Profiting from nonprofits?

You might think that tough-minded, profit-motivated, practical business people wouldn’t have much to learn from a bunch of granola-crunchers working in nonprofits. You’d be wrong. The nonprofit sector is a huge enterprise. Think of The Salvation Army. Think of the Red Cross. They’re multinational organizations with billion-dollar budgets. You don’t get there by being ineffectual.

So what can we learn from them? Here are three examples.

1. Find and use stories. Ask just about anyone working in a nonprofit and just about any fundraiser, and they’ll tell you it’s critical to have a collection of stories describing what the nonprofit does. If it’s the APSCA, they have stories about abused animals that have been rescued. If it’s World Relief, they have stories about feeding people in Africa who are starving. Nonprofits are constantly on the lookout for compelling stories that illustrate what they do.

Why the emphasis on stories? Because nonprofits know that statistics don’t engage people. Facts don’t engage people. Even celebrity endorsements often don’t engage people. But stories do.

Stories create an immediate emotional bond with donors and encourage them to open their wallets. That’s because a specific story about one person being helped is something that donors can relate to. They can’t relate to 100,000 people suffering from malnutrition – that doesn’t connect. But a story about a person who’s starving to death – that will.

Think about your product and your customers. Is there a story about how your product solved a tough problem or improved a customer’s life in some way? There has to be. All you have to do is find it, and a good place to start looking is your sales people, since they talk to customers all the time.

Once you have your story – or better yet, several stories – think about how you can use it … how you can incorporate it into brochures and other marcom materials, press releases, sales presentation, even your 30-second elevator speech.

2. Rediscover the passion. People in nonprofits look at their jobs differently from people in private-sector businesses. They have a goal – a big goal. Not to get a raise or to increase profits over last quarter (although nonprofit people like raises, and they’re always trying to generate more revenue through fundraising). Their goal is to make the world a better place. And no, that’s not just cockeyed idealism. It’s a way to get their staff focused and fired up.

A charity like World Relief, for example, is dedicated to protecting vulnerable people around the world who are suffering in poverty and hunger. Everyone on staff – from the administrative assistants to the fundraising staff to the Executive Director – knows that each individual job is contributing to that larger goal. They know what they’re doing and why. And that inspires passion.

Think about how you can link what your company does to a larger goal and so give people something to be passionate about beyond their next paycheck. It’s not as farfetched as it might seem. Apple doesn’t just make computers. They help people become more creative – a noble goal. Your company has a larger goal too. To find it, just think about all the ways your product or service makes people’s lives better. Not just product features – think big. Go for the big benefit. In fact, go for the biggest.

3. Ramp up the dedication. People working in nonprofits are often highly dedicated in their work, and a large part of the reason is the big goal mentioned earlier. When people rally around a common purpose, they tend to find their own sense of personal dedication inside themselves. And if it’s a goal they personally believe in, they’ll work harder than they will for any other external reward, including more money.

Consider a charity like The Salvation Army. The people working there make far less than they would in the private sector, yet they’re overwhelmingly committed to the organization. They love their work. And they love the organization and what it stands for. Because of it, they have a personal stake in what they do, and that’s something no pep talk, motivational speech, or HR initiative could ever accomplish.

Think about your shared purpose and your big goal. Those are the keys to real dedication. As marketing guru Seth Godin has said again and again, people desperately want to do work that matters. It’s something that workers in nonprofits already know. Make your work matter too.

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