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Is marketing a dirty word in the not-for-profit sector?

Is marketing a dirty word in the not-for-profit sector?

February 22, 2012 by Sian McClure

Giving money to charityI came across a breakdown of Virgin Atlantic’s marketing department this week. I was astounded by the fact that it had 12 different areas including sponsorship, research and database marketing. I thought it was a great illustration of the range of marketing functions businesses need to consider. I put the fact that I’d never seen anything like it down to a career in third sector marketing, but then I wondered if I was doing a disservice to charities, social enterprises, and their third sector counterparts such as community interest companies and voluntary organisations. After all, lots of for-profit businesses may also be astounded at the complexity of Virgin Atlantic’s marketing department.

Third sector organisations are rarely mentioned in the business pages; however, there are more similarities between third sector and for-profit businesses than one might assume. One of these is locality of marketplace: social enterprises and charities deliver products and services to local, national and international customers — like any business.

Another similarity is the range in size of organisation; there are many small third sector organisations that reflect SMEs in number of employees and potentially in a task rather than a role-based approach. There are also many larger charities and social enterprises that operate like big corporations and have a turnover to match.  Take Oxfam for instance, whose 2010/11 income was £367.5m, or Divine Chocolate, the cooperative that has gone from strength to strength in the past 15 years and whose turnover in 2009/10 was just under £10.5m.

Understanding the third sector

The term “third sector’ has gone out of fashion in this current government’s administration but it’s a useful one for our purposes because it serves as an umbrella term for a broad spectrum of organisations. Some of these, such as social enterprises, are structured and function as businesses. Others, charities in particular, are clearly not businesses because the rules on public benefit in the Charities Act and an organisation’s charitable objects prohibit this.

Any debate around the degree to which third sector organisations are businesses is a red herring. The point is that all third sector organisations perform business functions, including marketing, and require support to overcome the challenges they face from their operating environments. For instance, it is notoriously difficult for third sector organisations to allocate a marketing budget particularly when they are commissioned to deliver public services since this is not seen as a good use of public money.

Another challenge is the need to embrace social media while being aware of good practice around digital inclusion. This means developing communications strategies that cater for communities that are not online. Failure to do this means they risk the wrath of the very people they are accountable to.

Social enterprises appear to be becoming more at ease with the idea of marketing. This may be because they use business principles to achieve their social mission. In contrast, many charities find the idea of marketing an anathema; it implies commercialism and profit-making which go against a charitable philosophy. Many of those that adopt a marketing approach retrospectively encounter difficulties managing this change across a staff team with varied and entrenched views.

Marketing in the not-for-profit sector

A recent piece of research we’ve conducted into charity communications reflects the uneasy relationship charities have with marketing. Out of 20 voluntary organisations interviewed, only two had marketing officers. Only two organisations spoke strategically about marketing communications and only two were making full use of social media. It seems that, despite the adoption of specific marketing tactics, marketing is still a dirty word for some charities.

Marketing matters to third sector organisations because it offers a practical approach to business that echoes a core third sector ethos — to meet consumers’ needs.  We believe there are three marketing challenges for charities and social enterprises:

  • To develop a comprehensive understanding of marketing
  • To challenge assumptions that marketing is incompatible with non-profit making activity
  • To maximise limited resources (budgets and staffing)

This isn’t about breaking moulds but it is about strong leadership and having a good grasp of the potential of a marketing approach for third sector organisations.

Charities and social enterprises don’t need Virgin Atlantic’s marketing department in order to be effective, but Virgin Atlantic offers a useful starting point for rethinking the place of marketing in organisations whose mission is to bring about positive social change.

Sian McClure is the co-founder of Dynamic Marketing, a specialist marketing service for social enterprises, charities, community interest companies and socially responsible businesses.


thedavefoster's picture

It shouldn't be a dirty word and this negative view needs to change. Marketing is simply communicating your product, service or brand, and everyone needs that to gain new exposure, inform people that you have something useful or needed, and ask them to buy, donate or participate somehow.  It's gotten a bad rap from some people trying to coerce or manipulate people--from the abuse of people's trust.  Marketing is a set of neutral tools that any company, cause or organization can benefit from.  

You can try to let your actions do your talking for you, but only so many people will hear. Marketing is how you let yourself be known to wider audiences--others who will be glad to know who you are and what you do. The good or bad associated with "marketing" depends on how it's used.

That's my opinion, as someone who's struggled with the negative view my whole career, starting in advertising and working from roles using marketing for most of it—all for positive causes, social enterprises and third sector orgs.  It's bothered me for a long time, but I get it and I don't take it personally anymore.  There's nothing wrong with marketing.  Only with the people who use it wrongly.  Keep going to bat for helping your orgs communicate widely and strongly (with decent budgets) so that your message can be heard by all of your potential supporters out there.

jailbirdstreet's picture

I've spent my whole career outside the for-profit sector. I've even joked in job interviews that I'd never go over to the dark side - and it goes down well. In government, I've endured ridiculous job titles designed to obscure the fact you're a marketing/communications person. I completely understand the wariness that people committed to doing good feel towards marketing. Most people only understand the industry from their daily experience, which involves a lot of the worst practices/abuses.

As marketing professionals in the third sector, I think it is part of our role to demonstrate how we add value in tangible terms. It's a daily battle to change the story about what marketing is and how it should be enacted.

Geoff @ Four to the 4's picture

A good read Sian, thanks. I agree with you that there's so very much in common between the nature of businesses & the third-sector, therefore one ought to see a similar relationship with marketing across the third-sector. It doesn't much exist though unfortunately, the big charities are very much plugged in like big businesses but small charities are in the most part well behind their small business counter-parts (which is something we'd like to do our bit to address).

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