I'm often asked by non-profit professionals, volunteers and staff, "How can we tell whether we need a marketing plan?"
Here's my list of answers:
Overconcern with money. This is the most noticeable symptom of the need for a comprehensive, integrated marketing plan. Money is so critically short that every decision becomes one of crisis proportions.
There is a desperation quality to events and programs. If one event doesn't meet its funding goal, everyone panics. Soon, the board is checking the financials quarterly, then monthly.
Watch out, folks. Without a marketing plan, things almost always get worse.
Communications are amorphous. There is little or no market segmentation. Messages are aimed at an amorphous general public, which ceased to exist decades ago -- if it ever really existed.
Fund-raising is not coordinated. Communications, public relations, marketing and fund-raising exist as separate entities. Infrequently -- only when one steps on the other's foot -- is there any coordination of messages, approaches or strategies.
The development professionals are too busy "bringing in money" to spend time in coordinated planning with the communications people -- as if they can raise money effectively in the absence of a carefully planned marketing program.
There is no revenue mix. Either too high a percentage is coming from one or two sources, or some funding sources are not represented at all. For example, some agencies I know receive about 80 percent of their funding from government grants, and ** virtually none from corporations, foundations or individual donors.
With a huge federal deficit, I would not want to be heading such a government-dependent agency. On the other hand, depending too much on event-generated income in today's economic climate is also risky.
Inadequate numbers or types of volunteers. Volunteers are the lifeblood of non-profit agencies, from board members to annual campaign canvassers. If there is an insufficient number of volunteers, something ain't working. If an agency serves a significant percentage of minorities, yet its volunteers are basically lily-white, there's a problem.
Inadequate attention to internal markets. Staff, volunteers and board members are the first and foremost markets any non-profit organization has.
Is there staff dissension? Lack of involvement of staff in decision-making? Low morale? An untrained board? No corporate culture of caring or teamwork? These all result from a lack of attention to marketing for the most vital groups of all: internal segments.
Messages are not consistent. The various publics are confused about what the organization is or does. Fund-raising staffers are giving donors one message, while the donors see three other messages put out by the communications, public relations and program services people. Further, the messages are often not consistent with the marketing and program goals of the organization.
No feedback loops. You cannot pick up a business publication today without seeing some mention of quality assurance procedures, quality management or -- heaven help us all -- Total Quality Management, the latest buzzphrase to hit the management circuit. While this is all perfectly obvious in producing widgets, it is more difficult to put a finger on when providing services through a non-profit organization.
Does that make quality concerns any less important? Not by a long shot. In fact, since non-profits are frequently more involved with intangibles such as changing values, quality control is even more important for its success.
Every program that a non-profit launches should have built-in quality control feedback loops. Clients need to be involved in setting up the program, monitoring its effectiveness and making changes to improve its performance. If these loops are not in a non-profit's operations, it is a major indicator that a marketing plan is needed.
Non-profits would do well to set up an honest checklist of criteria to gauge their need for market planning. In today's environment, marketing is an indispensable ingredient of successful non-profit management.