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Giovanna Blackston Keren


Many insightful articles and blog posts have been written over the years about how non-profit organizations can optimize their brands and most effectively communicateto their constituents. Brand generalists who have “discovered” purpose-led branding as well as branding veterans who have dedicated their careers and full practices to working with the public sector, have defined principles of success to help non-profits hold their own and compete in a tough environment. These principles tend to havemost value for the thousands of non-profits operating in an exclusively non-profit world, where competition is for share of empathy and wallet. However, for non-profit organizations operating in industries dominated by the private sector, the criteria for consideration by would-be customers are vastly different. And therefore so must be the principles for success.


Consider an Oakland, CA-based organization that develops software platforms for government agencies to help them more effectively vet applicants and establish their eligibility for social services and benefits. The industry this organization operates in is known as Govtech, in which the vast majority of providers are private sector players like Deloitte, Oracle and Accenture. There are non-profit players in other traditionally for-profit industries like biotech (Aeras), lending (City First Bank). Credit Unions are another prime example of financial institutions that operate on a non-profit basis. How then can a non-profit player optimize its brand to compete against private sector heavy-hitters?


Principle #1: Have an intimate understanding of your target audience’s drivers.

As a non-profit competing with business, it’s likely that you are not the right choice for many of your customers. When you consider their drivers of choice, they may be variables like a healthy balance sheet or a successful track record, perhaps a Fortune 500 Company—one you can’t get fired for hiring. As a non-profit, you may not be the right match. On the other hand, if they are looking for companies that are as focused on the process as the end result, or for companies whose business practices are infused with values like integrity and sustainability, you may be better suited. Understanding drivers of choice and how well you profile against them will help you to create a brand that reflects a specific target audience, and develop a marketing strategy that will allow you to hone in on the audience you have the best chance of attracting.


Principle #2: Double down on any areas of vulnerability.

As potential customers evaluate you, they will undoubtedly question your capabilities against for-profit competitors. They may unfairly assume that as a non-profit, you don’t have sufficient budget and resource to deliver top-of-the-line capabilities and will eliminate you from their consideration set. On City First Bank’s website, they tout the awards and certifications the Bank has received by the US Department of the Treasury, which serves to effortlessly and effectively establish authority and credibility. Anticipate any potential areas of competitive vulnerability, and cut them off at the pass by playing up your credentials.


Principle #3: Play up your purpose.

The best way to deposition your for-profit competition is to play up the very reason you are a non-profit—that your sole purpose is to improve conditions within a particular population or geography or disease-state etc. Aeras, the MD-based biotech does a beautiful job here. In their About Us section of their website, they say “As a nonprofit, we champion TB vaccines based on global need and science and work to ensure that the final product is affordable and accessible to those who need it most.” This is especially effective in combating the stereotypical perception of greedy drug-industry companies motivated by diseases known to generate the highest profits.


Private sector players may pay lip service to purpose and try to convince would-be customers that their offering is well intentioned and staffed with experienced do-gooders. They may legitimately have employed ex-public sector employees with proven track records. And yet, given that their ultimate motivation is financial gain, they cannot compete as convincingly on this front.


Principle #4: Emphasize your sROI—your social return on investment.


As a non-profit player in a for-profit universe, you have a natural and differentiated advantage—companies doing business with you can meet their business goals but also meet additional goals that can improve their social profile. In today’s world, in which business is doing everything it can to embrace social values and match elevated customer expectations, sROI is a metric that can put you ahead of the game.


It’s a tough world out there for non-profits in the private sector, but by investing the time to explore the dynamics that distinguish you both positively and negatively, your brand has the potential to truly soar.

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