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.
You can do the same with your donors. I had a friend who subscribed to magazines that his donors received. It was a fine way to see what media his prospects were exposed to, and it helped as conversation starters at visits. It was a professional development expertise in target marketing.
Can you ever "become" your clients? No, you can't. (And you may not want to—on either end—client or prospect.) What you will become is more empathetic to their life, a better communicator and leader in your nonprofit, and probably more appreciative of yours.