Creativity Marketing Transformation

4 Things Brand Marketers Can Learn From Nonprofits

5 Minute Read

Mission-driven nonprofits and revenue-driven brands would appear to have different aims and strategies—but having spent five years working in the third sector, I’ve discovered that there’s more overlap than meets the eye. Both sectors rely on specialized teams and both rely heavily on marketing to get their message out there. In fact, I’ve found that there are four areas integral to the nonprofit experience that the for-profit world could learn from.

Get Innovative

It’s in the name: For most nonprofits, very little money is available—particularly for marketing campaigns. When your marketing strategy relies on a shoestring budget, you’re forced to get creative. For me, that meant developing standout content for social media to get strong organic traffic.

How do you create great social content with no money? You get resourceful. I learned how to shoot and edit videos on the go. I watched free Photoshop tutorials to cobble together newsletters and pamphlets. I created spreadsheets tracking all KPIs, so I could suss out what worked and what didn’t to continually adjust my strategy. Having little financial risk gave us the freedom to innovate on social in a way that a lot of brands are nervous to do.

Limitations push you—individually and as an organization—to become more versatile and flexible. I learned to think creatively about campaigns and strategy and to find new ways to cut costs and get work done in-house. Challenge, necessity, and passion are incubators for innovation. Whether you have an extensive marketing budget or you’re one person on your own, challenge yourself to think outside the box.

Have Genuine Conversations

In a world with decreasing empathy and understanding, taking the time to form genuine, diverse connections doesn’t just benefit your marketing initiative—it builds important skills and establishes a level of authority for which more companies should strive. Nonprofits don’t have this all figured out; like many for-profit companies, there’s still a huge diversity deficit. I’ve been lucky, though, to have been a part of an organization where diversity is the mission.

My first foray into the world of social good was with Empower Peace, organizing their international young women’s leadership program, Women2Women. One of my favorite parts of the Women2Women program is when each young leader develops an “action plan” to tackle an issue they see confronting their country. These spur the most incredible conversations; it’s not unusual to see girls from America, Bahrain, Kosovo, and Spain all deep in conversation about the types of sexual harassment they face or the challenges of overlapping, conflicting societal expectations. The really special thing, though, is how their initial plans shift following these conversations to accommodate new perspectives or add a global component.

This collaborative process offers important lessons in often underdeveloped skills—asking genuine, thoughtful questions, without any presumptions of the answer; challenging the status quo; confronting your own biases and limitations; and making the conscious effort to learn more and do better. We often forgo these “soft” skills, but taking the time to foster this kind of dialogue can challenge outdated thinking and push your brand forward.

Make sure to include diverse voices in discussions.

Image attribution: Štefan Štefančík

Get Rid of Silos

The nonprofits I’ve worked with have been small—each department comprising one or two indivudals. With an all-hands-on-deck attitude (born of necessity, usually), people with different backgrounds and ranks are brought in to work on the same project.

This is a great thing.

This approach creates an environment where questions and ideas are encouraged. Weaknesses are quickly exposed and communication is streamlined. Bringing more specialties, backgrounds, and approaches to the table results in more creative solutions.

Recently, I worked with Elpis, a start-up using sustainable technology to provide opportunities for education and empowerment for refugees in Greece. One day, the Elpis team was in Thermopyles, a sprawling refugee camp in Greece, looking for a place to install our solar-powered educational unit. The tech people looked for a place that had the best access to regular sunlight. Others observed how placemaking operated in the camp, and looked for a community hub where people would be naturally inclined to interact with the technology. Coming together, we found the best middle ground—literally. We agreed on a place that had a grassy area where kids played, a rock wall for adults to sit, and that pointed in the direction of the sunrise. Had only part of the team made that decision, the outcome wouldn’t have been such a success.

The takeaway? Give everyone a seat at the table, even if their area of expertise isn’t a perfect fit. Not enough chairs? Get more. When multiple voices at different levels are heard, it fosters innovation and drives positive change. Purposefully developing an environment free from silos fosters discussion, creativity, and allows for more collaboration than its segmented counterpart.

Let Your Story Talk For You

With old-school marketing approaches less effective than ever, telling a great story is the best way to engage consumers. Nonprofits have it easy in that department: A wholesome, feel-good mission begs public support. When there’s a clear brand purpose and a concrete mission that speaks to people’s emotions, great things happen.

Organizing your work around a central mission is where for-profit brands can take a tip from their nonprofit counterparts. Find an angle on your company’s work—why should people care about what you do? And why are you the best-positioned organization to do it? Tell that story.

Some companies use cause marketing as a differentiator, adjusting their business model to accommodate social missions. Sudara and TOMS are two examples, advertising their sustainable business practices and offering BOGO benefits to communities in need. Many millennials, myself included, buy into it; I own three pairs of Sudara pants, almost entirely because their mission spoke to my values (and because they’re comfy).

But it’s possible to bring in a social mission without revamping your entire business model. Heineken executed this concept in a really spectacular way with their “Worlds Apart” campaign.

In a world filled with distrust, rivalry, and partisanship, Heineken took a chance tackling social issues while still promoting their product—and it paid off.

Incorporating a social mission offers new opportunities for brand storytelling, in addition to fostering a work culture that emphasizes collaboration and altruism. Take a page out of the nonprofit playbook and see how you can incorporate some social good into your company’s work.

Have you tried using any of these techniques in your brand development? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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Featured image attribution: The Climate Reality Project

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Sarah is a recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She's spent the past four years in three different countries, helping execute digital marketing campaigns for nonprofit and for-profit brands alike. When she's not glued to her phone, you can find her experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen and watching the Great British Bake Off for inspiration.

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