10th anniversary: nonprofit and CSR analysis

The nonprofit sector has upped its marketing prowess, while it has endured controversy and competition

Nonprofit PR strategy in 1998 relied heavily on phone banks, mailers, and traditional media relations. E-mail blasts were just becoming popular, and that once-ubiquitous yellow Live-Strong wristband did not exist.

Today, nonprofit campaigns have taken on a new level of sophistication. This is thanks to the Internet, which provides cheap tools to reach a mass audience, and a generation of Millennials interested to take part.

“If any industry has made the biggest stride in the past 10 years, I would place nonprofit PR at the top of my list,” says Doug Spong, president of Minneapolis-based Carmichael Lynch Spong. And that stride has translated into more work at the firm, too. Spong says revenues from nonprofit clients have grown 9% in the past decade.

The natural disasters and corporate scandals of the past decade have impacted nonprofits: budgets were tightened after 9/11, but Americans also united, which nonprofits say helped awareness of their sector.

The subsequent passage of Sarbanes-Oxley, which was enacted mostly to affect public companies, also played out in nonprofit communications, where it placed greater demands on transparency. The sector was not without its issues during the past decade. The Boy Scouts' controversial “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000; the Red Cross navigated through questions of its giving practices after 9/11; and the United Way ousted executives charged with misappropriating funds.

Throughout the past decade's tumult, most nonprofits have focused on shoring up their branding.

“I've seen a lot of nonprofits taking a page from the corporate playbook and concentrating on branding,” Brenda Foster, VP at DC-based Vanguard Communications, which represents Farm Aid, among other nonprofit clients. “Nonprofits come to us more and more as wanting to establish, or re-establish, a brand... to set them apart. They used to just say, ‘This is who we are, here it is.'”

Competition is a very real and motivating factor. From 1995 to 2005, the number of nonprofits registered with the IRS grew more than 27% from 1.1 million to 1.4 million, according to the 2008 Nonprofit Almanac by the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute.

Along with a more crowded space, the caliber of institutions has risen, prompting more sophisticated initiatives. Claudia Carasso, EVP/MD of Cohn & Wolfe, notes the “emergence of really big branded campaigns like [Product] Red, Live [8], and the whole HIV community.” And groups like the American Heart Association and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation increased awareness of the sector.

The advent of social media and the use of the Internet as an organizing tool, á la MoveOn.org, required nonprofits to become savvier in communications. It also opened up a cheap way to reach a wider audience.

“The Internet has vastly changed what we can do,” says Emily Callahan, MD of marketing communications at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which rebranded from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in 2007. “The ability to have that information on the Internet has been unprecedented in terms of our growth.”

She notes that in four years, Komen's number of partners has risen from 65 to more than 200.

Cynthia Round, EVP of brand strategy and marketing at United Way, which just launched its largest Web effort, admits, “We were a bit more reactive about our media management [a decade ago]. Now we're much more proactive.”

Patrick McCrummen, VP of communication and marketing at the Red Cross, points out that 10 years ago, the nonprofit communicated with its chapters using paper-based materials, but the Web has changed all that.

As the economy falters, some say that the sector is uniquely positioned to handle a downturn.

“They're more limber in that they never have huge budgets,” says Foster. “[They know] how to communicate in a more innovate way. They can't buy a Super Bowl ad.”

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