Book Excerpt | The Most Important Goal You’ve Probably Never Set

publication date: Nov 24, 2020
author/source: Benjamin Miller

“Where does a thought go when it's forgotten?” ― Sigmund Freud

When it comes to setting strategic communications goals, the ideological goals you don’t set influence your ability to accomplish the goals you do set. In this chapter, we will look at current practices in strategic communications goal setting, why setting ideological change goals is so important, and where to begin the process of setting the right ideological change goals.

More specifically, you will learn:

  • Some conventional wisdom on communications goal setting
  • How your funding, reputational, and human resources objectives are affected by ideology
  • That awareness raising is never just about awareness
  • What happens when ideological goals backfire
  • How to articulate your mission in a way that highlights the limits of current language.

The accepted wisdom in strategic communications planning is that you should begin by setting goals. This process is best done once every 3-5 years in which you articulate a vision for your organization in the near future. Goals are, simply put, what your organization wants. They should answer the questions of what change you want to happen, what will it take to make it happen, and who you will serve by making it happen. Goals can be broken down in several ways:

  • operational, affecting how you deliver your message (e.g., create an Instagram account),
  • reputational, affecting how your organization is perceived, or
  • behavioural, affecting how your employees and volunteers act.

Another way to break down the goals is:

  • branding and overall messaging,
  • awareness raising,
  • increasing size of audience engagement, and
  • increasing fundraising.

Another way to think about your communications goals is to think about what key messages you want to get across to the public recorded in concise and jargon-free language. You want these statements to be action-oriented and mission-driven. You also want these statements to clearly connect your nonprofit’s actions, stances, and requests to what your organization is fundamentally about. For example, a health organization fundraising with unhealthy food could send mixed messages.

When the nonprofit sets its goals, it needs to be realistic given the nonprofit’s local and global context. Peter C. Brinckerhoff, a nonprofit marketing consultant with decades of experience, suggests a striking metaphor that portrays you as just one small actor in a gigantic context that naturally limits what you can and should say:

“Throughout the nonprofit community, the tide has been changing for the past decade. And, like tides, the changes are barely noticeable at first, and are more evident on some parts of the shoreline than others. But once the tide changes, the momentum is reversed, and the outcome is irreversible. The forces at play are too big, too powerful, too global to resist.”

In the books and articles that I consulted, advisors rarely talk about how ideological systems and changes affect the goals you set. Some strategic communications scholars, however, do talk about ideological change. For example, David Ongenaert, a doctoral student at Ghent University Center for Persuasive Communication, discusses how broader ideological debates affect the way refugee-serving nonprofits communicate with the public. Even among nonprofit communications scholars, these discussions are relatively rare. But many scholars and advisors do recognize that the way nonprofits communicate to the public can transform society. Nonprofit communications “create awareness around international social, political, economic and environmental issues, expresses particular world visions, shapes collective identities and affects corporate practices and government policies”. Similarly, Sally Patterson and Janel Radtke, authors of a well-known strategic communications method, write that strategic communication is key to social change, since every time we communicate about a serious issue we are changed by the process.

Obviously, people intuitively understand that some organizations may force people to ask tough questions about how they think. For example, Kairos, a faith-based human rights organization, has a “Blanket Exercise” which is an immersive experience summarizing the history of Indigenous-settler relations in Canada. The Blanket Exercise may well change the way participants understand their country. Wikileaks with its leaks of secret government documents, and the way it talks about secrecy, may change how the public sees its government. The question is whether this potential is being systematically worked into traditional wisdom of nonprofit communications.


In chapter 2, we talked about how the innovating ideologist closes justification gaps. Recall, justification gaps are the difference between what the current moral vocabulary is capable of justifying or condemning and what you need it to be able to justify or condemn. Closing justification gaps means more than adding a box marked “ideology” to your checklist of goals. Changing ideologies is not just a goal like any other communications goal. Ideological goals can play a fundamental role in informing all your other goals. Firstly, I will discuss why ideological change is so important to every aspect of your mission. Secondly, I will suggest how, given what Skinner says, current practices are problematic.

Ideological Change May Be Vital to All Your Goals

Your nonprofit is trying to solve a problem or make the world better somehow. There are many reasons that the problem you are working on exists. Whatever it is, an important contributing factor in the equation will be how people think about your issue. Suppose, for example, your mission is to address a rare medical condition that is not caused or exacerbated by social conditions such as poor housing or unsafe work conditions. This condition is genetic. No group of people is disproportionately affected. This seems like a purely medical problem not an ideological problem. But, as I am sure you know, it is more difficult to raise money for rare diseases. As it turns out, ideology has a lot to do with that.

Rare diseases will consistently be less attractive to funders who have a cost-effectiveness model that seeks to maximize the number of lives potentially saved by research funding. Cost-effectiveness models are often based on controversial assumptions about how we can quantify human life and compare the value of different lives. These assumptions often go against other ways of thinking about the relative value of human life as being infinite or non-interchangeable.

I hope this example shows you how even a “purely physical” issue is profoundly caught up in clashes between different social, political, and ethical philosophies and worldviews.

According to some worldviews that hold quite a bit of sway in Canadian society, it makes perfect sense for rare diseases to be consistently at the back of the line. If you want the rare disease you are fundraising for to be viewed differently, you will either have to argue for an exception or take on this underlying way of thinking. Both are valid communications strategies.

Both aim to close the justification gap.

But the justification gap is not just about funding. A justification gap undermines your ability to accomplish all the different types of goals that strategic communications advice focuses on. Improving your organization’s reputation is often a key communication goal. You have no doubt heard the advice that members of the public today like to connect with individuals rather than organizations. That is not an immutable fact of human psychology, it is a historically contingent phenomenon rooted in part in the decline of trust towards traditional institutions over the past 40 years. Once upon a time, if you could describe yourself as an institution, it would inspire trust. Nowadays, it might evoke just the opposite.

Conversely, the justification gap you may be trying to remedy is between the reputation you want to have and prejudice against who you are. For example, consider the various names for the movement for people with lived experience of psychiatric institutions. They include the psychiatric survivor movement, consumer movement, ex-patient movement, and mental patients’ liberation movement. Each one reframes what it means to have had experience in a mental institution. For the organizations and groups in this movement, it is difficult to see how they could have achieved a reputation that would enable decision-makers to be listened to without reframing that language. Reputational goals sometimes simply cannot be accomplished without transforming language head on.

Suppose you want to inspire your employees and volunteers. Surely that is the farthest thing away from the ideological clashes and historical trends of our time. And yet, countless articles have been written about what it takes to recruit, connect with, and retain millennial staff and volunteers, and the advice is all about your mission, vision, and values. So if there is a justification gap at the level of your mission, it will show up as a barrier at the level of recruitment, motivation, and retention of staff and volunteers.

All these examples show that ideological change is not just one among many goals. It can underpin the success of all your other communications goals. These justification gaps may be something you simply cope with (e.g., by doing your work without directly addressing them), or they can be something you actively take charge of and seek to resolve in your favour.

And as we will discuss later, there are many ways to overcome justification gaps, ranging from leaning into them to totally rejecting them and going your own way to.

So, let us revisit the current practices and ask how being aware of ideological goals may change your goal-setting practices.

What Ideological Transformation Means for Your Goal Setting Practices

The first implication is obviously that ideological change—changing the system of words that governs how decisions over your issues are made—should be on your communications radar.

Secondly, your communications goals do not necessarily have to be key messages that you want to explicitly communicate to the public. Rather, you may want to start with a prior goal of transforming the words that will go into your key messages, so they are capable of justifying what you are proposing. For instance, your key message might be “meat is murder” but your underlying goal might be something like “expand the reference of “murder” so that it includes killing non-human animals in order to make use of it in political, moral, and legal debate.”

Thirdly, your key messages need not be jargon-free. Jargon can be at the heart of your mission. For example, “supervised injection service” is clearly more technical than “helping somebody shoot up”, but it is obviously an important step away from the pejorative and stigmatizing nature of those slang terms. In the case of safe injection sites, the strategy of using jargon-y medical terms such as ““health services that provide a hygienic environment” are clearly part of a broader strategy to bring the activity within the moral vocabulary of health rather than criminal law.

You do not need to view yourself as being swept away by tides. What may seem natural and unstoppable may just be a deeply rooted aspect of the language we use to describe the world. The historical forces that brought our language to this point in time may be outside our control but that does not mean they are immutable. On the contrary, we are part of those forces and therefore how we speak either reflects or reinforces that status quo because we have accepted it as natural or it contributes to the ongoing process of change in a self-conscious way. Skinner emphasizes that by understanding how the language was shaped in the first place, we better see how we can make more active choices.

Paying attention to moral vocabularies also helps see what kinds of awareness raising goals are likely to lead to meaningful change. Recall that moral vocabularies consist of words that describe and judge at the same time. Consequently, your awareness raising is often implicitly making an argument. For example, you can set a goal to make 1000 people aware of homelessness in the city or set a goal to make 1000 people aware of the local housing rights crisis. Both could be described as awareness raising goals of the same underlying set of facts, but these are obviously very different goals from a communications perspective.

People already have a sense of what homelessness means and most people already accept it is a bad thing. You would think therefore that simply making them aware of it would result in change. The trouble that Skinner calls our attention to is that the problem you are trying to solve is at least compatible with the current dominant moral vocabularies to the extent that the two have co-existed until now. So, if you do not change your audience’s worldview, it will likely be compatible with the problem continuing to exist.

The kind of awareness that does nothing to change the moral vocabulary in which the problem or solutions are understood will therefore rarely, if ever, be enough.

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Benjamin Miller is a graduate of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law’s joint program with the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, Prior to attending the Faculty of Law, Miller completed a Bachelor and Master of Arts in Political Thought from the University of Ottawa. Since 2016, he has provided legal information for nonprofits at Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO). He is the founder of the Faculty’s Charity Law Interest Group and organized two annual conferences on systems-level issues for the sector, where he met his editor, Gail K. Picco, who was a guest panelist.

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