Archive for the ‘Marketing’ Category

In other words

January 4, 2013

Another day, another idiotic Top 5 list, this one purporting to identify marketing trends in philanthropy. As it turns out, the list actually identifies what its author believes to be methods of fostering planned giving. Faced with this basic lack of clarity, the Nonprofiteer refrains from making snarky comments about the content. Instead, she translates it into English.

[N]onprofits in the new year [are] advised just to be themselves. “People expect exaggeration in marketing. They don’t expect a matter-of-fact voice that addresses people’s reservations about buying or donating,” says [someone getting paid for spouting content-free advice, who]. . . . calls this first trend “humanvertising” . . . . [and] suggests a pitch might go like this: “Your gift won’t be used to pay the utility bills or marketing expenses. It will be used to advance our important mission through remarkable programs such as…” “Humanvertising,” as opposed to the messages nonprofits so frequently direct at paramecia and ferns. From context the word appears to mean, Sound like every other agency; pretend not to have any operating expenses.

Story Superpowers: “Nothing can generate emotions or stimulate behavioral responses like stories,” [genius] says. And, he says, these stories need to be not only educational, but also inspirational. Mention that you serve people and they benefit.

Photo Assembling: “Photos are an evolutionary preference for consuming information in a short amount of time[.]” A picture is worth a thousand words.

Crowdsourced Inspiration: “For 2013, you should ask more of your dedicated supporters,” [he] says. “Ask them for their voice.” When you want money, ask for advice and pretend to listen.

Stigma-Free Singledom: A record 100 million Americans are not married. . . . So why are singles almost ignored in the [planned giving] world? People without families are losers but they also have nowhere else to leave their money.

Now, aren’t you better off for knowing all that?


Dear Nonprofiteer, Whose money is too filthy to take, and why?

April 6, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I’d be interested in your take on the Tucker Max/Planned Parenthood issue. That whole issue, which I’m sure you’ve touched on before, of NPOs making tough decisions about accepting donations is one that constantly comes up.

Signed, Hoping to Keep Clean Hands and Full Coffers

Dear Hoping:

So Tucker Max (a blogger the Nonprofiteer had never heard of until this letter) tries to give half a million dollars to Planned Parenthood, which has just lost funding from the Komen Foundation and is at risk of losing Federal funding, and PP turns the money down.

Under ordinary circumstances the Nonprofiteer would say, “WTF? So he’s a sexist piece of dog excrement! So he’s trying to whitewash his reputation! Why shouldn’t we help impoverish sexists by accepting their contributions? Why shouldn’t they pay restitution for their crimes and sins?”

But these aren’t ordinary circumstances, because the donor describes himself as follows:

My name is Tucker Max, and I am an asshole. I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions . . . sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead.

Years of public education about what Planned Parenthood actually does would go right down the drain if it permitted itself to be publicly tied to an advocate of reckless, consequence-free sex. The Republicans have clearly hit a responsive chord when they strive to outdo each other in demonizing PP, and that chord is that the very existence of Planned Parenthood represents an utter breakdown of sexual morals. Never mind that this isn’t true: Tucker Max actually DOES represent an utter breakdown of sexual morals, and Planned Parenthood can’t afford to be associated with him.

In general, though, the Nonprofiteer remains in favor of taking money from bad people: it’s not possible to eradicate them, and they ought to be good for something. If she still shudders (as she does) at entering the David H. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center, she consoles herself that it represents millions of dollars the self-same Koch no longer has available to give to the Tea Party.

It’s fine if donating makes an evil donor look good. Just be sure that accepting doesn’t make you look bad.

Valentine’s Day Edition: For Love of Nonprofits

February 14, 2012

The Nonprofiteer would not be so taken with the following story were she not a formerly voracious reader of Harlequin romances and, in fact, the author of a romance novel rejected by Harlequin for having too much plot.  (She even visited Harlequin headquarters in Stratford, Ontario, on her long-ago honeymoon, while pretending to be up there for the Shakespeare Festival.)  The company’s More Than Words award “recognizes and rewards women making extraordinary contributions to their community. The story continues when the winning recipients are paired up with Harlequin authors and the recipients’ journeys become the inspiration for three fictional short stories.”

Is that phenomenal, or what?  Who wouldn’t want to be a Harlequin heroine, her daily drudgery turned into purple prose?  It’s not clear whether the short stories based on the selected heroines will include imaginary jut-jawed lovers, but one can always hope.

In any case, each heroine will receive $15,000 for her organization, while the story about her (and it) will be available for free download.  The Nonprofiteer has written many a communications plan but none featuring anything so attention-grabbing as a romantic short story based on the agency’s work.

Bravo to this year’s winners—Mindy Atwood of Hilliard, Ohio, who runs Patches of Light, a nonprofit organization where anonymous angels pay the rent for parents of  desperately ill children; Helen McGovern of Tacoma, Washington, who oversees Emergency Food Network, which distributes food to 67 food banks, meal sites and shelters, including those with health restrictions; and Sally Spencer of Sunderland, Ontario, who manages Youth Assisting Youth, a mentoring program that rescues at-risk children—and to Harlequin for this apt exercise in corporate generosity.

Everything old is new again; and nonprofits should stay that way

April 21, 2011

So a couple of weeks ago the Nonprofiteer received a press release announcing “Redefining [of] the Nonprofit Model.”  Doubtless you’re all familiar with the genre: a group of business people get together and decide that the nonprofit sector hasn’t cured cancer or ended poverty because people in the nonprofit sector are stupid and lazy, and that an infusion of good old hard-headed American for-profit business practices will compensate for that.  Voila: instant Great Society!

This particular redefinition was truly revolutionary:

One hundred advisors, including many of Silicon Valley’s elite, are coming together to disrupt the nonprofit space. . . . [They] have committed to one full year of serving on the board of a nonprofit. . . . [and] attending monthly salons where they will discuss the specific pain points of their assigned nonprofits and attempt to find solutions as a team. . . . [This] is part of a larger movement . . . to make the non-profit world more efficient. . . .  “This is just the start of how [we] will disrupt the nonprofit sector and create new, innovative ways for business leaders to contribute . . . . Before [this], there was no easy path for nonprofits to find experienced leaders to help them at a board management level. A board role is not just about fundraising, but includes developing growth plans, operational efficiency, cause marketing, customer relationship management, event planning, and much more.”. . . . In order to maximize results, [the group] carefully matches advisors to nonprofits based on their skills, interests and a nonprofit’s needs.

So let’s review: a bunch of business people are going to sit on nonprofit Boards of Directors!  And then periodically those business people will get together and talk about how to be better Board members!   As Board members, they will not only fundraise but contribute their skills!  They’ll join Boards based on their interest in the nonprofit’s mission!  And they’ll seek ways to improve the whole sector!

The accumulation of these radical notions caused the Nonprofiteer to swoon;  but the one idea that really had her down for the count was that the entire purpose of the endeavor was to “disrupt the nonprofit space.”  Because really, what nonprofits trying to serve their clients need most of all is disruption of their management to supplement the disruption of funding they face constantly, disruption of their staff produced by those funding crises, and disruption of their ability to operate smoothly or secure resources when their message is being drowned out by a constant drumbeat of demands for “reinvention.”

The Nonprofiteer understands that in the tech world, “disrupt” is a positive word, suggesting the kind of change-the-world ethic that fueled Microsoft and Facebook.  But she urges everyone to notice that when those disruptive entrepreneurs Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg moved into the nonprofit sector, what they did was to find nonprofits doing good work and give them lots of money to do more of it.  If the disruptive “advisers” of the press release would just do the same thing, there would be less “news” but a healthier nonprofit sector.

As she fanned herself back to consciousness, the Nonprofiteer was struck once more.  In this case, the weapon was yet another article about hybrid corporate forms designed to enable nonprofits to earn their own revenue and stop “begging.”  Whether the discussion purports to be about L3Cs or public benefit corporations or Triple Bottom Lines, the argument is always the same: nonprofits should just get with the capitalist program, identify lucrative markets and earn their keep like every other good red-blooded American.

This approach ignores the fact that nonprofits’ markets usually consist of clients who are not profitable to serve—because if they were profitable to serve, the for-profit sector would be serving them.  The better a nonprofit is at finding and serving its market, the poorer it will be, because though for-profit clients are a profit center, nonprofit clients are a cost center.

Fine, say the hybrid-benefit-earn-your-own-revenue people: so start a profitable business and funnel its profits into the charity.  But this notion of a two-headed agency is, like most similar creatures, a monster.  If nonprofits expend their limited energy on creating market-based revenue streams, they’ll be diverted from their mission-based activities.  Either the marketing strategy succeeds, in which case the profit-generating people gain the power within the organization and mission falls to a sad second; or the marketing strategy fails, in which case it has consumed significant resources that should have gone to serving clients.

There are, of course, institutions for which running a business can be part and parcel of mission, for instance, job-training centers.  But for mental health agencies, arts organizations, group homes, rape crisis hotlines and most of the other charities which do the important work in our society, running a business is a dangerous distraction.

What if, instead of spending time telling nonprofits how they should operate differently, business people re-examined their own operating principles?  What if every business set aside 25% of its profits for investing not in the business itself but in the wider community?

In other words, instead of asking why a charity can’t be more like a business, let’s start asking why businesses don’t operate more like charities.  Businesses receive all sorts of public services and protections, from the enforcement of contracts in the law courts to well-maintained roads along which to distribute their products.  Why shouldn’t they be expected to contribute to the public good in return?

Most business people would say, “But our primary duty is to our shareholders, not to the public good” (and those over-influenced by Ayn Rand and the University of Chicago economics department would say “Our SOLE duty is to our shareholders, the public be damned”).  Right: and the primary (or SOLE) duty of charities is to their/our clients.  Anything that takes nonprofits away from that activity is perforce improper.

What’s the point of this thought experiment, in which charities chide businesses instead of the other way around?  Simply to demonstrate how much business advice to charities is sheer nonsense.  To presume that the voluntary sector doesn’t make a profit because it hasn’t thought about how to do so is to fundamentally misconceive its role in the wider economy.

Besides, what nonprofits need isn’t more advice: it’s more money. When business people are ready to provide that—when they’re ready to serve on Boards not as agents of disruption but as securers of resources; when they’re ready to advocate for a tax system which will underwrite the necessary work done by the voluntary sector—well, THAT will be the time for a press release.

Chase: What matters?

July 23, 2010

[An excerpt of this posting appears on the Huffington Post, in the Impact section.]

The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones notwithstanding, the problem with the Chase Community Giving program isn’t that it lets “civilians”–non-expert non-critics–decide which theater companies deserve a $20,000 one-time no-strings grant.  The problem is that it pretends to do that–Let the People Decide!–while actually turning theater companies into marketing satellites of Chase Bank.  Institutions poor and weak enough to be moved by a $20,000 carrot–to which the competition was explicitly restricted–recite the bank’s name relentlessly to their audiences.  That’s a lot of advertising for very little money.  Of course, all corporate giving is advertising–but this is of a special, insidious kind.

The Nonprofiteer doesn’t believe in “crowd-source philanthropy,” because it’s not philanthropy at all: it’s “crowd-manipulation marketing.”  Chase has gotten hundreds if not thousands of little charities to demand that their audiences provide contact information to the bank and subject themselves to commercial targeting for the good of the cause.

These crowd-manipulation marketing programs (pioneered by Pepsi and American Express, doubtless with many more corporate behemoths yet to come) also set up a system which rewards the nonprofits with the greatest Internet presence or savvy, which is not the same as giving the money to the neediest, or best, or most diverse, group of people doing important work in society.  Again, the issue isn’t who gets to define “best;” it’s whether the agencies competing for that designation have a fair and equal opportunity to receive it.  Upper-middle-class people may imagine that “everyone” has access to the Internet, but in fact if you reward clicks and responses to e-mail and Facebook postings, you reward organizations with wealthy white audiences and disadvantage those whose audiences are nonwhite and/or poor.  Way to magnify the digital divide.  Way to make sure that the rich get richer and the poor have babies.

This lazy and manipulative approach to corporate giving diverts nonprofit attention from real fundraising–which involves relationships over the long term–to point-and-click fundraising, which costs “donors” nothing and therefore gives them no stake in the institution.

The argument about who’s entitled to judge art is a side-show, doubtless one Chase would be happy to have theaters and critics debating from here to eternity.  Meanwhile, the bank laughs all the way to–the bank.

[Unable to resist, the Nonprofiteer dons her critic’s hat and argues that, though she believes her opinions about theater are better-informed and therefore more useful than those of the guy standing next to you on the train, she’s also open to the possibility that her prejudices and blind spots make this false in a significant number of cases.  In any case, if she didn’t believe theater was the essential human art form–because it involves words, the very thing that separates us from all other species–and therefore belonged to everyone human, she wouldn’t spend so much of her life seeing and reviewing plays.  So she refuses to concede that others’ engagement with theater–in whatever form, and without any credentials whatsoever–is unwelcome or inappropriate.]

“Crowd-source philanthropy” doesn’t mean the people get to decide; it means they get the illusion of deciding while actually being used to serve someone else’s commercial purposes.  We know that’s a bad thing when the issue is what corporations give to, and get from, politicians.  Let’s not fail to notice when the issue is what they give to, and exact from, us.

See also Barbara Talisman’s posting on the subject, which links to an entire discussion of the pros and cons.

Dear Nonprofiteer, How can I pick the audience’s pockets while pretending to be indifferent to money?

June 14, 2010

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I work for a storefront theater company (though this could apply to any arts organization), and we want to encourage people to donate while they are waiting for the show to start, or as they are walking out of the theater. However, we do not want to “ruin” the art by including a verbal appeal in the pre- or post-show announcements; though we have information on how to donate in our program and on our website, we feel that we can raise some income from our immediate audience after every show. I’m sure this goes for museums, galleries, and dance companies as well—how can we influence our audience to donate at the door without being too pushy or discounting the art?


The Tactful Fundraiser

Dear Tactful,

The Nonprofiteer had a law professor whose motto was, “Passive lawyers don’t eat!”  Well, the Nonprofiteer’s motto is, “Tactful fundraisers don’t eat!”  It’s true that most people would rather talk about their sex lives than talk about money, but the only way to raise it is to make clear that you not only deserve it, but need it.

So the Nonprofiteer disputes your entire premise that a request for funds can “ruin” an art form.  Obviously you wouldn’t insert it in mid-play (though product placement in the movies and on tv makes that less obvious than it once was); but a pre- or post-show pitch is completely appropriate.  People who want to ignore it will, but no one will be able to say that s/he didn’t know you needed money.

Now, how to actually get that money?  There’s the Southwest Airlines approach: make the expected pitch in an unexpected manner, e.g. “Please take all your personal problems with you when you deplane.”  There’s the National Lampoon guilt-trip approach: its cover showing a terrified canine at gunpoint with the caption “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll shoot this dog” was at the very least unforgettable.   A Chicago theater company does its own equivalent of this by announcing at curtain that the actors don’t get paid so unless you stuff money in the cashbox you’re just exploiting them by attending (not the precise words); it seems to work quite well.

In other words, there’s nothing dainty or secretive about a nonprofit arts organization’s need for money, so the more directly and entertainingly and memorably you state it, the better your chance of actually receiving the money.

Or you can ignore everything I’ve said, offer a door-prize of a bottle of wine to whoever wins your nightly raffle, and have people enter the raffle by dropping their business cards in a bowl.  Then send follow-up appeals (by e-mail, as it’s cheapest) to everyone whose card you got, thanking them for attending and asking them to donate.  This is good list-development strategy; whether it’s good money-development strategy remains to be seen.  It’s far too easy to ignore an appeal once you’ve had the entertainment and have gone home.

Finally, you can try a bit of reverse psychology.  Admit everyone for free and then ask them to pay what they think it was worth on the way out the door.  (Post a “suggested donation,” of course.)  You’ll get some free riders, but you’ll also get some people who are so impressed with what they’ve just seen that they give you something more than the suggested donation.  Those are people you can expect to see again–whereupon you offer them a door-prize if they win the business-card raffle, and you have their names so you can dun them long into the future.

About nonprofits only insofar as they’re disproportionately run by women 50 and over

June 1, 2010

In Our Prime, the essay anthology by and about women 50 and over to which the Nonprofiteer contributed, now has its own Website and therefore has achieved Internet validity.  Copies of the book would have made a great gift for Mother’s Day but unfortunately the timing didn’t work out–so maybe you know a nice father who would want one?

The Nonprofiteer still has copies for sale, and the book is also available at Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago and on Amazon.

Making your nonprofit a star–or a pigeon

May 1, 2009

It’s not just Susan Boyle and “Britain’s Got Talent”–the nonprofit world, too, is full of ugly ducklings eager to turn into YouTube swans.  So it’s not surprising that two different groups have just announced plans to assist nonprofits in telling their/our stories on video. The first of these is genuine; the second is a concealed ad for fundraising software.

  • Animoto for a Cause ( is a new program “that will give non-profit organizations and humanitarians the ability to create dynamic, professional-quality online videos from their own photos and music – for free. . . .Animoto for a Cause will donate pro accounts to groups and individuals who are working to improve their community and the world at large, kicking off with more than 20 launch partners, like Help the Children and Susan G. Komen Foundation. . . . Animoto is encouraging all types of community activists to apply for an Animoto for a Cause account – everyone from college fundraisers to large non-profits will be considered . . . . Now organizations can use the service to promote their cause online in a multitude of ways, from posting and sharing videos on websites, YouTube and social networks, to downloading them to DVD for distribution at events.”
  • Meanwhile, an outfit called has created a “customizable video for nonprofits to make their wishes come true. The video then links to free nonprofit resources to help them get through these tough times.”  Well, if by “free nonprofit resources” one means “a commercial Website that doesn’t charge you for visiting,” that’s absolutely true.

A retrospective on information technology from someone who should know

April 14, 2009
Here’s some talk about the use of technology in nonprofits straight from the horse’s mouth: an interview with Gavin Clabaugh, long-time IT guru at the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation.  In this valedictory interview on leaving Mott, he reflects on where nonprofits have been and where we’re going in terms of using technology (and preventing it from using us).  Particularly thought-provoking: his observation that many nonprofits’ understanding of technology is fundamentally flawed, because it’s based on consumer uses of technology, many of which “do not scale” to enterprises, for-profit or non-.

How refreshing to hear an IT geek point out the importance of not getting  carried away by the latest toy!

h/t Deborah Strauss, ex-ED  of Chicago’s IT Resource Center, now Lumity.

Where’s the beef?: Big projects swallow up all the money

April 6, 2009

Hey, Nonprofiteer, here’s my beef:

I read (Crain’s Chicago Business, March 16, registration required) that the Chicago Olympics 2016 committee has a corporate sponsorship goal of $1.8 billion.  Isn’t that going to cut into corporate responses to nonprofit funding requests?  Is that going to make things worse for nonprofits than they already are?  I remember hearing a nonprofit Executive Director grousing about how much money was diverted from regular charitable donations to go to [naming opportunities in the city’s new downtown] Millennium Park, and the Tribune recently mentioned the same possibility in connection with the Olympics.

Should I worry about who will pay if the Olympics go over budget?

(This guy sounds a little worried:

Signed, Bean Counter

Hey, Bean–

You’re asking two separate questions.  Second one first: you shouldn’t worry about who will pay for inevitable Olympic cost overruns, because it’s all settled: you’ll pay, if you’re a Chicago taxpayer.

I think the Olympics are a bad idea on about six different dimensions, but the first one you raise is discussed least often: the tendency of big projects like the Olympics (or, before it, Millennium Park) to sop up huge volumes of corporate and foundation funding, leaving less for ordinary operating nonprofits.  But of course it’s impossible to determine what those funders would have spent on education or health care or social services had a sexier alternative not been available.

Fundraisers for high-profile projects always advance the argument that, as George W. Bush would have it, we “make the pie higher”–that donations to the Olympics constitute additional private money being put at the service of public purposes.  The notion is that glamor projects magically produce the fresh generosity necessary to sustain them.

But if Great Depression II teaches us anything, it’s that private firms actually don’t have limitless sums of money, and that if they put it in one pot (say, credit-default swaps) it’s not available for inclusion in another (say, mortgages).  By the same token, if they put the money into naming the Ronald McDonald Memorial Olympic Village it’s going to be mysteriously missing when the local food pantry comes to call.  And it stands to reason that given the option corporations (and even foundations) will choose to invest in shiny things on which they can engrave their names.

At least in Chicago, the ordinary lack of transparency in philanthropies (“It’s our money; why should we tell you what we’re doing with it?”) is complemented by an equal lack of transparency in government (“It’s your money; why should we tell you what we’re doing with it?”).  So we can only speculate that money spent on circuses will not then be forthcoming for bread.


Readers: What’s your beef?  What drives you craziest about trying to manage your agency or serve on its Board?  Is it the bully who won’t let anyone else speak?  The budgeting that features revenue everyone knows you won’t get?  E-mail your problems to the Nonprofiteer, subject line “Where’s the beef?” and she’ll solve them for all the world to see.