To Sell Themselves to Donors, Nonprofits Are Turning to the Pros
Not long ago, the website for the nonprofit Colon Cancer Alliance offered a treasure trove of information about colorectal screening, colon cancer research and other topics related to the deadly disease.
What it did not do was provide a concise explanation of what the group’s aims were and, perhaps more crucially, why people should donate money to help its cause.
“There was confusion,” said Michael Sapienza, chief executive of the alliance. “It was very unclear to the public exactly what it was we did.”
For Mr. Sapienza, who lost his mother, Chris, to colon cancer in 2009, it was personal. He wanted to help others who had the disease. So he brought in marketing experts to rebrand and refocus the group’s message. Today, the site clearly emphasizes that the alliance’s goal is to knock colon cancer out of the top three cancer killers, and lays out its three-pronged strategy to accomplish this: Invest $10 million in research by 2021, double the number of patients and families it reaches with support services and save 100,000 lives through increased screening by 2021.
The group also began getting creative with how it got its message out. During Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, for example, it created a “shark vs. colon” meme, with the caption “Sharks attack fewer than 16 people per year, while more than 130,000 are estimated to be diagnosed with colon cancer in 2017.”
The Colon Cancer Alliance is one of a surging number of nonprofits that are turning to marketing experts for help.
In the past, charities and nonprofit groups relied heavily on savvy fund-raising experts and boldface names to promote their causes. But a number of groups, even those that are well known, are having a tough time competing — or even staying relevant — in the rough-and-tumble digital age, when potential donors are overwhelmed with requests for money on social media, crowdfunding sites, and other digital platforms.
These branding and marketing experts are helping nonprofits more clearly explain their purpose in simple but powerful ways that connect emotionally with the public. It’s critical they use storytelling skills, involving personal stories about having the disease or being helped by a nonprofit, to inspire donors to get onboard.
“It’s a different skill set,” said Jim Fosina, founder and chief executive of the Fosina Marketing Group.
Without this storytelling ability — along with the sophisticated use of data to identify donors and maintain a digital connection with them — nonprofits risk losing donations to other organizations that are chasing the same dollars.
“Most companies have bland mission and vision statements that are vague, inflated and indistinguishable from one another,” said Alan Siegel, founder of Siegelvision, a branding and communications consulting firm. The company has worked with such nonprofits as Easterseals, the Lupus Foundation of America, the Urban Institute and Breaking Ground.
Even brands that have been around for decades don’t get a free ride.
When Mr. Siegel started working with Easterseals, surveys showed that many people recognized the name but had no clue what exactly it did — even though it had been around for almost 100 years.
He recommended that the group use the word “disability” in its message to emphasize its focus. Its new tagline — “Taking on disability together” — offers a clearer message, he said.
Some group members were sensitive about using the word “disability,” Mr. Siegel said. “But there’s a certain authenticity to saying, ‘This is who were are, and this is what we do,’” which helped potential donors understand that this is the group that helps people with disabilities become functional members of society, he said.
There was similar confusion about the Lupus Foundation of America.
“They had brochures with pictures of people smiling,” Mr. Siegel said. The group failed to explain the debilitating nature of the disease — which can attack the kidneys, brain, heart, blood system and skin — and that it had no cure, that its cause was unknown or that it afflicted more than 1.5 million people.
Mr. Siegel overhauled the group’s message on its website and social media to include stories from people with lupus, and he added the tagline “Help Us Solve the Cruel Mystery.” The group also sent a “Cruel Mystery” bus, equipped with interactive videos and information on the disease, on a national tour.
“We have moved the needle in public awareness and understanding of the disease,” said Sandra Raymond, chief executive of the foundation.
Another nonprofit, JDRF International (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), which funds research on Type 1 diabetes, hired a marketing expert, Alisa Norris, last October to update its image and coordinate its message across the digital landscape.
“It’s no longer business as usual like it was five or 10 years ago, where fund-raisers handled marketing,” Ms. Norris said.
A nonprofit needs to use data to connect with donors early — and often — through emails, phone calls, letters and other communications in a way that addresses their particular interests, whether the information is about the latest treatment, a research breakthrough or a family that their donations helped, she said.
Still, some nonprofit groups argue that they can’t afford to hire branding and marketing experts.
“They can’t afford not to,” said Michael Priem, chief executive of Modern Impact, an advertising and marketing firm. “There is definitely a risk for nonprofits that don’t morph with the changing consumer psyche. They run the risk of losing their member base because they don’t feel as relevant to the consumer.”
And nonprofits need to constantly monitor the competition.
“If we’re not watching,” Mr. Fosina said, “we’re risking the potential of any one of our donors being one click away from defecting to another not-for-profit.”
A version of this article appears in print on September 11, 2017, on Page B2 of the New York edition with the headline: To Sell Themselves to Donors, Nonprofits Are Turning to the Pros.