Not long ago, a non-profit organization asked me to come in and perform a bit of tinkering. They had existing materials, such as a website and brochures, but they were fed up with the way things were going. They wanted me to come up with words to describe what they were all about so they could determine the next steps.

I refused to help.

Why would I turn down business? It’s simple. I was being asked to do the impossible, and whatever I came up with was going to be a wasted effort. I don’t like to waste time developing things that won’t be used, and my conscience bristles at the thought of billing for them.

From what I could discern, the organization was frustrated with its lack of forward progress and was desperately seeking anything that would provide a sense of direction. They apparently thought that I could see a clear path, and could develop the words that would magically move them along.

But those words need to be inspired by the organization’s mission — not the other way around. And an outsider isn’t the one who needs to be defining what that mission should be. That’s the role of the organization’s board. Is it tough? Even agonizing? Absolutely! Nobody said serving on a non-profit’s board should be an easy or an effortless task.

If the words and any kind of marketing communications materials are not aligned with the board’s strategic goals and are developed without the board’s involvement, they’ll fail in one of two ways. Either they won’t work (and will subsequently get the blame), or the board will find itself at the same point of frustration within a few months. And while for-profit enterprises have different objectives, the same concept applies.

What people like me do is not some sort of magic tool that instantly fixes underlying problems.  If your product is a piece of crap, the best ad ever developed isn’t going to make it a success. If your organization doesn’t understand why it exists or what it should do, a statement by a copywriter isn’t going to turn you into a well-running machine. Before you invest the first dollar in any kind of marketing communications, make sure your house is in order and you have a solid foundation to build upon.

After all, if what folks like me do really was that magical, you probably couldn’t afford us.