Nonprofit Marketing: Follow the Yellow Brick Road?

Barbara Spagnola - Thursday, August 07, 2014

When the topic of “marketing” arises in a conversation, it’s always interesting to hear the numerous perceptions tied to this rather straightforward concept. The full spectrum of responses includes advertising, word-of-mouth, fluff, and my personal favorite – selling something you don’t need! I believe the problem with understanding marketing lies in the over-commercialization of the term and leaves business acumen, strategy, and execution at the front door. 

According to the American Marketing Association, marketing is defined as “Marketing is the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational objectives.” Sounds simple enough? If accountants follow Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and manufacturing managers utilize FIFO or LIFO for inventory valuation, then why does the practice of marketing not follow a similar process? Good question!

The following brief is intended to be reflective in nature and prompt senior management to evaluate specific facets of their approach to nonprofit marketing. The analogy of Dorothy’s journey down the yellow brick road mirrors common flaws in marketing application and practice within the nonprofit arena.

All organizations have a goal or objective they want to attain. In the process of reaching that goal, they need “donors” (financial supporters) who hear the message and want to be part of that journey. Organizations then apply traditional marketing methods to reach those targeted donors. Sound familiar? Dorothy, in that age-old storybook tale, had the same dilemma. To reach Emerald City and have an audience with The Wizard (to find a way home), she consulted the munchkins and mindlessly followed the yellow brick road. 

Marketing Plan The basic problem with Dorothy’s plan, as with some organizations, was the methodology she applied. Most plans seek traditional promotional venues to solve their immediate dilemma. If the goal is to increase donor gifts by 10%, most managers rush to main-stream mediums (radio, billboard, newsletters, and telemarketing) as a solution. What sounds good on paper may not actually work in practice. This unidirectional approach, sometimes called insider mentality, delivers a stream of messages from the organization to the targeted audience with little regard for their current circumstances. Without this understanding, the channel proposed may not be suitable for the intended audience. 

By starting with the donor (outside-in) and their behavioral circumstances, you will effectively gain their attention, mind, and heart. If Dorothy had asked the good witch the right question (early on), she would have known to click her heels three times and instantly returned to Kansas. When generating a marketing plan, start with your donor base and work your way back to the organization. This exercise will unveil the most direct and meaningful approach to achieving your objective. You might save yourself time, energy, and valuable resources in the process! How do you approach your donor base? If they are truly integral to your cause, understanding what’s important to them will help shape your marketing plan. (“Do better at doing good” HBR, May 1996)

Value Proposition A value proposition accomplishes two strategic objectives: Defines what your organization can do better than anyone else and secondly, why that’s important to the donor. If your mission/vision statement is not clear on that point, how can the rest of your organization and donor base feel the same way? In the Land of Oz, the Wizard had a very clear and powerful value proposition despite the fact that he couldn’t deliver on his promises. Al Ries, noted marketing expert, said it best – “perceptions, not products” (or services). This critical point of contention is often over-looked, or in the planning process, is written once and then set aside. The entire organization must be compelled by this “rallying cry” and live the brand promise each day! (The Brand Mindset, Knapp) The key to defining a value proposition is an arduous task and requires time, patience, and tenacity on the part of management. One organization I researched had a lingering problem – the perception didn’t match what they actually did. Although their mission, philosophy, and business plans reflected one set of attributes, the brand perception unveiled in donor surveys revealed a very different perception. Does your collateral material mirror what you do? Try this exercise. Approach two or more of your senior managers and ask them, in one sentence, to define your value proposition (what you do better and why that’s important). If you get an array of divergent responses, it’s time to re-align your mission statement and then infuse those beliefs into the organization.

Marketing Public Relations The most widely ignored marketing tool available to all organizations is public relations (Value-added Public Relations, Harris). Great companies like Starbucks and The Body Shop were built on public relations and only used advertising later on to support/update their message. The Wicked Witch of the East made personal appearances throughout the story to ingrain her message into the frightened travelers. The Witch’s compelling message was looming and ubiquitous. Is your organization’s message compelling and meaningful? Most nonprofits utilize volunteers or “friends” who can acquire an occasional story in the local paper or regional magazine. You can follow the yellow brick road and stick with traditional media or target the places where your targeted donor’s work/play. The shear number of free placements in highly segmented forums is astounding. Internet portals that deal with your nonprofit issues are numerous and seek a continuous stream of input to support their site. Other than the obvious regional and local papers, a variety of more niche publications will gladly give you space to tout your message. If scarce monetary resources are one of nonprofit’s toughest dilemmas, let marketing public relations provide a venue to achieve your goal at minimal expense. Also, third party editorials (PR), according to Theodore Levitt of Harvard Business School, are the most credible messages (Marketing Imagination, Levitt).

Messaging Dorothy had an unmistakable message throughout her journey – I want to go home! Every action she took and anyone who would lend an ear heard her specific cause. What is yours? Every aspect of your messaging, both visual and intangible, should specifically point to that mantra. When you think of Overnight Package Delivery, does Fed Ex come to mind? The Ultimate Driving Machine? Does BMW sound familiar? How about Just Do It? Try Nike. The human mind can only attach one specific meaning or feeling to each item. Although a brand represents a culmination of all attributes, we really only remember one distinct thing. Let’s start with your logo and by-line (sometimes called tag line). A by-line should be both emotional and descriptive (Marketing Aesthetics, Schmitt/Simonson). Going back to our BMW example, “ultimate” is an emotional aspect and “driving machine” is the descriptive. Does your by-line capture the essence of your value proposition? Does it instantly tell the potential donor who you are and what your purpose is? The by-product of your messaging should generate passion and action. Dorothy convinced the scarecrow, tin man, and cowardly lion to journey to Oz based on a value proposition (brand promise). Most messages are directed at attributes and correlate cause to effect. This approach lacks inspiration and polarizes the recipient. Does your message invoke passion and action? Simply put, every message you produce (business cards, newsletters, website, etc.) culminates into a single, brand position. Each additional layer of messages you generate are either acknowledged or disregarded by the donor based on your original pronouncement. Be mindful of the context and character your organization delivers. Is your message as clear and compelling as Dorothy’s? 

About the Author

Bill Nissim consults with nonprofit organizations on brand management issues.