Marketing change: the non-profit imperative

'Social marketing is the essential survival skill for non-profit organizations in the '90s. Years from now, the winners will be the ones who are doing it; the losers will be those who missed out.'So said an executive who works with a...

‘Social marketing is the essential survival skill for non-profit organizations in the ’90s. Years from now, the winners will be the ones who are doing it; the losers will be those who missed out.’

So said an executive who works with a major u.s. non-profit company.

Times have changed for non-profit organizations. Charities are facing the sobering fact that a good cause is no longer enough. The marketplace is competitive and money and good volunteers are scarce.

Membership-based non-profits are finding it increasingly hard to attract and retain members. Old appeals are not working anymore. The new generation wants more for its money.

And service-based non-profits are finding that good works cannot guarantee survival. As government funding dries up, they are being forced to justify their relevance and existence to a host of audiences.

Today, non-profits are looking for new ways to fulfill their mandate, generate dollars, recruit volunteers, satisfy members, sell their services and enhance their profile.

The more sophisticated of them are turning to social marketing.

Who needs it?

Though the term was coined more than 20 years ago by Philip Kotler, social marketing has only recently come of age.

Where marketing was once perceived by many non-profits as a manipulative, morally suspect device for getting people to consume what they did not need, organizations now recognize that by applying the principles and techniques of commercial marketing to the promotion of issues and ideas, they can be more effective in achieving their goals.

Why the turnaround? Simply, many non-profits now believe they are in the social change business. They want us to quit smoking, become fit, practise safe sex, or compost our garbage.

Because we cannot legislate, buy, or research problems out of existence, social change is necessarily based on the voluntary compliance of each and every one of us.

Social marketing is a methodology for bringing about that change. It provides a powerful set of tools and techniques to influence the perceptions, attitudes and behavior of key target groups.

Where does social marketing belong in your organizational agenda?

Some non-profits see social marketing as peripheral to the core business of the organization – it is not.

While social marking uses advertising and public relations tools, it is, in fact, a way of thinking, a way of programming and a way of managing.

Social marketing can help increase public understanding, motivate action, demonstrate accountability to donors, enhance volunteerism, heighten profile, and so forth – but only if used as a strategic resource.

Take PARTICIPaction.

In the early 1970s, Canadians viewed exercise, when they thought of it at all, as drudgery, or as an activity for athletes. Only one in six Canadians were physically active.

PARTICIPaction looked to change Canadians’ attitudes and behaviors in relation to personal fitness and to create a social climate that would make fitness a desirable and mainstream pursuit.

Today, almost 60% of Canadian adults are physically active.

PARTICIPaction’s success is largely due to its unwavering commitment to long-term, multi-faceted and integrated programming and to rigorous strategic thinking.

PARTICIPaction understood that social marketing is not a quick fix. It was recognized that one advertising campaign – no matter how good – could not do it alone. Behavior is complex.

Bringing about real and sustained change means you are in for the long haul.

Can you afford it?

The bad news is that social marketing done properly costs money. The good news is that it does not necessarily require new money. Funds can be reallocated.

Your organization probably spends quite a bit on literature, fundraising, member and volunteer relations. Are you getting the biggest bang for your buck?

Often, the issue is not the amount of available money, but the way in which programs are integrated and orchestrated to maximize impact and leverage.

Many non-profits are also augmenting existing funds with corporate sponsorships dollars. If the package is right, companies are more than willing to align themselves with issues and organizations that can help them achieve their own corporate goals.

The real question is, ‘Can you afford not to?’

The marketplace is crowded with non-profits vying for a bigger share of the public’s mind and pocketbook.

Dollars flow to organizations that are seen to be addressing the social issues highest on the public agenda. The more visible your organization and issue, the greater the likelihood of generating support and commitment.

What should you look for in a social marketing agency?

In an article in the July 12 issue about social marketing for the corporate sector, we suggested that consumers look to four criteria to find the right communications agency: experience, track record, sound strategic thinking and fit.

Non-profits might want to consider one more. Does your agency understand your sector?

Non-profits are not corporations. They have different goals, structures, decision-making processes and priorities. That requires a different orientation, a different way of communicating, and a different way of doing business.

Social marketing is not the answer to every problem, but if you are in the business of influencing change, it will provide the tools and technology you need to create programs that work.

Mark Sarner is a founding partner of Manifest Communications, Canada’s leading social marketing agency.