Nonprofit Branding: It is not enough to be right! Not nearly enough….

Frances Perkins was United States Secretary of Labor for 12 years. She was once the most hated woman in America – the primary target in a series of withering controversies similar to the current debates about health care and about undocumented immigrants.

Her experience demonstrates how ideas and people and programs get branded – first by their opponents. Then by the public.

It also helps answer this question: how can your nonprofit protect its brand when public opinion is so often built on unverified claims and even total nonsense?

Perkins’ 1935 Context – It’s hard to imagine now, but 100 years ago many American children worked at factory machines instead of sitting at school desks. There were no rules for minimum wage and maximum work hours. No insurance for bank deposits. No safety requirements for workers in mines and factories and warehouses and construction sites. No social security insurance. No disability insurance. No workers’ comp insurance. No federal regulation of the stock market. No medical insurance for the poor. In the 1930s the Executive Branch and Congress addressed these matters with a flurry of legislation. Back then, during the Great Depression, public opinion was shaped the same way it was shaped today:

  • One side proposes a change in the way America operates. It claims the change is an overdue adjustment to a corrupt market, an improvement to an inefficient service delivery system, an overdue relief to an excluded population.
  • The other side brands the proposed change as an unconstitutional invasion of property rights, a socialist affront to free markets, a violation of state’s rights and personal freedom, the end of America as we know it.,

It happened in 1935 exactly a it happens today. Millions of Americans will accept one brand or the other. They will accept the version that makes themselves comfortable. They will embrace the claims made by the people who tell them what they want to believe.

Operating within this public opinion maelstrom, Frances Perkins devised the Social Security Program. She also fostered much of today’s workplace ecology: minimum wage; child labor laws; fair labor standards; unemployment insurance; safety rules…. and much more. For a period was the most hated woman in America. 

Here are a couple questions for you. Can you picture our society without child labor laws and Social Security and all the rest?  Do you wonder how people could have lied and attacked and hated over these changes to our nation?

My Own 1960 Context – An accomplished, austere, resolute lady in her seventies or eighties, Perkins became a lecturer at Cornell University. One afternoon a few of my classmates and I spent an informal hour with Professor Perkins. She was not a chatty person. But her mood was reflective, candid and open to our questions.

As she appeared in the classroom. (Without Jackie.)

This conversation took place in 1960. Social Security and the other programs Perkins developed were highly regarded cornerstones of our society, universally accepted and admired. So we were shocked to hear firsthand accounts of their birth in a firestorm of division, deception and hate within Congress, the media and the general public. How could programs America takes for granted  – essential programs today – have been so controversial yesterday? And how could this gracious, thoughtful woman have been vilified in such personal terms by certain politicians and media? The important lesson, the lesson that informed my own career and can help yours, is found in her explanation of the reason public opinion, once so heavily divided, finally unified and affirmed her work.

Here is the point Professor Perkins made several times that afternoon – the point that relates to managing and marketing your own nonprofit:

The president’s staff knew their programs were right for America. They knew those programs would become essential to the American people, who too long had lived with economic uncertainty and limited opportunity. Nevertheless, the President kept reminding them that being right was not nearly enough.

He was a bulldog – insisting that public opinion was often shaped by those who yell the loudest and play to people’s fears. To counteract that game Mrs. Perkins and the presidential staff must use every means to define each program. And use every means to counteract misinformation. They must keep explaining and keep defining. Again and again. And again!

He told Mrs. Perkins that when their opponents attack them with lies and force them to endure abuse and accept hate, they are revealing that they do not have policies of their own to solve the nation’s problems.  So, in the face of lies and hysteria and personal attacks generated by these opponents of change Mrs. Perkins and her boss, President Roosevelt, and their staffs must speak out continually – until each of the proposed programs is passed by Congress and understood by the American people.

That is what Mrs. Perkins told us that  afternoon in 1960. I do not know if public relations and marketing and branding were common terms back when she and President Roosevelt fought for their programs. But I do believe both leaders understood how the American public brands people and issues and organizations. I think they also understood basic concepts of brand management.

Our Lesson – For the purpose of this post, it does not matter who is right or wrong about which aspect of which national policy. What does matter is to realize that public perception responds to the claims of perceived authority figures. Those figures may be as informed and respected as the Pope. Or, they may be as innocuous, ill-informed and self-serving as your quirky brother-in-law. In the absence of direct experience, in the absence of personal observation or proven fact, the assertion of perceived authority figures who claim to “know” are the fibers which weave into public opinion.

Our Question: given the above, and being dependent on a supportive constituency, how do you enhance and protect your own nonprofit brand?

Roosevelt & Perkins: Collaborators and Pals

Our Answer: You follow the presidential mandate given to the Secretary of Labor, the woman whose innovative programs and enduring friendship with Roosevelt changed American life forever:

knowing that public opinion is frivolous and often based on ignorance, you and your colleagues must use every means to systematically define and explain your program – communicating wherever and whenever and however you can. You do this because, like Perkins and Roosevelt, you know it is not enough to merely be right.

 Nonprofit status does not justify noble passivity.

It does demand aggressive marketing.


A Sad Note From The Trivia Vault: I can’t avoid mentioning a tragic footnote I learned years after I last saw Mrs. Perkins. When President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act Perkins had reason to celebrate the greatest achievement of their enduring friendship and political collaboration. Some biographies mention that was also the day (August 14, 1935) Mrs. Perkins’ severely disturbed husband escaped from a local mental institution!

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