an essential tactic in credibility and presence. And we need to use brutal honesty more in the non-profit world. We need to confess in glorious colour and full stereo our failings and mistakes rather than always trying to impress with stories of success, vague metrics of positive outcomes, and great but manipulated RoIs, etc.
OK this ‘confessional route to credibility’ isn’t a brand new insight or even one exclusive to the charity world. It has worked in the past for companies like Hertz who won fans when they admitted they had to ‘try harder’ since they were only number two in the world of car rental. It worked for Domestos to be No1 in bleach partly because they conceded it can only kill 99% of household germs. In recent days, it worked for the UK’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown after he made a spelling gaff in a handwritten condolence letter to the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan. He won people – and the grieving mother – over to forgiving him by admitting he couldn’t spell or even write properly. (A result for brutal honesty.)
So we seem to like people and organisations to be brutally honest with us. And that kind of honesty means coming out as being way less than perfect.
But how many charities can bear admitting to being even slightly less than perfect? On the AFP programme I talked about Stepford Wives Syndrome (SWS). I moaned about how every charity annual report seems to suggest that the past year was ‘perfect.’ No programmes failed, no money was wasted, and the board and senior staff made no poor decisions. I asked why charity conferences sometimes feel like the set of the Stepford Wives movie? (The original scary ‘dark’ version, you remember, features a newbie wife who arrives in an all-American cookie-baking community and discovers that the ‘perfect wives’ are all fake. It’s this bland unrelenting wifely perfection that leads the heroine to uncover the disturbing misogynist conspiracy at the heart of the film.)
What’s the alternative to charity SWS? That question, a question about honesty, brings me finally to the book, (I told you we’d get there.)
David Rose is the advertising director of the London Review of Books. He‘s written the lounge-emptying They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from The London Review of Books. The book tells the story of the extraordinary success of a particular kind of lonely heart/personal advert the Review has been running – brutally honest ads. (The book title comes from an actual ad, placed by a 46-year-old female physicist, seeking love and friendship).
What’s different in the London Review personal ads is that many of them – and interestingly the most ‘successful’ ones in terms of the level of response – are fiercely self-deprecating. They reject the shameless self-promotion of most personal ads – ‘charming’, ‘funny’, ‘GSOH’ or ‘great in bed’ – and instead present themselves warts and all… So in these successful ads people talk about being ‘desperate’, ‘odd-looking’, ‘obsessive’, ‘incontinent’, ‘neurotic’, ‘miserable’, ‘flatulent’, ‘older than 100’, ‘paranoid’, ‘menopausal’, ‘unfaithful’, ‘bald’, and in one case ‘amphetamine-fuelled’. (See below for examples.)
There’s some eye-watering detail as the prospective partners tell you exactly what you’d be taking on. Ailments include liver disease, drug addiction, compulsive gambling, alcoholism and even reduced sperm counts.
But did the honesty work? According to David Rose’s follow-up research on the advertisers it did. Moreover these ads appear to be hugely successful not just because of their novelty value, but because their honesty means putative partners feel they know what they’re getting into. (They’re credible and many are quite funny too.) Check out the examples at the end.
So what can you or your cause learn from people writing candid lonely hearts ads? Being truthful about your achievements – or lack of – can actually win you more supporters than when you try to suggest there is no room for improvement other than having more resources/donations. You become more credible by through self-challenging – brutal – honesty.
Here’s my suggestion. Try something like this on a supporter “We work with very difficult young people at risk – and the reality is we fail to save these young people 90% of the time. Last year that meant we failed 9,000 indivduals who got involved in crime, and only helped 1000. We need to get a whole lot better and we need your support to try newer innovative riskier programmes that we’re not sure will work. Can you help us ‘fail’ more in the short term while we try to establish what might work in the long term?”
Try it. Let me know. Call me Lola.
I’d love to hear more examples of charity credibility through honesty. Share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Sample ads from London Review of Books by men
•Bald, fat, short, and ugly male, 53, seeks short-sighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite.
•Mature gentleman, 62, aged well, noble grey looks, fit and active, sound mind and unfazed by the fickle demands of modern society … Damn it, I have to pee again.
•Unashamed triumphalist male for the past 46 years. Will I bore you? Probably. Do I care? Probably not
•Bastard. Complete and utter. Whatever you do, don’t reply – you’ll only regret it
•I like my women the way I like my kebab. Found by surprise after a drunken night out, and covered in too much tahini. Before long I’ll have discarded you on the pavement of life, but until then you’re the perfect complement to a perfect evening. Man, 32. Rarely produces winning metaphors.
Sample ads from London Review of Books by women
•Blah blah, whatever. Indifferent woman. Go ahead and write. Box no. 3253. Like I care.
•Your stars for today: A pretty Cancerian, 35, will cook you a lovely meal, caress your hair softly, then squeeze every damn penny from your adulterous bank account before slashing the tyres of your Beamer. Let that serve as a warning. Now then, risotto?
•I’m just a girl who can’t say ‘no’ (or ‘anaesthetist’). Lisping Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, female lecturer in politics (37) WLTM man to 40 for some enchanted evenings,
Love is strange – wait ’til you see my feet. F, 34, wide-fitting Scholls
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Clare Segal, Director