Before she became active in the nonprofit sector, Katya Andresen worked as a journalist in developing nations, where she was witness to enormous social ills and need. Today, she works to help nonprofits in this country through her efforts at giving portal Network for Good and her nonprofit marketing blog, Getting to the Point. Andresen, who was named Fundraising Professional of the Year in 2007 by Fundraising Success Magazine, also is the author of the widely praised Robin Hood Marketing: Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes.
PND recently spoke to her about how nonprofit marketing has evolved in an era of social media and ubiquitous connectivity and what organizations can do to better market their causes and raise funds in these uncertain economic times.
Philanthropy News Digest: You've written extensively about what you call "Robin Hood marketing." What does that term mean?
Katya Andresen: The most succinct description is the one we used for the subtitle of the book: "Stealing corporate savvy to sell just causes." Corporate America is very clever and effective at selling things to consumers, because it understands that in order to get someone to buy something, you need to understand who they are, you need to understand what they need, you need to speak to their values, and you need a consumer-centric approach. Nonprofits, unfortunately, don't always take that type of approach. Speaking as the COO of a nonprofit myself, I can say that that's because we often feel as if what we're doing is so important, we don't have to sell it.
The fundamental message of the book is that it's not enough to try to do good in the world — you have to sell the concept of what you're doing in order to really get people behind your cause. Corporate America has lots of people who are good at this, and by co-opting some of the methods they use and thinking dispassionately about how and why people behave as they do, the nonprofit sector can move a lot more people to action.
PND: Your book was published in 2006. Has nonprofit marketing changed over the past few years?
KA: In some ways nothing has changed, and in some ways everything has changed. The fundamentals of how you motivate people to take action are timeless, so in that regard nothing has changed. Human beings still want to feel good, still want a measure of psychic satisfaction when they support a nonprofit or a charitable cause. They want to feel that they are seen and heard in the world. They want to connect to causes they care about. And they want to feel they can trust the organizations they support. Those basic things are never going to change.
What has changed significantly, however, are the technologies we now have at our disposal to connect us to audiences and spur people to take action. For instance, online fundraising — though still a relatively small percentage of total giving — is gaining in popularity. That's great because people tend to give for deeply personal and emotional reasons, so if you can tap into someone's emotions and make it easy for them to act on the impulse to give, that's a powerful combination.
Social media sites are also great tools because they take word-of-mouth marketing — one of the great drivers of charitable giving — and put it on steroids. It is now possible through sites like Facebook and Twitter to reach a huge number of people very efficiently. And those sites also function like a big focus group, in that they enable you to listen to lots of conversations and collect a lot of information about how people perceive your organization and your issue. Social media is a wonderful research tool and a wonderful tool for connecting with others who care about your issue or cause.
PND: You spent several years living and working in developing countries, including Cambodia and Madagascar. How did those experiences help shape your interest in nonprofits and nonprofit marketing?
KA: Most of my time overseas was spent as a journalist. My job was to observe, translate, and communicate what was going on in the countries in which I lived and visited. It was incredibly compelling work. By simply shining a light on things that are happening around the world, you can do a lot to raise awareness and do some good. But for me, it wasn't quite enough to be a witness. I saw an incredible amount of human need, and I really wanted to be involved in helping to find solutions to the poverty, the disease, and some of the other problems I saw all around me.
PND: What is the biggest mistake that nonprofits make in terms of marketing?
KA: The most common mistake I see is failing to approach outreach, communications, and fundraising from the perspective of your target audience. I call the phenomenon "nonprofit narcissism." Organizations want to talk about themselves — their needs, all the great work they do, and so on — but that's not enough to get an individual to take action. One of the downsides of all these new technologies is that people have lots and lots of things competing for their attention. To have any hope of breaking through the message clutter — which, I might add, is getting worse by the minute — organizations have to understand where their audiences are coming from and piggy-back on the things that are most likely to get their attention.
Another common mistake nonprofits make is failing to have a clear, specific call to action — even something as simple as displaying a "Donate Now" button on their Web sites or providing an opportunity for visitors to the site to sign a petition. We tend to do a lot of awareness-building in the nonprofit sector because we think that if we share information about our cause, people will automatically act on it. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way, which leaves a huge number of campaigns struggling to get results. Once an organization has gotten an individual to take action, it is essential that it follows up on that relationship. One of the major reasons people stop giving is because of how they are treated by the charity they have given to. If they feel they weren't thanked properly, or they feel bombarded by requests for additional donations, or they never have a clear understanding of what their money accomplished, they will not continue to give.
The other really common mistake that organizations make is to treat marketing as an afterthought. Really good marketing is integral to everything an organization is and does and is not something you can just tack onto the end of a planning session.
PND: With the economy in recession, how are nonprofits changing the ways in which they market?
KA: I see them asking for money more often and, unfortunately, not always in the right ways. Like everyone else, I'm worried about my 401(k) and whether the stock market is going to turn around a year from now, so I'm really subjecting my own giving to scrutiny. And because practically every nonprofit on the planet needs money right now, organizations need to do a better job than ever at connecting with their audience, demonstrating their relevance, and explaining how they're different from other nonprofits that are working on their issue. They have to be crystal clear about what they are accomplishing and why it is important to their audience. And they have to make it clear that they are good stewards of their donors' money. That's the kind of pitch I want to see from nonprofits in this kind of environment.
But nonprofit organizations shouldn't despair. Nonprofits are able to offer a better return on investment than almost anything else right now. They provide us with wonderful art and cultural offerings, they feed the hungry, they make our environment healthier. Most other things, in contrast, have a negative return right now — even T-bills. Nonprofits shouldn't forget that. And while a lot of nonprofits have become risk-averse and gone back to the bread-and-butter ask, now is not the time to do that. Organizations need to stand out from the crowd right now. The organizations that can do that are the ones that will be around in five years.
— Lauren Kelley