Nonprofit Branding: Things Nonprofits Can Learn From For-Profits (Taft’s 1st Two Points)

In the last post I introduced you to a pompous college president who feared I was about to corrupt the purity of his institution. I wanted to survey current and prospective students to learn how the market regarded our brand. He is the clown who yelled “Damn it, Burke, don’t ever use the word ‘marketing’ in my presence again. That’s an order.”

The president felt that marketing, back then a practice found only in the business world, was unworthy, unclean and maybe a bit hostile to our nonprofit principles. His value to our narrative comes from the fact he represents what was once the common attitude of nonprofit leaders – an attitude that is seen less  often today, but remains an organizational threat when it does occur.

In that post also introduced Richard Taft, the groundbreaking Guru who brought marketing to nonprofit managers and reassured us that it is an essential management tool for public service organizations rather than a form of corporate manipulation.

RECAP: Over the next three weeks we’re rolling out a series of posts on marketing/branding concepts derived from the for-profit sector. This is the second post. It presents the beginning of Richard Taft’s seminal essay on nonprofit marketing which was first published in the seventies.


1. GET DOWN TO REALITY. (It’s step no. 1)

In approaching a fund-raising, membership, student recruitment or constituency-relations issue, the first rule is this: shed your nonprofit cloak of virtue. Look at yourself clearly and coldly. Business does it in unambiguous, analytical terms. So should you.

Your organization and its services are products. Learn to think that way. This perspective will provide insights you can’t get elsewhere.

Your donors, alumni, clients, patients, taxpayers, members or supporters are consumers of those product. Your organization fits into a product category. Colleges and conservation organizations, political movements and youth services, park districts, residential communities and health organizations are examples of product categories, just as soap and hotels are. There are other organizations in your product category. They are your competitors. They compete with you for money, for visibility, for volunteers, for customers, for constituents, for media coverage – and more.

Get used to applying the concepts of product and product category to your nonprofit. Then ask yourself some hard questions.

How good is your product? How is it perceived by its consumers? Does it fill a meaningful gap in its product category? What is your competition doing? How well does it do that? How does your organization stack up against the competition? How does it stack up against constituent expectations? Where does it fall short?

Answer these questions carefully. That’s how you begin a process called marketing.

2. MAKE MARKETING A WAY OF LIFE. (Don’t just do something. Sit there and think.)

Marketing is a disciplined approach to defining and solving a problem. It is a process that requires you to think through a problem logically from point A to point B and then to point C.

You operate in a context. It includes your program. Clients. Competitors. Your history. Your governance structure. The people who pay your bills.

Sit there and define that context. Keep refining your frame of reference. That will help you realistically identify problems. And opportunities. It will help you develop better options. Help you evaluate them objectively.

Then you must ask Hard Questions. They need hard answers. Hard answers come from facts. So get those facts. Look in the old files. Talk to your staff people. Chat with former board members. Ask the people you service. Then ask them again. Google your competition. Then go talk with your clients one more time.

Make marketing a way of life. No matter how urgent the issue, if you are analytical and quantitative, your response will always be better. So sit there. Think it through. Evaluate easily accessed information. Then plan to research your market.

The last line is a tease. Taft’s comments about research come in the next post. Also in the next post are Taft’s observations about finding your niche in the market – plus an insight drawn from the sad state of a once-famed college. Its trustees and management didn’t understand the principles in Taft’s essay. So they steered the institution straight into the ditch. There is a LESSON here for every public service organization!


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