The issues that nonprofits deal with are hard. The questions they ask, the answers they get or pursue and the observations they make are sometimes too difficult to make sense of. Consider climate change. Industries must continue to make the products that we need to live more comfortable lives. Products and services that indeed do keep us fed, hydrated, educated, healthy and wholesome. But at the same time, they must not overexploit natural resources that don’t regenerate, they must not pollute the environment both at mining-level, factory-level and at end-user level. Activists say that it is possible for these industries to strike a balance, but in all fairness, we are only just now discovering alternative cleaner energies, processes and outputs. If companies (or anyone else) knew how to go green right from the start of the industrial revolution, then perhaps there would no need for this paragraph. It is difficult, it may be expensive, it will take time and it definitely requires attitude changes.
For-profit companies make profits because they produce products and services that we use to improve the way we experience life. Without them, the world would be poor and full of suffering. But as they do the good that they do, they cause inverse effects, which is why nonprofits exist. In our view, nonprofits do not exist to clean up the mess of for-profits, rather, they exist to complement the pursuit of making the world better for all people. Nonprofits come in to lift those who for one reason or another are struggling to fly, or to keep up with the pace of the rest. They come in to make sure that everyone experiences the world in the best way that they possibly can — to make sure that the world works for everyone. Nonprofits incorporate compassion and love into the whole mess of development.
Because nonprofits tend to deal with soft, interconnected, multilayered issues that no one knows exactly how to solve, they need massive support from wherever it is they can get it from. They need money, they need talent, they need technology and other resources to enable them to work effectively towards making the problems they are tackling go away. They need support from the government, from for-profit companies, from education institutions and from other nonprofit organisations. We cannot think up in our minds scenarios where nonprofits are succeeding alone without interacting with these other entities.
One of the areas where we strongly hold that nonprofits need support is marketing. We have established that the private, public and social sectors all work towards a common goal of ensuring that everyone — without regard to how they look, their faith, ideology etc — has some basic comforts to enable them to pursue their potential. As such, because all the three sectors deal with people, they have to spend a lot of time and resources understanding them and connecting with them. They have to keep saying what it is they are doing and why and for who, so that they get the buy-in they need to make the impact they desire.
In the public sector, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) for example needs to constantly tell stories that inspire taxpayers to feel the duty to pay their taxes — without coercion. A government parastatal like the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) needs to connect with all the different categories of road users so that they can present road safety measures and get people to adopt them. That is why you see them advertising on tv, radio, newspapers all the time. We need not dwell on the private sector, masters of marketing! The soap brand you pick in the supermarket today was sold to you years ago when you were still a child, by your mother, your aunties, other kids, tv adverts and so on. The private sector spends BIG on marketing and recently, the public sector is following suit.
Cross over to the nonprofit sector and you quickly realise a difference. Here, the budget for marketing is almost nonexistent. Marketing is not as profoundly held as in other sectors and is not seen as a huge component of the nonprofit’s growth — in relation to other priorities like programs. What tends to happen is that the marketing budget is what remains after the programs and finance teams have allocated all they possibly could on other things. In other instances, it occurs as an afterthought that is squeezed into program budgets — usually to do an end-of-project documentary or launch a report and print some fliers and brochures. And oftentimes, marketing is confused with fundraising.
According to Dan Pallotta — an activist and fundraiser — too many nonprofits are rewarded for how little they spend — not for what they get done. Money spent in marketing is seen as wastage, not as investment to make more money. The problem with this thinking is that it effectively ensures that the attitude a nonprofit has is one of risk-aversion instead of risk-taking. Marketing is about taking risks, and it is not cheap. Telling and retelling your story until you find the one that connects with your crowd requires that you channel huge resources towards research, talent like copywriters, graphic designers, content marketers, community managers (formerly social media managers), animators, creating a conducive physical and psychological environment for creatives to be creative, exploring the use of advertising Agencies etc. But as it is, for many nonprofits, if you mention such ideas to programs and finance people, you are likely to get a response not far from:“You know we could use that money to increase the portfolio of our work.” And the Executive Director, who, faultlessly, has no background in communications, would think that is a brilliant idea and those individuals would be very well regarded in that organisation for their frugality.
Our advice to donors and nonprofits is this: people buy and are willing to buy some really pointless stuff. But they do this because of the way these things are marketed to them — the stories that are crafted to make sure that they connect entirely. Imagine how much more they would be willing to give if better stories are told more oftenly and creatively about the causes we pursue?
Seth Godin said that “when someone gives money to a charity, they are hiring the charity to solve a problem for them.” To add to that, they only get interested when you tell great stories that connect with them and align with their values. Marketing is what gives you this power to craft compelling stories.
Unlike most programs, marketing does not have a direct, short term, measurable result — especially social marketing. It requires a lot of time to change people’s behaviours. The effort is daunting and the budgets are insane. It is not as easy as running a one-off campaign encouraging people of village X to use pit latrines instead of the bush and expecting to report a sudden increase in toilet use. Marketing is a bit more abstract and long term. It is building a relationship based on trust between your organisation and your supporters.
Thellesi Trust was established to take on this responsibility of demonstrating that marketing works. It works for the private sector, it is working for the public sector and can work for the social sector. Marketing can be used to achieve behaviour change, it can attract funding and it can attract resources and idea capital. Let’s give marketing a chance. After all, the nonprofit world is the only one that has the freedom to fail as many times as need be until eventually, we get it right.