As a nonprofit marketer, you are focused on outreach, communications, engagement, and development activities. These actions are often intertwined through the products you produce: fundraising emails, education events, social activities, printed communications, signage etc. But, what binds all of this together in the mind of your audience? Is there a way to strengthen this messaging with emotional and intellectual connections? How do you make your organization’s message meaningful?

This can be accomplished with the help of a discipline called interpretation. Those who practice interpretation are “involved in the interpretation of natural and cultural heritage resources in settings such as parks, zoos, museums, nature centers, aquaria, botanical gardens, and historical sites.” Reference: National Association for Interpretation.

First, some definitions:

Marketing is about helping your audience to succeed in what they want to do and nurturing them so that when they are ready they think of your organization.

Interpretation is a “mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource. ”

So, how can marketing be strengthened with interpretation? Here are six of the original principles of interpretation developed by Freeman Tilden (shown above). To give these a more modern presence I have used the principles as stated in Beck and Cables,’ Interpretation for the 21st Century. Below the principles are my own observations about marketing. Also, I am using a general definition of “product” to be anything you might produce within your nonprofit, this could include: fundraising activities, events, social activities, communications, and signage, even items sold in your store etc.

Principle 1: To spark an interest, interpreters must relate the subject to the lives of the people in their audience.

  • Do the benefits of the product support personal discovery or a discovery situation?
  • Does the product allow the visitor to succeed by gaining new insights / or see previously known information in new ways?
  • Does the product relate to the experiences of the park visitor?

Principle 2: The purpose of interpretation goes beyond providing information to reveal deeper meaning and truth.

  • Does the product provide a quality opportunity for the visitor to support your organization’s programs?
  • Does the product support a connection between the tangible and intangible elements of an interpretive site?
  • Does the product reinforce information about the site in meaningful ways?

Principle 3: The interpretive presentation–as a work of art– should be designed as a story that informs, entertains and enlightens.

  • Can the product be localized with interpretive text, or customized to creatively support a park theme?
  • Is the product compelling as well as providing a vehicle for park themes?
  • Is the product in context with the site or program themes?

Principle 4: The purpose of the interpretive story is to inspire and to provoke people to broaden their horizons.

  • Does the product support awareness, understanding, or enthusiasm for the resource (your organization, local green space, etc)?
  • Can the product be used to make information meaningful?
  • Can the product support a behavioral change or reinforce existing behavior?
  • Does the product allow for experiential learning?

Principle 5: Interpretation should present a complete theme or thesis and address the whole person.

  • Is the product an extension of the unifying park or program theme?
  • Was the product produced with materials, or methods that support park themes?
  • Does the product activate the senses?
  • Does the product relate the visitor to current or future park activities?
  • Does the product meet tangible needs, emotional needs or transformational needs of visitors?

Principle 6: Interpretation for children, teenagers, and seniors-when these comprise uniform groups-should follow fundamentally different approaches.

If needed, can the product be tailored to support a specific age group or a range of age groups?
To learn more about Interpretation visit the National Association for Interpretation online, The image of Tilden is sourced from the National Park Service.

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