Earlier this week I sat down with the admin team of a local nonprofit organization: the office manager, the operations manager and the ED’s assistant to discuss ways to simplify their team’s communication system. When I asked what they felt was their biggest challenge was they said that they had a lot of people who dropped into their programs but had no real system set up to keep track of anyone. They wanted to make sure that the people who were showing up felt welcomed and connected but also admitted that nothing was really being done to deepen the relationship after that initial meeting.
It was then that I asked them the ever-controversial, taboo nonprofit question that I almost dread asking - who exactly were they hoping to market to and develop relationships with. Silence. This organization had been around for 30+ years, surely they had a specific demographic they were looking to engage and serve, right? Wrong.
After a few minutes the operation’s manager commented that because they are a community organization, their target market is anyone in the community. Wasn’t it the right thing to do to try to help anyone who needed help with whatever means possible? Wasn’t that why their organization existed - to serve others? Wouldn’t it be a bad idea to identify one specific portion of their community and focus on them? Wouldn’t that estrange some people?
Of all the conversations I have with nonprofit leaders, the “target market” one always seems to be the hardest as all of us like to help others but unfortunately the only outcome of trying to be “all things to all people” is poor results. After a few minutes of trying to explain to me why a nonprofit such as theirs didn’t operate by the same rules as a traditional business (like mine) I asked her the following question. How did her organization know which programs to offer and financially invest in without a deep understanding of their target market’s needs? Without knowing who they were set up to help, how could they possibly know how to offer meaningful, deep solutions?
I could tell she wasn’t completely on board with my message and I understood. It’s a very complicated emotion for many of us to decide that we are going to focus on serving one group of people over any other. Mission drift is the easiest trap in the world - I daily have to check myself to make sure the work that I do lines up with the needs of my target market, it is an all-the-time kind of thing. It is so easy to go really wide with the solutions we offer and we don’t know how far away from our mark we are until we look at our organizations 2, 3, 4 years later and wonder why lives aren’t being changed in the way we had envisioned when initially launching our organizations. Saying “yes” is easy, saying “no” takes an incredible amount of focus and discipline.
When I work with startup leaders, the first advice I always give them is to figure out exactly WHO they want to use their organization to serve. Really take the time to get in the head of this market of people, get really deep inside their unique needs and then build-out your programs appropriately. It is really easy to get good at doing things that don’t matter to our target market and then wonder where all our resources go. While trying to help everyone, we’re really helping no one in a significant way and as a result everyone loses.
Our meeting ended with one of the team members being excited, one being indifferent and one being completely confused. You could see that on one hand they were happy to have gotten some effective marketing 101 advice but on the other hand, I had brought into question all of their programs, their purpose as an organization and their method of operation thus far. It was undoubtedly a completely different way of looking at their organization and wouldn’t be easy for anyone to wrap their mind around.
If you’re reading this as a leader just getting started on writing your organization’s strategic plan, the most important thing you can do is to make your WHO the center of your work. Spend less time throwing darts at the dart-board hoping some of your programs get a favorable response and spend more time talking to those who fit your demographic profile about what their wants and needs. Once you have that information you can then get busy creating meaningful solutions to those problems and see lives impacted in a real way. Less guessing, less cost, less turnover.
About the Author: Natasha is the Founder of Next Level Nonprofits and is dedicated to helping passionate start-up nonprofit leaders develop the foundational leadership and management skills they need to enjoy enjoy successful, sustainable and satisfying careers.