Not long ago, I worked with a struggling nonprofit organization that annually engaged in a television campaign. The organization didn’t directly pay for the television coverage; corporate sponsors did. The organization connected its corporate supporters with the local television station. The sponsors received some paid airtime which mentioned our organization. In addition, the station invited all of us to participate in a structured news story that involved all of us engaging in a staged, on-air service activity.

This annual media/corporate engagement activity preceded me. It wasn’t my idea or my responsibility and I confess I participated in it more as a skeptical spectator than anything else and, fortunately, I only worked through the effort with the organization once.

Following the week-long blitz of airtime and social media posts that resulted from the effort—some by the news organization, some by us (the nonprofit), some by the corporate partners who paid for the advertising—our development office’s phone range zero times. I received not a single email from anyone in the public wanting to know more about us or what we did. No one came forward to volunteer. Online donations didn’t increase in any way. From my perspective, this “campaign” that our CEO was incredibly enthusiastic about, generated absolutely no discernible benefit for the organization.

Similarly, around the same time, the CEO of the organization arranged for a company celebrating a significant milestone anniversary to put the agency’s logo and slogan on the top of a high rise building for a week. It was kind of like a large digital billboard that spanned one side of one floor of the building, visible from several major highways and city streets. Like the television media blitz featuring sponsor ads and service-like activity, the phones in the development office rang not a single time. There was no perceptible bump in development activities associated with the awareness effort.

This week, as the presidential campaigns of Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer folded despite the candidates’ multi-million-dollar marketing investments, I’ve thought back to the ineffectual marketing efforts of the struggling organization for which I worked. No doubt the media buys of Bloomberg and Steyer which NPR reports are the largest in presidential campaign history resulted in more awareness as did the much smaller campaign of the local organization for which I worked. But in none of these cases did paid media translate into the voluntary action (votes and donations) that the organizations would have liked.

The fact that voluntary action can’t be bought is good news for the nonprofit sector which doesn’t have the funds to attempt buy it. Voluntary support has to be earned. In the wake of the collapsed political campaigns of Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, what lessons are there for those us who want to earn voluntary support?

The first, I think, comes from Simon Sinek. He compellingly argues that people won’t follow unless a leader offers a compelling vision. A compelling vision, says Sinek, is not a plan or a goal of being the biggest, the best, or the most profitable.  A vision is a picture of a world transformed. Further, says Sinek, it’s a picture of the world transformed on behalf of someone else—not the leader himself or herself. (See Bloomberg may have been clear that he wanted to end the Trump Presidency, but he was not clear, arguably, about his vision for a post-Trump America.

Second, marketing experts tell us that without trust and authenticity no amount of media spending will have traction for your organization. For nonprofit organizations developing trust and authenticity means radical transparency and excellent stewardship:  spending money the way we tell our supporters we will spend it, going beyond the minimum required disclosure of financials, and demonstrating clear impact. It means service numbers need to be meaningful (too many nonprofit organizations fudge their service statistics or have stats that are meaningless).

As Cerami Creative argues, even a hint of in-authenticity can lead to contempt for your organization. In the presidential campaign, arguments about Bloomberg’s trust and authenticity were hammered by his record on stop and frisk and his company’s history of with the women in his workforce.

Cerami Creative also tells us that we need to have a clear unique service proposition (USP). For a nonprofit organization, that means we have to be able to explain clearly to people “why us” and not another organization. What is it about our organization that is different from others with similar missions or that provide similar services? How do we stand out, do things differently, or treat our clients distinctly? In the language of fundraisers – this is our case for support. We have to have a strong case for support, or argument for why our organization (rather than another) deserves support.

For nonprofit organizations, learning that paid media isn’t effective is a bit like being a Yugo owner (remember those?) and learning that there isn’t anything actually superior about a Mercedes (which we couldn’t afford anyway). Millions of dollars won’t buy an election. It won’t buy us donors or volunteers either. And while it might buy us some awareness, that isn’t going to be enough to translate into voluntary support absent evidence of other things.

What does work:  trust-building, authenticity, vision and value.  Develop those things at the core of your organization and build your communication, social media, and development messaging around them. That’s what connects with our constituents. That’s what translates into the voluntary support–donor dollars and volunteer effort–that move our missions forward.

Photo:  Bigstock/com/LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES. Used with permission.

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