In the Stanford Social Innovation Review article “When Good Is Not Good Enough,” leaders of two successful organizations made a case for the nonprofit sector to focus on tackling the roots of social problems, rather than addressing their symptoms. The leaders of Share our Strength and KaBOOM! outlined practical steps they’re taking to not just alleviate problems like hunger and childhood obesity, but to eliminate them.

The authors said the first and most important step toward achieving transformational change is to set an ambitious but achievable goal. To go big, you have to think big. The bigness of the idea gives it motivating power. Few people are inspired to give their precious time, energy, and resources to maintain the status quo.

As Bill Shore, Darell Hammond, and Amy Celep wrote, setting a bold goal “provides the inspiration that generates motivation, resources, and a new sense of what is possible.”

That’s the power of aspirational communication, which aims to motivate people to support causes by appealing to the hopes and values that give meaning to their lives. Too many nonprofits set uninspiring goals and articulate them in bland “nonprofit speak.” To tap into the power of aspiration, you need to understand people’s hopes, set goals that speak to those aspirations, and communicate them in simple but powerful language.

Are you enjoying this article? Read more like this, plus SSIR's full archive of content, when you subscribe.

An aspirational vision can take many forms. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) began as a behind-the-scenes lobbying group, which worked to advance equal rights under the law for lesbian and gay Americans. In the mid-1990s, HRC had an annual budget of $8 million, about 100,000 members and a modest agenda. Many politicians considered HRC’s issue a third rail, and didn’t want to touch it. The idea that America would support marriage equality was a pipe dream.

Then a new leader pushed HRC to think big. She assigned a team to craft a new vision, which began by exploring what motivated HRC’s current members to join. The team asked the most important question you can ask people about your organization. And it’s not about you—it’s about the people you want to get involved. Ask them: What are your hopes for your life? When you let yourself dream a little, what do you see in your future?

When you connect your organization’s mission to people’s aspirations, they’re more likely to be motivated to support your work. That’s because aspirations are powerful motivators of behavior.

The big idea that motivated HRC’s members was simple but significant: They wanted to be treated equally. Their vision for an ideal future, as articulated in a new mission statement, was to be “open, honest and safe at home, at work and in the community.”

Today, support is rising for marriage equality faster than any other social issue in recent history. In 2013, HRC has a budget of $38 million and nearly 2 million members.

Consider another aspirational vision that mobilized people for a great cause: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King was one of the most successful movement leaders in our history. Why? Because he inspired people. His words and deeds moved people to take courageous action, even in the face of brutal opposition.

Beginning with its very title, “I Have a Dream” is all about aspirations. Line after line paints a vivid picture of a bright future: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (Read the full text here.)

A content analysis of that famous speech shows aspirational and emotional language accounted for 80 percent of its content. Less than 5 percent touched on specific policies.

This comes as little surprise to psychologists who study the workings of the human brain. People’s decisions and behavior are strongly influenced by desires they hold for their future. Hope gets people out of bed in the morning and keeps them going, even in the toughest of times—even when their promised land seems a long way off.

That’s what “I Have a Dream” did for the civil rights movement. You can do the same for your cause, by setting goals that inspire people.

When you speak to people’s hopes and values, more of them will want to get involved—and they’ll stay engaged over longer periods of time. An aspirational approach can create meaningful, lasting relationships that expand your reach, your resources and your impact.

CARE is one of the world’s leading humanitarian organizations. When there’s a famine, natural disaster, or other crisis, CARE does a great job shining a spotlight on the need. People react to CARE’s appeals to help families in desperate circumstances, as shown in the image below, and many click on CARE’s online ads to donate money.


CARE uses images like this to motivate people to help families in dire circumstances. (Photo courtesy of CARE)

So CARE’s donations spike during humanitarian crises. Revenues shoot up, then come right back down. That’s the sort of response you can expect from articulating short-term goals to meet what are seen as short-term needs.

But CARE doesn’t leave it at that. The organization also focuses on empowering women in developing countries, because “equipped with the proper resources, women have the power to help whole families and entire communities escape poverty.” That vision is game-changing. It’s transformational. It’s more aspirational.

The image below is from a campaign promoting CARE’s microloan program for women. You can’t help but root for these women entrepreneurs. You want to invest in their success.


CARE uses empowering images like this to build longer-term support for its goals. (Photo courtesy of CARE)

This kind of appeal is more likely to keep people engaged over a longer period of time. When you set transformational goals and communicate them effectively, you’re more likely to get greater levels of engagement and commitment to the cause.

But how do you keep people engaged and committed?

Shore, Hammond, and Celep note, “It is also important to create a sense of urgency and a reason to believe that the long-term bold goal can be accomplished. This can be achieved by setting shorter-term milestones and developing small-scale proof points.”

The Social Performance Task Force (SPTF) set the ambitious goal of rallying microfinance institutions around the world to join together in adopting what it calls Universal Standards for the far-flung industry. It engaged industry leaders worldwide in drawing up a set of management practices to ensure that the industry’s loans truly helped people in poverty. These Universal Standards hold promise for making microfinance institutions as rigorous about achieving social good as they are about earning financial returns.

It was an ambitious undertaking. More than 10,000 microfinance institutions operate in hundreds of countries and dozens of languages. Many were skeptical of, and even intimidated by, the idea of holding the industry to a common set of rigorous standards.

To achieve the goal, SPTF employed a milestone-driven strategy. Meaningful milestones help make a long journey toward an ambitious goal seem less daunting. Rallying stakeholders to achieve short- and mid-term milestones can instill urgency, create a sense of momentum and provide “wins” to celebrate as you work toward the ultimate goal.

SPTF established measurable milestones for engaging their audiences: 1) mobilize champions to spread the word about the Universal Standards among microfinance leaders, 2) inspire early adopters to take up the call to share their stories about implementation the practices, and 3) motivate thought leaders to raise awareness of the cause with a much broader audience. Each of these milestones builds momentum toward the ultimate goal.

Mobilizing champions begins with a motivating message. SPTF conducted research to understand the aspirations of people in the industry. Stakeholders across the industry were united by a common vision of empowering people to improve their own lives. They were much less excited by the idea of being given a manual of management strategies.

So, SPTF equipped champions with a motivating message that led with an aspirational idea. Each champion now communicates a common message, with a confident and consistent voice, enabling SPTF to amplify its reach and impact. At a recent international conference, one champion inspired a crowd of several hundred peers to learn more about the Universal Standards. By speaking authentically to the aspirations of fellow industry leaders, he created a meaningful connection with every person in the room.

Once champions raise awareness of the standards, early adopters motivate people to take action—by sharing their stories with peers to offer ideas and inspiration. They are telling their stories in a variety of ways—through videos and case studies—and lifting up their lessons to offer inspiration and ideas for others to take action.

Finally, industry thought leaders will raise visibility of the Universal Standards among even broader audiences through blog posts in important venues. They’ll draw on early adopters’ stories to show the impact of the universal standards. And their respected voices will provide external validation to help persuade harder-to-reach audiences.

Each of these milestones is measurable: SPTF can track how many champions, early adopters and thought leaders mobilized for the cause. And each milestone builds the reach and resources of the campaign—as more and more people learn about the cause and take action that advances progress toward the goal.

It takes an aspirational vision to build support for change. People have to see their own goals in the future you want to achieve and understand why your solution is the best way to get them there. Setting meaningful milestones along the way helps make it clear that not only is your big goal possible, but that it's exciting and worth stepping up for.

This article was originally published in Standard Social Innovation Review (SSIR)