Every(Re)Action: M+R’s Guide to Effective and Ethical Creative Helps Progressive Organizations Make a Deeper Impact

June 29, 2021 | Grace Duginski
Every(Re)Action: M+R's Guide to Effective and Ethical Direct Response Creative Helps Progressive Organizations Make a Deeper Impact

Our friends at M+R have been holding discussions around their Guide to Effective and Ethical Direct Response Creative, and we’re really excited about the impact of this guide in answering some of the toughest questions leaders in the nonprofit sector are considering today.

At its core, EveryAction’s mission is to advance the missions of our nonprofit partners, and we’re proud to work with organizations that promote a more just and equitable world—we’ve long opted out of working with organizations that oppose racial justice, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, or who deny the reality of climate change. While we often talk about the most effective and efficient ways to reach nonprofit audiences in every channel, we believe that it is equally important to consider the most equitable and inclusive strategies for truly impactful outreach.

Why now?

M+R’s reason for publishing this guide at this moment is simple but hugely meaningful: “What we need is to establish a foundation that goes beyond personal style, or a tactic that works in one moment in time. And we need to do so in a way that advances our most important values.” Because, as M+R notes, “creative that is heartachingly gorgeous, but which does not work, is by definition bad creative” — we need ways to express ourselves eloquently while still making sure we’re meeting our goals.

The concept of effective creative doesn’t conflict with the concept of ethical creative—in fact, the opposite is true: “they are mutually reinforcing. Developing a deep and clear understanding of the elements of effective creative gives us the tools we need to live our values while advancing our goals. And centering our values can define the boundaries, priorities, and aspirations that guide effective creative.”

M+R has identified 4 common goals of creative, which often overlap:

  1. Generating revenue
  2. Growing an audience
  3. Motivating an action
  4. Changing minds

M+R’s five pillars of ethical creative, which need to work together for creative to be effective, are:

  1. Need — addressing a problem, preventing harm, or working toward aspirational goals. This answers the question, “who is affected, what are the stakes, and why should your audiences care?”
  2. Impact — your call-to-action that “defines the audience’s role in that situation.”
  3. Urgency — helps you overcome the noise and answer the question, “why does this matter right now?
  4. Relevancepersonalization and targeting, yes, but also creative messaging that “understand[s] who our audience is and what they value.”
  5. Authenticitywho is speaking. “The closer the connection between the speaker and the cause, action, or moment, the greater the potential for authentic creative.”

The role of emotion, style, and clarity in ethical and effective creative

Emotion, style, and clarity, M+R notes, all need to work together for your creative to be both ethical and effective.

First, they note that “it’s possible to abuse emotion.” Sometimes this looks like repeatedly prioritizing extremely urgent short-term goals and ignoring long term ones; asking for donations but not demonstrating impact; or “using harmful stereotypes or overly dramatic images” to tell stories about a particular group, in order to evoke emotion — regardless of intent, this practice can sometimes objectify or otherwise undermine a whole group of people.

Second, style matters, but it, too, can’t stand alone. Style breeds innovation, which helps create urgency and break through noise. Additionally, nonprofits don’t have one audience, you have many—and you need rich data to see how different segments respond to different types of creative.

And third, organizations need to provide clarity at every level of creative. One way M+R suggests making your messaging clear is by making it accessible—that means technical goals, like creating sites that are compatible with screen readers, and that also means “avoiding unnecessary jargon, and giving[…] audience[s] context for details, people, or acronyms that are not common knowledge.”

Ethics of Effective Creative

“We must reject [a] purely utilitarian view [of creative,]” declares M+R. “ ‘Whatever works’ doesn’t work with the values of our organizations, our staff, our supporters, and the people we serve.”

To that end, M+R’s core principles of ethical creative, fully spelled out in their guide, are:

1. Promote dignity for your subject, speaker, and audience.

For example, carefully evaluate your language to be sure you don’t “exploit suffering through imagery or storytelling[… or] present the people you serve as an other, or as a problem to be solved.”

2. Do not take power from the less powerful.

For example, when your nonprofit features individuals who benefit from your services within your creative, make sure you “receive sincere, informed consent before using someone’s story, words, or photos [and] clearly explain how they will be used.”

3. “Do no harm” is not enough. We need to do active good.

M+R rightly points out that “there is risk in focusing so much on avoiding harm, or the perception of harm, that we do… nothing at all. Actively promoting important values is essential to making progress.”

Nonprofits who want to set guidelines for what they create can establish different kinds of standards for themselves:

  • Harm Prevention standards, or “a set of creative tactics and content to avoid.”
  • Active Good standards, or “a set of talking points or image guidance that must be included in all creative.”
  • Values standards, or “a set of values that must be communicated consistently, without predetermined specific content that is used to express those values.”

Moving Forward

It can be tricky to break free from inertia when trying to change a process — you might hear responses like, “this is what works,” or “this is how we’ve always done it.” However, M+R says, “We do not have to settle for this. Understanding the elements of effective creative gives us the tools we need to challenge received wisdom, analyze what our creative is actually doing, and move toward more ethical approaches.”

Looking to get started on new creative with a new framework, but unsure where to begin? M+R recommends beginning by asking yourselves some big brainstorming questions:

  1. What do you want the audience to do?
  2. What do you want the audience to feel?
  3. What do you want the audience to think?

From those questions, you can get into other topics, like what assets you already have, what audience you’re addressing, and what existing content might be worth repurposing.

Lastly, says M+R, “consistently developing ethical creative is a goal to work toward, not an end state.” Every single one of us in the social good sector has fallen short at some point, and that’s why it’s important to “be honest about the historical failings, current problems, and work still to be done.”

Our Take

EveryAction’s mission is advancing our nonprofit partners’ missions—that means we’re focused on meeting nonprofit needs with a platform to help you engage more supporters, across more channels, with more programs. With the right platform, your thoughtful creative can reach the right supporters, with the right message, at the right time. Talk to us to learn more.