Friday, May 4, 2012

Waste not want not

The debate about how much charities spend on overhead has been ranging for many years. On one hand, you have the public and a number of crusaders who are worried that too much of their donations are going into the charity’s pocket instead of helping change the world. And on the other side, you have a number of gurus and charity leaders who say that artificial limits on spending are unreasonable.

I was siding with the gurus and charity leaders until last week when I had to give a talk to a non-profit. I was giving examples of the differences between my competitors and my consulting company. To prove that I delivered better return on investment because I specialize in non-profits I did some research. I went back in my mind to look at non-profit marketing examples I knew and went online to search some more. After compiling everything and looking it over I realized that perhaps I was wrong. Maybe, the people who say charities spend too much on overhead have a point.

I can only speak to marketing, not all the other functions of a charity. But even on this narrow field I found many examples of waste, including poor planning, bad strategy, terrible execution and more. And we’re not talking about small mistakes only. There were some rather large, costly ones, too. I had to admit that a lot of what goes on in the name of non-profit marketing is often wasteful. Donor money did go down the drain in a lot of these examples.

Often times, the reason for the waste had a lot to do with a poor understanding of modern marketing. I saw a charity spend money on advertising without including any contact information. Dumb. I saw another build a website that could not be measured – they didn’t know who went there or why. That’s bad. I saw another charity create a fantastic social media platform with lots of nice videos and glitz but failed to promote it. Hardly anyone went there, but it did look nice. A failing grade. And I know one charity that made an expensive video, that went on and on and on for about 60 minutes. Anyone who tried to watch it would be dead from boredom if they tried to see the whole thing. Yech.

Let’s face it. Non-profit marketing and communications suffers from lots of problems. It’s dominated by people who often have experience, but poor strategic skills and knowledge. It’s no wonder they make mistakes. I blame non-profit leaders more than their communications people. Communicating is often an unloved child. No one want wants it until they really, really need it. It is consistently underfunded, and is usually the first place cuts are made. Worse, there’s a trend towards downgrading communications positions to the lowest possible level. So, they have no managers, only coordinators. The non-profit saves on salary, but gets less in return. Big surprise, that often results in waste, too.

To be fair, non-profits aren’t the only ones to waste money on failed marketing and communications strategies. Small business and even big business does, too. The difference is that we expect businesses to spend lots of money on marketing, but not charities. So, when a charity does screw up, it looks much, much worse than when a small business makes a mistake.

The answer to this, however, is not to spend any money on marketing and communications. That would be a mistake. The answer is to try and get non-profits, and especially their leaders, to start spending wisely. This will take education and time.

So, before we write off criticism of how non-profits spend their money let’s admit that sometimes this is true. And, let’s try and get everyone working to try and improve marketing.

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