Nonprofits: Create “customer pathways” to build loyalty



Recently, I was sent a free copy of You’ve Got to Have Heart, a new book about how to achieve success in the nonprofit sector by Cass Wheeler, longtime CEO of The American Heart Association (AHA).  I went right to the “Big Brass Bands” chapter on marketing.

Wheeler talks a lot about AHA’s growing customer focus, both the methods it employs to understand customer needs and how it uses that information in designing programs and communications.

One of his ideas in particular struck me as relevant to communicators—the recommendation that nonprofits consciously create “customer pathways” to make it easy for people to deepen their relationship with the organization.

The example he shares is AHA exploring how an initial contact—like a Web site visit—can be turned into call to a call center, which can then turn into participation in a Heart Walk, which can then turn into a lifelong relationship and possible donations.

Think about how your supporters typically come into first contact with your organization. Is it through your Web site, another Web site, a social networking site, an ad, a newsletter, attendance at an event? (If it’s your Web site, track analytics to find out which pages they land on most. In the age of search engines, they can zoom right into a subsection and never hit your homepage.)

Then think about the next step you’d like those new supporters to take to get more involved with your organization. (Don’t necessarily leap to donation, you’re building a long-term relationship here. Put their interests, needs, and comfort level first.) Do you want them to sign up for a newsletter, add their name to a mailing list, get more information on your cause or organization, visit your Web site, call with a question, sign up for your Facebook fan page?

How can you intentionally prime your initial contact points to encourage new supporters to take those next steps?

  • Do you need to add an enewsletter sign up to your most popular Web pages?
  • Should you feature an information line phone number in your newsletter?
  • Do you need to promote your Web site more in your printed pieces?
  • Do you need to add a social network widget to your enewsletter?
  • Do you need to create a tailored landing page for the link from your social network page or the link from a charity hub Web site?

Make it easy for them to get to know you better, in ways that are meaningful to them. This is an offer of friendship, not just a sales pitch. Provide them with simple ways to satisfy their need to be connected to a worthy cause that has personal significance, and to learn how they can support that cause with their social and financial capital.

Now, go even further. What would you like them to do after that—participate in an event, become a volunteer, refer their friends, comment on your blog, contribute content to your communications, raise awareness or funds through their social networks, provide a testimonial, donate money?

Create clear, convenient paths for them to move forward, making sure at every touch point they have a satisfying, consistent experience. Seek their feedback, answer their questions immediately and honestly, don’t be stingy with thank you’s, and remember the power of even small incentives. When they sign up for your enewsletter, offer them a free, short, well done, up-to-the-minute report on something they might be interested in related to your work. And in that report, offer them a link to your institutional blog or Web site as a way to keep up with other news and events. Maybe you can offer them free or discounted entry to an event or conference if they refer 5 friends.

The best way to start creating customer pathways is with a simple segmentation of your potential supporters—so you can develop paths specific to each major segment. That assumes you’ve done research on those segments and have a good idea of their preferences, needs, and interests. Getting back to the book, the American Heart Association has identified six major customer market segments and assigned staff to each. These staff are responsible for creating customer profiles through data gathering and annual surveys, then creating loyalty action plans. The goal—very satisfied customers.

Not every nonprofit can undertake that level of commitment to finding out what supporters want and need, but there are free or inexpensive ways to gather that information. I’ve suggested several in a past post.

Don’t be satisfied with just putting a big donate button on your homepage. (Yes, you should have a big donate button on your homepage.) Think creatively about how to integrate all your points of communication in ways that encourage your newest supporters to become your lifelong friends.

I’m going to be sending this hardcover book to someone free! If you’d like it, tell me why in the comments below by Thursday, April 30.

CC photo credit: egg on stilts


Nonprofit branding and the role of organizational culture



I’ve watched the evolution of nonprofit branding since the topic first hit The Chronicle of Philanthropy years ago.

Thankfully, a group of marketing thought leaders—including people like Seth Godin and Chris Brogan—have helped shift branding from a selling strategy to more of an organizational development strategy, with emphasis on exceeding customer demand, being a good community member, and creating loyal tribes.

I’m just one of many “thought-followers” on this topic, but I’m intrigued by the important role that organizational culture plays in nonprofit brands. So, I’m adding my two cents to what greater minds have already shared. Be sure to check out some of their insights in the links below.

Modern branding places control of your brand with your supporters and potential supporters. Their feelings and perceptions about your organization are your brand.

Their perceptions hinge on 1) how well their interactions with your organization meet their needs—not just tangible needs, but intangible needs like connection, participation, contribution, trust, even delight; and 2) the opinions of people they trust.

Let me add, your supporters are networked, smart, and can spot “spin” a mile away.

So, if they’re smart and their perceptions are your brand, how can you influence them? One way is by looking to your organizational culture; how you behave. As brand expert Marty Neumeier says: “A living brand is a pattern of behavior, not a stylistic veneer.”

Your print and electronic communications are your organization’s appearance.  How your organization behaves is its character. Appearance is important, but solid, long-lasting relationships are based on character, and the best gauge of that is your organizational culture.

Should you behave in dishonest, irresponsible, thoughtless, greedy, self-centered ways—today’s smart markets are going to know it. They won’t trust you and they won’t support you—no matter how emotionally moving your annual report, how well differentiated your market position, or how consistent your messages. There are no secrets, no hiding places, no rugs to sweep broken promises under. The culture of your organization is transparent, whether you want it to be or not. It shines through in every interaction.

Here are a few things to consider as you think about how your culture affects your brand.

  • The branding process is a two-way conversation between the inside (your organization’s staff/board) and the outside (your organization’s supporters). Two sets of real human beings. Your staff/board makes a promise to your supporters to accomplish a specific social change within a specific population and geography. (It’s important to be clear and focused about the promise you’re making. Make sure you have the capacity to fulfill it. ) At the same time, you make a promise to yourselves—and to your supporters—that you will live out a particular set of values in your work. Hopefully, those values include honesty, responsibility, fairness, generosity, reliability, and compassion. Every participant in your organization needs to know them by heart, and clearly understand what value-based behaviors are expected of them. Not just for the good of your supporters, but for the good of your internal culture. Your CEO plays an essential role in setting the tone and modeling your organizational culture, and the marketing department helps create communications products. But your “brand team” is your entire board and staff. Your “brand voice” is the human voice. Ideally, there should be no difference between internal and external behavior.  Staff and board treat each other as generously as they treat supporters. What you see is what you get. That’s authenticity.
  • It’s important for your staff/board to understand all the dimensions of this two-way conversation, which extend far beyond printed and electronic communications. Whether it’s the receptionist greeting a visitor, the voicemail message that callers get after hours, the magazines on the table in your lobby, a meeting between a board member and a potential donor, a site visit or client interview, a small group tutorial, a large conference, a chance meeting with a supporter outside of work—every interaction related to your work is a moment of relationship-building and branding. In those moments you make the choice to act on your organization’s values; you make the choice to keep the promise. This even extends to the choices you make about your office space.

  • Take responsibility for what goes wrong or falls short. Remember, this conversation is between human beings. No human being is perfect, and most of the time owning up leads to forgiveness and even support. Carlo Questa, of Creation in Common, suggests you set milestones for yourself along the path to your promise, and let staff/board and supporters know that at those junctures you’re going to be providing status reports. When you hit a milestone, if your success isn’t what you hoped it would be, let people know why you think that happened and how you’re going to make a mid-course correction. Either try a different tack or revise your promise. Be flexible and humble enough to embrace new ideas. Carlo also advises not making excuses about “external forces” beyond your control more than once. And, make sure to tell your supporters how you’re going to adjust to those forces in order to succeed.
  • Align your appearance with your character. Make sure your values come through loud and clear in the design and the content of your communications. Try to avoid exaggeration, vagueness (from either laziness or the desire to hide something), claiming victory too soon, withholding information in the hope that no one will notice, and trying to look like something you’re not. Don’t assume you know what your supporters want from your communications—ask them every chance you get (without becoming a nuisance.) These few communications are under your control—unlike much of the rest of the conversation. Don’t waste the chance to meet the needs of your supporters while clearly demonstrating your progress on the promise.
  • Open your ears and doors. Show supporters that you’re interested in them as people not just wallets or volunteers. Think about how your work and your promise can help them fulfill their own aspirations. Ask their opinions and preferences through polls on your Web site and social media sites, or make sparing use of online instruments like SurveyMonkey. Use results to help guide your decision-making. (Author and PR strategist Geoff Livingston recommends developing a process for collecting and vetting all your stakeholders’ feedback–not just with the communications department, but with the entire organization.) If your supporters are on FaceBook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., have a convenient presence there. Communicate with them when you’re not asking for money or support—check in, invite them to visit or to call with questions, make sure they know about your events, ask them if there is any way you can help (information, referrals). When you’re interacting with them, be fully attentive. Be the kind of friend you want them to be.

Nonprofits are not corporations. Their work will never be, nor should be, entirely shaped by consumer opinion and demand. But, working as they do on programs to promote the common good, shouldn’t nonprofits be modeling behavior that contributes to the common good? Take a closer look at your organizational culture—does it really reflect the kind of values you embrace?

Your culture is a great place to start living your brand. In fact, it may be the only place you can.

What are your ideas about nonprofit brands?

The Brand Gap, Marty Neumeier, Neutron LLC

Nonprofit Branding, Carlo Cuesta, Creation in Common

Worried about your branding? What exactly are you worried about? Steve Cebalt, Main Street Marketing


In bad economy, nonprofits can tap social capital

flickr/brande jackson

flickr/brande jackson


With the bleak economy, many donors are curtailing giving levels until some of the uncertainty subsides. That makes 2009 a daunting year for fundraisers.

Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of your supporters solely in terms of dollars. They also can support you in non-monetary ways—by offering expertise, material goods, and assistance in publicity and fundraising. We call this “social capital,” and it may be a good year for your nonprofit to start exploring ways to tap into it.

The secret is to try to match your needs with supporters’ interests. Create opportunities for them to have some fun, get excited, and feel they’re furthering the causes they’re passionate about.

Here are some ideas for “asks” that don’t involve money. (I’m focusing on communications needs here.)


What expertise or service do you need? Technology support to build a website or blog; free graphic design or printing for a publication; a free event venue? Look through you donor lists and see if there are people who might be willing to make in-kind contributions this year. Put a WISH LIST of these expertise needs on your website, on your social media pages, and in your newsletter to let supporters know. Think your needs through carefully and try to attach them to discrete projects, with a beginning and an end. Give the donor a sense of involvement, ownership, and satisfaction (and credit) when the job gets done.


Endorsements from supporters are more powerful than your own words can ever be. Word-of-mouth always trumps publicity. Think about gathering supporter testimonials about why they think your orgnization is so good at what it does and why what you do is important to the community. You can use these in many ways—on websites, in publications, in speeches…even in funder proposals.


Maybe your organization could use volunteers to canvass a neighborhood or work at a special event. Let your supporters know about those opportunities, and be sure to reward them for their service in some way.


Many smaller nonprofits struggle to keep up with equipment and supplies. They could use digital cameras, videocams, printers, shelving, chairs, paper, etc. Donors often have good surplus equipment from their own technology upgrades that they don’t know what to do with. Make those connections. Publish a WISH LIST of needed equipment and supplies on your website or in you newsletters. (Make it clear you’re only interested in like-new or slightly used equipment that functions perfectly. You don’t need repair expenses.)


Those who may not be able to give you as much financial support this year may be happy to lend a fundraising hand by using their social networks of family and friends. Ask donors to refer 10 new potential supporters to you. Person-to-person fundraising made great leaps last year thanks to social media. Tap into these networks. Make sure its easy for donors to get fundraising widgets from you to put on their blogs or social media pages, and encourage them to use simple fundraising tools like Facebook’s Birthday Cause (This link takes you to Beth Kanter’s blog for some how-to’s.) Don’t try to control the message—let them talk about your organization and its importance in their own way and words. That’s what’s so powerful about this kind of personal fundraising.


If you’re trying to beef up attendance for a special event or promote a new program or just get news out, don’t forget to enlist supporters as your publicity corps. Ask them to post news or invitations on their blogs and social media pages, including links to appropriate landing pages on your website. They may also tap into a whole world of small newsletters associated with their places of worship, professional groups and associations, and other networks.


If you’ve been waiting for a good time to do donor research, now might be your moment. Rather than asking donors for money, ask them to help you learn more about the needs, opinions, and preferences of your supporters (or other topics) by taking a short survey.


If you need good photos and stories about your cause or organization, think about organizing a project or contest where your supporters (and potential supporters) send in digital photos and short articles about some facet of your work.  Think about this idea from the standpoint of strategy—the messages you want to get across. Then explore if and how yoru supporters might play a role in contributing content. For instance, one food shelf launching a major contribution campaign wanted donors to feel part of something much larger. So, they asked contributors to email them a photo of themselves and the food they were about to donate. All those photos went right onto the website.

Wisely using your supporters’ social capital can build strong, long lasting ties between them and your organization. They begin to feel like partners, not just  donors. We’re entering a new American era of volunteerism and participation. People are looking for opportunities not just to sign checks, but to roll up their sleeves and get involved. Give them that chance.

CC photo credit: Brande Jackson