Marketing pitfalls for nonprofits

by Allen Howie

Once, marketing was scarcely a part of the nonprofit world. Today, with fewer ways to reach a mass audience and fierce competition for everything from volunteer hours to donations, it’s critical. Even so, a number of common mistakes tend to ensnare nonprofit marketers. Understanding them is the first step toward avoiding them. These same mistakes are often made by for profit marketers, especially in healthcare.

Getting Started

Let’s start with language. Read a nonprofit’s web site or brochure and you’ll find terminology that runs the gamut from boring to inscrutable. Marketing language has to be different. It has to be light and nimble, bold and clear. It has to be conversational in tone, even bending the rules of grammar if that’s what it takes. Keep in mind that you’re competing with for-profit marketers who are very good at getting and keeping the consumer’s attention. You have to be better.

Consensus Not Valuable

Another common misconception — one that contributes to the first — is that consensus is valuable. But in marketing, committees and consensus often kill effectiveness. Let half a dozen people at a proposed brochure, ad, blog post or direct mail piece and it will inevitably emerge neutered and less effective.

Clearly Defined Brand is Key

Something that plagues many organizations is the lack of a clearly-defined brand. There are hundreds of worthy organizations out there, all looking for many of the same things. If you’re counting on the nobility of your mission to do the heavy lifting, you’ll be disappointed because there’s no shortage of noble causes. You have to state, in no uncertain terms, how you’re different. Be very specific, and talk about the areas in which you’re the leader. Then appeal to your prospects’ emotions. How does this wonderful difference of yours make the community or the world a decidedly better one for them, their children or their grandchildren?

Build on a Great Story

Every nonprofit has stories — often terrific stories, and plenty of them. But few are good storytellers. Nearly every successful marketing effort is built on a great story, told well. And there have never been more ways to tell your story, particularly with the advent of social media and the ease with which a video can go viral. But telling a great story takes work. Find a tale people can relate to, then tell it with all the drama and tension it deserves. It’s not a grant proposal; it’s an appeal to the hearts and minds of those who can help you.

Structural Problems

Some problems with marketing are simply structural. Look at the boards of many nonprofits and who do you find? Bankers. Lawyers. Accountants. Brokers. But how many marketing and PR people do you see? Yet those rightbrained thinkers hold the key to new ways of looking at your mission and better ways of spreading the word. Think about your mission statement. Does it excite anyone? Does it convey passion and a clear sense of purpose? Or has it been word-smithed until it’s lifeless? For years, Pepsi’s mission statement was two words: “Beat Coke.” Every employee knew it. More important, every employee wanted to do it. The key to marketing well for nonprofits is to forget that you are one. Think like a for-profit business. You’ll find it easier to market yourself in fresh, effective ways.

Allen Howie is CEO of Idealogy Marketing.


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