Sometime back in the waning days of the last century, the Greenpeace information technology department was standardizing all staff’s email signatures to a horrible piece of text from a mission statement the organisation had written by committee, agreed by consensus, and promptly buried in that darkest recess of any NGO website, the governance section of the About Us page.
I was particularly aggrieved to see it dredged up into the light of day, as I’d written it.
Well, no, not quite. I’d put a set of words to paper in a manner that satisfied about a dozen colleagues who were using the mission statement discussion as a proxy war for struggles over leadership and vision. The were using arguments over vocabulary and word order to try and win the argument over who had the bigger Dickensian claim on being the REAL Greenpeace. Anyone who has ever worked for any large NGO knows those battles; they’re par for the course among idealists. But they can get truly absurd when they are vicariously waged over prepositions.
I never wanted to see those words again, much less look at them every day anchored in the muck at the bottom of every email I sent.
So for my own amusement, I wrote a different email signature. A “Recipe for Saving a Small Planet.”
It was intended to sum up Greenpeace’s peace and environmental mission — mentioning each of its then current campaigns — in a positive, light-hearted, quirky form.
It got noticed. A few others adopted it as their own signature. I saw it translated into Italian and Chinese. It showed up in a fundraising appeal in my mailbox. To this day, I see it pop up in different guises — the above just appeared in my twitter feed a few days ago, promoting the truly excellent Mobilisation Cookbook — and while I’d quibble with bits of it now, I’m still proud of it.
If I were to assess it today, with my Dancing Fox communications advisor hat on, I’d say it passes a few tests one might put to a piece of organisational communication:
1) It explains its subject in terms a five year old could understand. Maybe a somewhat erudite 5 year old, but it’s in the right zone.
2) It makes the mission look simple, attractive, and, most importantly, achievable. How hard can it be to follow a recipe?
3) It’s got a bunch of puns and word play. Which is to say, it uses fun as its vector instead of shame, hectoring, and force.
4) It’s true to form. It’s a recipe, and it doesn’t let the message destabilize that. Just as The Moon Candy Rebellion, a children’s book that Iris Maertens and I collaborated on, is a bedtime story first with the message nestled deep in the centre, this remains a recipe — with fractions and real recipe words — rather than an abomination toppled by abbreviations and activist jargon. It ain’t perfect in this respect, but had it gone through committee, it would read “Preserve high-carbon and biodiversity-rich rainforests with special emphasis on threatened tropical or boreal HCV forests (including IFLs)…” I’m not making that up…
5) It’s about transformation, not incremental change.
6) It puts focus on the more beautiful world we dream of building rather than grabbing us by the collar and forcing us to feast upon an ugly nightmare.
If you were to cast your organisational mission as a recipe, what would it look like?
I’ll be teaching a day-long course in storytelling for Activists in Berlin on October 5th, just ahead of the European E-Campaigning Forum. If you’ve got a cause and you want to communicate better, I’ll be sharing tips and tricks on Story as Theory of Change, narrative technique, and story mapping: just a few of the techniques we use to hack the operating system of the world at Dancing Fox, Ltd. Tell a better story, change the world: Register here.