10 Marketing Realities Nonprofits Need to Accept to Succeed

10ball200squareAs you may know, I am in the middle of writing the full-length, printed book version of Nonprofit Marketing Guide, to be published in Spring 2010 by Jossey-Bass.  As I was writing various chapters on both strategy and tactics, I realized that I was making choices about what to include and what to leave out based on my own set of assumptions about the world that nonprofit communicators are working in. So I decided to make the first chapter of the book a summary of these assumptions.

Here is the my list of 10 marketing realities for nonprofits, with abridged commentary. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment on the blog, and maybe you’ll end up in Chapter 1!

Reality 1: Marketing is not a dirty word. Neither is communications or public relations.

Marketing gets a bad rap because when it’s done poorly, it can be downright offensive. No one wants to feel like someone, especially a charity, is trying to trick or cheat them. No one likes being yelled at, patronized or coerced. So don’t think of your marketing program as a megaphone or a soap box, but as a conversation. It’s true that some communications tactics are naturally more one-way or impersonal than others, but your marketing program as a whole should include many opportunities for back and forth dialogue with your supporters.

Reality 2: There is no such thing as the general public.

The general public includes everyone, from children to seniors, rich and poor, incarcerated and homeless. No matter how much you try, you will not reach everyone. In fact, if that’s what you try to do, odds are good that you will, in fact, reach no one. Instead, you need to focus on specific groups of people and work toward communicating with them in ways that connect with their particular needs and values.

Reality 3: You need to build your own media empire.

Don’t depend on the mainstream media to get your message out. That sector of our society has its own set of survival problems. Instead, build your own media empire using online tools. I’d much rather see a nonprofit spend a day writing blog posts and uploading photos or videos than writing a press release and calling a scattershot list of reporters about it. Media coverage can still be incredibly helpful. I’m not suggesting that you forgo media relations entirely. But in today’s media environment, I believe you are better off spending more time creating and publishing your own content than trying to talk someone else into publishing it for you.

Reality 4: Old people are online.

Grandma has email and she’s thinking about getting on Facebook too. The Pew Internet & American Life Project’s “Generations Online in 2009” found that the biggest increase in Internet use between 2005 and 2008 was within the 70-75 year-old age group – not just grandparents, but great-grandparents.  Older people will continue to get online, and even more significantly, the younger generations, particularly those in their 30s and 40s now who came of age with personal computing, will remain online as they age.  Their expectations for communicating online with their favorite charities will likely be extremely high. Prepare to meet those demands by getting through the steepest parts of your learning curve now.

Reality 5: Nonprofit communicators are transforming into community organizers.

Think about when you host in-person events. Isn’t it wonderful to see all of those people who care about your work in one place, talking to each other about the good work you are doing, and feeling good about their contributions to something much bigger than themselves? Smart nonprofits are now using social media tools to create those same cozy feelings online.

Find those people who are enthusiastic about your cause and who also have large networks of their own. Then feed those big fans, and help them spread the message to others. They may fundraise for you, but just as importantly, they’ll also friendraise for you. Organizations that merge now-separate functions of fundraising, communications, and information technology into community building teams will ultimately be more successful in the coming years than those who maintain these professional silos.

Reality 6: Personal and organizational personalities, or brands, are blending.

What is your group known for? This is your organization’s brand, image, or personality — and many nonprofits are finding that their organizational brand is closely related to the personalities of their most public staff members. This has always been true for smaller organizations, groups led by a founding or long-time executive director, and nonprofits created in someone else’s memory or honor. But now larger nonprofits must contend with this reality too. Good online marketing, especially in social media, is personal, which means that your staff should present themselves as real human beings in your communications. The personality of the messenger – you – can affect that organizational message.

Reality 7: Good nonprofit marketing takes more time than money.

Because the Internet has revolutionized communications between organizations and individuals, effective nonprofit marketing programs can be implemented for online pennies on the print dollar. Engaging supporters in conversations is more time-consuming than blasting messages out to them. Managing profiles on multiple social media sites is more time-consuming than updating your website once a month. Writing a blog with several posts per week is more time-consuming than sending out a print newsletter twice a year. While all of these tasks do take more time, they are also more effective at building a community of supporters.

Reality 8:  You’ve already lost control of your message. Stop pretending otherwise.

Control over the message about your organization or issue is not yours to give up. It’s already gone. What you can control is your response to how others are communicating about your issues and your organization. If someone wants to bad-mouth you online, they can do it right now whether you are there to see it and respond or not. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of comments that people make about charities online are positive or neutral. For those that are negative, isn’t it better to see them and consciously decide whether or not to respond than to be oblivious to them entirely?

Reality 9: Marketing is not fundraising, but it is essential to it.

Nonprofit marketing has many possible outcomes, and raising dollars is one of them. But nonprofits also use marketing to find and organize volunteers, to persuade decisionmakers, to change public policy, to raise awareness, to encourage behavior changes, and to foment social change.

While you can have successful long-term marketing campaigns that don’t involve fundraising, you cannot have successful long-term fundraising campaigns without marketing. Marketing and communications are how you talk to your donors in between those times when you ask for money. It’s what puts new people into your pool of potential new donors and what keeps current donors happy with your organization so they will give again.

Reality 10: Old-fashioned basics still work best, even online.

“The basics are what most organizations are missing. Obsessing about this is far more effective than managing the latest fad.” I didn’t say that, but I agree with it 100%. Marketing maven Seth Godin said it during a May 2008 online chat about nonprofit marketing hosted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

With online marketing in particular, don’t fret about Facebook until your website is in good shape. Don’t get all twisted up about Twitter until your email marketing program is effective. Focus on the basics first, and do them well. Tell good stories. Be grateful, and get your thank-you letters out. Become a valued and trusted source for others. That’s how you make it big.

Agree? Disagree? Want to add another item or two? Leave a comment on the blog.

© 2007-2017, Nonprofit Marketing Guide. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Meri McCoy-Thompson

    Good reminders about the basics, Kivi. I think these will be a great opener for your book!

  • Fran Sokol Simon

    I cannot agree with you more on all of these points, but….

    I hate to make a mess of your “10 tips” but I think there are more than 10. I’ve been working with state groups on advocacy using social marketing tactics and strategies, and I’ve discovered that they routinely have not thought to plan staff time into the equation. They think putting up a FB page or tweeting once or twice is all it takes, but they fail to realize that social media marketing and social media advocacy require a marathon mentality, not a sprint mentality. There is no such thing as “build it and they will come” in social networking for a cause, event, or for sales. There has to be at least one real staff member, if not all of the senior staff members out there being active to make SM work for advocacy (and perhaps marketing.)

    They also fail to realize that the effort and strategies required for social networking are not “one-size fits all.” They are more effective for some kinds of campaigns and less so for others. For example, I think the effort and time required may not have the same payoff for a campaign aimed at stopping budget cuts as a campaign aimed at supporting advocacy for specific legislation or recommendations. (Just one example…) The same could be true for other nonprofit marketing efforts. For example, would the payoff be the same to drum up interest for membership as it would be for a fundraising campaign? I don’t know…I’d have to factor in the organizations level of sophistication with SM, the momentum they have already built, and the amount of human resources they have to dedicate to their online efforts.

    Finally, I have to say that even though I enjoy and plan to continue helping other organizations build their campaigns, I need to stress that turning the tactical aspect of campaigns over to other people to do on their behalf is just not practical or strategically sound over the long haul. (I hear the booing from the consultants out there.) This is all about RELATIONSHIPS with the public. I simply stand by the importance of authenticity and transparency being among the most important elements of great online relationships with members, donors, advocates, and constituents. I think it is especially critical that state-level advocacy has to be driven by advocates in that state, not by a consultant who may or may not live in that state. Just my humble opinion… Take aim, everyone!

    • Fran – Right on, and love your perspective, as always. I’m devoting an entire chapter to time mgmt/time saving tips. Would love to hear more about when you think social media works and when it doesn’t.

  • I really liked this. Some straight forward truth and done in a manner that’s very realistic, yet short given that there were ten. Well done.

  • Kristen Forbriger

    Thanks for this, Kivi! #5 is so true, and technology will play a huge role in allowing and empowering our supporters to advocate for us. Really makes me look forward to the book!

  • Outstanding post, Kivi. I agree with it all! Many nonprofits shy away from the idea of “marketing” as they see it as somehow less than virtuous somehow.

    I strongly agree with the “becoming your own media empire” point. It’s getting harder and harder to gain traditional media attention these days and more and more people are looking to new media platforms for their information.

    I like Fran’s comments as well but not sure I entirely agree with the last one about consultants not being able to participate in SM on a client’s behalf. Although I think there are major challenges to doing this and I agree with the importance of relationships and authenticity, if it’s a long term nonprofit-consultant relationship, I think it can work. Many small nonprofits are not in the position to hire someone to do SM or can do it entirely by themselves. If the nonprofit is involved in the process, I think the consultant can have an important role here.

  • Fran and Deborah – The whole consultant (or even volunteer) question is an interesting one that I’m looking at for yet another chapter in the book (I’m doing one each on time, talent, and treasure). If you accept that social media in particular is about relationship building, then just who is part of this relationship? I can see where a volunteer or consultant can do a lot of the informational posting on behalf of a nonprofit, and even some retweeting, but when it gets into the real back-and-forth conversations, that’s where I think the real person behind the profile can come into play pretty quickly and some supporters might be rather disillusioned to find a consultant there (or even a volunteer depending on the org). Anyone have experience to share on this point?

  • Hi Kivi,

    I am tweeting on behalf of a client organizatin right now that is largely volunteer driven and I am closely advising on its Facebook presence. I am also a volunteer for this organization in another capacity. This organization knew little about social media but is learning slowly. As I take the helm in this area, I am at the same time fostering an understanding of the various platforms/tools and encouraging key volunteers to take a more central role.

    The organization always needs to be involved in the social media efforts and ideally, should feel comfortable engaging stakeholders in this way. I am in no way advocating that an “astro-turfing” approach is OK. At this stage in the social-media game, though, many clients need considerable support to get started and feel confident. Doing it right also takes considerable time so I do think there is a role for significant consultant support.

    I think the nature of the relationship between client and consultant as well as duration plays a role. For some small nonprofits, the consultant is really a part of the team–almost staff-like. As long as you’re not claiming to be someone within the organization or leading people to believe that, I think a consultant can play a significant role.

    I do agree, that ideally, the client needs to engage directly in the social media sphere, especially when it comes to the “back and forth” that you refer to above.

  • Fran Sokol Simon

    I think there are consultants, and then, there are engaged consultants. Confusing?

    Deborah mentioned that she is also a volunteer for the organization for which she is tweeting. I think that makes her an authentically engaged consultant who is invested in the mission and understands the complexities and personality of the organization.

    I’m very focused on the authenticity of the relationship that is built between the public and the organization via the tweeter. The donor/member/constituent needs to trust that the person with whom they are communicating is genuinely invested. To discover that this is a paid relationship only undermines trust in social media as a reliable source of information and for communication. People are naturally (and legitimately) suspicious of social media. It’s up to us to be as transparent and authentic as possible so there is hope for trusting, viable, and ongoing relationships online. People hear stories about people posing on Craigslist and dating sites, and are naturally wary on Twitter and social networking sites. Consultants need to be aware of this and do all they can to get organizations tweeting and posting on their own as soon as possible, lest they undermine the trusting relationships their clients need to remain viable.

    Here’s my thing..controversial again: If consultants are teaching their clients to “fish” while tweeting/posting for them, I’m all for it. If there is a detailed plan that the organization understands will become an employee or volunteer’s responsibility in the future so it can become self-sufficient, it’s an authentic learning experience. The long term plan for the client should be to train, coach, and mentor, and then recede to the shadows of pure consultation as soon as possible.

    I know many organizations don’t have the resources they need to launch and maintain full social media presences. That’s a subject for another day…

  • Fran Sokol Simon

    Oh, yeah- As to when it works and when it doesn’t work:

    Some of the folks who work with me have only been engaged in SM for a short time or for social purposes. They come wanting to engage for a specific advocacy activity, like increasing awareness of a bill or some impending legislative change. It really doesn’t work to jump in and try to generate momentum for a specific activity when there’s no foundation upon which to build and no commitment to continue to build relationships with advocates and constituents on a regular, ongoing basis.

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  • Hi Kivi,
    Thanks for your post. I think that social media plays a big role and small organizations should look up to this technology and get their message out. However, building trust is very important. We can build trust through placing a link to our main websites from the social media where donors can find out more information like the physical address and the telephone numbers including the detailed objectives and how the resources will be used.

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