Most nonprofits I know are terrified of using humor in their communications. We can’t be funny, this is serious stuff we’re trying to accomplish.
Executed thoughtfully, humor can be an effective form of communication. In addition to offering lots of benefits for our minds and bodies (like reducing pain and stress, and increasing relaxation), it can really move the needle on nonprofit recruiting, advocacy and awareness initiatives (and in rare cases, fundraising).
Yes, humor can misfire or worse, backfire, but so can other approaches. We test and try then learn from our mistakes. Nowhere is that easier than online communications.
(And remember, to err is human. Mistakes can be openings for deeper engagement. A prompt mea culpa can endear you to supporters.)
So, why does humor work?
1. Powerful Emotional Engagement
Humor hits us somewhere deep in inside. Brain science tells us laughter and humor release endorphins and increase oxygen to the brain, giving us an opening for persuasive messaging. Make someone laugh or smile and you immediately have their attention, which is a pretty hard thing to get these days.
Humane Society of the United States Photo Caption Contest
2. Break Down Walls; Ease Fear and Tension
Ever go toe-to-toe with a stubborn kid and reach that because-I-say-so moment? Make a joke (especially one at your own expense, not theirs) and watch that impasse melt away.
How might this apply to nonprofit communications? It gives people an easy out, or a pleasant path around your mutual obstacle — think taking action, donating, awareness, caring. Make ‘em laugh and they are more likely to get past that hump and meet you half way.
3. Binds People Together
Laugh together and you create a positive shared experience. How many times have you had a conversation that went like this, “Did you see that cartoon about the election?…YES, it was so funny!” BOOM! Bond formed. That bond can be between you and your supporters.
NOTE: Never mock your supporters. Humiliate yourself instead.
Funny stands out and sticks with us. Recalling something humorous makes us feel good all over again.
Sierra Club Email: Help Governor Sanford Find the Appalachian Trail
5. Freedom to Say Stuff You Couldn’t With a Straight Face
This approach can be a bit harder to pull off, but it is the bread-and-butter of successful comedians like Stephen Colbert, and of parody Twitter accounts such as @PaulRyanGosling, @DepressedDarth, @FakeAPStylebook or @BronxZoosCobra. In the nonprofit sphere, no one does this better than Left Action, which has built a one-million strong progressive activist empire on edgy, humorous campaigns. Left Action founder John Hlinko says, “This approach is so much more effective it’s CRAZY.”
Left Action Campaign
6. Humor Travels (Dare I say viral?)
Funny gets shared. Those joke emails have been (thankfully) replaced by shares on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest (check out George Takei’s Facebook Page or my For the Love of Star Wars and Political Humor Pinterest boards). We share funny, therefore we are funny.
“Let My People Vote” by Jewish Council for Education and Research (This is Sarah Silverman, so if you offend easily, don’t watch.)
Have you used humor in your nonprofit fundraising or communications? How did it go?