For-profit organizations, even those that are driven by service to a greater good, and nonprofit institutions, which are, in theory, primarily mission- and service-oriented, have a lot to learn from each other. When it comes to nonprofits, operating with a more corporate, consumer-driven approach can drive increased support, allowing them to make an even bigger impact on our world.
In the area of communications and visibility, a tried-and-true process of clarifying your value, intimately understanding your target audiences, creating messages that will motivate these audiences to support your cause and ensuring these messages reach them in ways and at times that cause them to enthusiastically engage are ways you can leverage corporate approaches to achieve breakthrough levels of success.
According to The NonProfit Times’ 2019 Top 100 report, both The Y (The YMCA of the USA) and Goodwill Industries International reported enough revenue to crack the Fortune 500 if they were corporations. More than another half-dozen, including Catholic Charites USA, The American Red Cross and Feeding America, would hold spots among the world’s 1,000 largest for-profit institutions. Yet, nonprofits and corporations, regardless of their size, often act as though they live in two totally different universes, particularly when it comes to their business approaches.
While these nonprofits are huge, with hugely successful business operations, they are often perceived by the general public as somehow different or “less than” their corporate counterparts. Given that these behemoths are viewed in this manner, you can bet your friendly neighborhood nonprofit is viewed in the same way. This is in spite of the fact that nonprofits, small and large, are making a significant impact in the world every day, ensuring people are safe, fed, educated, entertained and cared for.
What’s even more challenging is that nonprofits are not only perceived by others as operating in another less important and professional universe but that they also view themselves that way. Nonprofit clients often speak about how they provide great benefits because they can’t afford to pay better salaries. Or that they can’t invest in building their cultures, stakeholder understanding, innovative marketing and communications initiatives or competitive salaries because their donors expect all their dollars to go toward those the nonprofit serves.
The corporate equivalent would be if shareholders expected 100% of profits to be returned to them without a penny going toward technology, research and development, marketing, investor relations, employee development or paying the electric bill!
All organizations and institutions face similar challenges, particularly in the area of connecting with stakeholders and communicating with the public. It’s necessary to understand why stakeholders should respond to your organization, who is most likely to provide support and engagement, what messages are most likely to resonate and what methods are most likely to cut through the enormous number of marketing messages the average person receives each day (some estimates range as high as 10,000 — and that’s only including paid advertising, pre-pandemic!).
Successful corporations also heavily invest in communications, both in the advertisements that you hear so often you can sing along (“Nationwide is on your side” comes to mind in the U.S.) and in communications to their employees. Marketing (external) and employee communications (internal) are a luxury until your nonprofit’s bottom line, whether measured in sales or donations, benefits from the success that consumer and staff engagement can deliver when your organization’s clear, targeted, concise and engaging messaging cuts through the clutter and makes it clear how your nonprofit’s product or service will improve or even save lives.
When nonprofits relegate marketing communications to a less senior role without executive access or, worse, to the fundraising department, communications are often limited in investment, scope and strategy or focus singularly on the donor audience without consideration for other key stakeholders who influence the ability to achieve or benefit from the mission.
Many areas above, including hiring, gaining investment and support, workplace culture and building awareness to cause the public to purchase or donate, are driven by communications. In a world where one of the best practices in the history of human communications — connecting in person — may never be looked at the same way again, articulating your institutional value in a succinct, compelling and consistent way is critical in order to get the resources your nonprofit needs to achieve its mission and vision.