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Marketing of not-for-profit causes and organisations is the challenge of a lifetime. Many people expect that, because they’re promoting something incredibly worthwhile and rewarding, they simply need to get the message out and tens of thousands of supporters will materialise overnight. But as anybody who’s actually tried it can attest, that’s very rarely the case. Why?

In an increasingly socially conscious generation, many organisations are competing for the attention of your target audience. Numerous causes are asking donors to contribute funds out of the generosity of their heart, but with no direct economic benefit being offered in exchange, and the public is becoming increasingly discerning in their selection of organisations to support.

Here are five of the most common areas, in my experience, that marketing of NFP’s fall short:

1. Lack of Knowledge

Effective marketing strategies require market knowledge, product knowledge, company knowledge, and a strong working knowledge of the marketing mediums in which you’re going to promote.

I frequently see enthusiastic marketers throwing themselves directly into marketing campaigns based on a host of assumptions, many of which are inaccurate or unclear.

People often don’t know what they don’t know. Often, some basic market research would improve their focus, saving a lot of wasted energy on unproductive activities, and uncovering key motivators for their audience.

Likewise, when it comes to social media and online marketing opportunities, many marketers are struggling to keep up with a rapidly evolving landscape which changes the dynamics of marketing significantly. Where historically marketers ‘advertised’ their wares and controlled what was said, now consumers have the power and it is up to marketers to win their loyalty, support, and recommendations.

It is critical that marketers dedicate a suitable portion of their time to meeting with their peers, attending seminars, listening to the counsel of experts in their field, and generally ensuring that they are exposed to the successes of leaders in these new fields. (Our Marketing Essentials Seminar in September 2011 is one such venue to enhance their practical knowledge and skills in areas of Market Research, Internet Marketing, and Social Media).

2. Lack of Resources

I’ve seen a lot of campaigns launch and flop that were reasonably well devised, but failed predominantly because the organisation underestimated the resources necessary to achieve the stated goals.

A well researched and targeted message, with a compelling proposition, still needs to be heard by enough people. And the results are not linear. As you reach a certain level of public awareness, the message can take on a life of its own and this has a multiplying effect.

Therefore, radio advertising on a community radio station for a short period (e.g. a couple of weeks) may have little or no impact, and yet it’s inaccurate to assume that multiplying the radio budget by a factor of 10 would yield similarly poor results.

Using the same message, but increasing the repetition over a longer period of time and to a larger audience, may well generate great results, particularly when conducted as part of an integrated strategy with email marketing, social media, blogs, and so on.

Not-for-profit organisations need to understand that the old adage ‘you need to spend money to make money’ is (unfortunately) still essentially true.

Whilst you may be able to find clever ways to get free exposure, it’s very rare that an organisation can effectively promote themselves without dedicating the necessary human resources and budget to their marketing.

3. Lack of Differentiation

If you’ve researched the market, devoted sufficient resources, and got the message out to the right audience, the question still remains — “so what?”, “Why should I get involved with your organisation?”

Most of us are overwhelmed by a never-ending stream of requests from thousands of organisations all asking us to pitch in and help their ostensibly worthy cause. How does an individual decide who he’s going to commit his limited time or money to?

It’s a sad reality that the majority of the world lives in poverty, and there are tens of thousands of organisations trying to feed and educate starving and malnourished children, provide sanitary drinking water supplies, eradicate malaria and AIDS, and so on. Whilst your goals are noble, so are the goals of the last 10 requests the consumer was confronted with.

The key is differentiation. How you ‘position’ and differentiate yourself is a critical element of your marketing strategy.

4. Lack of Relationship

As more and more organisations go online to find and connect with their ‘audience’ and stakeholders, some are still thinking in the mindset of traditional advertising — that is, present a carefully crafted message for the masses, and trust that a sufficient percentage will respond favourably.

Social media marketing requires an adjustment of mindset. Whilst there are still opportunities to present advertisements and offers, the real power of social media lies in engaging the public (in particular your target audience) so that they participate in discussions, share your ideas with their own social networks, and give you suggestions, feedback, and even criticism.

Social media marketing is about relationship.

5. Lack of Sustainability

Perhaps the greatest challenge for many not-for-profit organisations, particularly those involved in international development and poverty alleviation, is leveraging the donations of financial supporters so that current marketing activities reap longer term rewards.

This is potentially the single most important question not-for-profit organisations can ask themselves. It’s a much bigger question than just “how do we advertise what we do”, it actually requires that you continually review your core operations and be prepared to enhance and adapt them to maximise the impact of the funding your receive.

I believe that it’s time for a lot of organisations to ask some tough questions about their whole operational model and consider new opportunities such as ‘creative capitalism’, micro-lending, capacity building, and other commercial endeavours that, with the assistance of seed capital to launch, will over time become self-sustaining. (The book ‘Out of Poverty’ by Paul Polak illustrates this brilliantly and may provide some inspiration. Also check out kiva.org)

If you could market your not-for-profit organisation with the promise of multiplying rewards, and potentially even some small returns to ‘investors’ (as opposed to donors) you would open the door to a vast new audience who, under current models, may be completely unreachable.