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Photo by Brett Jordan

May has arrived, which reminds me of the perpetual grammar lesson of May vs. Can. You remember: Surely, once upon a time, you asked a teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” to which they replied, ignoring your crossed legs and pleading eyes, “I don’t know. Can you?”

Without unleashing my inner grammar geek, let me just summarize it this way: Can is about ability. May is about possibility. It’s a good lesson beyond grammar. When thinking about our missions, how often do we confuse what we can do with what we may do? How often do we confuse a-bility with possi-bility? Knowing the difference between them will not only pay off with better outcomes, but it will help your message stay clear, confident, and compelling!

May I? Possibility

Both a-bliity and possi-bility are critically important, but let’s start with possi-biity. Visionaries, big thinkers, idealists, and, of course, folk singers are all about possibility. And that’s great! We need them, desperately, to help us keep our eyes on the big picture, to help us muster up the courage and the energy to make incremental improvements on the way to what is possible.

Comedian Jeff Dye has a bit about being denied entry to Legoland because he was alone. Apparently, the policy said that men who aren’t accompanying women or children are not allowed to enter alone. “We want to reduce kidnapping at the park,” the ticket agent said.

Reduce? That’s a pretty low bar, don’t you think? Sounds defeatist to me. What’s more motivating? Decreasing or preventing? That’s why possibilities and the visionaries who see them are so important!

But seeing them is not enough. I often say the great thing about visionaries—especially social entrepreneurs—is that they love to solve problems. The bad thing about them, however, is that they love to solve problems! So many, in fact, that they’re easily distracted by a new problem even before their existing problems are solved.

CAN I? Ability

That’s where the ability people come in. Without the ability types, nothing would ever get done because anything that is possible requires incremental steps to get there. Organizations have to have the ability to take steps toward fulfilling their mission. Simply stating that that’s why they exist isn’t enough.

Sometimes these waters get cloudy, however. Here’s a little quiz. Which of the following are best described as abilities?

  1. End child abuse
  2. Educate communities on the signs of child abuse
  3. Develop culturally-competent training for law enforcement
  4. Ensure that all child abuse is reported

Options 2 and 3 are examples of abilities. That means that 1 and 4 are possibilities. Sadly, it’s unlikely that we will ever end child abuse. However, with that possibility as our goal, we are motivated to use our abilities to meet it.

Your Message’s Ability to Support Your Possibilities

As I’ve said, both possibilities and abilities are important, and the place they should live is in your brand strategy, or as we call it, your Focus & Messaging Framework. It starts with your WHY: What is the possibility that you are passionately trying to make a reality? Here are examples from some of our incredible clients:

  • Help children heal with everyone’s help.
  • Create social and economic justice through inclusive relationships.Promote and fight for primary care that improves the quality of life for people around the world.
  • Connect organizations and LGBTQ+ professionals to create thriving workplace

These proclamations, if you will, are essential to motivating people to consider joining in those missions—whether that’s working as a team member, volunteering, advocating on your behalf, buying what you’re selling, or providing financial support.

As we’ve said, no matter how powerful, those are not enough, and notice I said consider joining. Possibilities are great, but until people understand how you acting on your vision, they’re unlikely to join you.

Some examples of the abilities that support the possibilities our clients see include:

  • Understanding and acting upon the key factors impacting LGBT financial well-being.
  • Galvanizing legislative and public support.
  • Empowering residents through leadership development and a diverse array of
  • Breaking down financial complexities into easy-to-understand components.
  • Mobilizing communities to have tough but necessary conversations about child abuse.

If these abilities are unique and effective, people are far more likely to embrace the possibilities your organization sees.

May we help you think through your possibilities and abilities? I’m certain we can.

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