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.

Leadership – Check Your Ego at the Door

I've had the opportunity to collaborate with, work for, and advise many nonprofits.  There's a big cultural difference in the dynamics of a nonprofit vs. a for profit business.  It's part of what I really like and it's part of what I really dislike.

There's just something dynamic about a group of diverse minds turning an idea or issue over and over again until it lands right side up.  Real diversity is more than color; it's about background, orientation, and thought process.  When you have real diversity you find more complete solutions and salient outcomes.  But therein lays the rub.  You also find individual egos superimposing themselves upon the decision process.

There's an old fundraising axiom that goes a little like the following: people give because of self-interest.  This extends to all sorts of gifts, including the in-kind gifts of expertise, connections, or other personal resources.  Board members all have an internal set of priorities they bring to the table.

It's important to illuminate that all boards of directors have certain duties to the organizations they serve.  These duties include Care, Loyalty, and Obedience.  Personal ego and the Duty of Loyalty often conflict, because board members and the board as a whole must put the best interests of the organization first.  When personal ego gets involved, people become vested in their own ideas, agendas, and futures and the organization suffers.

If you ask most nonprofit professionals about their board frustrations, you’ll find the prevailing wind blows in the direction of ego.  Many board members come from the corporate world.  It is important for those participants to remember that you can call your own shots when you own the company, but at a nonprofit, only the board acting as a unit can set strategy, direction, and policy.

More nonprofits have fallen apart at the hands of ego, check it at the door.

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 www.questusstrategies.com

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.


Thanks to my good friend and mentor Dick Zellner; he clued me in on a simple premise and fundamental principle in fundraising… "Donors want to be investors in a well-managed organization that has an exciting plan for the future that benefits the community."

2 things to place high on your list:

1) Detail your program and identify outcomes for measurement. Funders like tightly controlled programs that yield data that identifies success.  No numbers without stories and no stories without numbers.

2) Develop a case for funding that describes the community need, how you plan to fill that need, and how funders can participate.  Your plan should allow prospective donors to share in your journey.  "If you ask for money you get advice, if you ask for advice, you get money." – DZ

And, remember the best way to improve your brand is by simply being remarkable in the work you perform.

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.

Elements of Success

In building their case for funding, most nonprofits go about things all wrong.  They don't tell a compelling story that contains the elements of success.  It is important to frame your "ask" in such a way as to first build an emotional appeal and then present valid reasons why "anyone" would want to participate.  The audience need is primary, your need is secondary.  Here's how to get organized and build a dynamite case for funding:

The case for funding statement is a clear, concise, and most importantly a compelling 1-2 page document that defines the reasons a donor would want to make a contribution or grant to your organization. Within the context of fundraising, this statement should pull together some of the following information and reflect the passion of the organization.

  • Vision for the Future– What do you plan to accomplish as the result of your mission and work? A Vision Statement defines what the organization wants to become. The vision should be shared by all members of the organization and help them feel proud, excited, and part of something much bigger than themselves. A vision should stretch the organization’s capabilities and image of itself. It gives shape and direction to the organization’s future and the future of its constituents.
  •  Mission Statement – Defines who are you, what  you do, for whom and what cause? Mission/Purpose is a precise description of what an organization does. It should describe the business of the organization. It is a definition of "why" the organization exists currently. Each member of an organization should be able to verbally express this mission.
  • Organizational Values – Value statements are grounded in principle and define how people want to behave with each other in the organization. They are statements about how the organization will value customers, suppliers, and the internal community. Value statements describe actions that are the living enactment of the fundamental values held by most individuals within the organization.
  • Statement of Community Need – This element identifies the problem or issues that exist, how it effects your constituents, and why it is important to the community.  It may include the history and historical impact of the organization and how it has worked to alleviate the situation.  A success story or simple case study may work to establish the relevance of the problem and the work that needs to be done for the community’s benefit.
  • Goals & SMART Objectives –  As a result of your overall strategic plan or vision, what are the key goals and objectives that will work to achieve your vision?  These should be set out with striking objectivity, with specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely details.
  • Program – What projects, products and services do you provide?  First a simple description of your product or service offering will give an overview of your work.  But ensure that your description answers the following question:  How does your program address the statement of need and achieve mission goals and objectives?
  • Organization – Every organization is a sum of its parts.  The role of the board, staff, sponsors, and volunteers is critical in defining your work and worth.  Be sure to include key staff and board member backgrounds.
  • Financial Background – Historical income, expenses, cash flow, audits and other $$$ information is important to include either as part of the statement or as an addendum.
  • Discussion of Organizational Need – What do you require? This where you frame how the funder can participate in your mission. Resources broken down by program, special projects, admin, equipment, capital & endowment (if appropriate) are necessary to build your case.
  • Evaluation Strategies – Are critical to success. What outcomes do you measure, how do you determine your work is effective, and how does it relate to the consumer of your work and the community?
  • Funder Benefit – What are the benefits to specific funding constituencies, such as large donors, corporations, foundations.  Answer the question, “What is in it for THEM?”

Follow these guidelines and you will see your donations rise.

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.

"So that's the way you like it!"