Some of the greatest minds in climate action believe that self-promotion is a cheap distraction from their real work. In the long run, that becomes their greatest handicap. Even the most revolutionary idea remains irrelevant and unimpactful if no one is talking about it. Funders don’t back ideas without a documented track record, top talent doesn’t flock to the project they’ve never heard of, and clients don’t purchase something with no Google results.
Some of the brightest minds working on climate feel that time and attention spent promoting their innovations is a cheap diversion from their real mission. And they aren’t the only ones. Outside of the private sector, the idea of allocating funds to marketing or communications feels almost sacrilegious. Mission-driven enterprises and non-profits often operate under the idea that every single cent should directly fuel their cause. We see this thinking all too often, and those businesses often lose out on funding because no one has heard of their work.
Why promotion feels taboo in climate action
This narrative in the mission-driven business space has its origins within the non-profit sector. Lean spending and reduced overheads have long been the golden standard for non-profits. It’s a sort of world-saving virtue signaling aimed at assuring funders and stakeholders that every precious dollar they part with is in the safest, most responsible hands. In the past, the rule of thumb for non-profits was simple: keep your overheads low, and you’ll appear more trustworthy to those who hold the purse strings. After all, funders, in their quest to maximize the impact of their contribution, often seek tangible benchmarks.
Challenging the status quo
But this narrative has flaws. Years back, Dan Pallotta’s controversial Ted Talk brought a stark contrast into the limelight. While the private sector gets a free pass to spend millions of dollars on marketing and bombarding us with ads from every possible avenue, mission-driven organizations face endless scrutiny. They’re not just judged, but outright shamed, for every dime spent on what’s labeled, often dismissively, as ‘overheads’. Dan Pallotta’s book entitled “Uncharitable”, now a documentary, is a rallying cry to free mission-driven organizations from unrealistic constraints and an ingrained scarcity mindset.
The scarcity approach has costs – namely the ‘starvation cycle’. This emerges when organizations continually limit overheads to meet funder misconceptions, associating low costs with efficiency. Research suggests that this not only perpetuates underfunding, but also risks eroding the very foundation of the organization. Such organizations, in pursuit of perceived trustworthiness, can inadvertently curtail their essential functions, diminishing their overall intended impact. Research published last year outlined what they called “the cost of trustworthiness”. They found that non-profits following the financial status quo (i.e., limited spending on overheads), lost 50% of their mission impact over a 10-year period in comparison to those that don’t follow the financial forms.
Balancing the Scales
These organizations are being asked to solve some of humanity’s most wicked problems – with climate change potentially the most wicked. If climate change has the potential to create economic losses of US$178 trillion over the next 50 years, why are mission-driven organizations criticized for investing in visibility? We’re up against huge corporate budgets, such as ExxonMobil investing $30 million on climate disinformation knowing full well the consequences of climate inaction. If such sums are expended on disinformation, shouldn’t mission-driven entities be equally assertive in their messaging, especially when the stakes are our planet’s future?
Loud and clear
With stakes this high – climate initiatives need to talk about what they’re doing to have any chance of success. Obama, in his book “A Promised Land,” reflects on this very oversight. Even though he prioritized progress during his first term, he acknowledges not communicating those achievements enough. A striking example comes when, amidst the 2008 economic crisis, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner struggled to articulate the administration’s plans confidently, leading to dwindling public trust. The lesson is clear: decisions, no matter how groundbreaking, need to be communicated effectively. Without clear explanation and engagement, even the most promising initiatives can falter and go unnoticed.
Join the conversation
True success hinges on the backing of others, whether it’s funders, policymakers, dedicated employees, collaborators, or the public at large. And here’s the crux: none of these stakeholders will lend their support unless they’ve been consistently shown the value and significance of the cause they’re being asked to champion.
The Written Progress team creates and deploys strategies for making your climate ideas matter. We’d love to hear from you.