For decades, the prevailing wisdom was that nonprofits should learn from for-profit enterprises how to "get their act together" and become "more businesslike." And nonprofits did learn.
Many have embraced best practices in branding, marketing, service delivery, money management, and leadership. They have also learned how to keep different business models running simultaneously: Generating earned income from sales requires different messages, communications, operations, and skills than does garnering philanthropic contributions, whereas generating funds through sponsorships, foundations, or partnerships each presents different challenges and opportunities.
To be successful in all these endeavors has required nonprofits to develop approaches and skills—particularly in communication and branding—that for-profits can learn from.
Connect on a deeper level
A nonprofit's mission and vision give people a reason to participate—and to believe—that's deeper and longer lasting than any specific offering. The value proposition goes beyond fulfilling a tangible or tactical need ("I need A to do B") to fulfill an emotional need. And that connection, when nurtured and sustained, engenders loyalty, creates advocates and ambassadors, and builds relationships that transcend transactions. Customers, participants, board members, and donors feel they are part of a shared enterprise.
For a business, forging this sort of deeper connection can provide market differentiation, create a corps of enthusiastic advocates, and help distance offerings from (dreaded) commodities. (Price is less of an issue if you really believe in a company and what it's selling.)
There are different ways to build this connection: Customers can identify with your mission, they might want to be aligned with what your brand means, or they might seek to be included in your culture—or a combination of the above. Apple, Starbucks, Volvo, and Ikea have benefited by creating such alignments. Forty years ago, Tom's of Maine introduced toothpaste that had meaning far beyond its utility, and user believers became a huge unpaid sales force.
Focus on relationships, not transactions
Roger Sametz is president and CEO of Sametz Blackstone Associates, a Boston-based brand consultancy that integrates brand, editorial, and digital strategy with design and digital media. Sametz Blackstone collaborates with a wide range of academic, cultural, community-focused, and corporate clients.
LinkedIn: Roger Sametz