November 23, 2012

Why do nonprofit boards struggle with marketing?

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In almost every conversation we have with nonprofit executives and leaders, the statement is made: “the marketing committee recently met and decided to…” Yet it’s the CFO, marketing director, engagement coordinator, or executive director sitting across the table. Where are the board members in this conversation?

boards-struggle-fortune-150This is the point at which nonprofit marketing begins to fall short, and at times fail. The board members bring perspectives from their for-profit experience into the boardroom, and presume they should use that experience in the communication planning for the organization. Activity is initiated without benefit of research and diagnosis of the current state of communications, or the development of a logical and appropriate communication plan.

Because a marketing committee often exists, it’s assumed that the organization needs to do some sort of marketing, in order to fundraise or raise awareness. It seems that the first inclination is to launch into activity, without the guidance of a strategic plan, a communication plan — any plan. Meetings about marketing become lengthy, and the conversation drifts from topic to topic, without focus, because opinions — not qualitative or quantitative data — are guiding the discussion.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Nonprofit marketing is not a substitute for nonprofit communications

The board’s role is to provide governance and oversight. When it comes to marketing, the board needs to set clear strategy for direction, and empower the nonprofit leadership to create and implement a communication strategy. A strategic plan will identify outcomes, containing tactics and objectives that a communication plan will support. The book Leap of Reason speaks of managing to outcomes; the board and the executive leadership should communicate to outcomes that support the mission.

Realistically, how many members of any nonprofit board are communication professionals? A well-formed board may have one, perhaps two, individuals with marketing experience. Yet, is there awareness that nonprofits need consistent and coherent communications, more than they need marketing?

Communications is about engagement – telling stories (about the organization’s impact) that support a narrative (about the cause), and participating with stakeholders in conversations about those stories. The stories should be about how the organization works to fulfill its mission in support of that cause. This approach is key to the understanding that all communication is essentially donor engagement and donor communication. The organization may need to engage in tactical marketing initiatives for specific events, but the stories that nurture donor and stakeholder relationships are told through the narrative — and the One Voice – of the organization.

As a board member, what is my role in nonprofit communication?

Before you begin to get involved in an organization’s communication initiatives, ask yourself these five questions:

  1. In light of my personal experience or role at my full-time job, am I qualified to engage in the organization’s communication and marketing?
  2. Is my contribution based on opinion, or am I able to bring objective insight and expertise to this area of leadership?
  3. If I do get involved, am I willing to provide governance and oversight through strategic planning, and then allow the executive leadership to set the communication strategy and tactics that will help accomplish the objectives?
  4. Am I willing to proceed with the understanding that the framework for this initiative will be from a communications perspective? Because of that, I will omit the concept of marketing from the conversation until appropriate.
  5. Am I willing to set aside the concept of branding, acknowledging that branding is an outcome of the strategic communications approach, and not the reason for it?

Starting from the middle

Here are some other statements I’ve heard, pronounced by the board and passed along by the executive leadership:

  • “The board already met with a marketing firm.”
  • “The board thinks we need to re-brand.”
  • “The board says that we need a new web site.”
  • “According to the board, we need a communication plan.”

To which I answer: “Why?” Not that the statements are wrong, or that these are not valid objectives – they are just not the place to start.

Too often, these statements are answers to the wrong questions. When it comes to communication, often the board’s tendency is to jump to a solution (it’s human nature) before adequately understanding the problem. Of course, this isn’t the situation with every nonprofit, but it does occur more often than expected. The good news is that it’s simple to fix.

Most of the time, the root problem is focus. Without understanding the way things are, there is no way to discuss the way things could be.

Boards and executive leadership lose focus for a variety of reasons: organic growth, changes in or lack of leadership, and mission creep are just a few. While wrapped up in the day-to-day, it’s critical to also have outside, objective perspective about the way things are.

The board should not at any time engage in discussions with a communications firm (not a marketing firm) without the executive director, marketing director, or outreach staff – simply because the board doesn’t always understand the mission and the message as clearly as it should. Collaboration between the board and the executive leadership in the choice of a firm that specializes in nonprofit communications is essential to the success of a communication initiative.

From the executive director’s position, having the board evaluate – and possibly even recommend – a communications firm without including the executive leadership in the process could be disastrous. Likewise, it’s critical that the board, in their role of governance and oversight, provides the executive leadership with the funding and resources necessary to work with the firm that has been chosen.

Relationships are important, but expertise is critical

The board’s valuable network of relationships is a key aspect of their tenure. However, this network should not be the criteria by which a communications firm is evaluated or chosen. There are two criteria that are more important than relationships: fit and expertise.

Fit speaks to how well a firm is suited to the nonprofit and, likewise, how well the nonprofit is suited to the firm. Fit should not only be about personality, but also about process – and the expertise that accompanies that process. Is there a fit between the nonprofit’s perceived need and the firm’s expertise?

Only a series of conversations with a firm can answer this question. Sending out multiple RFPs is not a suitable method of evaluating firms for proper fit and expertise. Why let a piece of paper tell you about a firm, when you can just talk instead? It’s understandable why boards decide to follow this path (it’s a learned behavior from their for-profit world), but it’s not a best practice.

Another common argument used to support the RFP process claims that it assures the best price. When buying paper or pencils or computers, an RFP for these commodity items makes sense, but using the same process when searching for expertise, will result in the choice of a firm that is less than the best.

An expert communications firm will research and analyze, diagnose the problem (most likely not the one self-diagnosed by the board), and make recommendations to solve it. This is the point at which solutions are discussed – and not earlier.

Ending the struggle

Ask yourself the five questions posed above, and be honest with yourself and your fellow board members. Should a firm be chosen that markets consumer goods, or business-to-business products or services, to plan your nonprofit’s communication initiative?

Or is there another path that you could follow: starting to diagnose and define the problems, prior to prescribing solutions to solve them?

If your discussions about communications initiatives begin with solutions and not a strategic approach, then perhaps the next step is to go back to the beginning of this article and read it again. Or you can keep struggling. We would like to see you do it right the first time!

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