Marketing and nonprofits: like peas and carrots

Dr. Michael Wiese is an AAI Associate and Professor of Marketing in the Falls School of Business, Anderson (IN) University. Below he shares his belief that a marketing orientation is key for mission fulfillment of church-related, nonprofit organizations.

Question: With church-related, nonprofit organizations in mind, how would you define marketing?

Response: Marketing is everything that every person in our organization does to find, attract and retain key stakeholders who want to support our mission.

Question: What are your impressions of how church-related, nonprofits have understood and practiced marketing? Why have they been cautious, even suspicious?

Response: Marketing is often defined, even in popular media, as a “way to get people to buy something.” That definition perpetuates the mistaken notion that marketing is focused on transactions and is just about sales and advertising. If that’s the case, nonprofit organizations–especially those that are faith-based–have been understandably uncomfortable with marketing.

With the proper definition, however, we can view marketing as everything we do to serve our constituents well, so their loyalty and support are earned. If we have a meaningful mission and are achieving it effectively, we will likely draw financial support. But the primary focus is not on selling and financial gain; rather, it is on serving and serving well, as directed by our mission.

Often because they have not understood the term, many nonprofits have avoided any applications of marketing, to their own detriment. This often means that the organization does not listen to constituent feedback, respond to changing external realities, or tell its story effectively. Other nonprofits have embraced inappropriate tactics, often in crisis, with the hope that “marketing” will save them. In this case, they become too sales oriented and try to implement “business thinking” at the expense of mission. Neither approach is healthy or beneficial to mission fulfillment and success in the long run.

Question: Talk about the importance of communication as a vital component of effective marketing.

Response: We must tell our story and clearly communicate who we are and what we do to our constituents. We must also listen to changing and emerging needs, adapting as we can to better serve our stakeholders. If we do this well, we are more likely to have our services align with mission and the passions of our supporters.

Question: In your mind, how can an effective application of marketing principles strengthen, rather than compromise, the mission of a nonprofit? Can you give some examples of how a marketing approach made a positive difference for such organizations?

Response: I think of many examples from my work with AAI clients. Currently, we are helping a church camp organize its work around a formal strategic plan that will guide next steps toward achieving the camp’s vision for the near future. More specifically, the plan will inform advancement, marketing communications, staffing, program, and facility decisions, and is likely to help that organization move toward a more secure and effective future.

A recent donor study we completed for a relief and development organization is another example. In this case, market research will inform the strategic plan for the next five years. This organization understands it must be more market oriented as demographic, denominational, societal and economic changes reshape the nature and expectations of its constituency–including donors. The result is likely to be continued mission achievement into the future.

Question: What are first steps for an organization that wishes to move toward a marketing orientation?

Response: Marketing is a philosophy first and then a way of operating. Here’s what I mean: First, determine your organization’s current definition of “marketing” and how it is being practiced. If you find a self-centered view of marketing that involves getting people to do what you want them to do, then major philosophical changes are in order.

Next, if leadership is committed to a marketing orientation, it is important to listen to your constituents and let them help inform strategy. That usually means taking a research step.

Finally, it is critical that staff applies marketing concepts correctly and has the wherewithal to implement the strategic plan. And you must understand that a marketing orientation represents a long-term commitment, rather than a short-term fix.