In the spring of 2000, I was approached by a colleague and friend to consider doing some pro-bono work for a small nonprofit with a critical strategy project. I was caught off guard. Our company, relaunched as Prophet Brand in 1999, was in the middle of its first growth surge, powered by David Aaker’s global brand guru status and the Dot.com investment boom. As a young, fast-growing firm, we were having a hard time establishing our culture, growing our team, defining our methodologies and driving high-quality work for paying clients. I struggled to envision how we would be able to free up the time and resources to also do high-quality work for pro-bono clients. My mid-30’s CEO mindset sensed that this was a luxury we couldn’t afford. Luckily for me, this Prophet colleague – Cathy Halligan – didn’t give up. She was determined to help me see why doing this kind of work was consistent with our aspiration as a firm and my hopes as a leader.
The nonprofit organization had a passionate leadership team that enabled some of the only visible wins for its movement in the United States. But, it found itself at a crossroads. Its talented executive director, team and board needed to figure out how to capitalize on its strengths and build a story that would help power the organization and its resources to more transformational impact. As Cathy Halligan consistently argued, Prophet circa 2000 had exactly the right mix of expertise and perspective to help solve this problem. If we weren’t ready to generously apply our time and talents to helping change leaders answer their hardest brand and narrative questions, what were we here for?
Her persuasive words and spirit have stayed with me to this day. Cathy’s determined efforts led us to shape our first pro-bono project in the fall of 2000 with The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. It was the first of what’s become a series of Prophet pro-bono efforts to support a range of US organizations committed to advancing LGBTQ+ civil rights in the United States and globally.
Starting Our Work With LGBTQ+ Civil Rights
It may be hard to remember the state of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement at the turn of the century. Bill Clinton had signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law in 1996, stating that marriage could only be between one man and one woman. At the state level, many anti-LGBTQ+ laws and ballot measures were getting passed left, right and center. Also, the AIDS crisis was still roiling the broader LGBTQ+ community. Times felt dark.
The single bright spot of progress was in the courts, where courageous citizens and their lawyers were bringing legal challenges to some of the most oppressive anti-LGBT laws. Lambda Legal and some of its allies were the driving forces behind this strategy. They would identify the most egregious laws that allowed for discrimination in employment, housing, healthcare, education, etc., or that still criminalized consensual LGBTQ+ relationship behavior between consenting adults, find plaintiffs who would sue the government asserting that these laws were unconstitutional, and then provide the plaintiffs with all the legal support needed to execute the cases. Through this strategy, Lambda Legal helped win the first HIV/AIDS discrimination case in the 1980s, won a historical legal precedent holding schools accountable for harassment and violence against LGBTQ+ students in the 1990s and achieved broad progress on so many other legal battlefields.
But the organization was made up of lawyers using lawyer-speak in all their communications, was chronically under-funded and was not well-known or understood even within the LGBTQ+ community, let alone the broader public. Our job was to help them land on an aspirational purpose, brand strategy, narrative and roadmap that would help elevate its impact, enable transformative change, dramatically increase its donor base and elevate its reputation among the broader movement.
We unlocked a critical insight – most people didn’t understand how the outcomes of Lambda’s work would impact the everyday lives of LGBTQ+ people, families and communities. We needed to help them turn their legal strategies into human stories told through the faces and voices of those directly affected. We needed to help them develop a storyline that up-leveled the context of their work – to help people understand how making progress through the courts was an essential building block to advance the movement’s broader civil rights agenda. The selected strategy created a second major plank for the organization – a commitment to investing in dialogue-shaping education, as well as precedent-setting litigation in the pursuit of social justice. The way in which it was embraced and executed fundamentally changed the character and trajectory of Lambda Legal, elevating its influence, dramatically increasing its fundraising prowess and growing its capacity and resources to drive transformative change.
Adding on to the Movement
Later that decade, we found another organization in the LGBTQ+ movement – Equality California – a trailblazer with charismatic leadership and an excellent track record of advancing the most comprehensive set LGBTQ+ legal protections passed by elected officials and politicians anywhere in the United States. Prophet aligned itself to support Equality California when the organization and the movement were at an incredibly low point. Many were blaming the organization for losing the “No on Prop 8” anti-gay marriage California ballot initiative in the 2008 election, in effect ripping away hard-earned marriage rights and putting the legal status of 18,000 same-sex marriages from the previous 4 months in limbo.
Equality California had to learn to acknowledge the mistakes with grace and humility while finding a new way forward. We dug deep to unlock a new set of insights across an array of stakeholders and learned that there was an opportunity to reposition the organization as a champion for full equality for LGBTQ+ Californians, not just same-sex marriage. Getting legal rights was not enough if it didn’t lead to a pervasive change in the “lived” experiences of LGBTQ+ citizens across all dimensions of their lives. And that marriage, while important, was only one of the vital steps in this path to full “lived’ equality.
This kicked off what turned out to be a 10-year plus relationship with leadership at Equality California. Over the course of our partnership, we found many ways to support its leaders and its mission. For example, we helped provide detailed insights work to understand how to shift perceptions of potential allies and voters as LGBTQ+ civil rights were tested through ballot propositions. We also helped with donor growth strategies and volunteer mobilization campaigns.
In 2017 and 2018, we helped the next generation of leaders unlock a new purpose and story for Equality California after the marriage question had been settled. What should “full and lasting” equality look like? There were still dramatic disparities in the health and wellbeing of the community and continuous attacks on the gains that had been achieved. How could Equality California become a movement builder, intersectional and inclusive in nature, and fit for a new era of digital activism, grassroots energy and urgent necessity? We helped them answer these questions, and then retooled the brand along with its look and feel to reflect the new strategy. “Until the work is done” became the phrase that captured the spirit and the intention of this team.
Celebrating 20 Years of Giving Back
While these stories spotlight the bookends of 20 years’ worth of pro-bono energy and commitment to this movement, there have been many other organizations and themes that Prophet teams have touched along the way. We’ve rebranded a groundbreaking leader in its drive to create safe, respectful and healthy K-12 schools for LGBTQ+ students, helped to enrich stories for teams working to redefine LGBTQ+ images in the media and supported leaders tackling the tough issue of LGBTQ+ youth suicide rates and homelessness. No matter what the organization or the issues, committed Propheteers stepped up to the table with energy, expertise, humility and compassion to deconstruct thorny questions, unlock new insights and co-create positive strategies, programs, identities and narratives to move the work forward.
As we launch the next chapter of Prophet Impact, with three focus areas – equality, social mobility and sustainability – my hope is that we can build upon our journey within the LGBTQ+ movement, and the organizations and grassroots advocates who power it. Prophet has grown in scope and scale now, with a deeper set of capabilities to support bold organizations aspiring to drive transformative change. Our experience has taught us that it is only with sustained effort that we can hope to support these movements and organizations in our shared desire to drive enduring, meaningful change. And that we must be prepared to continue to invest, even in the face of demoralizing setbacks, fierce resistance and uneven progress.
I am grateful for Cathy Halligan’s persistence more than 20 years ago, and for all the energy that so many creative, strategic, committed teammates have put into this body of work over the years. So much effort and so much heart have been poured into our collaboration with these trailblazing organizations. Our talents elevate the impact of organizations and movements on the ground. We see firsthand the struggles and challenges these movements face in their efforts to drive systemic change. But rather than feel daunted by these realities, we bring even more determination and optimistic energy to the work at hand. We’re enriched and strengthened as professionals and humans through our shared work together – we get way more than we give.
Happy Pride. Happy 20th anniversary, Prophet Impact. Here’s to a new generation of leaders and the next 20 years of effort focused on helping to build a healthier, more compassionate and more just world.