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Informing strategic planning through market research

Phil Rush is Director of Donor Relations for Mennonite Central Committee U.S. AAI invited him to describe how market research is informing an extensive strategic planning exercise for his organization.

Originally founded in 1920 as a short-term effort to provide relief aid to starving Mennonites and others in Russia, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2020. The organization currently supports efforts in relief, development and peace in about 60 countries around the world. An effort of stakeholders in the United States and Canada, MCC is largely known for its well-regarded international work, although it operates various domestic programs across those two countries as well.

So what role does marketing play in an organization like MCC, if marketing is understood as helping to define–including through input from key stakeholders–and then advance an organization’s position, and thereby move it closer to success in its ministry?

One clue may be the interesting and enlightening responses people have when the word “marketing” is used in the context of a service oriented, church-supported, almost century–old organization.

Some folks question if marketing has any application or is appropriate for a nonprofit organization. A common response of others is, “yes, I think we should do more marketing.” But if you push out what they mean by marketing, a large percentage of responses seem to equate marketing almost exclusively with advertising or sales.

The lack of understanding about marketing and market-based research in nonprofit organizations is not surprising. With so many pressing concerns for meeting human need, marketing activities may at first glance seem more applicable to the for profit world. However, MCC’s recent experience suggests that a marketing perspective is valuable–even for a church-related organization.

MCC is fortunate to have various income streams, although almost 100 percent of MCC’s income is dependent on contributions and/or volunteer efforts. Unlike some nonprofit organizations, we do not have any significant income from “fee for service” activities, so in the crowded nonprofit marketplace we must listen carefully to those who support us with their dollars, time, and other means.

While colleges and many other nonprofit organizations have had formalized development offices and functions for decades, this is a comparatively new priority for MCC. Grassroots support for MCC has always been and continues to be exceptionally strong; however, anticipated changes in the donor support base and in other external environments call us to new ways of listening to and relating with our stakeholders. The generation of loyalists are slowly passing from the scene, while the boomer generation is coming on strong. This generation tends to be less loyal to any one organization, and is more likely to comparison “shop” for organizations based at least in part on evidence of impact.

As noted, there are many ways “doors” through which donors can connect with MCC. As any organization does, MCC has attempted to listen to its constituents in a variety of ways over its history. These efforts were typically ad-hoc and anecdotal, rather than formal attempts to gain a broad, verifiable sampling. Perhaps ironically, the strength of its grassroots support at times isolated some parts of the organization from paying as close attention to stakeholder voices and opinions as commonly occurs in smaller, less geographically diverse organizations.

The first attempts to more systematically collect feedback and data from donors and other supporters began only about six years ago. Recent restructuring efforts did include the participation of various stakeholders, but focused more on articulating vision and restructuring, rather than market research. So, in broad terms, a recent survey done by Advancement Associates (AAI) is perhaps only the second known systematic attempt to gather survey data–and almost certainly the first that will significantly inform strategic directions for Mennonite Central Committee.

Entering into market research to inform strategic directions was (and still very much is) new territory for MCC. Some initial reactions ranged from “why are we spending money on this?” (perhaps with the attending assumption that we already have the answers) to “why are we only now engaging in this?” Ultimately, the support of leadership staff was crucial to the decision to go ahead with the study.

The three-month timetable for the study was extremely aggressive because the strategic planning calendar was already in place and the research had to fit within that window. Ideally, the research would have been factored into the planning process from the beginning. Due to the timing issues it was not immediately clear how the survey would specifically impact future directions and next steps. But in the end, the study became extremely important to the process of setting the strategic directions. By giving an objective sense of constituent interests and priorities, these could then be factored into deliberations when setting strategic directions.

As one who believes that successful development efforts are closely tied to alignment with strategic goals and direction, I am certain that the impact of the AAI study will be useful to advancing MCC’s mission and vision, beyond fundraising activities. For example, the simple process of naming and promoting a definition of marketing (as put forth by Mike Wiese of AAI) has already generated various new ideas and opportunities to better communicate our mission.

While none of the study findings were particularly surprising to most of our donor relations and communications staff, it has been very useful to move beyond an informal approach to determine key issues and priorities for our donors. Along with setting strategic directions for the MCC as a whole, the data will continue to be instructive to inform specific constituent engagement efforts, in internal discussions, and of course in providing a factual point of reference, rather than just anecdotal stories.

While each organization’s situation is unique, MCC’s experience suggests that every nonprofit would do well to engage in at least occasional–if not on-going–formal market research efforts. The nonprofit marketplace is more crowded than ever and the donor landscape is changing – in some cases very significantly. How the organization positions itself with regard to these changes is crucial as we seek to be faithful to MCC’s calling as a ministry of the church.