February 2024

What’s a problem that you deeply want to solve?

Have you ever thought that if you could just get other people to understand the scale of that problem, they’d feel the same urgency you do and join in supporting a solution?

That sentiment is understandable – but also mistaken. Simply knowing about a problem doesn't prompt people to be part of a solution.

Yet, I often see this thinking in new and emerging advocacy professionals who are passionate about changing the world. On a range of topics, from protecting the natural environment and cleaning up the oceans to ending poverty and ensuring everyone on the planet has enough to eat, they see the beastly scale of a problem and want others to help wrestle it to the ground.

But focusing only on a problem – particularly a massive and complicated one that is deeply embedded in our culture, history, or ways of living– can actually make people less inclined to help.

Why? They may feel overwhelmed by the scale, the numbers may feel too big to fully process, or they may not believe that their small actions would matter. Framing issues solely as a crisis - even when they are - can lead people to believe the problems are simply too big for anyone to fix.

Still, these big problems do need to be solved. So what’s an advocacy communicator to do?

In the world of non-profits and mission-driven organizations, general wisdom holds that fundraising works best with a “story of one” while advocacy needs a “story of many.” In truth, we need both - and then some. 

A “story of one” is an individual journey – whether one person, family, community, or even one whale named Tilikum – that demonstrates a solution is possible. This approach personalizes a problem and “shrinks” it from dauntingly large to one face (or faces) and is particularly effective in fundraising as a donor can emotionally connect with a person who needs their help more easily than an entire cause. A “story of one” demonstrates how an organization transformed a life and helps raise funds - but funding doesn't solve all problems. 

Advocacy professionals work at the level of laws, policies, and systems that impact big problems - "the story of many" - but individual stories are still critically important. Our communications must reach both the personal and the larger policy; we must tap into both emotion and logic. That's why Stories Change Power programming addresses how to blend data and stories in a way that personalizes a challenge and conveys its scale. While most donors can’t personally help every person in need or change a nationwide issue, policymakers can solve big problems – and with people-centered and data-informed advocacy, we can convince them they should.

In our scaling up from one to many, we must also expand our focus from problem to solution. While keeping one foot grounded in reality, we must also think big - MASSIVE even - in proposing solutions. Being big, bold, and creative with a solution can inspire others to envision that solution with you – and support it. In conversation with Doug Hattaway on an episode of the podcast "Achieve Great Things," Rajiv Shah underscored the importance of setting bold – massive – goals and then innovating to meet them. Mr. Shah, , who headed USAID and the U.S. response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, speaks from experience of advocating for two major laws that passed with bipartisan support: the Global Food Security Act and the Electrify Africa Act. Innovation, such as his current goal to connect one billion people to electricity for the first time, often requires investment, collaboration, and data. (You can learn more about the role of massive solutions for problems that impact many in Mr. Shah's book Big Bets: How Large Scale Change Really Happens.) 

In short, advocacy communicators take on big problems. But if we present them only as big problems, we may discourage people from joining our cause. Effective advocacy communicators know how to ethically share one powerful story at a time, how to explain the scale of an issue with both emotion and logic, and how to inspire people to envision bold, massive solutions that create the just, equitable, and peaceful world we all want to see.

- Piper Hendricks, Founder & CEO

Photo credit: dhairya satra (pictured above is a person standing next to the foot of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel's statue in India)


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