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Charitable and nonprofit organizations face something of a dilemma. To introduce themselves to potential donors and beneficiaries, they have to spread the word about themselves and their causes, but their charitable image might appear to conflict with the seemingly market-driven need to sell what it is they do. Successful nonprofit marketing requires a specific, dedicated approach that acknowledges both the need and the concern, to derive campaigns that appeal to audiences without making the organization seem craven.

The need for such marketing and advertising stems from the growing competition for potential donors’ attention. Solicitations for contributions come at consumers from all sides, especially in social media and through crowdfunding sites, making it difficult for even long-established, well-known nonprofits to maintain the flow of funding that they previously could count on, simply by conducting a fundraiser or calling on loyal donors.

Such outdated tactics are insufficient today though, as are the “vague, inflated, and indistinguishable” mission statements that many of them issue. By resting on their proverbial laurels, these nonprofits may still enjoy name recognition, but people have lost track of what they do. For example, market research showed Easterseals that most audiences knew its name but not what charitable cause it supported. The Lupus Foundation of America similarly learned that its marketing—brochures showing happy, healthy-looking people—was confusing potential supporters by failing to make clear just how awful and debilitating the disease is.

Accordingly, many charities and nonprofit organizations are turning to marketing professionals for help designing campaigns that will enable them to continue their meaningful, critical work. The professionals specialize in nonprofit marketing, which must tell an effective story if it is to resonate. The unique goal of nonprofit organizations is to elicit emotional reactions from donors that induce them to provide funding or other forms of support and thus aid the targeted cause, often for nothing other than a warm feeling or perhaps a t-shirt in return.

In its effort to undertake such storytelling, the Colon Cancer Alliance had to shift away from its technical, informative approach, which listed statistics and research findings, and toward a more emotional appeal. After hiring marketing experts, the Alliance devised a new marketing strategy that clearly highlighted three key goals that contributions could help it achieve. In addition, it placed advertising on the Discovery Channel during “Shark Week” that compared the number of people attacked by shark each year (16) with the vastly higher number of people diagnosed with colon cancer (130,000).

Some nonprofit groups protest that, with their tight budgets and imperative to devote nearly all their resources to their underlying cause, they cannot afford to hire professional marketers. But the competitive landscape for donors’ dollars suggests that, ultimately, they cannot afford not to hire them.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do marketers help nonprofit organizations communicate their message?
  2. How can nonprofit organizations ensure that their mission statements are effective?

Source: Janet Morrissey, “To Sell Themselves to Donors, Nonprofits Are Turning to the Pros,” The New York Times, September 10, 2017