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January 27, 2012

Nonprofit Marketing Lessons

How often have you sworn you’d never eat fast food again only to be tempted after seeing an ad for the latest burger, burrito, or frozen treat? Most of us know that the food is never quite as good as it looks on the commercial, billboard, or magazine yet we can’t seem to help ourselves. So how do they make the food seem so irresistible? They do it through marketing.

McDonald’s has long been an icon of marketing success. In fact, a 2010 study by Interbrand ranked them the #6 most recognized brand in the world (and the first restaurant on the list). They didn’t get to this position overnight, but they did learn some lessons along the way.

Below are some strategies out of the McDonald’s marketing playbook. Let’s see how we can apply their approach to nonprofit organizations.

  1. Take a franchise model. McDonald’s provides training and monitoring to each franchisee to ensure that all adhere to the value propositions offered to the customer. 

    For nonprofits: You don’t have to have a franchise to apply this principle. Part of McDonald’s success is based on the fact that every franchise owner and employee is trained on the mission (to be the customers’ favorite place and way to eat) and values of the organization. They know what they are providing and how they are serving the customer. Everyone in a nonprofit organization should be trained in the same way. Leadership and staff (paid and volunteers) should all be trained and equipped to share the mission and message of the organization. Are your board and staff members able to clearly communicate what you are doing and the impact you are making? Take a quick survey and find out. If not, perhaps it’s time to train those involved with your organization on sharing your message and mission.

  2. Provide product consistency. McDonald’s expects all franchisees to create a similar customer experience (service, products, facilities, etc.) regardless of the location, time of day, or any other outside factor. 

    For nonprofits: You can walk into any McDonald’s in the United States and know what you will get. Whether you’re dining in Washington or Florida you will find the same menu, food quality, and service (or pretty close) at every location. You will also see the same Golden Arches and red and yellow colors whether you are in the United States, Europe, Africa, or Asia. Can your clients, donors, and volunteers say the same about your organization? Take a few moments and do a quick audit on your brand. Make sure your image (colors, logo, overall design) is consistent everywhere (website, social media, letterhead, direct mail, email). Also, ask for feedback from clients, donors, and volunteers on their experiences. Do they know what to expect when interacting with your organization? Are they satisfied? And do the experiences vary based upon who they talk with or which programs they are accessing? If so, begin working towards consistency. Set expectations, provide training, and begin providing the product consistency that has allowed McDonald’s to attract and keep customers coming back for more. 

  3. Act like a retailer and think like a brand. McDonald’s touts that its marketing efforts focus on delivering sales for the immediate present, but also protect its long term brand reputation.

    For nonprofits: Since McDonald’s was founded in the 1940s, it has grown exponentially. They have had numerous marketing campaigns and made many changes over the years. However, they’ve always fiercely protected their brand and kept their mission central to everything they’ve done. Nonprofits should take the same approach. When developing marketing and fundraising plans you should focus on strategies that will not only provide immediate results, but also enhance the long-term sustainability of the organization. Never do something that will sacrifice your brand, mission, or message - regardless of the immediate pay-off. 

  4. Know your customers. McDonald’s spends millions of dollars each year on market research, studying customer segments, perceptions, and expectations. 

    For nonprofits: I can’t think of a single nonprofit organization that has a marketing budget even close to that of McDonald’s. And for many, the term ‘market research’ automatically generates feelings of anxiety. However, you don’t need millions of dollars to get to know your ‘customers’. Spend time with your clients, donors, funders, volunteers, and other advocates on a regular basis. Find out how they view you and what they expect from you. Listening to your clients and responding to their desires will only strengthen your organization over time.

  5. Understand product life cycles. McDonald’s regularly evaluates its current products and launches new products based upon customer demand.

    For nonprofits: Recently, McDonald’s added new, healthier items to its menu - including salad selections, smoothies, and apples wedges. Over the years, they’ve also eliminated some products that didn’t go as well as expected (The Hula Burger, McPizza, Arch Deluxe, McLean Deluxe). These decisions were the result of customer wants and needs. Nonprofits must take the same approach and regularly evaluate their programs and activities. Some programs start by meeting identified community needs, but the need and support diminish over time. If this is the case, perhaps it’s time to phase out the program and see if there are new services that should be added. 

  6. Know your competitors. McDonald’s is aware of it’s competitors, the products offered by each, and the unique value offered by its organization.

    For nonprofits: Some nonprofits don’t like to think in terms of ‘competitors’. However, the reality is you are always competing with other organizations for dollars, hearts, clients, and support. Look around your community and see what other organizations exist. Determine if there is anyone else providing the same or similar services and then consider how you can partner or support their efforts. Determine what makes you different than other organizations. Are you meeting a need that no one else in the community is meeting? Knowing your competition, understanding how you’re different, and communicating this effectively helps differentiate yourself in the eyes of potential supporters.

McDonald’s has undeniably built one of the strongest brands (and organizations) in the world. Though they are a for-profit organization, their experiences and successes can provide some good insights and ideas for nonprofit organizations. Consider how applying these approaches can enhance the impact of your marketing today.

Posted by Tiffany Applegate on January 27, 2012 at 12:12 PM
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Categories: Marketing
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January 20, 2012

Marketing - Branding Style-GuideCreating a strong brand is critical to the success and sustainability of all organizations. However, there is often a misunderstanding about what branding really is and how to be successful. Therefore, this month, we are going to provide some tips for building and strengthening your organization's brand.

Everything you do or don't do contributes to your organization's brand. Every interaction (phone calls, appearances, meetings) and every point of contact (brochures, website, mailings) impacts how your organization is viewed by those in your community. The perception (valid or not) of these individuals and the community at-large will greatly impact the long-term sustainability of your organization.

Developing an effective, powerful brand will allow your organization to:

  • Efficiently and effectively communicate your organization’s mission and values.
  • Communicate what you do, in a unique way, and convey the notion that no one could do it better or smarter.
  • Build and maintain trust within the community.
  • Greatly increase the number of board members, staff, clients, funders, etc. for your organization.
  • Stimulate word of mouth (WOM) promotional activity.

You can quickly ascertain the general value of your brand by asking a few key questions:

  1. Are those in your community (clients, donors, funders, volunteers, etc) aware of your organization?
  2. How highly do they esteem your organization and the services you provide?
  3. Is your mission and work relevant to the community?
  4. Do they share your passion?
  5. What makes you special or unique from other nonprofits and service organizations?
  6. Is your organization easily confused or mistaken for another similar organization?

The answers to these questions can help you determine whether or not your organization is suffering from a branding crisis. If you are in the middle of a crisis (or to prevent one from occurring) developing Branding and Design Guidelines is a first and very important step to differentiating your organization from other nonprofits. These Guidelines will provide a clear and consistent framework for communicating with a variety of audiences in the community. Without Guidelines and consistency in design, your organization is likely to confuse those in the community. People don’t know what to expect from one experience to another. This impacts the level of trust and engagement from community members.

Think of your own experiences. Have you ever met anyone that presented themselves differently every time you interacted with them? Sometimes they were extremely social and outgoing and at other times they were moody and wouldn’t speak to you – a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type personality. You may be weary of too much interaction and keep a little distance in the friendship. This is the same type of impact your organization makes on a community when you continuously repackage your brand and present yourself differently from one campaign/interaction to another.

Key Elements of Branding and Design Guidelines

1. Develop a Resource Database: Make a repository of acceptable images and fonts for your organization. This should be accessible to all those who are developing marketing/branding materials or communicating with various audiences. This resource database should also include logos and templates (Word, PowerPoint, Fax, etc).

2. Develop Logo Guidelines: Many organizations have several acceptable versions of their logo (vertical, horizontal, with tagline and without). This is a good idea but there should be documented guidelines on when to use each version. There should also be documentation on approved colors and sizes.

3. Determine Page Architecture: Set guidelines for how your ads, newsletters, postcards, brochures, flyers, etc. should be designed and what should be included in each. For example, one nonprofit required that all design materials had to be split in thirds –one-third for text and two-thirds for an image or vice-versa. This provided programs some creativity in their presentation but kept the overall look for the organization consistent.

4. Set Imagery Policies: Develop policies on the types of images that will be used in all design. This may include guidelines such as – Images must have a clean look and set on a white background; Images must be cropped so that only a portion of the complete image is showing. Provide examples of acceptable images in the documentation.

5. Manage Typefaces: Using consistent typefaces (fonts) is critical to branding your organization. Select the fonts that are acceptable for your organization and list them in your guidelines. Also include how each font should be used. For example: NimbusSans will be used for all body text.

6. Choose a Color Palette: Select a color palette (that matches your logo) that can be used when creating all materials. This color palette should be broad enough to allow for creativity, but should be concise enough so that it is easily recognizable. Consider the meanings of colors while selecting your palette. (Read more on the meaning of color.)

7. Direct Copy Writing: Develop a list of words or themes to be woven into all presentations of your organization. For example, words can include things like ‘impact’, ‘build’, ‘go’, ‘live’. This framework will provide a thematic element that makes it easier to write copy for a variety of materials. The words and themes may change slightly for each program or audience.

Though this is not a complete list of the elements to include in Branding and Design Guidelines, spending the time to develop these standards will increase your consistency and impact the reputation of your organization. Please contact us if you would like help developing your guidelines and increasing your impact.

Posted by Tiffany Applegate on January 20, 2012 at 12:34 PM
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January 18, 2012

Nonprofit Board AssessmentBill Weir, ABC’s 44-year old News Anchor, just found out he may not see his 50th birthday. Though Weir believed he was in good health, he had a full body CT Scan while working on a story about the doctor who treated Lance Armstrong and Steve Jobs. After the scan, his doctor told him, “Boy, I’m glad we caught this. You have heart disease and probably within the next five years you would have gone for a jog and dropped dead.”

This news came as a shock to Weir. As it turns out, even though he was exercising regularly, there were other things in his life that put him at risk. The full-body CT Scan exposed these risks, allowing Weir to make the necessary changes to live a longer, fuller life.

Some nonprofit boards are in the same position as Weir. The members believe the board is strong and healthy when in fact there are issues that will ultimately impact the “life” and effectiveness of the organization. Self-assessments help boards identify these issues so they can take the necessary steps moving forward.

The Maine Association of Nonprofits has summed up the importance of board assessments well:

“A strong, vibrant board of directors is a clear indicator of a healthy organization. Yet even the best organizations need a periodic check-up to ensure that they cannot just survive but will really thrive in today’s environment. To check your board’s vital signs, or to put in place practices and strategies for a healthy and energized board, the best place to start is with a board self-assessment.”

Self-assessments impact the health of the organization in a variety of ways; however, we are going to focus on 3 Key Benefits Stemming from Board Self-Assessment:

1. Reinforces Expectations
During a coaching session one of my clients expressed frustration with her board. She shared, “I don’t know what’s wrong with our board. They aren’t doing anything they are supposed to be doing. I need a working and fundraising board, but no one seems to be willing.”

Upon further discussion I learned that though expectations were being communicated to board members, there was no assessment process in place to evaluate board member performance. The goals were being set, but there was no accountability measure in place to make sure they were being achieved. As a result, the expectations were perceived as suggestions rather than requirements. Once the assessment process was implemented, board members understood the importance of meeting and even exceeding expectations.

2. Identifies Challenges
Like Weir’s CT Scan, board assessments can help identify areas of weakness. While I believe in taking an asset-based approach to building the health of your organization, I am also an advocate for identifying opportunities for growth and working to overcome any challenges these opportunities provide. Because of the CT Scan, Weir has been able to make changes to his lifestyle (eating, less sitting through the day, etc) that have the potential to make a great impact on his overall health and lifespan. Assessments can provide the same opportunity for nonprofit organizations.

3. Encourages Discussion
Finally, board assessments provide the opportunity to engage board members in a discussion around expectations and how meeting these expectations will ultimately impact mission fulfillment. During the assessment process, take time to focus on how the board furthers the mission and vision of the organization. Discuss why board service is important and the difference it makes on behalf of your clients, communities, or cause. This conversation can serve to excite and inspire your members on behalf of the organization.

Board assessments are an extremely valuable tool in managing the health of your organization. If you don’t current have a process for assessing the performance of your board, consider making this a priority in 2012.


BoardSource recommends that the board assess its own performance every two years.

Council of Nonprofits Sample Member Self Evaluation

Northland Foundation Board Assessment Survey

Community Resource Exchange Board Assessment Questionnaire

Posted by Tiffany Applegate on January 18, 2012 at 2:13 PM
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Categories: Board Governance
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January 9, 2012

Community EngagementHow does an organization grow from a good idea to making significant impact and developing a sustainable funding model? Here’s an example of organization that has done just that. 

Seymour, a rural town in Missouri, is not a particularly remarkable place. It is small, set off the highway, with little to draw in tourists or those passing by. It is a working-class community of 2,000 with its share of rural poverty. However, the 2,000 citizens living there are quite remarkable. With the help of a retired physics professor passionate about his community, they have built a local community foundation that meets the needs and betters the lives of the citizens in the Seymour area.

After 13 years, the Greater Seymour Area Community Foundation (GSACF) has established dozens of charitable funds, provided grants to many organizations, and accumulated total endowment assets of nearly $1.5 million. According to one of the founders, most of this money was collected through $10 and $25 donations. In fact, he reported only receiving six gifts over $5,000 in those 13 years.

GSACF done an amazing job engaging their community and diversifying their funding stream. As a result, their sustainability does not rely solely on one individual or entity and they haven’t suffered the financial hit that some other organizations have during this economic crisis. (I encourage you to watch the video below to learn more about this great organization.)

Though your mission may be drastically different than that of a community foundation, I believe this story highlights some very important lessons for nonprofit organizations on how to successfully engage your community and diversify your revenue.

LESSON 1: Relationships are primary.

Whether dealing with individual donors, investors, foundations, government agencies, businesses, clients, or customers - relationships matter. People want to give to people they know. Therefore, it is important to regularly expand your network of relationships and intentionally nurture and manage these relationships for deeper engagement. Develop strategies around engagement so that this process becomes intentional. Otherwise, your day to day activities may override the priority of relationship building. I explored strategies for relationship building during a webinar with one of our partners - Community Engagement: Building and Nurturing Community Support. 

LESSON 2: Messages matter.

GSACF realized early that messages matter when it’s time to get the community engaged and funders involved. Many community foundations consider themselves “grant-making organizations”. Compare this to how Jan, the GSCF President, describes the mission of their organization. She says their mission is to “improve the quality of life in the Seymour area”. This is something that appeals to a variety of potential funders - local businesses, individuals, government agencies, and other foundations. 

Consider how you share the mission of your organization with potential funders. Does it inspire people to get involved? Do you communicate a message that resonates with others? If not, perhaps it’s time to revisit and reconstruct your messaging. 

LESSON 3: Programs must address identified needs.

In addition to grant-making, GSCAF started a local arts council, initiated a family literacy program, and renovated an historic building on the square. These things were all done based upon the expressed needs and desires of the community (and because they fit with the mission of improving the quality of life in the Seymour area) and discovered through community interaction and surveys Since they were meeting expressed needs, it was much easier to raise support for these projects. 

Are your programs meeting identified needs in the community? How were the needs identified? Though community assessment? Or was it observation? Do some research and determine what the real needs are in your community and how your organization is helping to meet these needs. Then use this information when approaching potential funders to show how your programs are addressing the challenges your clients and communities are facing. 

LESSON 4: Positive outcomes are essential.

In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins says, “The point of the struggle is not just to survive, but to build an enterprise that makes such a distinctive impact on the world it touches, and does so with such superior performance, that it would leave a gaping hole - a hole that could not be easily filled by any other institution - if it ceased to exist.


This begs the question - what hole would your organization leave if it ceased to exist? Answering this question requires that you not only develop and implement programs that address identified needs, but that you track the results of these programs to ensure that they are truly making a positive difference. If you are, don’t stop there. Market your impact to attract a variety of funding sources to your organization.

GSCF has been able to generate and maintain support partly because those in the community understand the impact that is being made. Community members recognize the good being done and that there is no one else in the area that can easily fill that need. As a result businesses, individuals, and other funders lend their support.

LESSON 5: Communication is critical.

Finally, we have to talk about the importance of communication in regards to community engagement and revenue diversification. Communication is a critical piece to any relationship. You wouldn’t ignore your children or spouse for months at a time and expect the relationship to be healthy and thriving (or at least I hope not). The same principle applies to funders and investors. You need to communicate with them regularly to keep them engaged and excited about what’s happening at your organization. 

This may look differently based upon each type of funder and what they expect. For example individuals may expect to receive newsletters, gift-receipts, event invitations, emails, and phone calls; while institutions may require formal reporting and participation in required grantee meetings. We recommend developing a communications calendar to help you become more strategic in your communications approach.

Getting Started

GSCF has worked hard to engage their community and diversify their funding base. They have proven that nonprofits don’t have to be located in large communities or have a lot of wealthy family or institutional benefactors to be successful in this process. They just need to be intentional and committed to making it happen.

We encourage you to map your relational network, develop engaging messages, build your team, and get started today! Also, please consider sharing your challenges and successes in community engagement and funding diversification below.

Posted by Tiffany Applegate on January 9, 2012 at 3:09 PM
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Categories: Community Engagement
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January 2, 2012

“When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.”

This quote from John M. Richardson, Jr. sets the stage for the coming year. In 2012, do you want to make it happen, watch it happen, or look back at the end of the year and wonder what happened? Most, I would guess, would like to be among those who make it happen.

This month, I'm highlighting 3 Marketing Trends to Consider in 2012. These 3 trends will help you as you strive to ’make it happen’ in the upcoming year.


Though this is not especially new, the need for it continues to increase. Many sources (and our experience) show that mass marketing (blanket newsletters, direct mail, email, etc.) continues to reduce in effectiveness. This is due in part to expectations around how we communicate with one another, but also in part to the low tolerance people have for sorting through irrelevant or unsolicited information.

That means that investing in a database that allows you to segment by interests and communicate accordingly could pay big dividends. We Are All Weird by Seth Godin highlights this fact. “The book calls for the end of mass and for the beginning of offering people more choices, more interests and giving them more authority to operate in ways that reflect their own unique values.” (Except from Amazon.com)

  • Are you personalizing the information you’re sending to your contacts?
  • Is the information you’re sending to each contact relevant to their interests?
  • Are each of your contacts sorted or tagged by their interests in your database appropriately? 

There are so many new technologies available to nonprofits as we enter 2012. The focus of most of these technologies is easy access to new information for the end user.

QR Codes 

QR Codes, or Quick Response Codes, are popping up everywhere. They’re on product tags, billboards, food wrappers, and a variety of other places. These codes are actually little boxes that store all kinds of information that can be accessed by those that have a QR Reader on their smart phones. Types of information that can be stored include website addresses, contact information, vCards, and other information that potential donors, clients, or supporters might want to access. You can read all about how QR codes work and how to create them in a great article by Kristiana Leroux titled How to Create, Share, and Use QR Codes. Consider using them in 2012 to provide your current and potential supporters easy-to-access information about your organization.


All things mobile will continue to be hot in 2012. Convenience and accessibility are key. Consider making your website mobile friendly, adding text updates and giving, and if resources allow, explore developing a phone app for your supporters to stay involved. Our society is on the go, so to be one of those ‘making it happen’ we need to meet our supporters where they are.


Social media has now been around long enough that most organizations have begun using it to engage their clients and supporters. Many organizations have developed social media policies and some have even developed strategies to maximize exposure and contact. However, in 2012 we are looking at a big change.

Organizations are starting to realize that social media (and marketing) is about people and relationships. And the contacts we have online want conversation, not marketing. At the risk of having an inconsistent brand message, many are starting to decentralize their message. Supporters and contacts are not only empowered, but encouraged, to promote the organization - even if they don’t choose the right words.

The benefits of this can be huge because there is a sense of authenticity that shines through when the message isn’t exactly the same from everyone. However, when starting down this road it is critical that the culture of your organization is clearly communicated and reinforced internally. This will allow people to communicate the brand - just in their own words.

Let’s look to Coca Cola for an example of how a decentralized message can allow an organization to reach many more potential supporters. Coca Cola is known for excellent marketing. However Duane Perera, an avid Coke drinker, created his own online initiative that had far more viewers and response than the #1 social media campaign ever created by Coke. This was primarily contributed to the authenticity and uniqueness that Duane was able to convey through his video. View Video Here.

An old African Proverb says, “For tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Though 2012 holds much uncertainty, it also offers much promise for those nonprofit organizations those that are preparing and taking steps now to ensure their sustainability. I believe this includes many of our readers and I encourage you to get started preparing today. Please consider sharing any other trends you see coming in 2012 and have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Posted by Tiffany Applegate on January 2, 2012 at 3:54 PM
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Categories: Marketing
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