The Path to Participation: Five Steps to Inspiring Action

As old man winter swept through with a final hurrah, shovels and snow blowers across the country have been working overtime clearing paths in the snow.

But today we’re going to talk about a different kind of path — the kind that leads people to take action. The path to participation.

Participation can mean different things to different organizations — whether it’s getting people to donate, advocate or volunteer. What matters is that people are taking the important actions you need for your organization to thrive.

In our work, we’ve identified five steps on the path to participation to help you attract the right people and get them more deeply involved:


Didn’t pay your cell phone bill? Don’t expect your phone to ring! The same thing applies when you’re trying to attract people to your cause. If there’s no connection, your audience can’t answer.

To get that line hot, it helps to start with a little self-reflection…

First, identify the URGENT and IMPORTANT need your organization tackles.

Do you address childhood hunger — or the fact that three-year-old Jane will have nothing to eat today?

Do you work to protect the environment — or are you trying to stop deforestation in your county or there will be no owls left in two years?

Do you help low-income students get a great education — or are you helping Jack learn to read before he loses interest in school like his brother who already dropped out?

Get the picture? It’s about vividly positioning the outcome of your work.

Next, think about what makes you uniquely able to deliver the solution.

Do you have first-hand knowledge of the situation in a particular geographic area? Experience with a certain sub-species of bird? Are you the only organization that offers 24-hour services in your sector?

Look for parameters can you put around your work that make you the one-and-only.

Once you’re clear on what urgent important needs you’re uniquely positioned to solve — things you’re proud your organization does better than any other — you’re ready to create a connection using messages, images and experiences that move your readers.

But to do that, you need to….


If you’re afraid of dogs and allergic to cats, are you going to feel a strong inclination to support your local animal shelter? No matter what the messaging, the shelter’s time and money would be better spent wooing animal lovers.

It’s time to stop doing everything for everyone. Save your energy and effort for where it’s likely to pay dividends, and then laser-focus on what will help you connect with those people you want to reach.

The critical first step is to create a profile of your “perfect” person. And be specific. Don’t just stop at demographics like name and age. Get into her hopes and dreams.

Now imagine you’re speaking directly to this perfect person every time you write a letter, choose a website photo or post to social media. Let that image guide you.

You’ll find this approach shapes which of your projects you talk about, what details you include, who you profile, even what channels you use.


When your supporters donate money, give of their time, or otherwise advance your organization’s mission, it’s not really about you. They’re pursing their dreams for the world they want to see. You’re job is to make it a reality.

Everything you say and do should reflect this reality by putting your audience at the center of the action.

You can check to see whether your messaging is all about your supporters by watching your pronouns. Take some copy from your website, your newsletter, or your last fundraising letter, and highlight every time you use “we/us/our,” and flip it to “you/your.”

For example…

Organization-centered: Dear audience, We did this. We changed this. We need donations to…

Becomes audience-centered: Dear audience, You made this happen. When you volunteered, you changed this. Your gift if critical because…

See how YOU’VE made YOUR audience central to YOUR story?


So far you’ve connected with and engaged your target audience. But if they don’t actually DO anything — share with a friend, make a donation, sign up to volunteer — they’re not participating in bringing your mission to life.

Your audience moves from engagement to participation when you help them take ACTION.

We live in a world overloaded with information, decisions and distractions. To overcome these barriers to participation, your audience needs you to focus their attention.

So stop serving your audience an overwhelming buffet of action options. Instead, offer your supporters a chef-selected entrée you know your perfect person will find appealing.

Your gut (or your board) may push you to ask your community to tutor, sponsor a child, provide snacks during the school year or call their senators, all in one letter sent to everyone. Too many choices usually lead to no choice. Pick the one action that is most valuable to you right now and most moving to your intended audience. Focus on really driving the message home with a stirring story your perfect person will readily react to.

“The key is not always to market the biggest effort you are doing but what you are doing that most connects with your audience,” advises Jeff Miles, Director of Development of the Keystone Opportunity Center.


You might not get someone to participate through your first round of efforts. And even if you do, don’t expect an encore performance without ongoing outreach on your part.

As Sarah Gilman, Director of the National Resource Center on Lupus aptly put it, “For motivation to progress to action, repetition is required.”

Here are some of our favorite ongoing strategies:

Date your audience

Most people don’t get married on their first date. (Well, unless they happened to be in Vegas.) Relationships tend to progress through various levels of commitment before a couple says “I do.”

Take a similar approach to your relationship with your audience by inviting them to participate in stages.

One of our favorite ways to do this is through an email welcome series. When someone first signs up for your newsletter or takes some initial action, you can invite them more completely into your fold through a series of automated specialized emails that cater to their interests and invite future actions based on previous activity.

Work your thank you pages

Once someone’s made a donation or filled out a form on your website, don’t forget to work your thank you pages to create a deeper connection or a second action, whether that means sending them to your social sites, sharing a video, highlighting special content for them or giving them something special.


Use your data to look for inspiration and identify what’s working.

Was one campaign particularly successful? Experiment to see if you can identify the secret ingredient and incorporate it into future efforts.

Split your email list in half and see if you get better results sending out your appeal on different days of the week. Then try again with different subject lines.

The possibilities are endless. But you won’t know what works for your organization and your perfect person unless you try out new strategies.

Feed the connection

All this repetition takes us back to the beginning —pay your audience dues so you don’t get cut off!

Continuing to ask, ask, ask will only disillusion your participants, no matter how “perfect” they are.

When you remember to ooze gratitude and focus on delighting and amazing your audience, they’ll be more likely to take action the next time you ask them to participate.

Personalizing your Networking with LinkedIn

“It’s very passive if ‘Donald’ invites ‘Beth’ to connect, ‘Beth’ says yes and then that connection goes on the proverbial shelf.” – Donald Hale, University of South Carolina

How can you optimize your experience with LinkedIn to really create meaningful and personal connections with people? Donald Hale, interim vice chancellor for advancement at the University of South Carolina Upstate and assistant vice president for development for the University of South Carolina Main Campus, joins in to talk about how to take a virtual connection and make it a personal one. When you send that first message to join a network, you can personalize it beyond the general introduction. Donald gives examples about how to use LinkedIn to network in the most optimal way, such as when organizing local events to get the attention of the alumni who it applies to most. They discuss:

  • The impact of using visual communications on LinkedIn
  • Active versus passive engagement
  • The danger of getting “seduced by the masses” on social media
  • The two steps Donald takes when forming a connection on LinkedIn
  • How Donald uses LinkedIn to connect with alumni communities around the world
  • How social media has changed the definition of participation


University of South Carolina Development Department

LinkedIn Premium

LinkedIn Business Plus


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Think Small: Experiments in Personalization

“Universities sometimes have a really institutionalized way of speaking, which is OK, however, we’re talking to real people and we’re asking them to do a thing that maybe isn’t the first thing they want to do.” — Drexel Fund Team

This week, Beth sits down with the team from the Drexel Fund, Drexel University’s annual giving team. They talk about how they reach 133,000 alumni and how their methods have changed over the years to create more effective messaging depending on who they’re trying to reach. One key tactic has been experimenting with segmented groups of their target audience to create more personalized messages with the incentive of donating and getting involved. Drawing inspiration from even something like a Rubik’s cube, they talk about projects and ideas they have to make their appeals fun, engaging and personalized. Beth talks with them about:

  • Understanding the alumni engagement index (AEI)
  • Where universities can improve in their communication with alumni
  • How they decide what is a risk worth taking when testing communications
  • How one 50/50 email test helped them understand what tactics of messaging work more effectively
  • How to improve retention rate
  • What they would do with an unlimited budget


The Drexel Fund website


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Aligning Design With Your Personality

“You can do something special and engaging without stepping out of your brand’s character!”

Whether your first introduction to MailChimp was on Serial (remember Mail Kimp?) or you use it regularly for your organization, this week is all about taking a page from their book to learn how you can use bright and fun visual elements in your marketing and communication — without veering off-brand. For everything from annual reports to public health messages, Beth shares tips on how to use visuals to share information and tell a compelling story that is in line with your organization’s personality. You don’t always need a lot of words to share important information, and Beth shares some of her favorite examples of communications she’s seen that rely on pictures rather than paragraphs. She discusses:

  • Five categories used to describe brand traits and how to identify yours
  • Lessons from MailChimp’s annual report you can use for your own
  • How to use visual elements without being too flashy
  • When it’s beneficial to use graphics and design elements instead of lengthy paragraphs
  • Using visual communication for purposes other than sharing information or communicating instructions
  • And more!

NOTE: Text PERSONALITY1 to 33444


MailChimp’s website and annual report

Read Jennifer Aaker’s Dimensions of Brand Personality

USDA’s Choose MyPlate campaign

Kashi infographic about the transition to going organic

Centers for Disease Control infographic illustrating International Health Regulations

Download the TD Bank infographic highlighting its healthcare survey results

Example of Grainger infographic with NASCAR

John Deere infographic about their products

YouTube video: Microsoft Re-Designs the iPod Packaging

Sign up for this month’s masterclass:


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Enjoy Driving Participation! If the program is helpful to you, please subscribe in iTunes to have sessions sent to you as they go live. And please consider leaving a review in iTunes as well. Reviews help other organizations find the show and learn from these terrific stories.


Converting Information into Inspiration for Compassion International

Compassion International’s volunteer mobilization team had an amazing year. At their kick off meeting for 2017, Mike Lenda, National Director of Mobilization and Engagement wanted to thank his team and celebrate their accomplishments.

And quite a lot of accomplishments there were. So the challenge became: how to convert all of that information into inspiration for the team as they began the New Year.

Oh – and it had to be aligned with their brand…and finished in a week!

There wasn’t time for data visualization or much illustration. We had to work with the copy and find a way to organize and present it effectively.

We started by grouping the data into digestible, related chunks. We looked for groups of content that could be organized as a category. Then we made sure it had a flow from one section to another.

We then did some research on their website to understand their style, key message, brand language, colors and visual hooks. We incorporated those as we edited the copy and designed illustrations for each section.

You can use this idea in your own organization to thank your staff, board or volunteers. You could create a one page annual report, gratitude report or impact report. Your donors, volunteers and grantors want to know what you’ve been doing. Don’t waste their attention with a boring word document. Turn your accomplishments into an asset for connection!

Are you ready to get started converting your information into inspiration?

We have a few tools to help you:

  • In March we’ll be running a follow up to that Master Class that will teach you (in a live demo) how to use some of the best online tools to create your own infographics.
  • Or, you can always give us a call and have us do it for you. That’s what we’re here for!

Aligning Design with Your Personality

A spark of sunshine broke through our dark days of winter last month at Iris Creative when we received this totally cool, completely entertaining annual report email from our email marketing provider MailChimp.

The report is creative. It’s fun. It’s original. It’s one of those pieces that gets your wheels turning out ways you can craft your own engaging, original piece to really draw in your audience.

And we’ve been working with clients long enough to already guess what you’re thinking.

“That is so cool!” you say. “I wish we could do something like that.”

“But,” you balk, “it’s just not us (our audience / our CEO / our board).”

Well, we’re here to tell you: You can do something special and engaging without stepping out of your brand’s character!

Let’s take a look at some of the brand-appropriate ways you can make your own information-laden pieces shine — from annual reports to public health messages.


The Visual Trend

People are busy these days. And they’re swamped by the sheer volume of information they have to process — from constantly buzzing phones to overflowing inboxes.

Scholars haven’t dubbed our era the Information Age for nothing.

That’s why finding ways to simplify your message — while remaining true to your brand and your voice — is becoming ever more important to cut through the clutter.

And that’s where MailChimp gets it right.

Sure some of the stats they share are off-the-wall. Yes, the drawings and animations are whimsical. And maybe that’s not you.

But they convey a lot of information without using a lot of words. And that’s the example we can all learn from, no matter what our brand’s personality.


Your True Colors

To help us organize our discussion, we picked one of the millions of models out there that you can use to talk about your brand’s personality. We liked Jennifer Aaker’s, which divides organizations into five categories that emphasize one of the following brand traits:

  • Excitement (daring, spirited, imaginative, up-to-date)
  • Sincerity (down-to-earth, honest, wholesome, cheerful)
  • Competence (reliable, intelligent, successful)
  • Ruggedness (outdoorsy, tough)
  • Sophistication (upper class, charming)

Don’t get too caught up in the categories here. The important thing is to see how MailChimp’s visual approach can be adapted across many different brand personalities.

Here we go.


If you’re daring, imaginative, exciting…

In other words, if you’re just like MailChimp…

The success of this piece starts with the type of information they chose to share. Instead of telling you how much money they made this year or the number of employees they have, they chose unique stats to tell you important things about the company:

  • 74 graduates of MCU, our internal development and growth program
    Translate: We treat our awesome employees well.
  • 4 pounds of coffee consumed by our support team per day
    Translate: We put a lot of energy into supporting our customers.
  • 13 tons of physical server infrastructure added
    Translate: We’re growing. A lot.

Most importantly, they don’t use oodles of words to convey their message. They pared the information down to just a few key phrases and got busy drawing, using a comic-strip style to literally illustrate their story.

So what does MailChimp’s approach look like if your organization if “adventurous” isn’t exactly the word that defines you?


If you’re known for sincerity, honesty, cheerfulness…

If your organization is a bit more serious, you can have success with a more straightforward approach.

Instead of telling us how much coffee your support team drinks, tell us how many American-based people answer the phones in your call center. And don’t show us a crazy comic-strip drawing of a monkey talking into a banana — use an actual photo of your call team at work — or better yet, take a photo of your people at iconic places in your town to reinforce your “localness” if that’s important to your audience.

There are lots of examples out there of serious organizations that effectively use a visual approach to convey their messages in an interesting way.

A winner in this category is the USDA’s Choose My Plate campaign at

No amount of words can beat this graphical depiction of a balanced meal.

The information is easy to digest. (Sorry, pun intended!) And it makes the behavior they’re trying to encourage easy to replicate.

Another good one is this infographic from the food brand Kashi that explains why the company uses ingredients from farms in the midst of the process of going organic. They introduce the consumer to an entirely new concept and its benefits through a highly graphical representation.

It’s not daring or silly — it’s completely down-to-earth and sincere. But it’s totally visual, just like MailChimp’s annual report.


If you’re competent, reliable, intelligent, successful…

If reliability is your brand’s primary personality trait, your approach will be similar in style to the sincere organizations, but perhaps a little less cheery and a little more polished.

Going graphical can be even more important in this category if you need to help your readers understand complex ideas or data.

A lot of the information that the Centers for Disease Control puts out falls into this category. Take for example how they illustrate the way the International Health Regulations work.

Banks also provide great examples of “reliable” brands presenting their information infographically as well, like this one from TD Bank illustrating their healthcare survey results.


If you’re rugged, outdoorsy, tough…

Think all the examples you’ve seen to this point are too colorful, corporate or cute to really translate to your rugged brand?

Industrial equipment company Grainger show that visual representations of information can be rugged and tough, too. They partnered with NASCAR on this series of infographics that are clearly designed to delight their consumers. And only one includes any link to their products. The series is a great example of positioning your organization by aligning with things your community already loves.

John Deere used visualized instructions to reinforce proper use of their products. When you are tying to keep people safe, images are faster, easier and more likely to be followed than written instructions.


If you’re sophisticated, classy and high end….

This is the trickiest one of all, and it’s pretty much MailChimp’s polar opposite.

In our experience, it’s much harder to find highly “sophisticated” exclusive brands using the same type of visual approach we saw with the other personality types.

But visual communication is not limited to communicating instructions or information. You’ll find that these brands often use the fewest words of all in their overall communications, relying instead on gorgeous photography and one or two choice phrases to make their point.

Take a look at this brochure from Ferrari. It’s 36 pages of stunning photos and only 6 pages have even a single word.

And, in probably my favorite example ever of the battle between visual impact and wordy explanation, I give you this classic YouTube viral video from 2006 “Microsoft Designs the iPod Box”. Hard to believe it’s been 11 years since this was the cutting edge!

As a designer myself, I still find this video hilarious. And the story it tells is just as relevant today. Rumor has it some frustrated Microsoft employees were the masterminds behind this gem.

This is so funny precisely because Apple is known for it’s visual communication.

Organizations that want to embody sophistication absolutely work the fewer-words, more-images angle, even if it shows up in a drastically different way.


Finding ideas everywhere

We hope we’ve shown you that even the wildest of annual reports can get your own organization’s creative juices flowing, no matter what your organization’s personality.

MailChimp stirred ours.

Where will your next great idea come from?

Recognizing the Duty of Foresight

“I think in many ways the consistent practice of foresight is crucial so it’s not a one off thing. It’s not something you do occasionally. It’s something you’re doing all the time. It has to become sort of a central focus of how the board is devoting its attention.” — Jeff De Cagna, Foresight First

Jeff DeCagna, executive advisor of Foresight First, joins in to talk about his work in the association community. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing the duty of foresight and using it to build resilience. Of course, he doesn’t mean predicting the future but rather the ability or the choice to look forward. He explains how embracing the idea of foresight can lead to building resilience and help manage risks. They explore the idea of emphasizing governing over governance and how to encourage the people you’re working with to see governing as an active process. He also explains the difference between being a volunteer and being a voluntary contributor, and how the label can change a person’s motivation.

He and Beth explore:

  • Jeff’s definition of foresight and what its benefits are
  • Why Jeff prefers to use “governing” over “governance”
  • How foresight plays a fundamental role in stewardship
  • The difference between competent trust and benevolent trust
  • How can an organization begin to focus on foresight?
  • The difference between director experience and user experience


Foresight First website

Jeff’s Chat link: Chat.Center/ForesightFirst

Follow Foresight First on Twitter: @dutyofforesight


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Enjoy Driving Participation! If the program is helpful to you, please subscribe in iTunes to have sessions sent to you as they go live. And please consider leaving a review in iTunes as well. Reviews help other organizations find the show and learn from these terrific stories.

MLK Day: The Secrets of a Successful Movement

“There is a clear and obvious link between Dr. King’s legacy and encouraging people to engage in community service that breaks down barriers and builds a land where people live in peace, dignity and equality.”

Just a few days ago, thousands across the country observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This week on Driving Participation, reflect on the legacy of the civil rights leader and how it can inspire you to effect change in your own community. How did the movement to get involved in community service in his honor begin? Beth takes a look at the holiday’s history and the lessons you can learn from MLK Day for your own work. Revisit past episodes to hear how the work other Driving Participation guests do can inspire you, too! She takes a look at:

  • How MLK Day got started and how it’s grown to the movement it is today
  • How your own organization can organize its own MLK Day of Service effort
  • Getting involved in pre-existing holidays, such as Giving Tuesday or National Wear Red Day…
  • …Or even creating your own holiday!


The Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service:

Corporation for National & Community Service

Giving Tuesday:

American Heart Association National Wear Red Day

Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Grave Digger’s Ball

Tobi Johnson Session

Jamie MacDonald -Turning Online Events into a Party for your Cause

Session 17 – Abigail Quesinberry The Real Reach of Social Media with Abigail Quesinberry
Session 22 – Justin Ware Manufacturing Viral Campaigns
Session 28 – Kait Sheridan – Starting a Movement and Building Momentum
Session 70 – Sean King – Using #GivingTuesday as a Launchpad for Growing Your Audience
Session 79 – A #GivingTuesday Resource Roundup from our Podcast Guests
Session 83 – Amie Simpson Evolving #GivingTuesday
Session 100 – Karen Bantuveris Engaging Volunteers with a Social Media Buzz Team

Subscribe to Driving Participation in iTunes.
Sign up for our next master class.

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Getting People to See and Stay on Your Website


“When you design for your internal audience instead of your external audience, you get a website that converts well internally.” — Claudia Pennington, CEO of Side Hustle, LLC

Learn the magic of Google this week with digital marketing consultant Claudia Pennington. She joins in to share the secrets to getting the right people to your website — and then staying there. From keywords to the structure of the site itself, Claudia and Beth explore the mindset of a searcher and what you can do to fill those needs. She names her top priorities when assessing a website as well as the trends she thinks will color marketing communications for the next couple of years. With her background in social media, Claudia takes a look at how platforms like Facebook and Twitter are using live video features and how you can make them most effective. She and Beth discuss:

  • What does SEO actually mean?
  • How to make a usability test in order to make your website the most effective
  • Where do you go to learn what people are searching for and what’s bringing traffic to your site?
  • The two trends Claudia predicts will make an impact on marketing communications
  • The number one concern when you are thinking about the structure of a website
  • How search engine optimization is like a plumber


Follow Claudia on Twitter: @seoauditguide

Claudia’s website

The Mindset List from Beloit College:

Zoom video conferencing

Google Search Console


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Enjoy Driving Participation! If the program is helpful to you, please subscribe in iTunes to have sessions sent to you as they go live. And please consider leaving a review in iTunes as well. Reviews help other organizations find the show and learn from these terrific stories.


Mobilizing a City to Plan America’s 250th Birthday Bash


America’s turning 250 in 2026! And an occasion like that deserves an epic party.

USA250, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, is building a coalition to develop plans for honoring the country’s Semiquincentennial, with America’s birthplace as the hub of the festivities. The idea is for Philadelphia to be the center of activity for the year — producing and hosting seminal events throughout 2026. Think All Star Games, the Super Bowl, special exhibits at all the museums and compelling public events.

To begin building momentum, the USA250 hosted Toast250, a kickoff party to bring stakeholders to the table.

We’re not sure who had more fun — the partygoers that evening, or our graphic design team while creating the event brand!


To help make Toast250 a smashing success, we designed a suite of event materials starting with a re-design of the Toast250 logo.

We continued with an invitation package, an email banner, web graphics, social media images, event signage elements and a photo backdrop of Independence Hall.


We also worked with our client to provide a design that allowed him to update digital invitations and print small batches on the fly. That way he wouldn’t miss an opportunity to bring someone new into the fold.

Here’s to 2026 in Philadelphia!

Do you have an event you’d like to make extra special? Let’s talk before your to-do list makes you feel like you’re 250!

Iris Creative Group Inc. • 451 S. Bethlehem Pike, Suite 310 • Fort Washington, PA 19034 • P: 267.468.7949
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