MARKET FOCUS NON-PROFIT PR: The cause and effect - What makes a non-profit 'hot' or 'cold'? Steve Lilienthal finds out

Whatever happened to The National Consumers' League? How about The Womens Christian Temperance Union? Such defunct organizations reflect a fact of life: the battle for your support is more than that. It is part of a larger struggle in which non-profit groups must adapt to change or risk becoming also-rans. As times change, society and people's commitments change.

Whatever happened to The National Consumers' League? How about The Women's Christian Temperance Union? Such defunct organizations reflect a fact of life: the battle for your support is more than that. It is part of a larger struggle in which non-profit groups must adapt to change or risk becoming also-rans. As times change, society and people's commitments change.

Can PR help non-profits not just to maintain their presence, but even to establish and to redefine themselves? The evidence points in that direction.

Clearly, the stakes are high, according to Giving USA 1999, a forthcoming report by The American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy. It shows that individuals, corporations, foundations, and bequests gave dollars 174.52 billion to non-profit organizations last year; a nearly 11% increase from 1997. Giving's high-growth beneficiaries (increases in receipts over 20%) included health, human services, environmental, wildlife, and public service/benefit issues.

Positioning for success
Even in good times, however, a non-profit's positioning is all-important to its success. 'A lot of organizations struggle to identify themselves.

They're too diffuse in their mission,' says former non-profit executive Adam Segall of Hill & Knowlton (New York). Others 'are oriented toward short-term goals,' notes political consultant Martin Hamburger of Laguens, Hamburger & Stone (DC). If an organization's initial goal is accomplished quickly, it must then redefine itself. Perhaps that helps explain why Margaret Booth of M Booth & Associates (New York) believes 'Non-profits are becoming more savvy about branding.'

Significantly, the type of organizations people support has changed.

Sociologist Theda Skocpol recently wrote that America's 'civic world, once centered in locally rooted and nationally active membership associations, is a relic.' Today, Americans volunteer for causes and projects, but are less likely to join civic and fraternal organizations. Many older organizations have had to become more PR conscious to reach a more discriminating, sometimes cynical, citizenry.

The Lions, for instance, saw its US membership decline in recent years. But the service club hired Ketchum to develop a global image project.

In the past, local Lions clubs had shunned PR, believing their good works were enough. Now, clubs are urged to 'share the secret' of their good works through PR to enhance their image and attract members.

The Lions can take heart from the experience of the Boys and Girls Clubs.

A malaise afflicted many mainstream youth organizations in the 1970s and 1980s. But the Boys and Girls Clubs' board consistently strove to update its image beyond being a place for 'swim and gym.' The organization has dramatically increased its reputation by becoming the 'positive place' where kids get character education and computer training along with sports.

High-profile spokespersons, such as actor Denzel Washington and Colin Powell, have helped the club obtain good PR. And cause marketing relationships have been established with Coca-Cola and other companies.

Today's time-crunched society prompts many Americans to join advocacy non-profits that require little time or commitment. In this scenario organizations and members each get a break. Members can feel good about supporting a cause they consider important; the organizers usually can plan activities without intensive input from members. But obtaining and holding members requires a reliance on PR and direct marketing.

'It's the nature of political groups to utilize PR,' insists Rhode Island College professor of communications Kay Israel. And Herbert Chao Gunther, president of the Public Media Center (San Francisco) stresses, 'Social consensus isn't permanent and must continually be asserted and defended.' Hence PR can help non-profits impress upon key publics the importance of causes and issues.

In fact, Gunther argues that more non-profits should incorporate advocacy to gain converts. Given that non-profits are making increasingly sophisticated efforts in communications, the competition threshold heightens. 'Safe' and 'predictable' may be less of an advantage. The groups that vigorously and provocatively thrust their causes into the public debate and aggressively advocate them prosper over the long-term, Gunther maintains.

For instance, former first lady Betty Ford's treatment for breast cancer helped to jump-start wider spread concern about the illness. But concern notched up further when the National Breast Cancer Coalition took the advocacy route, seeking more research funding from Congress. Using the same style PR and lobbying tactics that worked for AIDS activists, NBCC helped to boost Federal dollars for research. It now provides intensive training for 'advocates,' preparing breast cancer survivors to get involved in the decision-making process of institutions and companies researching new treatments.

Similarly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) used PR to spur greater public concern over drunk driving. Angered mothers whose children were killed by drunk drivers attracted TV cameras like magnets, and MADD's PR helped to change the nation's more benign view of 'accidents' caused by drunken driving. Stiffer laws and concepts such as the 'designated driver' that MADD helped to establish have contributed to a decline of alcohol-related traffic deaths. Now, MADD uses Net showings of its candlelight vigils to maintain visibility.

Consistently maintaining a media presence is important, notes the Southeastern Legal Foundation's Matt Glavin. PR about SLF's cases, such as a challenge to the Clinton administration's census plans, presses conservatives' hot buttons and has helped SLF grow its budget from dollars 230,000 to over dollars 3.5 million in five years.

'The more the public knows about the work we do, the more they want to get involved and contribute,' says Glavin. SLF's use of direct mail fund-raising requires a strong PR effort to be successful, he adds. Glavin appears on at least 600 radio talk shows and interviews a year. SLF's Web site provides a measure of how his organization is faring. When Glavin had surgery last year, hits on SLF's web site fell off dramatically until he resumed work.

But sustaining long-term support for some 'hot button' organizations, such as AIDS care, can be difficult. New drugs and the increasing concentration of the disease in people who are low-income and minority have lessened 'the urgency' many in the gay community once felt. One Indiana AIDS fund-raiser recently noted after 15 years of supporting the AIDS cause, 'Individuals ... are turning their attention to other issues.' However, the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) has been holding steady because its unique specialty is research.

Seize opportunities
Organizations have to seize PR opportunities. Fenton Communications (New York) MD Josh Baran recalls how the International Campaign for Tibet, an organization that opposes Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet, used two movies to help popularize its issue.

When the drama Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, a biopic about the Dalai Lama, were featured in theatres, the organization passed out action kits. A Time cover story on Seven Years helped the cause between film showings. A 'stateless dinner' featuring actor Richard Gere drew publicity when the Chinese premiere visited the White House.

At the same time, causes closer to home are becoming more popular, in part because givers want to personally see their dollars put to good use. A recent survey of progressive contributors by the fund-raising company of Craver, Mathews, Smith (Alexandria, VA) discovered baby boomers are more interested in giving to local and community organizations. That led CMS Strategic Communications VP Mark Rovner to finger Habitat for Humanity as 'the perfectly positioned charity for the 1990s. You understand what they do.' (See box.)

Rovner stresses younger potential givers use media coverage to validate an organization's effectiveness. And while mass membership non-profits have become more PR conscious, so have large grant-making foundations.

The Pew Charitable Trust, for instance, now wants to ensure that a recipient has developed a solid communications plan before a check is sent.

PR's role in helping non-profits to promote causes is indeed important.

But more than catchy PR is required for an organization to establish or successfully redefine itself. No 'pet rock' committees or foundations succeed over time. Indeed, many organizations work on their issues for years before an 'enhanced moment' occurs that can bring its cause and itself to the forefront. But much can be done to hasten the arrival of that moment. So the well-managed non-profit should fully recognize the value of PR to help define and communicate its mission. But the mission ? not the PR ? is most important.


Handgun Control
HC has added 20,000 members post-Littleton to its existing 400,000. Communications director Naomi Paiss says HC keeps its message fresh because 'gun violence does not go away.'

Dress for Success (R)
Worldwide Media raves have helped this NY non-profit grow to 35 branches nationwide. Recent coverage by 60 Minutes should help to make this organization that collects interview-appropriate clothing for women seeking better jobs, even hotter.

Center for Science in the Public Interest
CSPI is getting great PR by taking on the dietary evils of movie popcorn. Membership in the early 1990s numbered 250,000. High visibility PR has helped to boost member rolls to one million.

Habitat for Humanity International
Great PR about HHI's success in building low-cost housing makes it a popular group; its 1995 budget of dollars 60 million is projected to be dollars 140 million by 2000.

Human Rights Campaign
Rising awareness of gay and lesbian equal rights issues combined with aggressive PR and marketing have helped HRC to push its membership from 80,000 in 1995 to over 300,000 today.


American Lung Association
ALA's fight against tuberculosis has largely succeeded; now it's trying to find a new mission in an era when breast cancer and Alzheimer's are hot health issues. Christmas Seal revenue was dollars 40 million in 1990; only dollars 27 million last year.

Age is thinning the herd. Elks' membership was 1.6 million in 1980; 1.2 million now. Fraternal organization has tried updating its image, having a national president rather than a 'Grand Exalted Leader.'

Peace Action
The Cold War's end has effectively disarmed peace groups. Peace Action forerunner Sane/Freeze's 1990 membership was 170,000; it was in the 50,000 range in 1997.

National Rifle Association
NRA says it picked up members post-Littleton; but nowhere near enough to offset the attrition of 900,000 members since 1995.

Greenpeace USA
Membership rolls soared to 1.2 million in the early 1990s; then fell quickly due to poor management and difficulty in defining the mission. Membership numbered approximately 400,000 in 1997.

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