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Growth strategies for non-profit

Pieter Schouppe
Director Plant a Flag Canada
Plant a Flag Vancouver, Canada
According to Forbes, over half of all chartered non-profits fail or stall within a few years due to leadership issues and the lack of a strategic plan. It is clear that too few non-profits use their unique positioning to their advantage. Successful non-profit organizations, on the other hand, are able to transform potential challenges into opportunities that work in their favour. In this article, we discuss what those challenges are and how to transform them into strong opportunities.

Challenge: unclear positioning of the organization

A well-researched story or outline that places the organization, why it exists, and structuring its audience at the centre of the narrative will go a long way in establishing a strong positioning and rationale for a marketing strategy. Forget about complicated marketing models. Start with ‘why’ and build your entire brand on that one single, powerful concept.

Surfrider Foundation for example is a grassroots non-profit environmental organization that works to protect and preserve the world's oceans, waves and beaches. It focuses on water quality, beach access, beach and surf spot preservation, and sustaining marine and coastal ecosystems. Their ‘why’ and their mission is clear, concise and consistent throughout their communication channels and website. They position themselves as the go-to organization fighting for beach access for everyone and they keep it in the centre of their narrative. 

Challenge: your main segment has low profitability

Most organizations target those audiences who have the highest potential profitability. That makes a lot of sense when looking to improve one's bottom line. For non-profits, however, it’s about more than that. They are all about creating meaningful impact and leaving the world a better place. That actually creates an opportunity to define your main segment based on impact over profitably. Supporting an underserved population and focusing your attention on what they want and designing solutions specific to their problem is the best way forward. Although counter-intuitive, in the long run, this focus will yield the most significant return for everyone involved and, at the same time, create a significant impact.

TalkingPoints for example is a non-profit whose mission is to increase student achievement by meaningfully connecting teachers and families through mobile technology. Founder Heejae Lim wanted to focus on the needs of low-income families of colour. While a for-profit would face investor pressure to pursue the most profitable market segment, TalkingPoints focuses on under-resourced teachers, leading to a product strategy that prioritizes translation in 20 languages and doesn't require a smartphone. This positioning dramatically increases parental engagement in high-needs schools, cultivating a loyal user base, and acquiring funding from partners who share these priorities.

Challenge: you don’t have access to or funding for top resources

Charity organizations often rely on specialized data, knowledge and expertise to effectively accomplish their mission. When these types of resources are hard to come by, transparent communication creates an opportunity. Organizations who share data, ask for input and look for ways to improve their own resources in such a vulnerable way, create a powerful impression in their audience’s minds, compelling them to contribute and get buy-in to their cause. A transparent system like this attracts input from the audience and creates an opportunity to learn from the wisdom of the crowds, while simultaneously establishing the brand as a thought leader in its respective field.

Invisible Children is a great example that does just that. They work alongside central Africa's most remote and vulnerable communities to help them end violent conflict and recover from its impact. In these remote areas, there’s a high chance of suppression and conflict to arise. They tell their compelling story through data visualization for everyone to assess the extent of the problem and the impact they’re creating. To tackle that problem, Invisible Children came up with the Crisis Tracker which is a geospatial database and reporting project that tracks armed group activity and conflict-related incidents in the remote border region encompassing the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Eastern Central African Republic. This creates an opportunity to attract funding or top resources by being transparent in their processes.

Challenge: You are fighting a lonely battle

Going after your cause alone surely gives you full control, but at the same time, it is limiting you to take a dynamic approach towards your organization’s challenges. Partnerships, on the other hand, have the potential to create synergies between complementary organizations to the benefit of everyone involved. For non-profits, in particular, partnerships can generate an accumulative impact for its beneficiaries that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

For example, The College Board - a non-profit organization that administers the SAT test partnered with Khan Academy - the non-profit committed to providing free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere. Together they came up with Official SAT practice, which is a set of free personalised tools that helps any student to study for SATs and college-level courses which were earlier only accessible to wealthier families in the USA. This is a great example of how partnerships generate a significant impact for its beneficiaries as Khan Academy gains access to students that might have been otherwise hard to reach.

Challenge: Financial struggles

Since non-profits prioritize impact over their bottom line, these organizations are often struggling to finance their operations. Compared to their for-profit counterparts, they don’t have products or services to sell but rather they have a good cause worth pursuing. Pursuing this cause requires funding that a lot of non-profits struggle with. That is because they treat fundraising like a donation - amplifying their want which leads to fewer donations. This problem will continue unless they think fundraising like sales: be as thoughtful about the funder's benefits as they are to the beneficiaries they serve.  

For example, Dressember - a non-profit organization - is a community of international advocates utilizing fashion and creativity to help end human trafficking. They treat fundraising as sales where individuals can create their own fundraising pages, set a goal and change the world - in a way where these individuals are ‘selling’ their cause. They are thoughtful about how the individuals benefit from creating their fundraiser as much as they are to the impact they will create from the money raised.

A great local Vancouver example: Goodly Foods

Check out their website hellogoodly.ca

- They position themselves as an organization that makes delicious soups, stews and sauces by repurposing surplus produce, directly tackling the food waste problem. 

- They employ the underserved population of Downtown Eastside residents for the production of these soups. 

- To drive funding, Goodly Foods sells their delicious soups in supermarkets. They do fundraising through actual sales and then redirect profits towards pursuing their cause.

- They keep a transparent approach to their business model by ethically sourcing their ingredients from organizations like Fresh Start Foods, Star Group, BC Fresh, and Fresh Direct Produce.

- Partnership with provincial organizations like Greater Vancouver Food Bank (GVFB) and international companies like Walmart Foundation provide a boost to their mission.

Social & non-profit organizations have an incredibly important role to play in our society. We believe it’s important to support their purpose and success. Moreover, a new generation of entrepreneurs is stepping up with a vision to create meaningful impact, beyond financial success. The key to achieve that is combining both. That starts with a solid strategy. 

Read more about why we are passionate about working with non-profit organizations: How we are sheep in wolves’ clothes.