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Customer Service for the Nonprofit in the Social Media Age

Nonprofit organizations need to practice great customer service for their primary customers (those who use their services) as well as their supporting customers (volunteers and donors). If the staff and volunteers working for your mission aren’t practicing quality Customer Service, it’s a turn-off. And with Facebook, You Tube, Twitter and other social media platforms, it’s good communication practice to assure that all people understand that working as staff or volunteer assumes a good attitude when interacting with primary and supporting customers in these media, too.

How do we know when we’re providing “good” Customer Service? When we survey our customers and they respond that they are satisfied. Doing spot surveys of our customers to check in on customer satisfaction is a good idea for nonprofits, as it is for commercial companies.

Some companies use Feedback Loops to learn how they are doing. In the United Kingdon, National Express, a public transport company, invites commuters to text about their experience while they are commuting. This kind of check up tells the company how they are doing.

I suggest that you ask board members how their companies check on Customer Service. Take a few minutes at your next board meeting for a conversation on this topic. Discuss how you might apply the concept at your nonprofit. If you have a communication or public relations committee, and a staff person with responsibility in this area, ask them to do a bit of research on how to go about assessing and improving Customer Service in a 21st Century work environment. Come up with a plan and incorporate it in the performance review process at your workplace in the upcoming year. Assure that it becomes integrated and part of the job.

Taking steps to assure that your primary and supporting customers are satisfied with service at your nonprofit will deliver positive returns.

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What’s Your Customer Saying?

Coming off recent posts with a marketing orientation, it’s time to focus on the nonprofit customer.

Who is the customer of your nonprofit organization?  It’s a good place to start to get clarity, so you, your board, your staff, your volunteers know who the customer is, know what the customer needs are, and how your group responds to those needs.

And to do this well, everyone needs to listen. The staff, the volunteers. Everyone.  EVERY. ONE.  So, from the executive director and the board chair all through the people charged with accomplishing the nonprofit mission: all are listening.  And what we all are hearing is important to capture. And respond.

the primary customers of the nonprofit are the people benefiting from the services provided. The theater subscribers. The kids enrolled in the Boys & Girls Club after-school program. The cancer patients being taken to their chemo and radiation therapy appointments.  It’s clear to all who the primary customer is, what this customer needs, and how we’re set up to meet those needs.

The supporting customers are those folks supporting the mission: stakeholders in the mission who donate, who volunteer who make it possible for the nonprofit to execute the mission: to deliver the essential service that’s provided.

How do we know we’re doing the best possible job we can?  We ask our customers. We design ways to gather information, the feedback that tells us if we’re on course or not. You can count on someone (at least one someone) to question the value of asking. It takes time. It takes use of some resources. Shouldn’t every available dollar go to our service? That’s a hard point to argue. But I urge you to counter the argument with: “How do we know we’re meeting the need we think we’re meeting if we don’t ask?  If we don’t listen to what our customer is saying?”

Just before writing this blog post, I read Micheal Stein’s “Internet Strategies for Nonprofit Sector.”  He’s good. He tweets as @mstein63. His latest post cited research by Convio, the fundraising database experts. He focused on step #4 of their ten steps to grow the constituent base (your donors): “segment your welcome messages.”  So in your communication with new donors, you tailor your message to the demographic and psychographic information you can collect so what you say has meaning to your donor: so it in a way reflects back what you hear them saying to you. This will help build a relationship. And donor loyalty.

It’s part of effective marketing strategy.  And if you’re thinking and behaving in this way, you’ll be many steps ahead of your competition.  Because all too many of your competitors are only thinking “outgoing.”  Not “incoming.”

You’ll be glad you did. Listen. To What Your Customer is Saying.

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The Power of “Thank You”

Do you stop to think how you thank? Thinking about thanking is time well spent. Talking it over with staff and your development committee helps get ideas on the table. Attending a session on “donor acknowledgment” at the next nonprofit conference you attend is time well spent. Learn what others are doing. Apply thanking techniques that feel right, that fit right for you and staff and volunteers who get the relationship part of fundraising.
Here are a few things to pause and reflect:
Thank all your donors.
“Tier” your thank you: post card for small gifts, letter for gifts $25+. Set tiers that make sense for your nonprofit.
Acknowledge online gifts with email.
Use appropriate stationery to acknowledge memorial gifts.
Use special thank you for special gifts from special givers. Organize a board “thankathon” (see Kay Sprinkel Grace in High Impact Philanthropy) for special/major gifts.
The important thing is to let the donor know that s/he is appreciated. That it’s more than the money. Confirm the relationship by letting the person know you remember something about him/her; how the gift will help those you serve in some specific way. Help make a link happen. Cement the bond.
I remember when I worked with the American Lung Association in New Hampshire, board members agreed to thank major donors to the Christmas Seal campaign. They called donors. The first year we did it, some donors thought we were calling for more money. Board members were coached to let donors know, “no, we just want to let you know how much we appreciate your recent gift of ___ to help fight lung disease. We are interested, if you care to share, in what inspires you to give. It helps us to know.” Well. Our donors were pleasantly surprised to get the personal touch and usually had something to tell us.
In this way, the “thank you” helps confirm the relationship.

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The Board Role in Marketing: The Plan and Its Execution

Nonprofit boards of directors can learn and become very helpful in applying principles of marketing to advance the mission of the nonprofit they pledge to support.
The concept of “marketing” is in transition as people gain comfort and experience employing social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook LinkedIn, YouTube, and more). Fortunately, marketing is not rocket science: it’s built on some pretty common sense concepts.
When I write or talk or consult about marketing, I’m thinking about this:
A set of strategies designed to influence behavior of target audiences by preparing beneficial exchanges that will build a relationship between the individual and the organization (Alan Andreasen, Strategic Marketing).
I advise nonprofit organizations to formulate a marketing plan that coincides with the strategic plan. And I advise that the strategic plan be rooted in the primary customer(s) of the nonprofit: the people you serve whether you’re providing education, health care, or a direct human service; or, if you’re an arts organization running a community theater or any creative arts program. When your nonprofit organization is clear on whom you serve (primary customer) and the thing or service you deliver that has value to that customer, and you can measure the impact you’re having, your nonprofit has taken the basic steps in executing a marketing plan.
The Marketing Plan addresses components of the marketing mix and how your nonprofit will apply it. The marketing mix includes Product, Placement, Price, Promotion. If we’re lucky, we have a Marketing and Communication Committee among whose members are professionals who know how to apply the mix to bring maximum benefit to the primary customers, bring recognition and supporting customers (donors!) to the nonprofit, and advise the nonprofit on how to measure results in a low-cost way.
A tool I like to use when training boards in their governance role in marketing is Gary Stern’s booklet, Champions With a Cause: The Nonprofit Board Member’s Role in Marketing (First Nonprofit Education Foundation). Among other things, Gary points out that the board needs to

  • Root all marketing decisions in the mission
  • Develop Governance policies that guide marketing
  • Use care and diligence in developing the nonprofit brand
  • Develop clear marketing roles for board members, collectively and individually

Developing this Marketing Plan will help keep everyone strategically focused and mission focused.

Board members are not always fond of having to do this kind of work. If you have one or two members with professional marketing or communication experience, they can create and reinforce the kind of message you’re reading in this blog. Enlist these volunteers to help lead the effort and coax the kind of behavior out of the board that will put your nonprofit on the map in your community. It’s a challenge to get the energy together to move the board in this direction. Think of these words of Eleanor Roosevelt as you embark on this effort: Do what you feel in your heart is right, for you’ll be criticized anyway. Better to take the “damned if I do” approach. “Damned if I don’t” is the road to nowhere.

Steve Smith is Principal of It’s The Results, LLC, a consulting company focused on board development, strategic planning, fundraising. Learn more at Follow Steve on Twitter @STEVENETWORK. E-mail:

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