Why Every Non-Profit Should Think (and Act) Like a For-Profit

Are you effectively telling the story of your organization’s impact and purpose?

Are you equipping donors, sponsors, and community members to support your cause with a simple and engaging online platform?

Are you creating and nurturing community by mobilizing the people who are most passionate about your cause?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with over 50 nonprofit and social-enterprise organizations over the past several years, and have sat on the board of the Nashville Social Enterprise Alliance for about 3 years now. What I’ve noticed, is a recurring challenge of not only scalability – but sustainability in the nonprofit/social space.

How to sustain (and scale) your nonprofit.

Fundraising and/or capital raising is almost always the biggest hurdle to overcome as you try to survive (and thrive) as a nonprofit (or, heck, any company for that matter). What I’ve found to be unique in the nonprofit world is the strong aversion to anything branding/marketing-related.

That’s because nonprofits often adopt what I call the “indie brand syndrome”. They tend to think that they’re so awesome and doing so much good that people will simply discover them and do anything they can to support their cause. Like a musician focused on creating “art”, nonprofits become entirely cause-focused and neglect to consider the importance of letting donors, sponsors, supporters, and advocates know exactly who they are and why it matters.

Sometimes, the laid-back approach can be a good thing (nobody likes a sell-out). But the vast majority of organizations need an audience of advocates to be successful.

This isn’t my sleazy for-profit brain telling every nonprofit in the world to sell out and start putting out sad-dog ASPCA commercials featuring Sarah McLachlan (I still can’t watch that without welling up). But just as a for-profit business needs revenue and capital to sustain, non-profits need funding and investment in the form of donations, grants, and volunteers to survive and thrive in a world with no shortage of meaningful causes to support.

It’s easy for us to think about how to market an iPhone, a sexy app that lets you become your own personal taxi driver or a wild new food-truck concept. But at the core, marketing your non-profit isn’t much different. It starts and ends with the story you tell and invite others to share – and that story must be clear, meaningful, tangible, and well-crafted.

Give me a reason to care.

My emphasis lies on “tangibility”. Your supporters (we’ll call them customers for the sake of discussion) want to know the true value of their dollar. If I write you a check for $100, I don’t want to be handed a blanket statement that my money will go to “supporting communities in Africa”. I want to know about the community, its people, and where that money, specifically, is going.

In our work with Oasisiah, for example, we urged their team to be specific in outlining current projects, which has been key to their success as an organization to date.

For-profit companies look at the competition and ask, “What do we do that’s unique and/or best?” As a nonprofit, you must adopt this same approach. This means a solid focus on “why” (your mission and purpose) and a commitment to “what” (your projects, services, and/or products).

You may not consider other organizations to be competitors (in fact, they can sometimes be your strongest allies) – but in a world that has us being pulled in a million different directions to “support this”, “donate here”, and “give now” – your ask must be genuine, clear, and compelling.

Start building a better brand. Today.

All week here at Proof and around the web, we’re focused on better branding for nonprofits. We’ve put together a special Brand Toolkit specifically for nonprofit organizations and socially conscious companies, designed to help you think critically and will get you and your team taking solid steps toward building a better brand.

Yes, you’re doing meaningful and important work, but if no one knows who, what, or why, you’ll never fully realize your true potential. Every person you invite to listen to and be a part of your story is one more significant step toward building a strong brand with a more focused direction and more significant impact.

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