How to Apply Business Advice to Nonprofits, Social Change Organizations, or Churches

Think business advice doesn’t apply to your nonprofit? Think again.

In my 15 years of working in business development, I’ve worked with many nonprofit organizations. In my experience in the nonprofit world, business language seemed foreign for some, but it doesn’t have to be. Often, I’d experience people dismissing business advice out of hand, because they felt it was irrelevant since they were managing a  nonprofit organization. While the differing organizations clearly have different sets of goals and challenges, human behavior and how people are motivated remain the same.

An Exchange of Value

At the very core, you’re exchanging value. Business development, whether in use for a corporation, small business, or nonprofit involves the same activities: create new revenue streams, create efficiencies within existing revenue streams, and package products and services in new ways. This is how I’ve spent my career- helping clients define and reshape value offered based on the needs at hand. 
Whether you’re running a small business or an after school program, an animal shelter, or a church, you’re selling something. To keep the lights on, the staff paid, and operations running, you’re appealing to someone to exchange their contribution (money, skills, time) for a reward of some sort (feeling good about helping kids or animals, being involved and feeling supported in a community, etc).

The business development formula for a business is the identification of: 

  1. The problem,
  2. The unique value the company is able to offer for the solution to said problem, 
  3. Who has that problem and, more narrowly, the people the company can best help, 
  4. The motivations and challenges of those buyers.

Then, go on to create and distribute messages that appeal to those customers, on the platforms where it will be most visible to them, with a clear call to action of what you want them to do. 

The modifications, then, for this formula to apply for nonprofits and social organizations are the identification of:

  1. The unique value the organization is able to offer or the problem to be solved, 
  2. The needs the organization has to deliver that value or solve that problem,
  3. Who is to be helped, 
  4. Who is to do the helping,
  5. The motivations of each group and subgroup. 

Then, go on to create and distribute messages that appeal to those customers, on the platforms where it will be most visible to them, with a clear call to action of what you want them to do. 

Developing messaging for each group can be the most challenging aspect of this process for nonprofits, because often those involved are so close to the cause that they feel like the need is obvious. Or,they feel that the work they’re doing should speak for itself. That’s possible, but unfortunately, not how it usually works. And it’s good to keep in mind that each set of people from whom you’re requesting help has a different motivator. 

Let’s take a look at an example- a medical missions group that travels to undeveloped countries like Uganda, Mali, and Guatemala to provide life saving surgeries, free of charge to people who have little or no access to quality healthcare. Efforts are naturally required to be able to compile all the people and money needed to be able to fulfill the mission of the organization.

An Example

  • The unique value the organization is able to offer/ the problem to be solved: life saving surgeries for people who have little or no access to healthcare 
  • The needs the organization has to deliver that value/ solve that problem: 
    • Medical personnel (surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurse anesthetists, scrub techs, etc) to donate their time and skills.
    • Money to pay for travel for those volunteers (often volunteers will give time or money, not both). 
    • Supplies to be able to perform the care. 
    • Administrative support to manage all the travel and volunteer logistics, warehousing supplies, etc. 
  • Who is to be helped: people in undeveloped countries. 
  • Who is to do the helping: Medical Missions Group volunteers.
  • The motivations of each group and subgroup. 
    • Medical personnel- do good, feel good. 
    • Donors to provide money for travel, supplies, and admin support- do good, feel good.

Then, go on to.

  • Create and distribute messages that appeal to those customers, on the platforms where it will be most visible to them, with a clear call to action of what you want them to do.  
    • Medical personnel to donate time and ability to perform the surgeries
      • Ask: Donate your time and skills (these aren’t 2 day trips… these are 7-10 day commitments.)
      • Message: This is a big ask, but the rewards are life changing. 
      • Approach: Recruit influential, well liked medical personnel, provide a great experience.  (Ask them first when the next volunteers are needed.) 
      • Actual tactics: Recruit medical personnel and add them to your base of subscribers, sharing regular newsletters of their peers saving lives in other parts of the world, highlighting the gravity of the situation. 
    • Philanthropic donors to fund operations
      • Ask: Use your money for good. 
      • Message: How else can you make this kind of impact across the globe? 
      • Approach: Individual recruitment of large donors and/ or micro campaigns seeking small amounts of money across large groups such as a social media following.
      • Actual tactics: Showcase donors as heros in regular newsletters and at organization events, inspiring others to be like them.

Address Specific Objections in the Messaging for Each Audience

In thinking through motivations for each segment, you’ll want to identify potential obstacles or challenges in the request and address them straight off: To the surgeons and nurse anesthetists, “Yes, this is a big commitment. This is a 7-10 day trip that will change countless lives, including your own.” A philanthropist could potentially object that short term mission trips are ultimately not scalable, thereby emphasizing the fact that the volunteer medical personnel are using the opportunity to train in-country (local) providers, thus helping create systemic change. A small donor might object that their $50 could actually create change, but when reassured that the consolidated amount will make a difference in a tangible way, they’ll click the donate button. 

For Best Results, Repeat Often

Next, think through how you can get in touch with more people, like the ones you’ve successfully recruited, in order to be able to replicate the process more quickly. Use social proof in the form of testimonials of previous volunteers saying how much they were positively impacted by being able to help save lives, and also, keep track of impact numbers. This allows you to be able to make a statement like, “Since 1997, we’ve impacted 45,650 people in 12 different countries with life-saving medical care.” People always want to be involved in something that’s bigger than themselves. 

Over the years, I’ve seen many nonprofit organizations succeed through answering some of the same questions, well, over and over again. It’s leveraging the answers to these questions that can help the organization grow, whether it’s a small, family-owned business or an international nonprofit. 

  • What are the needs? 
  • Who can help with those needs? 
  • What is the motivation?
  • What about being involved with your organization will help them solve a need? 
  • How can they get you in touch with more people like them?

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