Nonprofit Branding Puzzle: People Don’t Know the ACLU is a Conservative Army…

I have argued for this point for years.  It’s something of a jaw-dropper. Here we go again:

the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is not – repeat NOT – a left-wing, liberal, touchy-feely organization.

The ACLU is a hard-bitten attack-dog for conservative principles!

Knowing it is a surprising assertion, I will support this statement……and then ask you the Big Branding Question!

Start back in 1791. Citizens of an infant United States felt vulnerable. Their new constitution did not provide enough protection to the individual who faced the overwhelming power of the new central government they had just created. So they passed the first ten amendments to the US Constitution – The Bill of Rights.

Novel ideas at the time, we now take for granted rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, trial by jury of one’s peers, etc.

Before they were adopted, every one of these rights caused argument by newspaper editors, political leaders, state legislatures, political parties, the guy next door and the couple across the street. The beat goes on. Constitutional law is under constant study, interpretation, evolution. Legal precedents abound – yet discussions about applying the Bill of Rights to human behavior are unending.

For the last 95 years, the ACLU has been a participant in those discussions. When a Bill of Rights issue is involved, and a constitutional principle is at stake, the ACLU steps up to defend the little guy against the government. In hundreds of court cases the ACLU represented all sorts of people and organizations. Many were unsavory – really unsavory. Some were outright idiots. A few, probably more than a few, were quite properly loathed by the board of directors and staff of the ACLU. Nevertheless, they provided the defense for these folks. Because their job is to protect the constitution – an than often means protecting the little guy against the big government.

Consider this famous example. It is one of many. In 1977, while living in the town next to Skokie, Illinois, I watched a great drama unfold. It dominated print and broadcast news for a year or more. Nationwide!

An offshoot of the  American Nazi Party wanted to assemble its members in a Skokie park, with swastika banners unfurled, with speakers promoting the Nazi message of hate and with little shaved-head kids passing out leaflets attacking their usual victims.

Bad enough in any town. But Skokie was different….

The population of  Skokie was nearly half Jewish. About 15% of its residents were Holocaust Survivors! Most of the other residents may not have had a number tattooed on their arms – but they had surely lost aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters the Nazis.

And get this – at the time several ACLU board members and contributors were also Jewish! Some of them had relatives who suffered under the Nazi boot. Yet their job was to uphold the Bill of Rights. So they held their noses and went to work defending the rights of despicable people.

They worked on behalf of the United States Constitution and that meant standing up for the little guy – even though he wore a Nazi swastika. These brave scholars and lawyers and civil libertarians of the ACLU knew that, even if their Nazi clients were foul bastards, those bastards had a First Amendment Right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.

That’s the American Civil Liberties Union. It protects the little guy and the little organization when government tries to deny them their guaranteed rights. It does that no matter how unworthy a person the victim may be. ACLU lawyers willingly defend the unpopular against the all–powerful, fighting censorship and racist laws and restrictions on free speech and invasions of privacy and denial of religious freedom and every other possible violation of the Bill of Rights.

Now here is where you might scoff at me. Or maybe this is where you will say “Wow – never saw it that way.”

Conservatives aim to do the same thing! They claim the same values! I’m serious……

In the Republican Convention and during the presidential campaign of 2012 you will see these shared values repeatedly expressed. Conservatives also have an antipathy against big, invasive government. They are also pledged to protect individual rights and  ensure the freedom of our citizens against the tyranny of big government.

Conservatives, in other words, also stand guard over the Bill of Rights and its protection of the individual.  Just like you-know-who! Like the ACLU, they extol and defend the Constitution – especially the guarantees in the Bill of Rights.

So, if they claim the same agenda –  how did the American Civil Liberties Union get labeled a godless, liberal, socialist, un-American organization – these being labels you will find in a quick Google search? Label ironically applied to the ACLU by conservative commentators and organizations. That’s the Big Branding Question I promised a few paragraphs ago.

I don’t know how that label came to be applied. Nor can I fathom why it stuck. This is one of those issues that really invites discussion. How did it happen? You tell me. Share your thoughts.  Tell the several thousand people who read this blog in good week. Just enter your explanation in the comment section below.

BOTTOM LINE:  While contemplating the mystery, think about the constant theme of this blog – and how it applies to your own nonprofit. Brands are fragile assets of enormous value. They live “out there” in the collective mind of the public. You cannot directly control them.  At best, if you are market-savvy and proactive, you can nibble around the edges to shape them, you can even help them keep from driving into the ditch.

But you must be a committed, astute nonprofit brand manager or – God forbid and praise the irony – your brand could eventually misrepresent your mission. That does happen.


5 thoughts on “Nonprofit Branding Puzzle: People Don’t Know the ACLU is a Conservative Army…

  1. John, I agree with your statement about conservatives being against big government. However, on the individual rights issue, as a woman, my rights are feeling a bit unprotected at the moment!

    But as to the ACLU. “If you’re not for us, then you’re against us” seems to be the order of the day. Supporting the right to speak is not the same thing as supporting the speech. That fact has become muddied in the rhetoric.

    So, when the ACLU supports a civil right, then they are also tagged for supporting the cause. No matter if they support both sides. The fact that the other side is supported at all is the issue. And so, they become the enemy. They become liberal.

    Free speech is not free speech if it can only be free when someone agrees with it.

  2. Well said, JC. I do understand your points – and agree with them, especially your last sentence.

    To me the odd thing in the example I am writing about is the blatant inconsistency. If people yell loudly and convincingly enough, they can get other people (some other people) to willingly, enthusiastically confuse facts with assertions. Chicken Little proved that when he announced the sky was falling.

    THAT is the risk any nonprofit brand faces. It’s brand is the public’s collective perception and may or may not reflect fact.

  3. You are right that branding is a tricky thing, and in our digitally revolutionized world it has become even trickier. Media now spreads at the speed of lightening, whether true or not (the number of folks who still believe Obama wasn’t born in this country is astonishing). So it’s increasingly difficult (probably impossible) for organizations to control their brand. The best we can do is become actively engaged in a dialogue with our constituents. We have to listen to them and respond to them. And if we’re not what they want us to be, then we’ll pay the price.

  4. I think the law of unintended consequences comes into play here as well. The ACLU’s goal of protecting the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution can give the impression they are supporting liberal causes. The visible actions of defending individuals and groups that are often under attack by forces backed by social conservatives can be interpreted as being anti-conservative. The example of the ACLU defending a group as repugnant as the ANP (to quote The Blues Brothers… “I HATE Illinois ****s!”) shows that they are willing to defend Americans rights without regard to what the citizens may think and feel about the issue.

    • You bet. What surprises me is that neither party seems to recognize the similarity in its concerns. Surely the ACLU could have blunted the attacks from the Far Right if it had loudly and continually asserted a common purpose. Instead, the ACLU allowed its brand to be defined by a political movement.

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