5 ways to get people to care about your cause more than reality TV

When I'm not sharing resources about nonprofits and technology, I have a rather unusual hobby - a hobby that's recently come under a fair bit of scrutiny and spittle-producing hatred, thanks to a certain reality TV program. I will confess: I'm a singing pirate.

You're a what?

I'm in a band that sings and plays sea shanties, drinking songs, and some Celtic stuff and modern parodies. We perform at faires and festivals all along the Eastern seaboard, as well as at a pirate bar every weekend.


Wait. A pirate bar?

Yep, we perform at an awesome, pirate-themed bar. It's home to a diverse community of people largely defined by their passions, whether those passions be related to piracy specifically, more general history,  historical reenactments, Renaissance faires, rum, anime, goth culture, belly dancing, board games, card games, steampunk, folk music, LARPing, science fiction, or what have you. It's basically the Island of Misfit Toys, but with booze. As someone who's never really felt comfortable in "normal" bars, it's such an immense relief and joy to have a place like this to go to, surrounded by geeks (though some would blanch at the label) like me.

So what happened?

Recently a reality program did an episode trying to save this particular bar from the same hard financial situation that has affected many small businesses and restaurants in recent years. I'm not naming the show, or the bar, for reasons that will be made clear in a couple of paragraphs.

The reality show tried to rip the soul out of the bar, and make it a bland place for business executives to grab a power lunch or an expensive happy hour. Though this was touted as a "successful business model" on the show, anyone who knows the community where this bar is located knows that it was not. Indeed, the bar's patrons, the staff, and the ownership rebelled, and the bar eventually went back to its pirate roots, though it took a substantial investment to undo the damage done by the reality program. (Also, I use the term "reality" loosely here - the episode was riddled with outright lies, inaccuracies and editing tricks, because truth rarely makes good television.)

Ouch. What was the result?

In spite of the hurdles, the bar is now doing well, and on its way to becoming debt-free by year's end. Of course, that information never made it on the program. But since the episode aired a few days ago, I have witnessed a shocking level of vitriol spewed about the bar on the Internet. People are commenting on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Yelp, and anyplace else they can to attack the bar, its staff, its owner, our band, the bar's patrons, etc. The majority of the people spewing hate have never been to the bar before and have absolutely no stake in its success or failure. I, on the other hand, have a very personal stake in its success, so I will admit that I gloated a bit on Twitter about the bar's ultimate triumph and attempted to correct the misinformation included on the program, which sparked some angry reprisals from those passionate about the show. (This is why I am not naming the show or the bar here - I don't want the hateful comments to continue on this blog, even if it would drive traffic. Additionally, I don't want you to think I'm only trying to promote the bar here, because my point is about passion and nonprofits...a point I'm getting to right now, I promise.)

OK, so what does this have to do with nonprofits?

In my disgust over this campaign of hate against the bar, I told a friend the following:

"What really gets me is that I have spent my whole career trying to build this kind of passion around worthwhile things - better policies to combat hunger, getting poor kids playgrounds, etc. But no grassroots campaign I have ever created has ever stirred up as much passion as this reality show."

People will seemingly die at the stake defending their favorite "American Idol" contestant, debate for hours about which girl should be "America's Next Top Model," gossip at length about at the antics on "Jersey Shore," but when it comes to getting them to care about something that really matters...well, sometimes it feels like all we nonprofiteers get are cricket chirps. It's unbelievably frustrating.

So what can we do?

I don't have an easy answer. But I do know that audience passion doesn't come for free in the nonprofit world. It takes lots of time and effort, because there is no magic solution. We don't have sexy, network-beglittered reality shows about the crisis in Darfur, world hunger, or the environment (though wouldn't it be great if we did?), nor do most of us have the clout or the know-how to create such things. Sometimes a well-produced nonprofit video will break through the din and capture the hearts of millions, but those moments are rare and all-too-quickly forgotten.

But I do know these things can cultivate passion for a cause:

  1. Cultivating relationships, particularly with your organization's influencers.
  2. Storytelling with compelling images and words.
  3. Trustworthiness, brought by both financial and PR transparency.
  4. Cultural savviness and a sense of humor.
  5. Innovation.

Can you name more? Please do, in the comments.

(Note that any comments naming, praising or criticizing the reality show or bar in question will be removed. No flame wars here, people. I mean it.)