Monday, October 30, 2006

A Good Value Proposition: Non-Profit Edition

The other evening I attended a fundraising event for a homeless shelter in Boston. There are, of course, some people who don’t find the homeless all that cuddly and sympathetic, and consider homelessness the result of bad choices. But fortunately most people view homelessness as more a matter of bad luck - likely compounded by bad decisions, but almost always starting out with bad luck. You would have to be completely heartless to have come away from this fundraiser unmoved. It celebrated a tremendously humble, authentic, and engaging local philanthropist who is committed to giving away his vast fortune and dying broke. It featured a speech by someone who’d taken advantage of enough of the shelter’s many services to get back on his feet, find a good job, support his family, and become a productive member of society. It raised a lot of money. And the food was pretty good.

An excellently run program across the boards. I’ll stop beating around the bush here, and put in a little plug for St. Francis House, which for over 20 years now has been helping the poor and homeless of Boston rebuild their lives. It’s not just a tagline. St. Francis House started out as a soup-and-sandwich-line and now provides a full complement of services that indeed do help people rebuild their lives. They have an excellent story and value proposition. Not only do they serve thousands of meals a week, they also run a nationally recognized program (the Moving Ahead Program, or MAP) that helps people up and out of homelessness and back on their feet. The success statistics for Moving Ahead are incredible – most of MAP’s graduates stay clean, stay sober, stay housed, stay employed, stay connected.

Statistics and success rate are valuable “selling tools” when St. Francis House appeals to donors. Their holistic approach to working with the poor and homeless is also a differentiator for them. Certainly, basic services like food and closthing are important elements of St. Francis House’s mission, but it's not just about a bologna sandwich and clean set of underwear. It's about getting homeless people – who will generally have some combination of substance abuse problems, severe physical and mental health issues, and criminal records – back into society, and about recognizing that even those who may not be able to climb the long hill back into a better life - not now, and maybe not even later - deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion.

The point here is that even if you’re doing marketing for a non-profit, you still need to approach it in a professional manner. Marketing is marketing, and marketing's essential, whether you're a non-profit, for-profit, or (as was often my experience in the past) a non-profit for-profit. At a non-profit, you’re in competition – with other non-profits in the same arena, so you need to differentiate yourself.

You’re in competition – with all the other non-profits in the world for charitable contributions and grants – so you need to make the case for your charity that’s as clear as, and even more compelling than, the case for other worthy causes. You’re in competition – for building awareness, so don’t forget to develop a strategy for reaching out to the media. You’re in competition – make sure it’s easy to find your organization and find how to give to it, and make sure the ways to give to it include via your web site. You're in competition - you need to figure out how to nurture and grow your donor base. You’re in competition - for volunteers, for employees, and – yes – for those who will use your services, so make sure people know about you.

You're in business: think like a marketer! You get the point. Working in marketing for a non-profit can yield incredible “feel goods.” But it also has the same challenges you'll face in any other "business." Just because it’s a good cause doesn’t mean that everyone will build a path to your doorstep, check book in hand.

Full disclosure: Although I have absolutely nothing to do with its marketing, I am a long time board member, and volunteer, at St. Francis House, a remarkable organization that has, indeed, been rebuilding the lives of Boston’s poor and homeless since 1983.

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