By Joe Waters, Guest Contributor, Selfish Giving
Do you remember the television painter Bob Ross? If you grew up during the 80s and 90s, you probably watched his show. Bob recorded more than 400 episodes of the Joy of Painting, which aired on PBS.
I had no interest in art, but I used to love watching Bob paint. He was a talented artist who made creating landscapes look so easy. I loved his voice—so friendly and calming—like listening to gentle waves lapping against the shore. I want a bedtime noise machine that replays episodes of the Joy of Painting.
I thought of Bob recently when I listened to a story on NPR about his career. I learned something new. According to his longtime manager, Bob’s hair was straight, not naturally curly. He got a perm to save money when he was a starving artist, and the look stuck. In later years, Bob hated his perm! However, he considered his hairdo such a big part of his brand that he never wanted to change it.
You gave personal art lessons on TV. You had a voice that could soothe a wild boar. You painted beautiful artwork in just 30 minutes. And you handled a two-inch brush like it was an X-Acto Knife when I could have painted my living room with it.
You didn’t need the perm, Bob.
Bob wasn’t alone in thinking that his brand was dependent on something artificial. Nonprofits think this way all the time. They hold onto things when they should really just let them go.
Consider the Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised unprecedented funds for the ALS Association. When the campaign launched in 2014, a reporter asked me if I thought there would be another Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC) in 2015. “Next year?” I replied. “Causes will be asking us to pour ice water on ourselves in August for the next 20 years.” The IBC was a phenomenon—a fundraising freak of nature that is unrepeatable. Holding onto the Challenge is like sticking with a chemical perm, instead of readying ourselves for the inevitable change in tastes that will make it obsolete.
I know a nonprofit that can’t see beyond the vision of its founder. But when she’s gone, who will guide the organization? Now is the time to experiment with a new look. Conversely, the Thomas family has been involved with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for decades, but the brand isn’t dependent on them. The day Marlo isn’t around will be a sad one, but St. Jude will continue to thrive without her.
I’m a big fan of historical organizations here in Boston, but many are too geography-centric. They only see their mission within the confines of their physical location instead of adopting a mission with broader appeal. For example, George Washington’s ancestral home Mount Vernon is in Virginia, but their brand isn’t defined by wooden shingles and parlor furniture. The organization is a leader in interpreting 18th century life and a forum for discussing current politics, much of which Mount Vernon does on its excellent website. Mount Vernon isn’t a building, it is a beacon.
Are you holding onto a part of your brand that you need to let go? Is there something that’s dragging you down or just cluttering your identity? Your brand is your canvas. You can paint whatever you want on that canvas. You get to decide what stays or goes. “You have unlimited power,” said Ross. “You have the ability to move mountains.” Or to change a hairdo. Start with a blank canvas and question everything you add back in. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, or as Bob referred to them, “happy accidents.” You may discover a masterpiece.