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    Marketing Your Negative Space

    By Mo Waja

    Telling your story is harder for some nonprofit organizations than others, particularly when you, the nonprofit, are working with a vulnerable population.


    Why? Because, depending upon the specific characteristics of the population in question, there are often strict ethical, and sometimes legal, guidelines we must adhere to that dictate how a story can (and should) be told – for instance, in the case of an organization working with children. In other cases, perhaps the population that your nonprofit serves cannot be shown in media at all – for instance, when taking into account the safety and security needs of survivors of domestic abuse.


    Through the lens of an organization working with a vulnerable population, marketing can seem at best difficult and at worst an insurmountable challenge; for how can you market the good your organization does when you cannot show the positive impact you have on the population you serve? How can you market the good without showing the good?


    In my last article on developing your nonprofit narrative we discussed the need to consider not only your primary population (the population you serve) when building the story of your nonprofit, but also all of the diverse people and groups of people orbiting around members of your population – the people who are affected by changes in your population’s lives. Considering not just the story of your primary population, but the stories of all of the other people affected by them and, therefore, by your work, helps to write a story of your nonprofit that is fuller, more complex, and more engaging for your audience. At the same time, incorporating the stories of these external stakeholders into your nonprofit’s story provides an opportunity for nonprofits who, for whatever reason, cannot show their primary population.


    Negative space is the space that surrounds the subject of an image and helps to define the boundaries of that subject; the space outside of the space that your subject occupies.



    Think of each member of your primary population as the subject of a portrait. The negative space that surrounds them and helps define their boundaries – where they fit in their world – is built up of all of the stories of all of the people who are affected by changes in their lives.


    Practically, what this means is that if you cannot tell the personal stories of the people your organization serves, start by telling the stories of the people who surround them, the stakeholders in their lives. Family, friends, caregivers, volunteers, donors, even your staff all play a role in defining your population’s place in the world. By telling their stories through the lens of how your work with your population has impacted and affected them, you are able to tell the story of your nonprofit and your outcomes through the ‘negative space’ surrounding your primary population.


    An easy example of this could be a blog post by a volunteer at your organization where that volunteer talks about the positive outcomes they have witnessed and about how donating their time to helping your population (through your organization) has made a positive impact in their own life. Another could be an interview with a caregiver – for instance, a counsellor or medical doctor – discussing their work with your population and the importance of that work, in the context of their interaction with your organization.


    Stories such as these enable you to talk about the positive outcomes that your organization generates without compromising any applicable legal or ethical guidelines and, most importantly, while continuing to protect the population you serve through all aspects of your nonprofit’s engagement with the world at large.


    About the Author

    Mo Waja

    Mo Waja is a professional speaker, marketer, entrepreneur, the author of presentIMPACT: The Speaker’s Guide, the Host of the Toronto Story Archive podcast, and works in Digital Marketing at a Toronto nonprofit. Mo has worked with clients in the software, finance, and e-commerce sectors, among others, developing their digital storytelling strategies. Currently, Mo is producing the She Speaks Project, a documentary covering barriers women face in professional communication in the workplace.