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Board Essentials: Part 5: Hearing Our Customers

Fall of 2010, I did a Board Essentials series on nonprofit governance.

Opening with “Parameters” that govern how nonprofits operate, I moved on the “Roles” of Board members, “Strategic Work” of Boards, and wrapped up with how Board members can “Engage Networks” to help advance the nonprofit they care most about.

This year, the series will focus on the nonprofit’s marketplace: where and how staff and volunteers find and work with its customers.

And let’s start this off in listening mode.  Of course, we’ll have messages we want to communicate. We’ll have a brand to uphold. Our nonprofit will articulate goals and strategies to move our mission forward and we’ll want to let our friends, supporters, stakeholders know what all this is.  But first and foremost, we must listen.

What floats the boat of our donors?  What has motivated them to give to our cause in the past?  What is the special value we’re bringing to our clients?  Or, as Peter Drucker would instruct us: our Primary Customers.  What are we delivering that keeps bringing them back to us for service? That makes them want to tell the story for us?  That earns the support of their families to our cause?  Let’s first and foremost hear what our customers have to say to us.   And let us reflect those messages they have for us back in our words to our target audiences about mission, values, goals, brand….clearly, succinctly.

The better we hear, the better response we’ll get back from our primary (client) customers and supporting (donors, volunteers) customers.


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Target Audience and Brand Work for Nonprofit Organizations

Boards frequently complain to the CEO that “we’re not getting our name out there.”  What do these board members mean? Do they want to see stories in the New York Times?  USA Today?  On the NBC evening news?

This is a great example of why marketing is an important area of effort for nonprofit organizations. The nonprofit needs to be clear on who their Target Audiences are.  And among them must be those receiving services (primary customers), prospects who might benefit from the nonprofit service (prospective primary customers), donors (supporting customers) and donor prospects (you get the drift).

Nonprofit organizations with substantial ($5 million or more) budgets usually have a communication staff professional who sees to outreach to Target Audiences. The vast majority of these public benefit organizations (small to mid-size) cannot afford such a staff position. In this case, the board works with staff to identify volunteers with expertise in communications and public relations to advise on and help shape messages.  It’s not just about creating messages and getting them out “there.”  Wherever “there” is.  Using e-mail including Constant Contact, newsletters, media releases to print and broadcast outlets, releases to corporate newsletters in the nonprofit service area, releases to church bulletins.  All of this work helps get the message out.

But what message exactly?  Each nonprofit has a story to tell.  The staff person or volunteer task group working to identify the Brand and get Brand messages to Target Audiences approaches this work in a thoughtful, plan-ful way.  Shipping out a stack of press or news releases to various media outlets does not cut it.  Contacts at these outlets should be cultivated, relationships formed, and in a deliberate way, information goes to these media.  If this is done in a sound manner, if the messages are low on hyperbole and high on interesting facts for readers or listeners…reliable, solid information….the story will be told, the message will get out there and people (i.e. board people) will be happy.

But guess what.  This is work.  And if there is not staff to do it, the board needs to help locate volunteers who will do justice to this important job..

When all this happens, the nonprofit and its stakeholders get closer to the kumbaya experience.

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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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Good Marketing > Good Governance

One measure of an effective nonprofit board of directors is the level of comprehension and commitment to strong marketing practice. I know that some members of nonprofit boards scoff at marketing as alchemy and opt for the purity of the program they deliver to their clients. Well, I tell ya. If you don’t understand what makes your client tick, your program may not be worth a bucket of spit. Good marketing, as Peter F Drucker taught and as the Leader to Leader Institute persists in telling us, starts with the customer. And the primary customer is the person who benefits from the service your nonprofit provides. And if we’re not taking the time to check in with our customer/client and gauging the effectiveness of the program we’re providing we’re missing the boat.
Our work, designed to accomplish our mission, has to be based on the market it’s targeting. And the work should represent our brand in the most excellent way possible to shore up our creditibility with our supporting customers: our volunteers, our donors, our stakeholders.
Commitment to that level of quality, based on a clear understanding of what serves our customer best, will provide us with the data that will help make donors take us seriously.
Yes, your nonprofit organization should be mission-driven.
But your nonprofit must be market-sensitive.
One reason why the Harlem Children’s Zone is so effective is because everyone in that organization gets the fundamentals of their market. They built their effective program block-by-block. Harlem Children’s Zone makes it easy for children receiving service to concentrate on the important stuff, because they figured out how to coordinate the array of services needed in a way that receiving service doesn’t get in the way of the focus on education.
Every member of every board of directors needs to be oriented to this kind of thinking. It’s The Results. Know your market, design appropriate response to the needs of your primary customers, and keep refining and improving on that response and the donating public will open your website, see the value, and vote to be a part of it.
And that, my friend, is what separates the effective nonprofit from the run-of-the-mill.

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