Marketing is critical to the health and success of any business. In order to be profitable, companies need to be able to find new customers and keep current customers aware of new offerings, specials, and the benefits of using their products. Very often, non-profit organizations are treated quite unfairly, expected to be miracle workers by doing more to help every year with less...much less. Forced to compete with profit-driven businesses for market share, it’s not entirely surprising that total giving to charitable organizations was a merger 2.1% of US GDP in 2015.[i]
It’s paradoxical then that non-profits are expected to grow and serve more people with the donations they solicit, while their hands remain tied by a general stigma from donors related to spending money on administrative staff, development professionals, and a marketing team (staff who could generate additional revenue and make the organization more successful in the long-term).
Like most profit-driven, productive businesses, non-profit organizations depend on the engagement, support, and loyalty of their customers (often called constituents in the non-profit world). Typically, this group is comprised of donors, organization members, corporate and community sponsors, and volunteers. And like any other consumers, they want information about a product: what are the benefits of participating, and what else do they need to do (or give) to make a difference?
Lack of marketing and communications effort ultimately undermines a non-profit organization’s ability to grow and reach their full potential. Fundraising efforts can easily stagnate without marketing and as loyal donors age out, legacy organizations struggle to bring in the next generation of constituents who will support their cause. A non-profit should be allowed to invest operating capital into their future growth.
Modern tracking of ROI from marketing and fundraising efforts makes it possible, more than ever, for organizations to manage marketing costs responsibly. It turns marketing departments from cost centers into partners that generate revenue hand-in-hand with development and service departments. It’s the marketing department’s job to be able to place value on their budgets and strategic plans. It is the job of senior leadership to provide the data, resources, and budget to accomplish this together.
How a Non-Profit Should Approach Marketing for the First Time
1. Tell Your Amazing Stories. By their very nature, non-profit organizations provide value to their communities and to the populations they serve. Organizations need to reach out to board members, volunteers, employees (past and present), clients, parents, families; then get on camera and start sharing emotional, heartfelt, true stories with the world. People are out there and they want to help. They want to get involved. But, they can only do so much. It’s up to the organization to make (market) their case for support to let potential constituents (customers) know exactly what they need to do. It doesn’t matter if the value proposition is about donating, volunteering, or attending an event, the principles are the same: use your stories to engage people, test what works, and zero-in on your target audience. Tell your constituents what you need them to do and most importantly, give them a reason to do it.
2. Make the Investment. Many non-profits hesitate to spend money on marketing, instead choosing to believe that donors and members will perceive the expense as an extravagance or waste. In fact, the opposite is true. How else will you reach the people who can support your cause? How else can an organization break free of the insulation that occurs when a majority of the energy available is spent purely on delivering mission? In theory, an organization could function for years spending energy in this way, only to look up one day and realize that their niche is quickly being filled with intense competition from other non-profits for their development funds, staff members, and constituents.
3. Make a Plan and Try to Stick to It. Create a marketing plan with Senior Leadership that defines who your potential supporters are, how you can reach them, and what your value proposition is for motivating them. Make sure you have a plan for tracking your efforts, which will involve very close communication with the fund development department or sales team. A clear marketing plan will get everyone on the same page and will lead to organized execution.
When looked at closely, non-profits are not very different from their for-profit cousins. Organizations are offering a product: change. And for this reason, reaching people who can support their work is vital to continue efforts into the future. Someone needs to ‘buy’ their product. There is no doubt that when non-profit organizations embrace the marketing principles of successful for-profit businesses, they begin to flourish.
When there are limited resources available, the balancing act between the mission delivery and investment in future potential is always a tightrope walk. Use your data and make decisions based on careful tracking of ROI, if you’ve correctly executed your marketing efforts, the value will be apparent.
[i] Charity Navigator 2015 http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm/bay/content.view/cpid/42
[ii] SBA US Small Business Association 2014. https://www.sba.gov