Nonprofits face problems similar to third-party political candidates — people lump them under a blanket category that is far too general to portray the vast differences of individual entities.

And they suffer from bad marketing.

Both problems, says Debbie Duncan, director of communications and member services at the New Brunswick-based Center for Non-Profits, stem from the same seed — most nonprofits simply do not have the resources, human or monetary, to put together an effective public relations, marketing, or media campaign. Or, if they do, they often do not have a real handle on how to use technology to get out the critical messages of what an agency does and how it affects the communities it serves.

Recognition of this problem has led NJN, the state-owned, statewide television and radio network, to host a trio of workshops between now and June to get nonprofits, governments, and small businesses thinking about how to reach out through the various media and technology available. The series kicks off on Wednesday, April 15, when NJN hosts an open house for nonprofits at its Trenton studios beginning at 9 a.m. Free to attend, the open house includes the panel discussion, “Non-Profits, Technology and Messaging,” co-sponsored by the Center for Non-Profits.”

The series continues with an open house for government agencies on Thursday, May 21, and concludes with one for small businesses, production centers, and event planners on Wednesday, June 17. Visit www.njn.org or call 800-553-2303 for more information.

A 25-year veteran of the nonprofit sector, Duncan joined the Center for Non-Profits in 2006 after a stint at the Hispanic Family Center in Camden and at the American Heart Association in Cumberland & Salem counties. After earning her bachelor’s in Spanish from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1971 she embarked on a varied career in government and charitable organizations and worked in every avenue from Spanish translation to health and prevention. She earned her master’s in public administration from SUNY Binghamton in 1995 and soon after joined the American Heart Association. There she was responsible for fundraising and volunteer recruitment for the AHA’s annual Heart Walk in southern New Jersey.

Such a background has given Duncan a deep appreciation for how organizations need to get the word out. Unfortunately, while computers were busy making the world smaller and faster, nonprofits often were unable or unwilling to catch up.

Ideas at work. With social networking all the rage, Duncan says nonprofits need to consider how to effectively use the technology. “The Support Center for Nonprofits in New York uses LinkedIn to advertise its workshops,” she says. Other organizations are tapping You Tube by posting two-minute video clips of featured members with moving, inspiring, or educational stories and experiences.

The main ingredients such organizations share are initiative and savvy. It does not necessarily cost a lot of money to craft a message or even to distribute it. But nonprofits, often comprised along the Center for Non-Profits model of four employees or fewer, are prone to being overwhelmed by the amount of work they take on. And when money is tight — which it always is for most nonprofits — any money that an organization holds must go almost in toto to its mission. The budget for food or shelter, for example, will always win out over a marketing budget.

Perception problems. Lack of good — not to mention continuous — communication with the public, funders, or clients has kept nonprofits off the radar since they were born. Where nonprofits are lacking is in reminding people, “gently and enticingly,” says Duncan, that they will be around when you need them.

Too often agencies put out sporadic, even one-shot campaigns that tell everyone they exist, but do not stick in the consciousness because there is no repetition of the message. Nonprofits also face one thing most commercial enterprises do not in that they often have limited immediate appeal. People know what products they want to buy, but do not think about health-related services or housing assistance, for example, until the time of need comes.

Nonprofits have a different approach to marketing, she says, in that they must stay on the positive — showcasing benefits and solutions to social and personal issues, rather than those of a consumer nature. And as it has been forever, appeals to virtue are a tougher sell than appeals to self interest.

Getting the word out. Cracking Twitter, FaceBook, and LinkedIn is one thing, but nonprofits can do a lot of social networking the old-fashioned way — by actually socializing. Duncan says the Center for Non-Profits does try to capitalize on viral marketing as much as it can by using ListServs and other E-mail lists to encourage agencies and umbrella groups (like arts councils) to broadcast and distribute its newsletters and updates where it is appropriate. But much of the center’s message gets across through sheer, low-tech face time at conferences, conventions, and workshops.

Education of legislators is another challenge, and often a time-consuming one. “We need to learn how to really communicate,” Duncan says. “We have to let people know what we do and the power we actually have.” Such awareness at the legislative level can do many things, but Duncan admits it is hard to accomplish. Nonprofits are just now taking stock in how they come across and what they say — a process Duncan calls “reframing.” The 2006 Nonprofit Congress in Washington, D.C., and a series of town hall meetings by the center last year have done much to keep awareness alive.

The role of news media. News agencies are a double-edged sword. By reporting bad news they stir fear, but they are a vital artery for information. As a network with a news desk, NJN is looking to teach nonprofits how to get their messages into print and broadcast.

The easiest way to get the message out as you want it, of course, is to buy advertising. But that comes with an obvious caveat. Organizations are always welcome to submit pitches for coverage to most news outlets, including U.S. 1, but getting through the “slush pile” and into the agenda for an outlet can be tough. The Center for Non-Profits often sponsors or recommends workshops geared toward writing and presenting effective press releases, but Duncan says proper training for the people who operate nonprofits — hardly ever writers or salespeople by trade — is another of the problems that require a solution larger than any one organization can give.

“We are only four people,” Duncan says. “There’s only so much we can do.”

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