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Nonprofits Utilize Standard Business Communication Practices

by Leah K. Pockrandt

During a recent perusal of the nonprofit aisle, a consumer noticed the many brightly colored packages. What would she select today? Perhaps the heart-embossed American Cancer Society? Maybe the ribbon-adorned Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program? Or perhaps a package marked with the familiar rainbow of the United Way? The choices . . . the packaging . . . the messages. Nonprofits have entered the commercial-driven field of marketing, enticing adults with their messaging just as brightly colored cereal boxes tempt children in the grocery store aisles.

Nonprofit organizations have been shrouded in the juxtaposition of their image of altruistic purpose and their ability to operate as successful businesses. Over the years, nonprofit organizations have operated with a split personality—pulled by mission, but bound by the dollar. As more nonprofit organizations pull at the pocketbooks of the philanthropic consumers, nonprofits have needed to become more critical of their images and how their messages are shared. Barry McLeish contends that the use of marketing must become as intrinsic to the nonprofit community as it is to the for-profit community (1995). Some of the marketing pieces utilized include an array of technical communication documents, such as fundraising and volunteering brochures, an organizational Web site, case statements, annual reports, and sponsorship program support pieces.

Defining Nonprofit Organizations

The tradition of solving problems through the aid of volunteers in the United States is centuries old. French writer Alexis de Tocqueville noted this tradition as early as 1835. In Democracy in America, he observed that Americans formed associations of concerned individuals to tackle the problems, concerns, and social issues of the day.

This volunteerism and sense of social ownership continues today through the work of thousands of nonprofit organizations that span the human services and social spectrum. Adrian Sargeant offers a widely accepted definition for a nonprofit organization: an entity that exists to provide for the general betterment of society as it raises appropriate resources, gathers goods, or dispenses services (1999). Differing from a for-profit company, a nonprofit organization does not distribute profits to owners since it has no owners. Any profits stay with the organization and are dispersed according to the organization's mission or governance.

For decades, nonprofits weren't considered businesses and their communication strategies and business tactics mirrored that belief. Eventually, society and, more importantly, nonprofit governing entities, began to realize that nonprofits are businesses that need to adopt sound business strategies. It was in the late 1970s that a few nonprofit organizations first began to apply marketing principles to achieve their objectives (Kotler & Andreasen, 1996).

The nonprofit market has become a competitive one with approximately 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. As a result, nonprofit organizations are realizing the benefits of operating like businesses. Some nonprofit organizations have already realized this need and have changed their business practices accordingly. Like for-profit companies, nonprofits must identify their uniqueness and highlight their differences from their nonprofit rivals (Barman, 2002). Differentiation is the basis for consumer choice. Individuals will select which nonprofits receive their charitable dollars based on the same types of thought processes they use to determine which car to drive or soda to drink. As a result, nonprofits have learned strategies from their for-profit counterparts on how to become more market-economy-oriented (Hammack & Young; Kotler & Andreasen). For example, Anne Borman and Clarence Lo have identified that nonprofits that introduce strong, effective communication programs can create better stewardship, strengthened service delivery, and additional revenue for nonprofit organizations (1995).

Nonprofits, although perceived as charities or human-service organizations, do have customers, whether or not those individuals are identified as such by the organizations. Typical customers of charities include volunteers, individual donors, corporate donors, charitable trusts, and service recipients. By identifying customers, nonprofits are able to gear their marketing and communication activities towards the needs and expectations of those customers or a target audience/market.

Need for Communicators

Nonprofits utilize the standard communication business formats for their materials. For example, an annual report will often contain the same information for both a for-profit company and a nonprofit organization-the organization's mission, the board of directors members, the impact made by the organization during the year, and the organization's financial statement. Likewise, a brochure "selling" a nonprofit's services will closely resemble a brochure selling a product, such as a generator or an annuity.

The way that the nonprofit community has evolved during the past four decades has created an industry that is on the precipice of further change. To meet their business documentation needs, nonprofits will be looking to the talents of communication experts. Never before has there been a time when nonprofit organizations have needed to effectively and engagingly communicate with the public their impact on the community. This is an age of transparency—nonprofits are being challenged to illustrate their worth, their structure, and their outcomes. During the next decade, nonprofits will need to hone their communication practices while offering structured documents that offer more than feel-good fluff. They will need to further develop their messages to communicate with specific target audiences. To accomplish all of their communication and business goals, nonprofits will need to enlist strong communicators who have the desire to produce documentation that will make a difference . . . to their employer and to their community.


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