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Sunday, January 21, 2018

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An Alternative Paradigm for Nonprofits, Pt. IV: Change Attracts Attention
Steve Barnhill

May, 2009

All five of the “revolutionary” principles I’m writing about are, I think, more intuitive than not. Given a modicum of thought, they’re recognized as good, common sense. It’s just that we’ve seen these principles put into action so many times that we often don’t notice them. Even when getting noticed is what they seek to achieve.

            Point IV, “Change attracts attention,” is a good case in point.




Think about it. If you use Google as your personal home page or search engine, you probably only notice the logo on holidays, famous birthdays and other special occasions. Those days are when you see the “Google Doodles” by designer Dennis Hwang, who’s created more than 150 variations on the Google logo since 2000. In a instant each doodle reminds you that Google is enjoyable, imaginative, and always timely.

            The changes catch your eye and cause you to break your normal pattern of action and take notice. The grab your attention.

The YMCA’s changes conveyed the message,  “We’re not your father’s YMCA.”           

When I was growing up, I spent many hours at the local branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association. The outside of the YMCA sported a triangular logo, similar to the top one, below. The three sides of the red triangle carried the words Mind, Body and Spirit in white letters. Over time, as the YMCA changed character, becoming  more secular and familiar, the logo reflected that change. First the words went away, then the triangle was de-emphasized in exchange for emphasizing the popular “Y” moniker. Our local YMCA has since broken, at least symbolically, with the national group by adopting a more colorful, child-like mark, expressing an altogether different character. The message conveyed here is “We’re not you’re your father’s YMCA,” or maybe, “Have you driven a YMCA lately?”











I use corporate logos to illustrate the  power of changing the face you show the world. I could certainly use something else – like fashions, haircuts, weight loss or any of hundreds of other characteristics for which a person or organization might become known.

            The nonprofits that know this best are those active in the local arts and entertainment arena, of course. Every change of exhibit, film, dramatic production or symphony concert draws new attention and audiences.  Without change, they’d wither and die. Audiences tire of the same old thing.

            The point I wish to make is that what’s familiar often becomes boring – or invisible. And if you want to get noticed, it’s smart to periodically become new and unfamiliar.

            Last week 29-year Senate veteran Arlen Specter (R, Pennsylvania), switched political parties. As a consequence, he dominated national print and electronic news for five days and showed up on every major news-talk show, including such Sunday megashows as Meet the Press. Spending jillions of campaign dollars running for President gained him less notoriety. 

            Changes get noticed. Growing up in the heyday of the American automobile, I remember that the most exciting time of the year for teenage boys was early fall, when new models arrived in the showrooms.   We visited.  We climbed inside. We dreamed. Still to this day most of us, 45 years later, can distinguish any Chevy and Ford, year by year, through the 1960s.  On the other hand, I can’t tell a 2009 model Chevy from a Pontiac or Oldsmobile. Oh wait, GM doesn’t make Oldsmobiles any more. Hmm. And did I hear that Pontiacs are being dropped?  Wonder why.

            For something really different, let’s consider former NBA All-Star Dennis Rodman. Dennis is never the same man twice.

The reason people ignore you is not that they don’t know you. It’s because they think they do know you.

After receiving an honorary doctor of letters degree from his alma mater, University of North Dakota, L.A. Lakers coach Phil Jackson touched on a range of subjects from the school’s nickname to the greatest athlete he has ever coached. And it wasn’t Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

            No, the player Jackson tagged the greatest he has coached is the former Chicago Bulls power forward, fully tattooed, everywhere pierced, wedding-dress wearing and trouble-making bad boy, Rodman. Jackson credited Madonna – yet another master of metamorphosis -- for helping Rodman overcome his “shy” personality.

            Of course, any story about Rodman requires that I add a warning not to try that at home. Rodman is a professional, after all.           

After watching him for half a century, I’ve concluded no person illustrates the power of unpredictability better than Muhammad Ali.sedSAq

The greatest penchant for unpredictability shown by an athlete in my lifetime was that of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., who became Muhammad Ali in 1964. Ali has always been an artist of the impulse, save for the inevitability of his floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Worth noting is the fact that Ali’s business, that of professional boxing, derives its appeal from its unpredictability.  If inside that business you place a boxer who is by his nature more than a little capricious, you produce irresistible appeal --  and eventually the titles "Sportsman of the Century" (Sports Illustrated) and "Sports Personality of the Century" (BBC).

            Neither Specter, Rodman, Madonna nor Ali is a obvious role model. But for those of us in nonprofit organizations  -- often plagued by feelings of being unseen and unsupported even though our work is undeniably important – these people do have a lesson for us. The bottom line is that we’re unwise to assume that people ignore us because they don’t know us. In fact, the opposite is often true. People think they do know us – and we’re not worth thinking about.

            Unless you’re a bank, boring is bad. So shake things up. Add something new. Drop something old. Change in your look, sound, web site, programming or fund appeal can be the business equivalent of wearing a fresh, new fragrance or a bold, new haircut. You’re going to arouse interest, and that’s almost always a good thing. Because before you attract someone’s donation, you must attract their attention.

Be sure to read Steve’s previous articles. You may find them at

Steve Barnhill is a principal in Edge Creative Strategies, a marketing communications firm specializing in service to nonprofits.



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