Think Hiring Experts Is Expensive? Try Amateurs
A job listing recently came across my desk for the chief marketing officer at a major nonprofit who will remain nameless. My eye dropped to the requirements for the position: a bachelor’s degree—not even specifically in marketing or communications. In theory, the “right” candidate could have a degree in French literature, sufficient to explain the symbolism of the madeleine cookie in Marcel Proust, but not to set a marketing mix.
Contrast this with a director of marketing position for a for-profit near my home—a lesser position at a smaller organization. This listing requires a bachelor’s in marketing or a related field and shows a strong preference for a master’s.
This is hardly an anomaly. If you want to manage any aspect of Walmart’s marketing, an MBA from a top program is required. If Amazon needs a copywriter or a behavioral scientist, they turn to someone trained in these skills.
It’s time for nonprofit fundraisers and those who work with them to aspire to be true professionals. Unfortunately, we as a sector have often fallen short. Nowhere is this truer than in the agencies that aim to represent our nonprofits to the world.
When a marketing agency pitches you, it will almost always be with their top people in the room. Take a picture of those folks; it will be something by which to remember them.
Traditional agencies have junior staff members making day-to-day and tactical decisions (and sometimes the strategic ones). There could be 10 people or more involved in an account, most of whom have many other clients. Those junior staff members who do the bulk of effort are stretched too thin.
Things get missed. Mistakes get made. And action can be glacial.
Moreover, because these junior staff members are from the bachelor’s-degree-and-hope hiring pool, they often don’t have the expertise necessary to run an account.
A junior staff member with a SurveyMonkey account can ask donors how important a variable is to their support. But someone who has studied survey design and research at an advanced level can tell you that that will generate random results at best. Many things we want to measure in surveys—motives, needs, desires, intents—must be done indirectly, because people either don’t know why they believe what they believe or because they answer surveys in a way they think the questioner wants it answered.
The difference between a survey done by a professional and one done by even an intelligent amateur is the difference between quality results and garbage data that will lead you astray.
A junior staff member can see an article that says that pricing theory says people like prices that end in nines, because people only process the first number of a price. As a result, prices like $19.99 give you the most value. But a behavioral scientist like Dr. Kiki Koutmeridou will tell you exactly the opposite happens for donations. Cognitive fluency—the ability to easily process a document—is king for most donations; similarly, for most donations, people want to increase their perceived impact, rather than diminish it.
A junior staff member can write copy. But a copywriter who’ve honed their craft in both classroom and real-life will deliver a specific, effective emotional journey.
These special and specific skills come with education and training. Those should be required for those who would aim to guide nonprofits’ fundraising programs. But they are not.
As a result, you see agency behavior that is disjointed from an overall marketing goal. We’ve recently had several situations that would have been prevented by having the right person in the right job at an agency:
- A person specializing in Google Grants was given the instruction to use all of the client’s available budget. They did, by spending 90 percent of the client’s budget on irrelevant keywords about job placement in India (this organization had little presence in India and no jobs available). Any trained marketer would know that audience quantity does not matter if there is no audience quality.
- After a terrible first quarter of direct mail results leaving an organization $300,000 below net projections, the agency was asked to reforecast the budget for the rest of the year. Their answer? Down $300 net—all the pieces for the rest of the year would make budget. Anyone who had any training in forecasting would know that results are highly correlated with each other—it’s unlikely that Q2 will look different from Q1 if you don’t change anything. (And it didn’t.)
- An agency had the hypothesis that online advocates would do well as donors for their client organization, so they spent tens of thousands of dollars to acquire online advocates. They did not do the practical step of looking at the value of online advocates currently on the client file, which were significantly less valuable than other online constituents for the client. Needless to say, these advocates have still not (four years later) paid back the client organization.
- An agency spent over $3 million on face-to-face acquisition for a client, but assigned no one to manage this subcontractor. They did, however, build $500 per email to write and sent emails that raised an average of $130 per.
This is not to say experts can’t and do not make mistakes. But Keystone Cops errors like these, where an organization pays handsomely for the privilege of an overmatched, overworked agency person create havoc in their marketing program, are largely avoidable with actual expertise.
Nonprofits should demand that those who would seek to represent them to their donors live up to these standards of excellence in both background and deed. This means that the survey designer trained to design surveys, the programmer built an expertise in programming and the marketers learned that Pinterest isn’t one of the four P’s of marketing.