On a Sunday shopping trip to Fairway, I stopped in front of a stack of water bottles emblazoned with the words, “Overachieving H2O.”   What possessed a water company to write that tagline? Is overachieving water better than “smart” water or healthier than “natural” water—two other descriptors I’ve seen on water bottles? Does anybody actually believe that water is capable of overachieving?

In an effort to differentiate themselves, water companies are falling victim to a common branding mistake–unbelievable taglines. Every organization wants a tagline that conveys its powerful vision. But there is a clear line between aspirational and unrealistic, and crossing that line sets you up for failure.

Nonprofits can’t afford to ignore this point. After all, your donors aren’t just making contributions; they are investing in your organization. Like all investors, they need to believe that you can deliver on the promises you make. Your tagline should be aspirational, but if it is clearly unachievable, your donors will recognize that.

Even more important, a tagline that overpromises reflects badly on the field. It feeds into inaccurate stereotypes that nonprofits are not quite as professional or businesslike as for-profits. It makes people wonder whether the problems you are seeking to solve are actually solvable.

There are many excellent taglines in the nonprofit world. Here are five tips to help you craft one:

  1. Be clear not clever. Start with straightforward language that conveys your mission and vision.
  2. Skip the superlatives. People probably won’t believe them anyway.
  3. Engage. Use action verbs and emotional words to connect and inspire your audience.
  4. Make it memorable. Now that you know what you want to say, find a witty way to say it. Try using words that paint a picture, rhymes, alliteration, and other techniques.
  5. Test before using. Do a focus group with your target audience. Offer them a few alternatives and listen carefully to peoples’ responses.