CLEARING UP THE CONFUSION BETWEEN MARKETING AND PR Non-profits often get low marks for selling their causes


At a reception I attended recently, a non-profit executiv complained about his organization falling short of goal in fund raising and attracting new clients. "It's frustrating," he said over a warm beer and soggy pretzels. "We're always marketing, sending out press releases almost every week, holding news conferences, mailing fliers to the community . . . Yet, we're falling behind every month."

Most non-profit organizations are not large enough to have their own marketing staff. Their leaders have come up through the ranks and are expert in the services they offer their clientele. Marketing gurus they're not.

This lack of marketing sophistication is obvious in conversations like the one I had at the reception. Throughout the conversation, the executive cited lots of "marketing" activities. In fact, every one he listed was a public-relations activity, like one-way sound bites. Confusion between public relations and marketing is the most common mistake that non-profits make, and one that helps support marketing consultants nationwide.

Public relations is a part of marketing non-profit causes -- and only a small part at that. Conversely, not all marketing is public relations -- not by a long shot. When non-profit agencies confuse the two, the result can be deadly. Most non-profit groups do well with informational pieces about their organizations. They generally do a lousy job marketing themselves.

Last year I was called in to write a large, complicated grant for a state agency. The state assembled a group of experts in a network needed for the project. Part of this group were university faculty.

As a former academic myself, I can tell you that most academics are fine people, but often not very practical. When the grant was finally submitted, they complained (among themselves, of course) that it was not very scholarly and it lacked this and that esoteric point. Had they written the piece, it would doubtless have showcased their scholarship, touting to the funding agency just how brilliant their approach was. Consider that a public relations approach, similar to issuing a press release or community flier.

Marketing, by contrast, is a two-way street. It involves getting people to exchange their money or other support for the agency's products, services or values. In the case of the grant, I felt that there were only a few strong points the state agency could offer that would appeal to the funding source in exchange for their dollars. As a result of research, interviews and lots of listening and probing, our company determined that two points were critically important to the funding source if the grant program was to be successful down the road. I focused on those points succinctly and graphically. They bought it for $4.9 million. That's marketing.

Marketing non-profits is different from marketing widgets. Social service agencies, for example, try to effect an exchange of values or behaviors with their clients. That may involve quitting smoking, using condoms or improving one's diet. Despite the differences from marketing widgets, some basic marketing tenets still apply.

Market-savvy non-profits, like the American Heart Association or Harvard University, pitch their causes to discrete market segments, each with highly individual characteristics. The white-collar, professional yuppie requires a very different marketing approach than the blue-collar factory worker. Young couples just starting a family need different approaches than the retired couple down the street. There are internal markets, too, like the board of directors and staff.

Good marketing starts and ends with good listening. Non-profits, engaged in good works that help the needy, often forget that they need to listen to their clientele and the communities-at-large. Focus groups, surveys and interviews must be a regular part of a non-profit's daily operations, given the same attention as fund raising. In fact, properly done, effective marketing dovetails perfectly with fund raising.

Effective marketing also places the client in the quality-control feedback loop. Effective marketing gets to know them, invites their assessment of service delivery and recruits them for program planning. Non-profit managers who have switched their organizations to effective marketing programs marvel at what the client communities tell them.

If only non-profits took the time to listen, they would hear their marketplace telling them, in no uncertain terms, some very interesting and profitable ideas.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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