Marketing is vital for any organization to build support for its mission, enabling it to excel. That’s obvious to some of us—but you would be surprised how many in the nonprofit sector believe that marketing is not needed.
Alyssa Conrardy, president and co-founder of Prosper Strategies, is dedicated to informing all mission-driven organizations about the power of marketing. Her firm has created a Nonprofit Marketing Manifesto that reclaims and redefines marketing for today’s social sector landscape.
Alyssa recently spent an afternoon presenting her manifesto at the Digital Nonprofit Chicago Club, the learning network that I cofounded with Em Hall and Tweed Thornton. She sat down with me afterward to answer questions and share some inspiring commitments for all of us in this industry.
Eva Penar: In the Manifesto, you basically redefine marketing for our sector: “Nonprofit marketing comprises the activities, touchpoints and messages that motivate stakeholders to take actions that advance a nonprofit’s mission and create sustainable social change.” Why?
Alyssa Conrardy: Every definition I’ve ever seen of marketing didn’t speak to the unique needs of the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits approach marketing a bit differently than for-profits. It’s not as much about making the sale as it is about motivating stakeholders to take any action that advances your mission.
I also wanted our definition to help nonprofits think more broadly about what marketing encompasses. There’s so much confusion about what is marketing vs. PR vs. communications. Our definition positions marketing as the umbrella: all the activities, touchpoints and messages.
EP: So let’s run through the ten commitments. Commitment #1: We will recognize marketing as a tool for driving social change. This feels like a mindshift. Why do we start here?
AC: It definitely is! Until your entire organization—staff, board, volunteers and funders—views marketing as a critical tool for mission impact, seeing the rest of the commitments through will be next to impossible. Marketing is far too often limited to the realms of raising awareness or raising funds. For these commitments to work, organizations need to understand that it can and should do so much more.
EP: Commitment #2: We will develop a strong brand image and identity in alignment with our mission and values. A lot of nonprofits can’t afford a brand refresh. What can they do?
AC: You don’t need to refresh your entire brand to align with your mission and values. I’d start by looking at your messaging. What key messages do your team use to describe the work you do, both in conversation and in writing? Are those messages misaligned with your mission and what you want to be known for? If so, developing a new, clear set of key messages (ideally segmented by stakeholder) and training as many people in your organization as you can about how to use them could be a great step toward better alignment.
EP: Commitment #3: We will build cohesion internally and communicate consistently externally. Internal stakeholders have various interpretations of the brand. How do you get all internal stakeholders aligned around a common understanding?
AC: Everyone should feel comfortable personalizing their experience with and interpretation of your brand. That’s part of the magic of nonprofit communications.
But there still needs to be a consistency in what they said and communicate, and that’s where key messages come in. They’re meant to be a touchstone, not a script that everyone parrots word-for-word. As long as internal stakeholders are trained and grounded in the key messages (and in what not to say) they should feel comfortable adding color with their own personal experiences and anecdotes.
EP: Commitment #4: We will treat all of our stakeholders as brand ambassadors. I agree with this! Some organizations feel that only the communications person or the CEO is the spokesperson, but it is so vital to engage everyone.
Marketing is far too often limited to the realms of raising awareness or raising funds. For these commitments to work, organizations need to understand that it can and should do so much more.
AC: Every stakeholder will be a spokesperson in some shape or form, whether you give them the permission to be one or not. People talk, and that’s more true now than ever in the age of social media and constant connectivity. I believe you should have several individuals who are identified and trained as official spokespeople for the media and more formal types of requests. Outside of those situations, realize that everyone who works at or with your organization will be an ambassador in some shape or form, and give them the tools to communicate a consistent, yet personalized message.
EP: Commitment #5: We will develop a marketing plan that aligns with our strategic plan and recognize that marketing can impact every single one of our strategic goals. Why is it so critical to align your marketing plan with your strategic plan? And how should you do it?
AC: It’s critical because marketing exists to drive your organization’s goals and mission forward, plain and simple. Unfortunately, a lot of marketing/communications professionals and departments keep themselves very busy doing a lot of things that they feel “need to be done,” but have no real tie back to their mission and goals.
We suggest that you look at each goal in your strategic plan, and identify one to three marketing and communications goals that can help to advance it. Even goals that don’t seem as though they can be served by marketing and communications on the surface often can. Then, we suggest that you analyze all of your other marketing activities through the lens of your strategic plan goals. If you’re engaging in a marketing activity because your organization has always done it that way, or because someone has a certain expectation of you, but that activity doesn’t actually drive the goals in your strategic plan forward… it’s time to cut it.
Every stakeholder will be a spokesperson in some shape or form, whether you give them the permission to be one or not. People talk, and that’s more true now than ever in the age of social media and constant connectivity.
EP: Commitment #6: We will invest properly in marketing and treat it as core mission support, not overhead. So how do we as marketers convince the board and leadership that marketing is vital?
AC: Start with the Manifesto. It’s a great tool for educating your board and leadership, and making the case for a deeper investment in and approach to marketing. Then, share real world examples. Seek out organizations that have invested properly in marketing and communications, and share how it directly impacted their growth and outcomes. There are many examples on our blog and in our webinar series. Ultimately, your board and leadership will be more likely to see marketing as vital and invest accordingly if you can tie marketing to tangible, measurable outcomes and show early signs of success before asking for larger investments.
EP: Commitment #7: We will ensure marketing is overseen at the highest level of our organizations and contributed to by everyone on our teams. Many times, marketing is brought in at the end of conversations and brainstorms. How can we change that?
AC: Again, you’ll need to start with education. Many people who haven’t worked in marketing and communications simply don’t understand how impactful this function can be and how critical it is to give marketing leaders a seat at the table in the beginning, middle and end of important conversations. Here again, you might start with the Manifesto and our webinar series as educational tools.
Then, I think you simply have to ask, again and again, to be involved and included. When you’re brought into a conversation or brainstorm earlier than would have happened in the past, earn your seat by adding value and showing how marketing/communications can lend new and valuable perspectives. Eventually, the vision of the role you should play in important conversations and brainstorms will expand and you’ll be invited in far more often than you’re not.
If you’re engaging in a marketing activity because your organization has always done it that way, or because someone has a certain expectation of you, but that activity doesn’t actually drive the goals in your strategic plan forward… it’s time to cut it.
EP: Commitment #8: We will use our brands and marketing to build partnerships and advance the broader causes we’re focused on. Is aligning your brand to other nonprofits in the space a good tactic?
AC: Absolutely. The nonprofit sector needs to emphasize collaboration over competition. At the end of the day, we all have the same goal: creating positive change and making the world a better place. But when you collaborate, you must be careful to ensure that your partnerships are mutually beneficial and that one partner doesn’t begin to totally overshadow the other.
EP: Commitment #9: We will avoid, at all costs, sacrificing the dignity of those we serve for the sake of our marketing and communications goals. Why is it so common for organizations to use “stereotype porn” or other approaches that can exploit and harm the people they aim to help?
AC: In the past, stereotype porn, poverty porn and all their close cousins were seen as effective tools for “pulling on the heartstrings” of donors and supporters. Fortunately, ads and communications featuring famished children, or sad and unhealthy-looking elderly people, are not as common today as they once were; but it’s still a tactic that gets defaulted to far too often. While this approach might be successful with some donors, it’s likely to do far more harm than good for the people you ultimately aim to serve.
If you’re ever unsure about whether imagery, language or other elements of your marketing could harm the dignity of a certain group, ask them. Involve all your stakeholders in providing feedback on your messaging, marketing and brand. When you ask for their insights, make sure you truly listen.
The nonprofit sector needs to emphasize collaboration over competition. At the end of the day, we all have the same goal: creating positive change and making the world a better place.
EP: Commitment #10: We will measure the impact of marketing on our missions and continually optimize our efforts to drive more social change. Why is measurement so important?
AC: I’ll highlight two key reasons to care about measurement:
1. It makes the case for a greater investment in marketing. The more you can prove that what you’re doing has an impact on your organization’s mission and goals, the easier it will be to make a case for growth.
2. It allows you to optimize your efforts and make a greater impact. Effective measurement makes it possible to understand which elements of your marketing are working well at advancing your goals, which elements need to be improved and which elements are a waste of time and resources—so that you can continually optimize your marketing plans for mission impact.
Go deeper into the manifesto and learn more about Alyssa’s work at prosper-strategies.com.