Confidence Game

Marketing is a strange term when it comes to doing good works. I think most people who get into NGO careers are not really the branding types, but often hire consultants to help them with branding something that seems like it’s un-brandable. Love, generosity, caring. Do they really need a logo and packaging? Certainly to raise money, it seems, as there are no end of “competing” do-gooder organizations angling for a limited pool of money from a relatively small group of funders. In the early days of our work, we once found ourselves in a conversation with a client where they told us they loved the video we’d made them, but were afraid it might move their audience to donate to any org that did similar work rather than just them. On one level, we totally understood. Our job was to help them raise money, for people to value the kind of work they did over the methodology of other organizations in the same playground. On the other hand, we couldn’t help but thinking “Is that so bad?” I mean, the goal is solving whatever problem a nonprofit has set its heart on, right? Not necessarily the survival of your particular organization?

As we’ve spent more time working with nonprofits, however, we’ve found the answer is complex and nuanced. For one, it’s become clearer that not only are some nonprofits who share the same space more effective than others, but some can actually do harm. So supporting all orgs is not necessarily useful. This is nowhere more clear than in the education space, where competing idealogies about education reform can cause real damage to each other through policy and funding, and potentially alter outcomes for children themselves. 

But also, there’s another, more implicit job of “branding”, or in our case, telling compelling, authentic and truthful stories about an organization. Beyond fundraising, or profile-raising, it seems that people whom these organizations hope to serve are in need of some marketing.

These numbers are pretty bad, and should give everyone pause. If only %50 of the folks you are serving think you can help them, how can you get them to partake in programs that can change their lives, and if they do partake, stick with the program enough to make a change? 

Of course, we’re not talking about the typical ROI of marketing vs sales (or donations in the case of nonprofits), but in how confidence changes how effectively those services are delivered. I can say with a fair amount of anecdotal confidence after 10 years in this industry, that this area of marketing is greatly under-resourced. In the scramble to raise money to keep the efforts of an org alive, the urgency of branding and marketing to funders is really clear. But if the ultimate goal of an NGO is to help people, isn’t it just as essential to have clients who are confident in the work you are doing?

I’m guessing most orgs that serve populations are well prepared with brochures and educational materials to help at least get the word out that services are available. But how many of them go out into the community and intentionally create a trusted brand in the way major corporations do? I’m guessing if you asked how many of these same folks in the poll above had confidence that Apple Computer would deliver a good phone to them, the numbers would be dramatically higher. An NGO will never be able to compete with the billions that Apple spends on marketing, but certainly any effort could improve those numbers, no?


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