The sector still has significant work to do to get its message across, IU philanthropy expert says

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

It’s no surprise that nonprofit organizations have struggled to gain the same brand recognition as their for-profit counterparts. With marketing budgets that traditionally far exceed those of nonprofits, many B2B and B2C companies are able to invest in marketing teams and strategies to elevate their brands.

But it wasn’t until the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released a recent report did many industry leaders fully understand the impact of that investment gap, said Dr. Bill Stanczykiewicz, senior assistant dean of external relations and director of The Fund Raising School.

The report, What Americans Think About Philanthropy and Nonprofits, included several surprising findings, which the Not-for-profit News recently highlighted in the article “Do Nonprofits Have an Image Problem?” The survey revealed a general lack of understanding among the public about what defines a nonprofit. For example, when it came to philanthropic entities like foundations, donor-advised funds, and giving circles, a majority of survey respondents said that they had heard of them but were not familiar with them.

But most alarming, Stanczykiewicz said, was that only 5.4 percent of survey respondents said that they or someone in their immediate family has been helped by a nonprofit organization in the past year. “That caught the attention of all of us quite quickly,” he said.

With a significant number of people regularly interacting with various nonprofit organizations, including religious services, museums, theatrical productions, educational programs, and public hospitals, there appears to be a gap in understanding a basic definition of nonprofits, Stanczykiewicz said. Also, one out of every Americans work for a charitable organization.

While the survey didn’t capture the reasons behind these poll responses, Stanczykiewicz said that there may be numerous factors contributing to the public’s lack of knowledge about nonprofits.

“Nonprofits may be so effective in doing their jobs that we don’t know what life would be without them,” said Stanczykiewicz, comparing them to outstanding referees during a game.

“In most cases, if they’re making good calls, fans don’t really pay attention to them,” he said. “In the same way, nonprofits can be so effective in doing their jobs that we don’t know what life would be without them. We don’t always realize their impact.”

Another factor is that the nonprofit sector hasn’t traditionally done a great job of educating the community about the sector. “When people think of receiving services, they may think, ‘Well, I’ve never gone to a food pantry or received direct help from a medical clinic,” he said. “It raises the point that nonprofits have work to do to communicate that there’s so much more that the philanthropic sector does than provide services.”

Raising nonprofits’ profiles amid declining charitable giving

Misconceptions about nonprofit organizations, coupled with declining giving during the past 20 years — another statistic highlighted in the philanthropy report, should be a strong signal that nonprofits will need to prioritize educating the public about their mission and message in the coming years.

“Nonprofits have work to do to communicate the message there’s so much more to the philanthropic sector than “providing services,” he said. “There also is a lack of awareness. Most Americans just don’t seem to know who we are and what we do.”

Stanczykiewicz said nonprofits can consider numerous pathways to elevating their message and educating the public about the work they do — starting with encouraging their board members to actively lead in communicating the organization’s value.

Another challenge facing teams is the matter of budgeting for marketing. “Many nonprofits are focused on the resources needed for the programs, services, and materials,” he said. “Marketing may be something that ranks very low when it comes to the budget. It may not be in the budget at all.”

Community advocates and nonprofit supporters also may assume that everyone is equally passionate about their cause, such as eradicating food insecurity and homelessness, he said. “They might think, ‘Well, clearly everybody must be passionate about this cause so I don’t have to talk about it.”

Lack of confidence is yet another factor that may impede efforts to inform the public about the work of nonprofits. “At the Fund Raising School, we teach you to fundraise with pride. You should be very confident about the way you’re making a world a better place and, therefore, be very willing to talk about it.”

“With human behaviors, there’s usually not just one magic bullet explanation, but the study certainly does reveal we’ve got work to do to help more people become aware of who we are as a nonprofit sector and all that we do as a nonprofit. Sector,” he said.

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