Why the American Cancer Society Is Still a Good Bet
Earlier this month, the American Cancer Society announced it was laying off 1,000 staff members and anticipated a $200 million shortfall during 2020. Turnkey has a handful of nonprofit clients that may not survive the economic slowdown resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. What are the long-term prospects for ACS? Despite ACS’ short-term troubles (funding for research grants may need to be cut as much as 50%), we believe its long-term outlook is good. Two things make us confident that ACS will right itself on the other side of the pandemic: its value proposition and organizational brand.
The concept of value proposition originated in the marketing departments of for-profit organizations. It is a statement that paints a clear picture of what your brand has to offer and how your product or service solves/improves your prospects’ or consumers’ problems.
When translated into the nonprofit world, it is important to understand who is influenced by the value proposition. It is intuitive to think of the beneficiary of the organization’s mission as being the target of the value proposition. That, however, is not the case. Instead, it is the organization’s supporters — donors and fundraisers. Much of the target for for-profit organizations’ value propositions is the consumer, the buyer.
ACS expresses its value proposition in different ways to different audiences and through various communication vehicles, but its core message remains the same:
ACS saves lives by helping people stay well, by helping people get well, by finding cures and by fighting back.
Much as in the for-profit world, the success of an organization’s value proposition has a single metric — revenue. Based on that metric, we would argue that the ACS’ value proposition is working less well now than in the past. Its revenue for events, like Relay for Life, has been in decline for years. Which begs the question: What is it that gets people to take action on value propositions? What makes consumers buy? What makes nonprofit supporters donate?
Value propositions describe the benefits of an offer to the consumer, but the organization’s brand is the catalyst for them to take action. Brand development isn’t about educating the consumer. A brand isn’t what people think about the organization; it is instead what people feel about the organization. For-profits carefully shape these feelings: Chevy trucks (tough), Walmart (value), Apple (elite, cutting-edge). Research on nonprofit supporters shows that they are largely ignorant of the nonprofit’s actual operations, and they don’t really care. They are motivated by the organization’s brand and the extent to which they believe their support will result in some good outcome.
While large for-profits have budgets to shape consumer’s brand perception through the media, the real opportunity lies in the ways that organizations engage with their consumers. Research on for-profit consumers by Dr. Adrian Sargeant at the Lilly School for Philanthropy at the University of Indiana demonstrated the power of engagement to impact an organization’s brand perception. His research revealed that even customers who were dissatisfied with a product would keep returning if the organization just engaged with them regarding their concerns. This was true even if their issue wasn’t resolved!
It’s a Numbers Game
ACS has the advantage of engaging with large numbers of people. One in three Americans will be diagnosed with cancer sometime during their lifetime. This means that the ACS potentially has the opportunity to touch, in some way, every family in the U.S. Revenue through channels like Relay For Life has declined because the way the organization engages its supporters via these events has changed for the worse (for a detailed explanation, see our book, “Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising”). Overall, the ACS brand remains strong because the organization can engage with cancer patients and their families. High-quality, sustained engagement is key. How do we know? Consumer research tells us that even when it is imperfect, engagement is enough to keep people coming back for more.
The lesson that ACS has for us all is in understanding that the strength of the brand and its value proposition is strong, clear and enduring.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.