Why NGOs Must Learn To Market or Die

website question & answer with redbox studio

Happy Monday everyone!

Just over the weekend, I spoke to a friend, Yeoh. She was absolutely frantic and needed to speak to me urgently.

“How can I help you?” I asked the moment she picked up the phone.

You know what she said? “I thought of you immediately when I was asked to get help for marketing!”

Her words tumbled out in a rush and in short, she had taken over the huge task of helping an orphanage in Penang organise and market its upcoming food fair. The food fair is a means to raise funds for the orphanage which was founded by 2 women. They’ve been around since 1999 and as Yeoh said, “surviving on miracles day to day”.

Yeoh needed my advice as well as help in promoting the tickets of the food fair to my contacts. I was willing to help email my friends but I also asked her a few questions.

I asked if this orphanage had any Facebook page or website. It would help my mailing if I could point my friends to a link where they could find out more. Yeoh said they didn’t have any online presence.

“Do they have flyers? I could give some flyers to my friends and they, too, could help you,” I added.

Yeoh said they didn’t have flyers either but she managed to rope in a volunteer to write some press releases to send to the media. Luckily, the newspapers published their press releases so at least there is some publicity (although I didn’t have the heart to tell her that a lot of people don’t read print media as much as they used to. Including me. I got fed-up of biased reporting in the newspapers a long time ago).

When she told me the name of the orphanage, I said I’d heard of them. But not many know them, said Yeoh as the founders wanted to be low profile all these years!

I remarked to Yeoh that these days, it’s hard to want public donation and public money and at the same time, remain low profile. People have many charities to contribute to; so NGOs and charity homes must realise that if someone doesn’t give you cash or buy your charity food fair tickets, his money is going somewhere else. You didn’t fight for his “mind share” and hence, you lost out to another home.

While Penang people are generous and known for their philanthropy, if your home or NGO is not as well-known as the ones who do know how to market themselves and “be seen”, you will not take home a share of the money. And that hurts because the funds run the homes, the orphanages, the NGOs. If you have no funds to sustain your orphanage or NGO, who suffers? The children, the dogs, the cats, the old folks.

As we always say, don’t start marketing when you need the money or the sale. Start marketing when you don’t need the money or sale. Build up goodwill with your best donor base. Keep them regularly updated with news of how your charity organisation is doing, how their monies are spent, who benefits from their contribution and why they should contribute and how (it’s not always about giving money – how about getting them to volunteer a few hours each month? Or getting them to share your message with a quick click of a social media button? Or getting them to rally more people to help?).

It doesn’t always have to be done online though it is preferable and one of the fastest ways to get traction.

The Montfort Boys Town based in Shah Alam does a great job of updating us donors about the students who are undergoing their skill-based training programmes. They send a print newsletter every year to update us about the beneficiaries of the funds. Each newsletter features 4 teenagers who have benefited from public donation. In reading these stories, donors are more likely to continue giving as they know their money is used to train youth (boys and girls) who are orphaned, from dysfunctional families and indigenous communities.

Marketing isn’t just an activity that businesses and commercial entities need to engage in; these days, if charity homes want to continue doing the good work that they do, they need to engage in marketing too.

The problem with most charity homes is that they always believe the problem solves itself. What with GST and the depreciating ringgit, many folks are also finding everyday life hard and tightening their belts. As it is, some factories are cutting down work days from 5 days to 4 days a week due to a slowdown in demand for their products.

In light of these challenging economic times, charity homes must realise that being low profile isn’t going to help. Asking for money when they need it isn’t going to cut it. If you haven’t built a strong base of supporters and donors, the going is really going to be tough in the coming months.

That is why NGOs particularly need to learn how to move with the times. Learn how to market because it keeps your organisation or charity home alive. If you don’t learn how to market, you’re really harming the people or animals under your care. If your NGO or charity goes bust because you’re too proud to learn how to market like it’s the 21st century, what happens to these people or teenagers? They’d be out on the streets or begging!

Learn from the plethora of offline and online marketing events and programmes. Send your volunteers to find out more online. Don’t be a stick-in-the-mud and say that “you’re too old to learn”. Be creative about fundraisers – food fairs are common in Penang – but is that all you can do or is that a lazy way out? How many people can buy food fair tickets in a year before donor fatigue sets in?

Every other month some home needs money and some event is put up. Every home and NGO need money – it’s a given. Everyone, unless you are one of the lucky few to be funded by a private foundation or the Government, works to get a piece of the donor’s money.

So if you want to help more people (orphanage/senior home) or animals (cat or dog shelter) and do the great work that you do, help yourself by embracing marketing.

Marketing isn’t about being pushy, sleazy or selling aggressively. Start with something local but make an effort to learn – you can always join our marketing events or read marketing books – but whatever it is, you need to realize that if your NGO doesn’t get smart about marketing, the consequences can be fatal.

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