When Nonprofit Marketing Goes Wrong

When Nonprofit Marketing Goes Wrong: How shifting your organization’s mission won’t win support

Legitimacy in the nonprofit world is essential, not only to the credibility of the field but to the success of individual organizations. Legitimacy directly correlates to the perceived benefits a community associates with an organization.

If a community sees no purpose in the nonprofit’s existence, all chances of it receiving support, resources, and volunteers are diminished. Essentially, legitimacy can be a driving factor behind an organization’s prosperity or failure, since all resources nonprofits need to survive are given after this community need is shown and a solution established.

But what happens when your organization’s mission does not drum up the amount of legitimacy and value in the community as you deem it should? In this situation, nonprofit organizations may be tempted to shift their organizational mission to increase its appeal to potential donors, volunteers, and community partners. With so many potential benefits, it makes sense that an organization might defect from its mission and acquiesce to community opinion, right? Wrong.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA charged with marketing a new program to potential donors and volunteers, I thought it was completely appropriate and necessary to shift my program’s mission.

The original mission was to bridge the trust and understanding gap between Baltimore adults and youth in the juvenile justice system. Through a dinner networking program, adults and youth were to hold open and authentic conversations with one another, learn about each other and begin to understand each others’ life challenges and experiences. The program’s goal was to establish these relationships, and after the dinner round ended, to support these pairs in staying connected to one another and benefiting from their mutual relationships.

When I began marketing the program to potential volunteer groups, though, no one could understand why our program was geared towards networking instead of mentoring children and many individuals cited this as a reason why they wouldn’t commit to volunteering. In response to this popular sentiment, I replaced the word “networking” to “mentoring” on all of the marketing materials.

nonprofit-student-mentorAt the time, I didn’t view this word change as a shift in mission. The problem was, my supervisor and I continued to plan the program with a networking focus. Our marketing had changed, and thus the perceptions of our volunteers had changed, but our mindset hadn’t evolved with those changes. We consistently wanted to keep the focus of the program on networking, yet our message to the public no longer reflected that focus. Several volunteers later approached me, confused as to what the mission of the program was, and ultimately, what their role was as a volunteer in it. I realized then that two things had gone wrong:

  • First, changing just one word had completely shifted the focus of our program, and our mission for having such a program.
  • Second, that one word had created widespread confusion not only of the public’s perception of the program, but of volunteers’ roles and responsibilities within the program.

Realizing these reactions was only half the battle, because it forced my team to  immediately reassess the need for the program within the community, reestablish its mission, and explain the roles of volunteers to both potential and current participants.

In an effort to add resources to my organization, I compromised the one component of it’s mission that set it apart from other organizations working with similar populations. What I learned, and many others need to remember in order to avoid my mistake, is that an organization’s mission is its lifeblood in the fight to receive valuable support.

Instead of compromising an unpopular mission to gain legitimacy and support in the community, nonprofit professionals need to focus on clearly communicating their mission and legitimacy to potential stakeholders to avoid confusion and misconception. Nothing can take the place of establishing solid communication which connects an organization’s mission to community needs. And anything that seems to do just that, chances are won’t help establishing that long term legitimacy every organization needs to survive.

Do you have a marketing blunder you’d like to share? Help others avoid these mishaps by sharing your expertise below!

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Christine Adkins

Christine obtained her degrees in public relations, journalism, leadership & global understanding from La Salle University. She is currently completing a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA in Baltimore, MD and ultimately desires to pursue a career in public relations in the tourism, wine, or nonprofit industries.

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