Nonprofit Branding: Things Nonprofits Can Learn From For-Profits (Introduction)

He roared “Damn it, Burke, don’t ever use the word ‘marketing’ in my presence again. That’s an order.”

The above injunction landed in my lap in 1976, when I was a callow 36 year old college vice president.  My angry boss, the  president, was a smug but experienced tyrant who had become increasingly befuddled by a changing world. Chest-deep in a sea of denial, the president wrapped his arms and legs around a rigid belief system …..and held tight.

So we locked horns, the senior and the junior – one rooted in a diminishing past and one focused on the emerging reality.

Score: President 1 – Vice President – 0


The issue that caused the president’s rage? A survey of current freshmen and sophomores. To me, obtaining student views was a logical step in institutional management.  To him it was an an unwise intrusion on the way things had always been done. But he was the president. His face had been on the cover of TIME and Newsweek. I was a mere subordinate who barely got a photo into my high school yearbook.

From the survey I hoped to learn things like these:

whether or not students’ college selection had been influenced by meeting our admissions staff at college fairs….which messages about the college they thought were – or were not – persuasive….what family and peers thought of their college choice….whether there was a market for the new allied health sciences major the faculty was planning.

I figured that if we learn from current students we might better prepare for future ones. The president did not want that knowledge to intrude on his assumptions.

What you need to absorb for your own professional perspective is this odd fact: the foolish stand taken by the college president represented the common, though misguided, attitude held by most nonprofit managers. Their mantra went like this: “Our work benefits society. So society is obligated to support our organization. We are motivated by service, not by profit. We are pure. Virtuous nonprofit administrators must not think in those crass terms that business managers use, and we must not adopt their tools.”

That kind of management thinking caused many nonprofit failures and career misfires. It can cause them today for the handful of nonprofits whose management or board unwisely buys into the “too pure to compete” notion.

Fortunately, yesterday’s heresy is today’s common practice. For successful nonprofits and government agencies, marketing is now a way of life.

That leads me straight to Dick Taft, the nonprofit guru who started the revolution that had such influence on Young Turks like I was in 1976. In the early seventies Taft, an established thinker and consultant in the young profession of nonprofit fundraising, was probably the first national figure to credibly assert this revolutionary concept:

most aspects of nonprofit management are either marketing functions or are rooted in marketing principles.

Taft was speaking and writing about membership programs and public relations and fundraising and volunteer management and taxpayer services and media relations and program development and board management and all the other things we do in the public service sector. He recognized that ALL of them are heavily influenced by market forces.  Then he set out to teach the rest of us.

One tool he used was a short essay that was reproduced in a large poster. It was distributed widely within the upper ranks of nonprofit management, enchanting many of the young practitioners and discomforting our bosses.

So, with all credit to Dick Taft, in the next few blog posts I will pirate and update his groundbreaking essay. I do this with respect and, hopefully, without distorting his original concepts as they apply to our digital world nearly four decades later.You won’t want to miss his commentary – groundbreaking then, reinforcing now and cleverly stated always.

As a footnote to the last installment, I will tell you more about Taft and his contribution to our field of nonprofit management and marketing.

If your organization has a strong and well-managed marketing program, you will still find great value in Taft’s simple, punchy presentation of once-alarming notions. You might also find some new or revitalized ideas that assist your own career.

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