Nonprofit Branding: Things Nonprofits Can Learn From For-Profits (Taft’s Final Two Points)

Here are Dick Taft’s final two challenges.    I’ll bet these are the ones that caused the greatest number of nonprofit executives to grind their teeth.  Because the Old Guard does release its grip ever-so-slowly, even today some nonprofit execs and public officials feel discomfort over these two critical concepts. The first is that each nonprofit must attempt to define and hold a market niche. The second is that nonprofits must compete – but can do so without losing virtue.

At the end of this post I will add a photo of the the essay which helped create our profession of nonprofit marketing – a poster that has been in my office for years.

(Richard Taft’s first four injunctions were covered in the last two blog posts. If you missed them, you might want to start at the beginning before you read this final post in the series.)

5. FIND YOUR POSITION IN LIFE. (And communicate it!)

Let’s explore Taft’s last concept(#4) a little more. It stated: You Can’t Be All Things To All People.  OK. ….so you’ve located your market. You’ve identified the niche you want to secure. Now get to work.

Positioning is the way you stake out your identity. Graphically. And in words. In speeches, in brochures, in films and slide shows. In your logos and graphics and signage. In your case statement, in your curriculum, in the programs and services you offer. In the nature and frequency of communications you issue to your constituents. At the entrance to your town or office or building. – and at the exit, too. In the organizations with which you affiliate. In your own organization’s policies, newsletters and solicitation letters. At your conventions and meetings, on your letterhead and webpage and press releases.

Each of these things is an element of your brand equity. Taken together, they position your organization in its market. While they serve different functions, they must be synchronized so they communicate a consistent message about what you offer that your competitors do not. Working together, your branding elements can position your organization in a secure niche within a competitive marketplace.

Compared with the mission of a worthy nonprofit, soap is a mundane item. But soap people know how to position their product. Taft’s fourth point uses Ivory Soap as an example. Ivory decided to service a narrow segment of a much larger market. So it secured that niche by repeated use of positioning themes. Instead of sultry models in advertisements it used babies, children and fresh-faced “girl next door” adults – emphasizing that it is a wholesome, natural, un-perfumed product. And of course, that line -” 99 and 44/100% pure” – who can beat it?

Remember the Persuasive Descriptor from the last post in this series? Look how clearly Ivory has convinced the market about the positioning concept – just a word or two – that completes the sentence:

Ivory is the soap that _______.”

Basing its strategy on research, every product — whether soap, Chevrolet, a tax district or your nonprofit — must identify its market. Then it must reinforce its position in that market through well-targeted communications that emphasize a coordinated, integrated use of appropriate branding elements.

6. YOU MUST COMPETE. (Because even if you don’t, your competition does.)

There’s no getting around it. Nonprofit institutions must share a limited pool of essential resources. Within your product category there is a finite amount of philanthropic dollars, competent board members, effective volunteers, willing taxpayers, responsive constituents and worthy clients. You compete for resources just as you compete for relevance.

So this is another place to shed your cloak of virtue. You must be a competitive organization. If you don’t compete willingly and compete intentionally, then your organization will suffer. Why? Because other causes are already seeking a piece of the resources you need and the market niche you hold.

Oddly, many nonprofit leaders and public officials believe the virtue of their mission immunizes them from dealing with marketplace realities.They assume they and their colleagues are too pure and/or too essential to think about market analysis, self-evaluation, positioning statements and similar techniques.

While they hold to the self-delusion that they are above competing, their organizations may offer a reduced membership fee for seniors…or periodically introduce a new brochure… or offer a free, short-term subscription to their magazine…or publish a strong new mission statement… or start networking within the Chamber of Commerce…or manage an aggressive, reader-oriented social media outreach program…or bus high school seniors to their special event…or sponsor a community award…or offer a coffee mug with logo as a contributor incentive…or open their rehearsals as a behind-the-scenes introduction for potential supporters!

Get the point? Other organizations in your market compete with you for resources, for allegiance, for market-share. Those goodies are in limited supply. You need your share. There is no room for denial – you are already in the competition game. And you compete by marketing.

Look at it this way: your mission is a sacred public service that must be fulfilled. In today’s world, that means you must become a competitive marketing organization that defends its market niche and fights for resources to support its mission.

In Dick Taft’s words: A little profit thinking in the nonprofit world? You bet! It’s a business way of life.

Dick Taft wrote the essay “Seven Things Nonprofits Can Learn From Profits” in the early seventies. He also delivered the same message in a series of high profile speeches. His comments caused so much discussion he printed the famous poster, a copy of which has been above my desk for 35 years. Below is a small photo of the original.

Desiring to share Taft’s wisdom with VisABILITY clients, I realized his original text would benefit from some updating. So I tried to contact Dick for permission, but could not locate him.  Note this: the original featured Seven Things nonprofits should learn. The last one is no longer relevant because of issues like UBIT tax, cause marketing, ecommerce, social media, etc – which really weren’t factors a couple of decades ago. So, when updating I cut back to 6 things nonprofits can learn.

As a consequence, with apologies for editing his work and in recognition that all of us who built careers in nonprofit marketing owe Taft a professional debt, over the last four blog posts I have happily presented a lightly and respectfully edited 2011 version of Dick’s original challenge to the nation’s nonprofit leadership.

John Burke, August, 2011

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