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Marketing Solutions For The Beleaguered Not-For-Profit

by Alf Nucifora

Recent years have not been kind to not-for-profits. Cut backs in corporate sponsorship funding coupled with reductions in government support have driven many of the smaller, less stable and weakly-financed organizations (those with operating budgets under $2 million) to the brink, a point where basic marketing strategies can provide the key to effectiveness, if not survival.

The problems and concerns are common. In a recent survey of members of the not-for-profit special interest group of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Marketing Association, "lack of awareness" was identified as the dominant pressure point, followed by difficulties encountered in fund raising and membership development. An additional problem exists in that most of the smaller not-for-profits lack an internal, dedicated marketing function. Marketing itself is generally misunderstood and viewed primarily as a fund raising mechanism, as distinct from a strategic imperative that can drive the success of the organization. The function often lacks a plan, a budget and a functioning "owner", other than the many-hat-wearing executive director. No wonder the distinct whiff of inferiority complex often surrounds any discussion of brand marketing.

Building Awareness

In simpler terms, it's the task of getting the word out, a process that, in the absence of a rich support budget, can be achieved with persistence, application and a dollop of common sense.

  • Who are you and what do you do? First, make sure that the organization's mission statement has been clearly defined and can be articulated within the confines of the proverbial elevator trip. Prospective members and donors, as well as community influentials need to hear a simple message, a brand positioning that they can understand and relate to.
  • Play to the committed base: Relationships with current constituents, members, supporters, volunteers, etc., must be leveraged. Develop an active database and be willing to work it. Be aggressive and proactive. Beyond asking for money, apply as many touch points as possible. Seek referrals. Probe for opinion and feedback. Provide multiple opportunities for members and interested parties to interact with the organization. This is family we're talking about here.
  • Make demands of the Board: Every Board member has a reason for agreeing to serve. For some it's writing a check. For others, it's tapping the network and providing the "contacts". A few are there for the credibility and standing that they bring to the organization, while others see it as a labor of love and an act of giving. In every case the Board member must be asked to give back, according to his/her motivation and willingness to contribute.
  • Promote like crazy: Be relentless in seeking media coverage. Remember, the media, particularly those community and daily newspapers, will always find space for a story with a twist. It's all in how you pitch it. And most possess a genuine desire to be good media citizens, to help an organization in need. To that point, don't ignore the broadcast media. Even in these days of FCC laissez-faire, radio and TV stations haven't forgotten their obligation to run PSA's, if they intend to keep the licensing boys in Washington, DC off their backs. And don't forget to spruce up the web site. It's where everyone goes to learn about you, and if they like what they see, join the team. Your web site can never be too informative or credible.
  • Be willing to partner: Always be willing to join with compatible groups and organizations in alliances, events and partnerships where all can gain from the sharing of resources in the form of promotional funds, databases, volunteers, etc.

Raising Funds

Not-for-profit consultant, Mollye Rhea, President of the Atlanta-based For Momentum, advises her clients to go to the well, every well, and often. The standards include Board donations, increased membership income, special event proceeds, (that annual black tie auction for example), direct mail appeals, (driven by an up-to-date database, purchased if necessary, that matches donor demographics with the organization's reason for being) and community, corporate, government and individual-donor foundations. (Go to http://fdncenter.org for a comprehensive foundation listing).

Rhea advises not forgetting planned giving, the request to be "remembered in the will", a surprisingly rich potential source of support. Corporate America is also beginning to open its once tight pocketbook. The key to success is in the asking. Companies have funds to distribute, but nowadays they also want ROI in response to the giving. This means talking their language, offering a quid pro quo that enhances the company brand, through increased visibility or sales…or both.

Building a marketing function

So you can't afford a six-figure marketing director. Don't fret or sweat. Consider corralling a Board member or committee volunteer from the for-profit world with the requisite marketing scar tissue. Approach colleges and universities for pro-bono consulting help, usually in the form of class projects. Be on the lookout for corporate retirees who seek to give back rather than give in to the frustrations of the golf course. And get educated about marketing. Attend conferences and workshops. Ask questions; take notes, share ideas and the tactics that work.

Growing the member base

More members mean more giving, more awareness, more involvement (and more turnstile count, if you're a museum or performing arts entity). Getting the members is the hard part, but it's not impossible. Start with the member database. Keep it current and use it to track member activity. Be in constant communication. Email is the fastest, cheapest way to do that. Always ask for member referrals. Solicit with a message that resonates. It goes back to that "clarity of mission" advice. And be willing to do the member research, to find out what they want and need, to become committed to the cause. Online surveys are easy to use and relatively cheap to field.

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