Many times in my work doing strategic planning, the question arises about who the organization is attempting to reach in its marketing, fundraising and other outreach efforts. Too often, the phrase “We want to be a household name in our area! Everyone should know about us!”
While a laudable goal, the level of “household name” exposure is elusive for most community based, local nonprofit organizations (or even statewide). We don’t do this with our fundraising goals, I hope. Imagine this exchange: “How much money do we need to raise?” “All of it!” “Who should we try to raise money from?” “Everyone!” Exchage raising money in that example with serving clients, engaging volunteers, recruiting board members and you can see the futility of an approach that tries to reach all people with the same message. Boards and staff need to push through the desire for widespread fame and glory across the land, and think harder about who you are really trying to reach.
Think of examples of nonprofits who are nationally known– the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, YMCA or YWCA or others might come to mind. Those organizations have been around over a century, and have spent (likely) millions or billions to reach that high level of market penetration and awareness. It took press coverage, local presence throughout the country, and huge investments national marketing, fundraising and direct mail budgets in the millions every year (in most cases). The same can likely be said for any for-profit you can think of — McDonald’s, Walmart, etc.
Even local nonprofits who are well known are likely to be unique or in a small group of like organizations (such as universities or symphonies), are relevant to all people (think hospitals) or have a long history and lots of relationships and networks (the “word of mouth” factor, which is usually dependent on investments of time and effort, not money). Newer organizations can break through the noise with the right amount of public relations and strategic spending, which is made even easier in the era of targeted ads on social media. But few have the actual financial resources to reach EVERY household, much less become a “household name”.
Instead, the concepts of Audience Identification and Segmentation are useful in the board room and planning discussions. When the topic comes up and you hear suggestions about the need to “reach everyone”, I suggest asking a few questions:
Why does everyone need to know about us?
What would be the expected benefit if that happened?
Given the financial resources needed to reach literally every household in a way that would penetrate the thousands of messages we all receive weekly through our various media, can we think about targeting our efforts a little more strategically?
Then, you might move on to defining:
THE AUDIENCE – Who are the audiences/ groups of people/ types of people who might actually care about what we do?
THE ASK – What do we want each of those audiences to do in response to our communications? Give money? Volunteer? Contact their elected officials to speak about our cause? How do our messages reflect the targeted ask?
THE SPEND – How do we use our limited resources to reach those audiences with our “Ask”?
You can learn more in these resources from thinkers in the marketing field (as I only know enough to be dangerous!). Good luck, and keep thinking harder!
This PDF from 2001 (Chronicle of Philanthropy) has a good basic way to think about the audiences of a nonprofit.