President Franklin Roosevelt established the March of Dimes in 1938 to save America's youth from polio. Within 17 years, the Salk vaccine had been developed, and it virtually cured the disease. With incidences of polio now rare, the March of Dimes has had to reinvent itself as an organization that improves the health of infants in other ways. Top management relied on marketing to help identify and focus that new direction and communication. I recently talked to Doug Staples, the top marketing executive, to learn about how he makes marketing matter in the nonprofit organization.
Young: You say you “evangelize” for marketing inside your organization. What does that mean?
Staples: It means helping people understand what marketing is and how it can be helpful to them. There's a certain amount of entrenchment where people are happy doing things the way they've been doing it, but that's where the need for evangelizing comes in.
Young: How do you do it?
Staples: One, it's important to have some leadership from the top saying that this is an important function. Two, I try to bring in the other functions to become more marketing oriented in order to have an endorsement at a high level. And then creating some simple tools can be effective. We've developed an eight-step guide to make a marketing plan, to help take leaders through the thought process. We've got a lot of different people in the organization working on a lot of different things, and, with just two of us, we can't do a marketing plan for everything and everybody who might decide that they want one. So we've tried to give people tools to think like marketers on their own.
Young: How were you able to sell marketing up on top of the organization? What did you do?
Staples: Our president had the sense that there was something that wasn't quite right about our positioning or the way we were trying to sell ourselves. So when we went to her in the mid-90s and said we want to do a market positioning study, she was very receptive to that. She helped us champion the idea that we really need to look at this and invest in it, and then it took on a life of its own after that.
Young: How did it take on a life of its own?