Are You in Their Head?
How well do you know the people you serve? How well do you know the folks you solicit for gifts? I'm not talking about recognizing them on the street or at an event. That's nice, but really, it's superficial. I mean how well do you know the kind of life they live? How well do you know how they handle their finances? How well do you know what their day looks like from start to end?
This whole topic struck me one night when I was teaching one of my "Marketing for Nonprofits" classes. Here I was, standing in front of about 20 early to mid-career nonprofit professionals (or those aspiring to be), and only a couple really understood who they were serving (programmatically) or soliciting (philanthropically). A bigger problem? This isn't the first time I've seen this.
The experience drove home to me the importance of getting in the head of your client. In the for-profit sector, you'd call this "target marketing." The better a business understands its customers, the more money it makes. The better a nonprofit understands its clients, the better service it provides. The better a nonprofit understands its donors, the better it can fundraise.
Of course, the best way to understand how someone lives is to live their life, right? For example, in business, you might expect a bike shop owner to ride bikes. Ah, but for nonprofits, there's a problem. You can't serve the poor and raise money from the rich and live both lifestyles. In fact, chances are you live neither lifestyle.
What's a nonprofit leader to do? Study. (OK, you'd expect that kind of an answer from someone who teaches, but let's see where this goes ...)
You need to learn as much as you can about their lives, very much like an anthropologist—the kind that studies indigenous people in rain forests. Your first stop? Books. If you're serving people in poverty, grab a copy of "Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor" by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh or "Life at the Bottom" by Theodore Dalrymple. If you can, start meeting your clients and talk to them, maybe over a meal. Test out what you're reading. Have a client mentor you about his or her experiences.
Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the U.S. and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses, an on-demand, e-learning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members and volunteers, with hundreds of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.
He’s the author of "The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting," and "Philanders Family Values, Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff and Volunteers," and a contributing author to "The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management."
Over his 30-year career, Matt has held positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College and the University of the Arts. In these positions, he raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and government entities, and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities.
Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College and Thomas Edison State University via the web, and in-person in the U.S., Africa, Asia and Europe, and is a popular conference speaker. He has a B.S. from Juniata College and an M.A. in philanthropy and development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Matt has served on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Nonprofit Career Network of Philadelphia and several nonprofits.