FYI Blog

Marketing Lessons from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Some days, doing “the best we can” may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect on any front and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else. – Fred Rogers

One of my colleagues has kept the above quote near her desk for years—a constant reminder of the basic decency and important life lessons Mr. Rogers exemplified.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of his PBS children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Whether we watched faithfully or just occasionally visited “the neighborhood,” most of us have probably been moved by his gentle, kind message: accept ourselves and others just as we are.

The anniversary will be marked by a PBS special (out now) about the show, and a documentary about Mr. Rogers coming in June, as well as a feature film later this year, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers.

As these retrospectives remind us, Mr. Rogers was all about the message. His PBS show—with corny, low-production value and amateur ventriloquism giving voice to primitive hand puppets—somehow, against all odds, worked tremendously well. His universal message of love and acceptance shone through, as he gently taught children about difficult topics like death, divorce, war, and even assassination.

In 1969, Rogers testified before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications, which was considering a huge cut to public television funding. Subcommittee Chairman John Pastore (D-RI), who was sometimes described as impatient and gruff, listened patiently to Mr. Rogers describe how his show taught children to respect themselves and others, that feelings are something to talk about and manage, and that children are thoughtful, intelligent people. At the end of Mr. Rogers’ testimony, Pastore exclaimed, “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

Nice reward for six minutes of heartfelt fundraising—compelling, simple messaging did the trick. Like Fred Rogers telling the subcommittee about what his program accomplished, nonprofit marketers must always describe their mission and how they work toward those goals, outline the challenges, and ask for help.

We can take a page from Mr. Rogers’ book by connecting with donors where they are—through the communications channels they prefer—and remembering that compelling storytelling will engage and motivate them. Just as Mr. Rogers never shied away from tough topics, our use of real world, real people examples can help encourage our donors and activists to up their involvement

Mr. Rogers respected children, and reached them at their level, by taking them to his Neighborhood of Make-Believe and introducing them to his friends there—like King Friday XIII, Daniel Tiger, X the Owl—always including incremental learning along the way.

With all the turmoil in our country and the world these days, I often stop and think about the good work nonprofits are doing every day to try to make life better for people. Sometimes it feels like a drop of water in an ocean of problems, but it is a start, and each of us brings something unique to the table. Mr. Rogers gently reminds us – as we remind our donors – that by helping others, even incrementally, we can heal the world and ourselves. Our participation matters.

In closing, I don’t think Mr. Rogers would mind if I added his daily parting comment to his little viewer friends as he took off his cardigan—and (paraphrased) to his Congressional audience: “You always make each day a special day. You know how: By just your being you/yourself. There’s only one person in the whole world that’s like you, and that’s you. And people can like you just exactly the way you are.”