Working in a Different World: The Leap from Corporation to Nonprofit

A client recently said “I really want our new marketing person to come from the corporate world.” Okay, why? “Well, because they’ll have more sophisticated ways of marketing our work and our projects.”

Sure, someone from Coke or The Gap might have really great marketing chops. They’ll be able to envision multiple layers of promotion, and refashion your “products” into appealing efforts targeted at specific audiences. They’ll come up with ways to frame what you do to reach and engage the people you need on your side — for money, political support, community advocacy.

And chances are, they will get really frustrated.

The differences between working for a corporation and working for a nonprofit are legion, and some matter and some don’t, but one of the most striking ones is very simple: At nonprofits, there is no clear bottom line. Lacking products or customers, and depending on contributions and grants, nonprofits don’t have simple balance sheets. Income is restricted, good programs are underfunded while weaker ones roll in money, a partnership may take years to come to financial fruition.

That corporate marketer has been used to measuring success by eyeballs leading to revenue leading to profits. Clear.

Photo by <a href="">Merakist</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a> What’s the measure of a marketer’s success at the nonprofit? Maybe there actually is an earned-revenue model, which can provide tangible measures. Otherwise, it could be more engagement from a certain audience, or more donors to a certain project. If the nonprofit has a purely philanthropic model of support, the marketer doesn’t have much. Sure, a stronger brand can really help position any nonprofit for success, and a marketing mindset is a good thing to have when putting together new programs or projects. But was the mission more successful or less, and did marketing make it so? (And if marketing is seen to help, does that mean the lead marketer gets more money in their budget next year? Probably not.)

Lacking easy direct impact measures, nonprofit marketing requires its own sophistication. The dashboard developed by the nonprofit marketer is a mix of outputs and outcomes, of proxies and even guesses. There aren’t usually large budgets for audience identification and segmentation, for A/B testing, for advertising. Technology and data-mining can help — if there is any organizational inclination towards that work, or budget for it. Partnering with corporations to get data or marketing assets, tagging on to a bigger organization’s promotion, developing a guerrilla-marketing strategy…nonprofit marketers have to think in every direction.

Marketing a nonprofit takes just as many skills as corporate marketing, and a good marketer who can succeed in the nonprofit culture and structure is worth their weight — truly — in gold.

I suggested to my client that they ought to use their own marketing challenges as tests for candidates. See what each candidate suggested, how nimble or creative they seemed, without focusing on what their background was. Then, if the leading candidate was from the corporate world, have a very frank conversation about the nature of nonprofit marketing, the resources available, and the desired outcomes.

Can’t wait to see where this client ends up.