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Saturday, January 20, 2018

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An Alternative Paradigm for Nonprofits, Pt. I “It’s All about Donors”
Steve Barnhill

February, 2009

NOTE: I have received a number of calls and emails asking how people can respond to and begin a dialogue about my previous article, “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid,” which appeared here at on 2/19/09. In the earlier piece, I argued that NPOs should respond in a counterintuitive fashion to the nation’s economic freefall. Agree? Disagree? I invite everyone wishing to discuss this and related issues to drop in on TXNP’s Facebook page at where there’s a discussion on “Change.”

“So, you do marketing communications for nonprofits?” people ask me. “What does marketing have to do with nonprofits?”

            “Everything imaginable and then some,” I answer. “If you pull back the curtains on successful fundraising enterprises in 2009, you will find savvy marketers. I guarantee it. They’ll have business plans, marketing plans, solid understandings of their competition, an intimate knowledge of who supports their organizations and why, and offerings that have been tailored to meet the needs and desires of their customers.”

            “Customers?” is the usual response. “Donors are customers?”

            “Nothing more, nothing less,” I say. “And you remember what Peter Drucker wrote about customers: The customers are the business. That’s no less true for nonprofits than for Coca-Cola or Wal-Mart. It might even be more true.”

            Because I am interested always in knowing what’s true, I have investigated matters and discovered (an overstatement, for sure) some “real truths” that I think can revolutionize the operations of many nonprofits. I share them with clients at every opportunity. Sometimes, I get push-back. You’re about to see why.

            It’s All about Your Donors. Popular opinion might lead you to think that your mission is synonymous with your business, meaning that your business is to serve you’re the clients mentioned in your organization’s mission statement.

            I suggest that you should resist believing that.

Donors are the plants in your NPO’s ecosystem – the makers of the oxygen you need to survive.

The real truth is that you exist at the pleasure of donors and thus, first and foremost, you exist to serve donors. (Curiously, they’re probably not cited in your mission.) Your core business – as distinct from your mission -- is attracting and keeping these generous, good-hearted people. Perhaps you should think of them as the plants in your NPO’s ecosystem – the makers of oxygen, which you need to survive.

            An analog might be found in television. My good friend Susan is the marketing director of a local network affiliate. When we spend time together, I hear a lot of TV talk. Trust me, most of it does not focus on viewers. Instead, she and her colleagues talk incessantly about advertisers. Guess why?  If the advertisers go away, so does their television station.

            When TV networks are concerned about viewers, it’s principally because viewers help them attract advertisers, the oxygen-makers in their ecosystem.

            To push our analogy further, TV advertisers have countless options – all of them promising to satisfy advertisers’ needs -- when it comes to investing their promotional dollars. Network program executives must create a slate of television offerings that will deliver what the advertisers want and then something more – the something more being the reason their stations get chosen for investment. What the advertisers want is people who fit the demographic and psychographic profiles of their own prospective customers.

            When stations deliver what advertisers want, the advertisers become “loyal.” But no one’s kidding anyone here. The competition for ad dollars is keen, and advertisers remain always on the lookout for a more effective, more efficient way to grab the eyes and ears of TV viewers.

I suggest to our clients at Edge that they get close enough to their donors that they know why they are donors.         

Now consider this: Donors are just as keen when it comes to getting what they want.

            Take one example: As a donor, if I have a desire to end child abuse in Houston, I probably have a dozen excellent options for satisfying my interest. Why do I pick one over the many others? This is a marketing question, and the answer is a cornerstone of your fundraising, if you’re a Texas organization with fighting child abuse as your mission.

            I suggest to our clients at Edge that they get close enough to their donors that they know why they are donors. Now, as you know, this sort of data is mined through research, which means an investment of time and money. Happily, the research is fairly quick and inexpensive to do, if you have a good database and a membership in Survey Monkey, Zoomerang or a similar service.

            Once you get to know your donors and learn what facets of your organization bring them to you, then you can put to use one of marketing’s most basic tenets: “Your best prospect is a carbon copy of your best customer.”

            Permit me to add one last thought. It might be good to see your organization the way that donors most often see it. Your NPO is viewed first and foremost as a philanthropic partner, a channel through which donors can give their time, money and other resources and get done what they want done. In other words, at least at the start of your relationship, your NPO is not so much the object of donors’ interest as the means to their end. This knowledge should rightfully inform all of your communications with donors. Their heart doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to those you serve.

            At least in the beginning of your relationship.

Next, Part II of “An Alternative Paradigm”: Be Interesting or Be Absent, and Actions Follow Feelings.

Steve Barnhill is a principal in Edge Creative Strategies, a marketing communications firm specializing in service to nonprofits.


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