Category Archives: Nonprofit Marketing

Build Your Brand Through Actions!

As a career-long marketing professional, I believe in truth in advertising. That is not to say you can't spin or slant your argument to present a fresh alternative, or provide a different perspective, but you need to back up your claims!

This brings me to the state of customer service, about which I often find myself wondering aloud. Haven't we all found ourselves arguing with many of our service providers?  It seems like the only way to get anywhere is by kicking and screaming and threatening to quit.  Yet, they all claim to have customer service as their number one priority.

We have also of late been inundated with political advertisements; with each candidate pointing out the others flaws, rather than presenting the case of why we should vote for them over their opponent.  In some incidences, they have been downright dishonest, presenting not just half-truths, but what I would characterize as outright lies.

These are not ways to build your ideal brand!

We have all been told that actions speak louder than words, but how often do we market ourselves by words alone?  That's why I promote a holistic approach to your nonprofit marketing activities.  Marketing that takes a holistic approach to promoting your organization is developed by thinking about your organization as a whole, which includes its place in the broader community and society, in the lives of its consumers, and its niche among other service providers.

All your activities should be viewed through the prism of your stakeholders: constituents, consumers, donors, employees, volunteers, and the community at large. Holistic nonprofit marketing takes an active and prominent place at the decision-making table.  It plays an active role in programming; examining and influencing outcomes measurement and community impact, aligning your programs and activities to coincide with your values and your vision. Marketing tactics then glean success from program and work to effectively communicate your accomplishments.

Most importantly, promoting your brand starts from within, so it lives throughout your organization. Top-down commitment and involvement of each person in the organization is fundamental to success. Your brand should become a shared vision.  It needs to live in the hearts and minds of every stakeholder in the organization; it must be embraced and promoted from inside out.

Plant these seeds, nurture them, and watch as your vision becomes reality, and your funding and sustainability grow. Remember, there’s no substitute for simply being remarkable. Work towards excellence in all things you do.  Aspire for greatness and your vision, the brand you imagine will come with ease.

A recent interview with Bob Ottenhoff, CEO of GuideStar produced some pretty folksy, but relevant advice for nonprofits looking to improve their funding position.  His comment was brilliant in its simplicity: "When asking for donations, make sure to answer the following questions:

  1. What do you do?
  2. How do you do it?
  3. How are you doing?

To these, I'd add one more question:  Why do you do this?

It's not always clear why your work is important. "The Need" should be carefully explained, so as to provide a frame of reference to your work and illuminate the uninitiated to the plight of your constituency and the significance of your mission.  Miss this point and you won't grow your audience, or win donors.

Most importantly, by answering these questions, you correctly apply the holistic marketing strategy – Triad of Value:

Triad of Value

  1. UNDERSTAND community need,
  2. DEVELOP & IMPLEMENT effective programming to address the need, and
  3. DEMONSTRATE consumer impact through outcomes measurement.

While this seems brilliant in its simplicity, you would be surprised by how many organizations that miss these important points.  Over the years, I've talked with many program officers who often shake their heads in bewilderment with regard to requests that simply don't add up.  Often it's because they miss these basic elements of building an effective argument for funding.  You need to explain why your programs are important and sing praise to your efficiency and to your success.  This means when possible, to provide numbers that enhance your success stories and that provide relevance to your work.

One last thing, don't forget to extend this messaging to all your collateral materials in order to expand your audience to new individuals.  To ensure your future growth, you need to reach out to a greater and greater audience, you never know when you will encounter a donor sympathetic to your cause.  But, only if they understand and connect emotionally!

Turning the Tables

Thanks to Anna DeBattiste, I read an article with an interesting proposition the other day: "If You Don't Like Your Future, Rewrite Your Past," by Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Harvard Business Review's blog.  Her premise was simple, "Sometimes strategic change just means taking something from the periphery — an anomaly, a demonstration, a small innovation — and redefining it as central."  It reminded me of something I learned a long time ago… periodically your brand needs not so much an overhaul, as some strategic tweaking.

Often the notion of a re-branding effort falls under the heading of a dramatic change like a new name, logo update, or new business venture, but usually all it takes is a fresh viewpoint; a new way of telling your story. Kanter's article used an excellent example of a first rate re-branding effort by IBM.  Facing a lagging economy and tougher competition for computer hardware sales, they went back to the basics.

Early in my business career I learned that you never just sell features such as: faster, lighter, stronger; instead you sell the benefits of your work, how your products and services effect your customer's lives. That's because unless you're selling a race car, faster is not all that important.

For far too long the computer industry was all about twiddling bits: more memory, faster CPU's, higher throughput, all the basic features that combined add up to an end result.  IBM finally got it and they re-branded themselves as a solutions provider, rather than a computer hardware manufacturer, and that propelled them far into the future. They had been selling software with their hardware for years, so they didn't necessarily change their business model, they simply changed their audience's perspective, and as a result projected real value in their message resulting in increased sales.

This premise extends to the nonprofit community, so take a lesson from the big boys…

Your audience needs to get it.  Fundraising, like selling computerized solutions, is about relationships.  Building this deeper commitment only comes about when your audience completely understands and is emotionally engaged in your mission. Sometimes that means turning your program on its ear, sometimes that means a subtle change.

All too often we lose sight of what it really is that we are selling. Relating to your audience is a continuous process. Over time your message can become muted and when you are too close to that message, it may become difficult for you to see that it's off center. By employing the Triad of Value, and thinking about your marketing activities holistically, you increase the odds that your audience will appreciate your vision.

I would challenge you to randomly check any unfamiliar organization's website and ask yourself the following: what do they do, why is it important, and why should I give them any money?  My guess is you will come to the same conclusion that I often come to… I really don't know.  If you are not careful, this can happen to you.  By periodically revisiting your brand, case for funding, and other marketing efforts you can avoid brand burnout and keep your audience and community emotionally engaged.

Holistic Marketing – Your Gateway to Sustainability

Hold the presses, because here's a revelation; are you ready? …marketing is at the heart of all your nonprofit activities.  Yes, you heard correctly; marketing is an integral component of achieving your mission.  It's critical to your successful fundraising and to your on-going sustainability; it should not be an afterthought.

If the community doesn't fully understand your good work, they won't line up to get involved.

It is important to understand that marketing strategies for a nonprofit organization are much different than they are for marketing products to customers.  Nonprofit marketing is much more inclusive to your mission, and therefore it is critical to look at the whole enchilada. Please listen carefully; contrary to popular opinion, nonprofit marketing is not advertising, it is not about a cool logo, or a flashy website; it is… ready? …about effectively communicating your value in the community.

In order to effectively communicate your value, a systemic marketing strategy is vital.  First, you must understand your significance to the community and then you must present your case of achievement in a manner that is understood by the appropriate audiences. To effectively communicate your worth, it is important that you apply the "Triad of Value":  1) UNDERSTAND community need, 2) DEVELOP effective programming (with measurable outcomes), and 3) DEMONSTRATE consumer impact. Once your strategy is designed, all your marketing tactics should be carefully intertwined with these three principles.

At Questus Strategies we call this process, "Holistic Nonprofit Marketing". It's a nontraditional approach to developing your marketing strategy.  At the core of this approach is an understanding that marketing is at the center of the organization.  A "holistic” strategy is developed by thinking about your organization as a whole, which includes its place in the broader community and society, in the lives of its consumers, and its niche among other service providers.

Marketing Integration

Holistic marketing works to develop and maintain multiple perspectives of all the organizations' activities in regard to the broader universe. It should be applied early, and liberally, and permeate the organization at a high level.

I'm interested in your thoughts on marketing's importance in sustainability and your comment is appreciated.

Framing the Argument

There has been plenty of chatter of late in the nonprofit community regarding the Susan G Komen and Planned Parenthood organizations.  The mistakes of SGK and the success of PP contain greater lessons in understanding the importance of strategy in all your decision-making activities.

Let's first take a look at the loser…

Any way you slice it; defunding PP was an extremely contentious decision for SGK to make.  Let’s not discuss the politics of the decision; they simply lead to a bottomless pit.  But at the very least, let’s agree that it is hard to believe that it was not obvious to everyone involved that this would be perceived negatively by many, many, people.

So, when you can be absolutely certain that your decision will be controversial, the very first point to remember is that how you explain your decision is just as important as why you make your decision.  Your message needs to be extremely clear, concise, and if possible, bounced off a sampling of those who will disagree in order to determine the extent of any possible damage.  It is imperative to look at both sides of the coin and to frame your argument in a manner where the opposition will take the least path of resistance.

In today’s social media fueled environment, you can’t stick your head in the sand and hope that everything will be OK.   And, you can’t assume that a controversial decision will eventually blow over.  And that leads to bad decision #2; in light of this obviously contentious decision, SGK failed to get out in front of the issue with an appropriate communications strategy.  They sat idle while the media storm built to category five hurricane proportions.

The damage they created hurt women on both sides of the issue and SGK may now be facing even closer scrutiny; they may never fully recover from their mistake.

Now the winner…

Planned Parenthood took advantage of this sleeping giant by leveraging social media to properly frame the argument in their favor.  They heard the rumblings of defunding and spent weeks preparing to debunk SGK’s decision.

Their strategy was simple and elegant; first they courted the Associated Press with an exclusive story and then they garnered support through social media presenting their argument by posting: “ALERT: Susan G. Komen caves under anti-choice pressure, ends funding for breast cancer screenings at PP health centers.”

They further leveraged social media by suggesting to interested parties that they donate, sign online petitions, post their PP badge, or tweet about the issue.  The rest was left to mainstream media and roughly 24 hours later they had won the battle.

When faced with tough decisions, developing a dynamic plan to frame your argument in the best possible light is akin to other strategic planning efforts.  You can leverage any decision if you understand the dynamics.  Marketing, branding, PR, and other communications are not for the untrained and best left to professionals who look at the world from the 30,000 foot level.

Finding Your Niche

Positioning is one of those marketing terms that describes how you stack up to the competition.  While the notion of competition is often a bit foreign in the nonprofit world, I’d like to assert that competition is good for the community.

Competition in the for-profit world has always driven companies to create better and better products in the interest of creating an edge for increasing sales.  This drive to be the best has always benefited the consumer with faster, lighter, smaller/bigger, cheaper, and often exceptional products.  In the nonprofit world, this concept of competition can greatly benefit the community as well.

However, it is important to look at it from the right perspective.  Using the proper lens to view this concept of competition with an awareness of the nuance can provide a great boon to the community, but only if it is harnessed properly.

Positioning your organization against others in your field of expertise allows you to determine where your strengths lie.  It forces an organization to determine where there may be service overlap in the community.  It serves to examine what programs are profitable (another for-profit term that has use in the nonprofit world) and effective in order to devote resources to those programs that offer the greatest impact.  When you take a close look at similar organizations and then compare them to yours, you take the first step towards improving your own efficiency.

Once identified, an important step is to work to capitalize on those differences.  You should improve your programs (or eliminate them) with an eye towards becoming unique in the community.  These distinct differences then become key elements that you should highlight in all your marketing communications.

When donors look to fund an organization, they not only look for success and positive impact, they also want to know what makes you special, because they often identify emotionally with discrete program variations.  Therefore, your best bet for improving your brand is to celebrate these differences.  Most importantly, when there is a clear delineation between your organization and others, there exists a greater opportunity for collaboration, which collectively reduces competition between those very organizations.

As a result, the community benefits with more collaborative organizations and better focused programs.  And that after all, is what it is all about, right?

No Stories Without Numbers

In reviewing the guidelines for the Denver Foundation's grant process,  I came across the following on evaluation: … "you need to demonstrate not only how you measure your work, but also share your actual results."

The landscape for funding has changed dramatically.  No longer do we have the luxury of simply telling a compelling story of how our work has changed the lives of people in our community.  Now we have to present data that reinforces how we define success. We need to actively measure these outcomes, both short and long term and track those outcomes over time.

While at first glance, and when you already feel stretched to the max, this may seem to be simply just extra work, but it serves two purposes: 1) It provides feedback for program effectiveness (how you can make changes for the better); 2) it demonstrates to funders you are well-managed (meeting your goals, and providing good bang for their buck).

It's a critical piece of the pie, if the idea of an outside evaluation resonates with your organization, contact

Pulling Weeds

Nonprofit organizations can take a tip from successful realtors.  Well-groomed houses, those with curb appeal, sell!  Home buyers can easily see that sellers have taken care of the property and that creates demand.

In the nonprofit community, where donors want to be investors in well-managed organizations, we can learn from this well-known real estate paradigm.  Donors just like home buyers need to be reassured that their investments are sound.

Your brand is a reflection of what the community (investors) think about the value of your work.  So you need to effectively communicate your success in a clear and understandable manner, but first you need to know whether you are effective.

The best way to understand your effectiveness is through metrics.  But, it is much more complicated than simply counting how many meals you have served. You need to know what works and what doesn't. Defining success, setting goals, and measuring progress help you evaluate and refine your programs.     When you transparently polish & improve your program you demonstrate that you are well-managed.

Cultivating your program by pulling weeds like redundant activities, ineffective processes, and sometimes by eliminating program components creates curb appeal for your organization.  A garden free of weeds grows and so will your organization, if you groom it.

Expanding Your Comfort Zone

For most people and especially in these uncertain times, it is understandable that moving outside one's comfort zone is just downright scary.  Most individuals tend to stick to the conventional wisdom that since it has worked before, it will continue to work in the future… Bad Idea!

I know it is part of human nature; by-and-large most people have a very tough time with change. But now more than ever it's time to re-evaluate; to push some boundaries, test some long established paradigms, and move beyond and outside your organizational comfort zone.

Where's your comfort zone? Is it in your messaging, your daily habit of telling the same story over and over again?  Could your brand, how your constituents view you,  benefit from a bit of renovation?

Resetting, revitalizing, and refocusing your foundation is an important element to keeping relevant and fresh.  Sometimes it takes a kick start to get board, staff, volunteers, and donors all moving in the same direction again. Think about these 3 cornerstones to your organization.

It all starts here. Three sentences at maximum, which can be distilled down to a two sentence elevator speech.  Not only does it need to be clear and concise, it should focus on what you do and what you believe; it must reflect, or imply an end result.  From this foundation statement, all your other communications and messages evolve.

Your mission activates a conscious/unconscious response in viewers who come in contact with your mission message no matter what form in which it is delivered.  Today anyone can become a major ally and contributor for your organization and they respond best when they are moved by powerful stories of how your work affects the lives of those you serve.

Simply put, a cool logo or icon alone won’t get you effectively well-branded.  Your name, your identity, your uniqueness must evolve from your mission statement and be reflected in color, typography, and ease of reproduction.  An important cornerstone of your branding strategy, it must illustrate the essence of your organization, so your identity becomes as familiar as a well-worn pair of shoes.

Step outside your comfort zone, the air is clear and revitalizing.

Between Hearts and Minds

While tactics are fun and easy to get your hands around, strategy is not only hard, but often amorphous.    An effective marketing communications plan includes building an audience connection.

Many nonprofits don't effectively develop the relevance of their issue. They miss building a case for why they exist. The message is often too basic; they feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and house the homeless.  But it is not that simple, you can't assume your community understands why you are so passionate. Ask yourself, why should someone care?

Positioning is all about where you fit in your community. Not just as a nonprofit in general, but specifically as well.  Remember there is a pecking order to funding; you need to move up the ladder.  If you are an arts organization, it is important to know what other arts organizations do and how you are different, it is imperative to define your niche.  A clear position is one where there is little overlap and your audience understands the differences.

A value proposition is the core of your case for funding.  It creates worth for your mission… for your audience.  It describes the importance of your work and defines that work in relation to your mission. It should evoke an emotional hook, but is certain to back claims with facts and data.  Most importantly, it does so based upon the audience; a donor is going to react differently than a consumer.

These are just two of the building blocks for effective messaging; if all you do is Tweet about your next fundraiser, you're going to lose interest.