Stand Up and Speak Out – Nonprofits Are Getting Dissed

NOnprofit marketerI want to welcome guest blogger Susie Bowie.  As communications manager at the Community Foundation of Sarasota, she is a passionate and talented  force helping organizations in the region develop their nonprofit marketing finesse. Today, Susie heralds her call to action to us nonprofit marketers…

Recently, I’ve heard a couple of remarks about nonprofits and nonprofit staff that just kill me…

First a local business person shared his view that “most of us drawn to nonprofit leadership roles care about charitable work but generally lack the skills to be leaders in the for-profit world.

Then Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, bluntly stated (his modus operandi) that nonprofits don’t have the power to change the world because they “have no resources” and are “constantly out trying to raise money instead of generating it and being self-sufficient.”

My guess is that if I’ve heard such patronizing criticism from these vocal folks in just the past couple of weeks, that this perspective is fairly widespread.

Why should nonprofit marketers care about such silly comments?

Each time word goes out, in a comment, article or broadcast – about how ineffective or unprofessional our sector is – it costs us financial support. Those messages generate doubts among our supporters, much less those who are still prospects. A heavy onus lies with nonprofit communicators to set it straight, but we can’t do it alone.

So what can and should nonprofit communicators professionals do about it within our sector? Here are three ways we can advocate for the truth:

1) Nurture the business people who do understand the power of nonprofits, support us with sponsorship dollars and provide us with outstanding board leaders.

In Sarasota, FL, local companies like Cavanaugh & Co, Kerkering Barberio, SunTrust and Northern Trust are just a few of the successful for-profits doing their part. As nonprofit communicators, we must thank such boosters profusely and set the stage for keeping the relationships going, highlighting their good work in our nonprofit’s outreach and encouraging our leadership to spread the praise.

It’s simply good public relations. Your personal and business pages on Facebook provide a great forum for shout-outs. Don’t let them slide once a sponsored event or program is over. And let your business partners know what you’re doing—just because you see a good news announcement in your local paper doesn’t mean they’ve seen it.

2) Remember that it’s a constant education process to help those who live outside our sector recognize what important and vital work we do.

We can’t fault the business world for a lack of understanding about charitable work anymore than you can fault yourself for not understanding how to fix the oil spill. Consider yourself not only a marketing ambassador for your organization but one for the sector.

Get wise about the economic impact facts in our charitable sector. Sarasota County nonprofits, for instance, reported over $2.8 billion in assets and over $1.2 billion in revenue in 2008 alone. (Source: National Center for Charitable Statistics, January 2010) That’s a result of caring but inept people begging for money. Who’s the one to shed light on this? You. That’s right, it’s your job too.

3) If we’re going to be seen as professional, we have to stay ahead of the curve in professionalism and in our knowledge base.

All staff members, but particularly nonprofit leadership and communicators, represent the sector wherever they go – whether on the job or not. As the marketing ambassador for your organization, remind your staff of their personal brand (how they carry themselves, what they say about their work and your organization) and how it influences your nonprofit brand—and vice versa.

It’s not about “casual” versus “formal” in your virtual and geographic communities. It’s about aligning your actions and comments with respect and intelligence.

I think most of us do a great job of this. Our ongoing education can’t stop with awareness of the issues we care about most. Having one leg in that business world—with constant monitoring of the corporate news and trends—is critical. Communicating the intersections between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds is partly our responsibility. We have the skills to actively convey these connections to essential internal and external audiences. Leadership can determine where we go with them.

Nonprofits are taking (and historically have taken) a leading role in relationship building, the hallmark of success for any venture, public or private.  But it’s up to us to communicate our successes and strengths in a clear, consistent way, through all the grains of staff, board and program running through our organizations.

Powerful food for thought. Thank you, Susie.

What are your thoughts on how (and if) nonprofit marketers can best promote an accurate understanding of the strengths and power of the nonprofit sector and its people? Should we respond directly to slams such as Zuckerberg’s or take the high road  -showing rather than saying – our expertise and professionalism.

Please comment here. Thanks.

Guest Blogger on July 14, 2010 in Nonprofit Marketing News | 13 comments
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  • I think that our response should involve a combination of not only showing what we can do and the importance of our sector, but also responding directly to slams, but doing so in a professional manner that doesn’t drag us down into the mud. We don’t have to retort in a “oh yeah, well here’s why you stink!” manner. We can simply respond by refuting the misconceptions directly with facts and examples to support those facts. Educating the public and fighting misinformation is key, I think.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    I’m with you 100%, Andy. But how do we motivate our peers across the sector to do so?

  • One way we can combat these negative comments is communicating our value to the for-profit sector. For example, domestic violence & sexual assault (the field I work in) cost employers millions each year in lost productivity, and billions are spent in mental health and medical expenses. There is real value in the for-profit sector playing an active role in the work that we do.

    I also think it is important to demonstrate professionalism in our communications efforts. Just because we are nonprofits doesn’t mean we should be any less professional in our materials and our writing – it costs just as much to do it right as it does to do it wrong. I think staying mission driven, communicating meaningful results to constituents, and demonstrating efficient business management, are keys to squashing these types of misconceptions.

  • Susie hits the nail on the head: it is all about relationships, creating them, nurturing them, sustaining them. Whether it is for-profit or nonprofit, one must uncover a mutual passion and/or need. Cut through the fluff; state your position and invite participation and partnership. Shared vision results in shared success when communication bridges the two parties.

  • All, thank you for the comments. It seems like such a personal attack when you work in the sector, doesn’t it? Yet you’re all right, we have to respond with information, inviting participation. That’s always the key to combatting misconception–along with taking some of the responsibility. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Ruth Lando, Director of Communications at the Community Foundation of Sarasota, asked me to add this comment:

    I can’t help but wonder how much of the condescension towards the nonprofit sector and its professionals stems from the pay gap.

    By and large, except at the very top, nonprofit staffers are seriously underpaid in comparison to workers in the private sector. I think this disparity encourages the outside world to view us as less than equal. Nurses and teachers have historically battled this stigma because of their low pay, too.

    Heck, I wonder if another factor is the preponderance of females in nonprofits, which also correlates to lower compensation and maybe less respect than rightfully deserved.

  • Bravo, Susie!
    As professional communicators and business leaders, the call for constant public education is job security. As PR professionals, we are tasked with changing behavior and, on a deeper level, beliefs. Moving people to volunteer, donate and realize they can make a difference as just one person.
    To categorize organizations by what we aren’t – well, that is the conundrum, isn’t it? Many of us have corporate backgrounds and bring that business mentality with us when we cross over to nonprofit. So, while we don’t have extravagant expense accounts for travel and entertainment like our for-profit cousins, we fully appreciate the value of revenue and entrepreneurship.
    The nonprofit world has changed vastly in the last couple of decades, influenced by economic and social realities as well as the infusion of leaders who grew weary of the waste and whininess of the corporate world and yearned to put those same skills to work for a greater cause. Nonprofits are becoming much more sophisticated.
    Our missions are about fixing what the government cannot possibly afford. We build community infrastructure, heal the sick, help the poor, guide people out of trouble and get them back on their feet, clean up, entertain, teach, train and minister all for a fraction of the cost many corporations would spend. We are using technology to do more with less and it has leveled the playing field.
    So, when I hear criticism of the nonprofit world for ineffectiveness or out-dated models, I know our work as communicators is not done. We’ve got plenty of educating to do.
    Here’s what we need to do, and do it better: yes, we need to continue telling the stories and tug the heartstrings – but don’t forget to include the value proposition – that will speak to the business world and donors, too.

  • Frank Grebowski

    As one of those people who made the jump from the For-Profit corporate and enterpreneurial world to the Not-For-Profit world, I can honestly say that my ED position was the toughest job I have had in my career and I’m ten times the businessman I was when I took on the role. I considerably sharpened my skills for networking, creating win-win collaborations, negotiating, and squeezing a quarter out of every nickel. It’s crazy to have to deal with the perception that non-profits are not a business per se and those of us working within them are somehow not the equivalent of those on the other side of the fence. Honestly I think the perception starts with the “Not-For-Profit” label in the first place, it sounds so anti-capitalistic. I would rather frame it as Passion-Driven Business as opposed to Profit-Driven business, the differences being that we aren’t focusing on those with the most disposable income, and are motivated to reinvest the revenue to reach more people before rewarding ourselves elaborately.

  • Victoria Greene

    Yes we should respond to such negative talk. We must remind people like Mr. Zuckerberg yes we do have the power to change
    the world through the lives that we touch and the communities we
    empower. Our systems ex. education, health, criminal justice dept. of
    human services would not be so overwhelmed if there was a strong belief in investing in the lives of our people by supporting the
    organizations that service the people.

  • Wow. A very thought-provoking post from Susie, thank you Nancy.

    The local business person’s comment doesn’t even warrant a response. As for Zuckerberg, perhaps we should be challenging him to provide a better platform within Facebook for organizations to share their message and raise money.

    My takeaways from this post:

    1) In order to “get wise” about your organization’s impact, program staff and marketing development staff need to be on the same page. How? Sometimes the answer can be as simple as regular meetings between the two and sending a program staffer to a marketing or fundraising workshop. I had an interesting guest post on this very topic:
    2) Communication is vital. I recommend a minimum of 12 touches per year to your donors utilizing a variety of medium, and an effective PR/communications plan, including social media, in place.
    3) Look upon criticism as an opportunity for education. Tom Ahern noted in his response to my post “I don’t believe in leaving “erroneous negatives” unchallenged. They have insidious side effects.”
    4) Recognize the importance of marketing and development. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported that “40 percent of American charities say they have too few staff members to effectively deliver their programs or services.” Any guess as to the first staff member to be let go in an economic downturn? My guess would be development and marketing staff.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Pamela, thanks for adding your inspiring and important recommendations.

    In particular, your mention of Tom’s point – on the danger of leaving ‘erroneous negatives’ unchallenged’ – is so critical.

  • Agree with Susie that non-profit communicators should lead the charge for standards and education related to non-profit marketing. Also agree that partnerships, advocacy and leadership by example are the paths to do it. Rebuttals to negative comments about the lack of professionalism or the minimal impact non-profits make should be handled with the same compassion and educational tone non-profit communicators use daily. In the same way non-profit marketers share their story and outcomes along with their mission, non-profit communicators can share the impact they’re making on the community just as Susie has done.

    As someone that has worked for both non-profits and for-profits, I would also add “doing more with less” is something that makes non-profit communicators even more creative and resourceful than their counterparts. And as Frank hinted the frameworks of purpose-driven over profit-driven are keys to organizational success regardless of whether your organization is a non-profit or for-profit. These are keys most for-profits never master.

  • Michael Hodgson

    Pam says: The local business person’s comment doesn’t even warrant a response.

    I’d disagree, although perhaps it depends on the business person. There’s a local (to me) business person who had a ‘life changing moment’, and decided to set up a charity / social enterprise too.

    He decided that too many charities do things in an inefficient way and he wanted to bring a business approach. Which is fine for him to believe. His organisation sells a commodity product and gifts all the profits to the charity arm. But it’s not set up to recieve donations. They accept them, but don’t solicit them. They have a good message, a good case and good support, but somehow he doesn’t see that while he has to sell £1k of stock to make £250, he could get that £250 donation with very little extra effort.

    I haven’t yet had the chance to ‘turn him’ to fundraising, but I’m sure I will. I can tell he’s starting to see that actually fundraising could be more effective than his methodology, but it’s only through conversations with people like me

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