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This training was originally designed by We-Care.com to help its staff collaborate better with the nonprofits it serves. It may be reused by anyone in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. This training was designed specifically for We-Care.com and should be adapted as needed.
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This training is to help you market We-Care.com to nonprofits. It’s about understanding nonprofits, their needs, and how to talk with them. Understanding the nonprofits you work with is the difference between building successful relationships and alienating potential partners.
Though contacts will be through multiple channels — including mail, email, phone, and in-person conversations — this training focuses on the overlying principals involved in communicating with nonprofits, not the demands of specific channels. We will address certain aspects of We-Care.com, but the training presumes that you already have a thorough knowledge of both We-Care.com’s products and the Marketing Toolkit we send to our nonprofit partners.
If there’s an underlying message throughout this training, it’s this: Nonprofits don’t need saviors from the for-profit world, but they are looking for partners who care about their work and offer them valuable tools and services.
The Reality of Nonprofits
There is a common perception of nonprofits as groups of scrappy, idealistic do-gooders who are naively trying to change the world. Certainly, there are still small nonprofits that work this way, but it’s no longer the norm. The past couple of decades have seen a rise in business acumen among nonprofits. Among the trends we’ve seen:
Nonprofit managers have truly become professionals. There’s been a marked increase in the number of MBAs who run nonprofits, many having graduated from prestigious programs that focus on nonprofit management. These aren’t people who started climbing a corporate ladder only to have a change of heart. These are professionals who have devoted their entire careers to the nonprofit work they believe in.
Nonprofits are running as businesses. This has been a growing trend for a long time, but has accelerated in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom collapses. When the government started to crack down on corporate governance after those incidents — most notably with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act — nonprofits became increasingly pro-active in reviewing their own governance. Even though the act generally pertains to for-profit entities, nonprofits have been changing their corporate structures to make sure that they are regulating themselves before the government does it for them (or unhappy donors demand it).
Nonprofits are experts at doing a lot with a little. During the best of times, most can’t afford to be loose with their spending. Those with the cash to provide their execs with perks and luxuries (not to be confused with appropriate benefits) find that donor backlash comes quickly. Running lean not only means watching money; it also means watching staff time. Nonprofits are almost always understaffed, and the old adage that “time is money” is as true here as it is anyplace.
Nonprofit staff works hours that are as long as their for-profit counterparts — sometimes longer. They generally do this with less compensation and fewer perks. Eighty-hour weeks are not the domain of for-profits alone.
Like for-profit businesses, large nonprofits are highly matrixed and have decision-making processes. From the outside, this may seem like an inability to make decisions, but it’s not very different from large corporations that have processes for selecting a vendor. The process may include a number of things, from evaluating brand impact, resource allocation, cost-benefit analysis, and integration into current strategies, to building internal buy-in and navigating organizational politics.
There are many challenges that stand between a pitch to a nonprofit, getting them to sign up for We-Care.com, and getting them to actively drive traffic to their marketplace. Here are some of the big ones:
We-Care.com is not free! Wait, you say. We-Care.com is free for causes and their supporters. Yes, there are no charges. But staff time is a commodity in nonprofits. The time it takes to evaluate a tool, and if appropriate, implement it, is significant. Time (and even real estate in emails) spent promoting We-Care.com to supporters means time not being spent on other priorities — perhaps other fundraising tools or possibly program work. So, yes, We-Care.com has a cost. Don’t pretend it doesn’t, as nonprofits know better.
We-Care.com is not for all nonprofits. Listen carefully to what nonprofits tell you. We may not meet their needs. Or when they speak, you may hear a need that we can fill before they even realize it. If so, point it out. If you’re hearing that we don’t fit in to what they’re doing, respect that. Don’t waste your time on a dead sale or their time on something they don’t need. Not only will you save yourself exasperation, but you will leave the relationship on a positive note, keeping the door open if things change in future. (Yes. nonprofits are welcome to set up malls and not promote them. But that doesn’t benefit either of us in a huge way. Offer this option to them, but don’t push it down their throats.) Also, some nonprofits don’t have the member contact mechanisms in place to promote We-Care.com. They are welcome to sign up, but don’t waste your time and resources trying to convince them that We-Care.com is crucial for their success.
Brand equity is crucial for nonprofits. Nonprofits rely on donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals. There is no capital as valuable to a nonprofit as donor trust. One bad news story can cause donations to tank — no matter how good the organization’s work. Don’t be surprised that nonprofits take their time in selecting partners, and be respectful of that process. Address questions directly, and don’t be afraid to leverage the experience of our staff and founders as collateral.
It can be hard to find the decision maker. All organizations have their decision makers, and it may take time to find them. Sometimes you need to work your way through a series of people, other times you need to ask around to find out who you should speak to.
The best thing that can happen is that you find an internal advocate who understands and will champion We-Care.com within the organization. Of course, there will be a point at which you need to talk directly with the decision maker, and the advocate will generally set that up.
The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll find a person who — intentionally or otherwise— stands between you and the decision maker, passing information through inaccurately. If they’ve had bad luck with a charity mall and the decision maker hears, “Are we interested in trying another charity mall?” the answer will be “no” regardless of what our product is.
The best way to avoid this is not to give out too much information at once. Give the very basics (e.g., We’re a free service that allows you to receive donations when your supporters shop online.), and then ask who you should talk with. Don’t burry someone in details until you know they are both the right person and interested in listening.
If someone is preventing you from getting accurate information to the right person, ask to speak directly with the decision maker. If your contact is really trying to keep you from the decision maker, though, the situation is largely out of your control. Don’t push too hard. Hopefully, we’ll have another touch point down the road.
Also, some nonprofits are less hierarchical and more team oriented than typical for-profits. Just because someone has Assistant or Associate in their title doesn’t mean they’re not a decision maker. Treat every contact you have with the same respect you’d give a C-Level executive.
There are a million free tools out there. I’ve spent years working in nonprofits. Not a day goes by when someone isn’t trying to get you to use some product or service. There simply isn’t the time to evaluate every tool out there. You can’t pressure a busy nonprofit staffer into dealing with you. Are you having trouble getting their attention? Be persistent and respectful. You may need to work a contact over a period of months. (Before doing that, make sure the potential ROI is worth it.) Don’t hound and don’t try a hard sell. Gently reach out every two to four weeks. If we see they’re already earning money as a non-affiliated cause or through PTP, that’s the best leverage we have — but that won’t work if you’ve burned a bridge. (So, don’t burn bridges.)
Time is a commodity. This relates to a number of points above, but it’s worth stating on its own. Even when a nonprofit signs up for We-Care.com, that doesn’t mean they’ll promote it. Think about it: You’re the Development Director of a large nonprofit, and you’ve got enough time to focus on your major donors or on promoting We-Care.com. Which would you do? The answer is obvious. We should never expect nonprofits to allocate their resources based on what benefits us. If a nonprofit fails to activate after a number of outreach attempts, let them be a passive partner. They will hear from us every time we send an email to our registered members or our partner causes, so they won’t forget us. If they start raising money with a small number of supporters, that’s a chance for us to come back to them and say, “This is working on a small scale. Now you have the opportunity to take it to the next level.”
This culture often makes nonprofits feel less valued than for-profits. Don’t add to this. Be as clear and professional in your communications with nonprofits as you would be with Fortune 500s. As one nonprofit professional told me, “Soup kitchens pre-date investment banking and are unfortunately likely to be around much longer.”
Finally, it’s important to realize nonprofits aren’t franchises. They are all unique in culture and organizational structure. Don’t make presumptions about the culture or structure of a nonprofit. They don’t expect you to know this information, but they do expect you to be respectful and ask questions as necessary.
It’s All About Mindset
If there’s one thing nonprofits are sick of, it’s folks from the for-profit sector who try to step in with golden solutions to all of a nonprofit’s problems. Nancy Lublin, founder of Dress for Success and CEO of the nonprofit Do Something, wrote a fantastic article in the February 2009 issue of FastCompany about the surge in folks from the for-profit sector who are looking for jobs in the nonprofit sector — some are “encore careers” others have lost their jobs in the economic downturn and are now looking for “meaning.” (The article is attached. Read it!) They are rushing into the nonprofit sector with little understanding of how it works and less understanding of what organizations need, assuming that their for-profit experience is exactly what is called for. Though their intentions may be good, they end up pissing people off. As Lublin says in the article, “Your Harvard MBA won't make me drool. Twenty percent of my staff graduated from Ivies — and we're not the smartest people on the team.”
If you go into a dialogue with the mindset of wanting to help nonprofits on their terms, you’ll have a much better shot at success. To that end:
Build a rapport. Personal relationships have always been the currency of business and this has only increased with the rise of social media. This is even more of a truth in the nonprofit sector. The sector is based on personal relationships united around causes.
The more positive person-to-person interaction nonprofits have with We-Care.com staff as individuals, the higher level of trust they will have in We-Care.com. This not only means respectful phone calls; it means being active on listservs, showing up at events, and offering free help when we have the expertise. In other words, it means being active participants in the nonprofit community.
Building a rapport also means not dumping tons of information into a first contact. Talking on a high level, at first, allows your contact to ask for the information that’s relative to them or even to pass the conversation on to a more appropriate person in the organization. It also allows you to find out how the organization works and what its needs are, so you can be sure that you’re providing the correct information. I’m not talking about being vague or evasive here, simply about being respectful, inquisitive, and not overloading your contact. I’m also talking about building a relationship rather than pressuring someone into a decision.
Put helping the cause ahead of making the sale. The best for-profit businesses I’ve seen working with the nonprofit sector all have one thing in common: Their dedication to helping nonprofits comes before their desires to close deals or earn money. Any nonprofit manager worth his or her salary can smell a salesperson motivated by the desire for their business rather than a desire to support their cause. Not every organization you deal with will be the cause you’d choose to donate your money to. But if you can’t find a passion for the nonprofit, you probably shouldn’t waste your time talking to them.
Never assume you know a nonprofit’s needs. Yes, they all need money, as does every business. That said, knowing I need to breathe doesn’t give you a real understanding of my needs. Start by listening to the nonprofit and explaining what we offer. If you listen carefully, do some homework, and think on your feet, you’ll be able to tailor your pitch to the organization’s needs.
Never open with a hard pitch. This may be a given after everything above, but it’s worth restating. If you’re first comment (after “hello”) sounds like, “Here’s how We-Care.com can help you,” you’ve already lost the sale. Remember, they know their needs better than we do. Start by listening, talk about what we do, but don’t presume that we are the answer. Listen for what their needs are (often referred to as “pain points”), and if we’re a fit, address them.
Be Transparent. Always be clear about who we are and what we do. Never bend the truth, and never try to bury something about We-Care.com that an organization might not like. It’s better to lose a potential client than to be insincere. The nonprofit world is often tight knit. Coercing a cause that we’re not quite right for can cause you to lose ones for whom we’re far more beneficial. Nonprofits share and collaborate, which means they talk to each other. Your reputation always precedes you, so it better be good.
If you don’t proceed with the best interests of the nonprofit in heart, you will fail.