For decades, companies and charities have been thought of as completely different types of organizations; they have different goals, different methods, even different tax status. However, now more than ever the lines between for-profit and non-profit are blurring. Corporations are incorporating societal issues, social responsibility, and community development in ways that improve their bottom line. Hybrid organizations like social enterprises are finding ways to improve the world while still making a profit. Just as companies look to the non-profit sector for new ideas, there are also many strategies NGOs can learn from businesses.
For some reason, marketing tends to be thought of negatively – especially when it comes from NGOs. Often this is due to the belief that as much time and resources as possible should go directly to projects. However, while this sounds noble, it is very short-sighted. Even a small investment in marketing can increase an NGO’s reach, reputation, and fundraising ability.
Having a logo, a website, and newsletter or social media presence is fairly typical nowadays, but NGOs still tend to spend as little time and resources as possible on these. Do not make this mistake! NGOs should take seriously the role of effective communicator. Marketing is a great help with this.
Another marketing tool NGOs tend to avoid is advertising. Specifically, buying ads. However, this is a mistake. Ads have proven to be incredibly powerful tools in shaping opinion and opening wallets. If businesses can use ads to sell everything from apps to fast food, why shouldn’t NGOs use them to share the importance of their work?
Just like businesses, NGOs need to think strategically about how to achieve their goals. NGOs have limited resources and need to plan carefully how to utilize these resources to greatest effect. It is difficult but important for NGOs to remember that they cannot help everyone. There is always an opportunity cost for selecting one project over another. This is also relevant in deciding marketing strategies, fundraising strategies, and much more.
However, this is not to say that NGOs need to maximize efficiency. In fact, NGOs in many cases may choose a less-efficient option in their projects. For example, it may be cheaper and easier to select beneficiaries that live nearby, speak the same language, are healthy, or already have some money and education. But if your NGO’s goal is to help the most vulnerable, you might decide to purposely choose beneficiaries who would be harder to reach and help.
NGOs are so busy investing in communities that they forget to invest in themselves. And invest they should. Creating societal change is hard and requires NGOs to plan for the long-term. But it is very difficult for NGOs to stay effective if they have no employees, no office, no training. Volunteers and donations can only go so far, and a shoe-string budget is not good for NGOs nor their beneficiaries.
Business investors know that you need to spend money to make money. Company stakeholders see the reasoning in spending money on new technologies, employee salaries, and a good work environment to increase productivity. And yet, donors investing in NGOs often refuse to cover the core or operating costs, insisting that all funds go directly to the project. Why treat NGOs differently? Donors need to educate other donors on the impact of investing in NGOs, and NGOs need to advocate for themselves and their budgets.
These are just some of the many ideas and strategies NGOs can learn from businesses. What has your NGO picked up from other companies? Share your experiences with us in the comments!