Seven Dos and Don’ts for Strong Nonprofit Taglines (Case Study)

Case Study: Does Smokey Bear’s tagline work, or not?

You’re probably familiar with Smokey Bear’s tagline: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

I admire its brevity, focus and emphasis on call to action. And the tagline really succeeds in engaging audiences, as it places a great deal of responsibility for preventing forest fires on “you.”


However, one Getting Attention reader had another perspective to offer: “There’s a problem with this tagline in terms of framing. I often read how wildfires result from public policy decisions about forest and prairie use and development. But this tagline limits public thinking about other ways of solving wildfire problems, and cuts short the public debate about land use.”


Reader, you make a very good point, but from my perspective, a tagline can’t cover everything. If it’s crafted to do so, it tends to be too long or too vague. As a result, broad taglines generally fail.

First thing, I reviewed the Smokey Bear mission and saw that its primary focus is on educating individuals on how they can prevent forest fires. Although Smokey articulates development policies as one of four key reasons for forest fires, Smokey’s website cites that 50% of forest fires are man-made.

Not only that, Smokey focuses on educating individuals on forest fires and engaging them in the fight against fires, including advocacy. So “you” in the tagline is not to exclude the notion of non-man-made fires but to engage audiences through the use of a very personal voice.

But your point raises an important issue. What are the dos and don’ts of powerful nonprofit taglines?

Tagline Dos and Don’ts


  • Ensure that your tagline works together with your organization’s name, positioning statement and key messages. The words in the tagline should be found in your positioning statement and key messages. Consistency of message is the name of the game.
  • Emphasize action and/or emotion. Use verbs, not just nouns. You want your nonprofit’s tagline to actively engage your audience. Examples that work:

    “Explore, enjoy and protect the planet.”
    – Sierra Club

    “Saving babies, together”
    – March of Dimes

    “Providing Medical Relief Worldwide”
    – Doctors Without Borders

  • Make sure it’s easy to pronounce and spell, and sounds pleasant to the ear. Don’t make your audiences struggle. Remember, they’re your best communicators – via word of mouth.


  • Don’t be generic. Be specific and as emotive as possible. Weak – “Building a Better New York”. This tagline could represent a construction firm or the mayor’s office. In reality, it’s the tagline of a nonprofit providing legal services to other nonprofits. Powerful – “Connecting Lawyers and Communities”. From the same kind of nonprofit in another city.
  • Don’t craft a tagline your organization can’t stand behind 100%. Your nonprofit has to be able to deliver what you promise. When you do so, your organization reaffirms its credibility. When you don’t, you lose any you may have.
  • Don’t launch your tagline before trying it out. Before committing yourself to your top choice, get feedback from at least 10 members of key internal and external audiences. You may discover one of two things: They just don’t get it, or you don’t feel 100% comfortable with it yourself.
  • Don’t change your tagline more than once a decade. Your audiences will remember it and, unless your nonprofit changes its programs and services drastically, there’s value in keeping the same tagline for a decade or so.