'Nonprofit' Is A Tax Classification, Not A Business Strategy

I’ve worked for several nonprofit organizations over the years—from higher education to educational travel to the performing arts—and I always thought that nonprofits could learn a lot from the corporate world. In my experience, nonprofit organizations are generally reluctant to openly discuss profit, unless it’s in regards to fundraising initiatives. Nonprofit organizations need to make money just like everyone else. How else can they accomplish their missions, after all?

It was refreshing, then, to hear a nonprofit leader discuss this topic recently. I attended an Event Fundraising Roundtable in Boston, where Suzanne Fountain, associate VP of the Jimmy Fund, served as a panelist. She started the conversation by comparing nonprofits and businesses: “You may be a nonprofit organization, but you still need to use your best business sense….” She then went on to discuss segmentation as a required means of getting a better return on investment, as well as other familiar topics we often hear from corporate marketers—only this time, they were aimed at nonprofits.



Marketers in the nonprofit space often have to work harder than corporate marketers to convince decision makers to spend. Whereas corporate marketers make their cases around enhanced profitability, we focus on the different ways we will be able to better educate people, treat and research diseases, assist in disaster relief, help abused people and animals — whatever the mission may be. 

Here are some business-tested and -approved tips discussed at the Event Fundraising Roundtable that can be applied to the nonprofit world:

  • Segment in order to speak differently to different people. Donors, volunteers, and event participants all have different motivations for being involved with your charity, which means they require different messages and calls to action. This distinction alone makes segmentation among groups crucial. Beyond that, however, you can also segment within groups. Donors are a good example of a type of group that would benefit from segmentation, as they exhibit different giving patterns and commitment levels (not to mention age ranges). Try to detect similar patterns among your target groups, then segment your audience, and direct your messaging accordingly.
  • Encourage participants to “sell.” Participants will be able to fundraise more by using marketing/sales techniques and emotional storytelling. Train them, and provide tools that will help increase donations, like customizable online fundraising pages and sample communications that they can personalize.
  • Connect on a personal level. In both the business and charity worlds, personal contact leads to better results. Make donors feel like they are a part of the internal team. Call them, thank them; use direct contact, not cookie cutter communications.
  • Simplify. Everything. If your email is too long, your registration process too cumbersome, or your online donor form too detailed, you’ll lose otherwise interested people quickly. 

And I have a few tips of my own:

  • Collaborate on a strategy. Contact area colleges with MBA programs and offer to work with graduate students on case studies and thesis projects surrounding your business model or marketing strategy. If you don’t have either, this is a great way to get them for free. The business insight you’ll gain is beyond valuable, and will help you get your organization on a better track to increase profits. 
  • Read theHarvard Business Review. This publication is a staple of mine and, no matter what industry I find myself in, the information is relevant and applicable. 
  • Look at businesses you admire and learn something. How do they promote their brands? What communication vehicles are they using? How are they viewed by their peers and by the public? And then, ask yourself the same questions about your organization.
  • Apply best practices. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when launching an email, website design, or other communications project. Sure, the final outcome should reflect your initiative and be customized to meet your needs and personality, but the actual functionality and logistics should meet established standards. Learning from others’ mistakes and successes will save you time and money. After all, a bad website can cost as much as a good one, but the consequences of a bad website can last forever. If you don’t understand what “user experience” means and how it helps fulfill your strategic objectives, start reading.

Implementing business and marketing strategies and tactics in your nonprofit organization will have a positive impact on your mission. Remember that the more money you earn as a nonprofit, the more services you can provide, and the greater impact you’ll have in your communities. 

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