Should nonprofits get more "professional" in their branding and marketing?

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Recently, when I was involved in a discussion concerning mid-sized to large nonprofit organizations, someone wondered if there were things that these nonprofits need to do in areas of good marketing practices. Nonprofit organizations have been particularly hurting during this recession as donors stop donating and members stop joining or renewing.

In my experience when compared to well-run for-profit businesses, I find that there is a definite rift between good and bad marketing and business practices in many organizations, whether they are nonprofit or for-profit. However, problems are seemingly more apt to occur in the nonprofit industry. Is this out of complacency or a lack of (until now) years-long bottom-line business pressure?

I have found via my own experience that cost control is often atrocious, simply because nobody shopped around, or the accountants were either too inexperienced or too comfortable in their roles. I’ve uncovered ridiculous amounts of waste. And often, things simply don’t turn on a dime as they need to do in business. Whether they like it or not, non-profits are in business — a business of helping others.

Often, a nonprofit will be too inclusive: it will not bring in specialists — either outsourced or as an employee — to fix or consult on their problems. These nonprofit “leaders” would rather sit around a table in their own bubble to decide the best road to take on an issue without considering the bigger picture. If they do go outside for help, they usually bring in someone from the same niche in the nonprofit industry instead of looking for new blood and thinking. And, even if that disparate expertise is brought in, resistance to change is often huge: “We’ve been doing this for 20 years / using this vendor for 10 years, so why should we change now?”

I’ve seen CEOs hired by boards of directors that, frankly, would be middle managers in a corporation; they manage but don’t lead. To be a CEO, you need to be a leader, not a project manager, widget supervisor or engineer.

Often, if one person is not working out in a role, they will simply move in another person from a different part of the organization, even if that second person has no idea what they’re doing. “Oh, but they know the business” is the excuse. Real businesses do not play musical chairs with shareholders’ money, which should be the same with donors’ or members’ contributions.

Or, they’ll hire young people right out of college with zero business experience to be supervised by others that were hired the same way previously: the blind leading the blind.

It all boggles the mind. I’ve seen these kinds of things occurring to an extent in the for-profit world, but not as much.

Therefore, many nonprofits are much more difficult to change, which is a serious problem in times of economic strife, as they don’t know any better, nor have the experienced people on board to make required adjustments.

Jonathan Blaine

I've always called myself a "Marketing Guy." If I had a brand and logo, perhaps that would be my slogan. Measuring ROI is huge. Just because you're now using "new media" does not mean marketing fundamentals should be discarded. Customers' desires do not change. I'm a "right-brained creative analytical" guy (if you can fathom such a thing) who looks at a project several different ways. My first instinct is usually the correct one. I'm a "doer," and often a "diplomatic fixer;" someone who gets things done and still gets a thrill out of customers actually buying something because of something I mailed to them, or an ad I placed. Most of my success has come from strategy, writing, how ideas are presented to the potential customer and the actual thoughts that somehow originate within the ether between my ears. As a fan of DM guru Denny Hatch, I believe that the brand should never outweigh the message, and that art should never win over copy. The mix has to be “just right.” And continually tested. I have solid ryttan, err, written and verbal communication skills, and a reputation for consistently producing cost-effective quality work.

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