An organization’s nonprofit status may carry neither the perceptual weight nor the relevance that many leadership teams imagine…and nonprofits may be sabotaging their own opportunities for support because of it.
All organizations – not just nonprofits – are now in the business of promoting “social good” in order to gain support. The recent Super Bowl was an excellent example. From McDonald’s “Pay With Love” commercial, to Dove’s #LikeAGirl campaign, to all of the emotional daddy-love commercials tugging at our heartstrings, the world’s biggest advertising stage was full of attempts to demonstrate meaningful brand values. The integration of social values within business operations and communications – “corporate social responsibility” – is one of today’s most prominent business trends. And, this trend has a profound impact on nonprofit organizations because, today, the market demands transparency and authenticity to encourage support (e.g. donation, ticket purchase, etc.). The market increasingly expects organizations to articulate and demonstrate a “why” (or “so what?”) beyond “to make money.” In fact, many studies demonstate that social responsibility is no longer optional for businesses.
In other words, if your organization imagines one of its key differentiators to be its social responsibility, well, then your thinking may be at complete odds with the way the market perceives and evaluates all organizations (i.e. nonprofits and for-profits alike).
Consider this: A nonprofit organization’s “competition” for funds and market share isn’t limited to a similar organization down the street. It’s increasingly a myriad of entities within the for-profit sector. And, generally, these entities have a leg-up in allocating financial resources to help communicate and support their social missions.
Here are some considerations for organizations to remain relevant and meaningful in our age of social good for business’s sake:
1) Consider that people may not even know that you are nonprofit
“Wait. What?!” For many individuals working within nonprofits, this can be a big shock. However, time and time again in my work at IMPACTS, the data indicate that the majority of the same public that organizations endeavor to serve do not know that many nonprofits are actually nonprofits.
A majority of people – including visitors! – are unaware that these organizations are nonprofits. As the data indicates, the market’s lack of regard for an organization’s tax status extends to all types of visitor-serving organizations – so no one is immune to this condition. The question is: Does it matter? Well, if you consider your organization’s tax-exemption as a primary differentiator in a crowded, competitive market, then this data may be very alarming. However, if you tend to accept that the market is infinitely more interested in what you actually do as an organization than it is in the esoterica and vagaries of the US tax code, then this finding isn’t nearly so troubling.
We all know how challenging it can be to make a lasting impression. In the few precious moments when we hope to engage with our audiences, is the foremost thing that we hope to communicate about our tax status? And, if so, does the market even care? Which leads me to…
2) Audiences are increasingly sector-agnostic
The fact that people are confused about the nonprofit status of many organizations likely doesn’t matter.
Data suggest that 91% of global consumers will chose to associate with and support brands and organizations that provide some sort of social benefit over a product that does not. For nearly all brands right now, it’s cool to be kind.
For-profits are well aware of this and many have (or have had) campaigns that tie directly to a purpose, prominently including: Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative, Bank of America and Khan Academy’s Better Money Habits, Coca-Cola’s Ekocenter, and Toyota’s Meals Per Hour, and LifeBuoy’s Help a Child Reach 5. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. These initiatives are focused and generally easy to communicate and understand. This may be why the Pepsi Refresh Project didn’t do very well by comparison – and that also may be why many true nonprofit organizations are struggling when it comes to communications. But I digress…
While many of these types of initiatives include a nonprofit beneficiary, the fact remains (and, indeed, becomes glaringly obvious): People don’t need to donate directly to a nonprofit to support something that they believe in. They can simply buy fast-food fried chicken.
And, with that, BAM! We’ve attached the idea of “giving” to a traditional economic utility curve. This model is arguably more sustainable because the consumer actually gets something (a product or experience) in addition to the feel-good attached to supporting a cause. Whether nonprofits like it or not, this model changes the way people think about supporting causes.
It’s great that some nonprofits are benefiting from these campaigns. They are an opportunity for securing support from a for-profit company and can be very successful partnerships! However, many organizations neglect to consider what all of this may be doing to the general market’s attitude toward nonprofits. I’m absolutely not saying that these partnerships are a bad idea. I’m saying that to move forward, it may be best to recognize (and accept) this evolution we’ve helped to create in the market’s perception and their related progression toward a more sector-agnostic world.
3) Having a mission is money
It’s time that nonprofits remove the emotion that may be elicited by the use of the word “mission” so close to the word “money” and tackle this one head-on. I’m talking mostly to organizations that do provide a service, product, or experience and indeed operate – at least a little bit – based upon the concept of a more traditional utility curve (i.e. visitor-serving organizations).
Visitor-serving organizations that highlight their mission financially outperform those marketing primarily as attractions. At IMPACTS, we check in on this data every quarter and the connections between how well audiences believe that an organization achieves its mission continues to correlate with financial performance.
Yes, nonprofits are arguably and increasingly competing with for-profits – but not on how well these entities can be for-profit-y. For-profits are competing with nonprofits regarding how conceptually nonprofit-y they can be!
Transparent, social-good acting, for-the-best advocating, morally-sound, socially-valuable…the same perceptions that may have been traditionally associated with successful nonprofits are among the biggest wants of for-profits in today’s world. If your marketing team is all about discounts and sweepstakes and only posting about how people should “visit us!” tell them to knock it off. That’s not good business, and it’s not the sweet spot in which these organizations need to shine.
4) Demonstrating impact and prioritizing transparency are more important for nonprofits than ever before
Donors increasingly make decisions based more on the values that an organization shows by way of their actions and real-time communications on social media then what an organization tells in ads and individual status updates. The web empowers potential supporters to make their own decisions about organizations based on their overall perception of the brand. Organizations that don’t walk their talk generally suffer. Extreme cases are those of McDonalds and SeaWorld.
Right now, nonprofits risk being perceived as second-rate at achieving the very positive attributes that define them (i.e. being about more than making a buck).
Sharing compelling mission-related stories and providing real impact is at the heart of many nonprofit organizations, and its how they’ve kept the lights on for decades. In fact, people care more about how they feel when they give than how organizations spend their money. The reality is that many for-profits have more resources to elicit the very emotions that nonprofits try to summon…and that “giving” could be going somewhere else.
Nonprofits are masters of tugging at heartstrings and making the world a better place. Now – more than ever before – it’s up to all nonprofit organizations to do more than tell. It’s time to show how well we do what we do best. Our increasingly sector-agnostic world has changed the game. Organizations need to decide if they still want to be a valuable player and, if so, update best practices accordingly.