So, your company has decided that your product or service would be useful to nonprofits. Now, as a marketer, you need to crack the code on this quirky new audience.
Hopefully, you’ve decided to do this for the right reason (because your company is committed to giving back). But, with over 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. alone, there’s also a case to be made for doing it for less altruistic reasons (just to make money).
Nonprofit folks are not so different from the rest of us. They breathe in oxygen, breathe out carbon dioxide, watch Netflix and need products that help them get stuff done. Products like yours. Let’s talk about some things you should know as you expand from B2B (business to business) to, let’s call it, B2NPO (business to a nonprofit organization).
I used to work on the B2B side, but a few years ago I took a new role marketing to the nonprofit and education verticals. Much of the advice below comes from mistakes I’ve seen marketers make, and most of the time that marketer was me.
Nonprofitize your value proposition.
A great value proposition helps your product sparkle and shine. “Shave your cat with confidence” and “The bathmat, unleashed!” are two weird examples I just made up. But the value proposition you’re using with corporate customers might not work for nonprofits.
One potential issue is if you’re positioning the product as helping your customers increase their profits. That’s probably not going to work for nonprofits. You need to massage your message to align with their goals and needs. A company’s bottom line is usually profit. A nonprofit’s bottom line is usually impacted. It’s measured in outputs or outcomes: a number of trees planted, rallies organized, kids educated, etc.
First, go download some different nonprofits’ annual reports and see how they report their impact. Then, think about it: If your product helps your corporate clients do X, what would that mean for nonprofits? Will it help them increase those outputs/outcomes? How? By saving staff time? Cutting costs? Driving efficiency? Nonprofit professionals notoriously wear a lot of hats. If you can help make those hats less burdensome, that’s your value prop.
This is the biggest mistake I see B2B marketers make when they’re crossing over to B2NPO. “Let’s just take our existing marketing campaign and slap some hearts on it!” [Product Name] becomes [Product Name] **for Nonprofits** and the dots on the I’s get replaced with little hearts.
Nonprofits enjoy hearts as much as the rest of us; in fact, some of them enjoy hearts so much that they’re helping find cures for cardiac disease. Their work is critical and often gravely serious. They’re fighting on the front lines of social change around the world. They have complex strategies and business models.
Your marketing should honour their passion and their critically important work. If you don’t, you’ll quickly be branded as a corporate interloper who just doesn’t get it.
Find and frequent their watering holes.
As with any new audience, you should track down the places they convene physically and digitally and meet them there. Find a good list of nonprofit conferences here.
When you show up at those watering holes, try to avoid landing your company jet in the parking lot. Corporate flexing is not going to fly. Be humble, listen and learn.
As you try to find the right hands to shake, one thing that may be new to you is the role of funders. These are usually grant-making foundations that play a unique role in the sector as providers of resources for other nonprofits. Because of that, they act as conveners in the space. Build relationships with them, and you’ll find yourself closer to the centre of gravity.
Learn to speak nonprofit.
Capacity building. Theory of change. Logic model. Overhead. Collective impact. NGO, NPO, WASH, DRRM and many more acronyms. Find a primer like this one and read up.
And once you start using those new terms, there are also some you’ll want to stop using. Get ready to do a find-and-replace for words you’re probably using everywhere. Take the word “customer.” Most nonprofits don’t think of themselves as having customers per se. If you want to speak their language, talk about donors, funders, volunteers, advocates, beneficiaries, stakeholders and constituents. These are your customers’ customers in this sector.
Hopefully, your company name and product names translate for nonprofits. Mine, unfortunately, does not. We have the word “sales” in our company name and several product names. Most nonprofits don’t have sales teams. But almost all have fundraising teams. And those fundraisers need great donor relationship management tools, which our product provides. So we have to constantly work with messaging to overcome our company and product names for this audience.
Do less marketing and more authentic storytelling.
One of the things I love about nonprofit folks is that they can smell BS and aren’t afraid to call you out. You can’t just put lipstick on a pig and hope that it flies.
You need to tell authentic stories. We all try to follow everyone’s favourite Sinek-ism: “Start with why.” Nowhere is this more important than in the nonprofit market. Why does your company exist? Why does your product exist? Why should they care? The process of answering these questions may cause a minor existential crisis for your company, but it’s a good kind of pain.
Don’t be afraid to talk about your company’s values. Encourage salespeople to start pitches with a personal story about volunteering. Make sure your mission statement is front and centre on your website.
Use your marketing to prove that you’re worth their precious time and money. Nonprofit leaders want to build partnerships with companies that are focused on the big picture, not just the bottom line.