Q&A: The ‘Marketing Disability’ of Nonprofits

Peter Brinckerhoff is a trainer, author, and consultant to not-for-profit organizations. He founded Corporate Alternatives, a consulting firm, in 1982. He is the author of several books, including Mission-Based Management, Mission-Based Marketing, Faith-Based Management, and Social Entrepreneurship. We interviewed him in 2001.

Peter Brinckerhoff

Q: You say nonprofits have to grow out of the “charity” mindset – but why, and how? 
A: The difference between mission-based organizations and charities is two significantly different kinds of organizational outlooks. The mission-based organization says we are here to do mission, and we’re going to do it with all the resources available, including turning proven business techniques toward our mission. The charity mindset says the mission is the only thing, and if we’re good at our work, the rest of it doesn’t matter. The resources will show up.

Q: Your definition of social entrepreneurship underscores taking risks on behalf of clients. But most nonprofits working with children would say they do that everyday. 
A: We need to look at how we make decisions from a proven business model of risk. So, when the state comes in and says, ‘I want you to open five foster homes,’ we need to say, ‘Geez, that’s a good thing to do, but does this make sense for us to put our resources into that?’ Let’s say we do five services, and foster homes are just one of them. We could say, ‘Is this a good risk based on how much mission we get out of it – how many kids we help? And what’s the financial impact?’ The organization might decide that even though this service is going to break even, or even lose money, it does do enough mission to justify the investment of time and money. Organizationally, though, the social entrepreneur also knows that if we do a service that loses money, we have to balance that out with a service that makes money.

Q: But turning away a state contract can’t be good for your funding relationship.
A: In any good relationship, there is mutual respect and mutual benefit. When nonprofits always say yes to their funders, the funders will keep pushing and pushing, and in many cases states in particular ask for absolutely ridiculous things. Of course, if you’ve been doing stuff for the state for 20 years, and suddenly you want changes in the way you contract for services, it may take some time to work out. If you have abused your relationship with the state by whining, or by not meeting deadlines, or by filling out paperwork incorrectly, and you go in and want changes, you’re less likely to get people to agree. But if you do high-quality work and you can show why you want a change, you have much more likelihood of moving forward.

Q: There’s another issue in the mix, too – you call it the “marketing disability” of nonprofits.
A: For-profit marketers are very good at making us want what we don’t need. But not-for-profit marketers need to be very good at making people want what they do need. I can say, ‘Gee, I want to fix this family. What this family needs is counseling, dad going to work more often, and the kids going to school.’ But how do I make the family want it? This is a marketing question. The state says to you, ‘You must reunify this family,’ but instead of using the same old techniques, which obviously haven’t worked for thousands of families, I need to think from the family’s perspective about what they want, and somehow match that up with what the state wants.

Q: How exactly?
A: Why doesn’t dad want to work? He doesn’t want to work because his past five jobs have been awful, or because he drinks, or because people abuse him at work. We’ll get him into a program where there’s a mentor on the job, because we know that mentor programs work. And if he’s had bad employers before, we’ll find him one based on what he thinks he wants. The kids – why don’t they want to go to school? They’re not doing well. Have they been tested for special services? No, because the family says they’re very bright and they don’t want to do that. OK. There’s some options: charter school, magnet schools, other schools in the community that can meet their needs. Now if working on education issues isn’t part of what the state’s paying you for, instead of sucking it up, you go back to the state and say, ‘We can reunify this family if we do this other work.’

Q: For that very reason there’s a tendency for agencies to grow larger and larger; they want to provide clients with all the different supports they need. But you think this is a mistake. Why?
A: We tend as groups to get buffaloed by the people with the money, and take money to do anything they ask us to – and sometimes we don’t even do it well. If we cobble together over 20 years a program that does residential care and transportation and a vocational component and general mental health services, we probably don’t do all of it superbly.

If we have to do it, the question is, can we do it well? Does it meet a mission component of ours, and can we do it well from day one? Instead of the executive director doing it, can we hire somebody who really knows how? To save money, we usually say we can learn to do it ourselves. But if it’s half-baked, we suck up a huge amount of our management team’s resources and our board’s resources, which are not free.

More information, tips and resources are available on Brinckerhoff’s website at www.missionbased.com.