No, it’s not the names of their biggest donors or how much they rely on outside consultants.

It’s what most of the world calls “marketing,” but what the third sector, in its mission-centric way, prefers to dub “advocacy.”

I attended a luncheon in midtown Manhattan this week, at which my colleague Margaret May Damen, author of the just-published Women, Wealth & Giving, delivered a smart, thoughtful address about the power of women’s philanthropy to a group of financial planners.

In chatting with Margaret’s editor at the luncheon table about other titles in Wiley’s pipeline for the nonprofit arena, I found virtually none that would define and advise nonprofits about the dire need for timely, contemporary, effective marketing for their causes.

There was one about to be released on Internet Marketing, which is swell and certainly trendy. But a basic call-to-action and a usable handbook about affordable principles for marketing — like the dozens you find on bookstore shelves that target entrepreneurs and small business owners — zilch. Nothing’s out there that’s current and speaks to up-to-date ways to market nonprofits’ organizations, cultures, their successes, their narratives, their business-plan goals — their BRAND.

It dawned on me that this is the deepest unmentionable in the sector. No one wants to take this on in any substantial way.


The reasons are multiple. Every cause is supposed to telegraph its own virtue. You shouldn’t have to “peddle” it. No one wants to look slick or greedy or too commercial. In addition, donors do not want their pay-for-play contributions to go for glossy brochures or pitch letters or email newsletters, to, in other words, “advocacy.” Rather, donors require that their hard-earned money be spent on programs and tangible, practical relief or research characteristic of the organization they choose to fund. And who can blame them? That, after all, is why people give.

The thing is, I do not see nonprofit development officers or EDs or communications folks even trying to lay out the compelling case for how $1 spent on marketing typically reels in $2 for the worthy programs. The for-profit world knows down to their bones that marketing works to boost the bottom line. But the third sector? Not so much

What’s to be done? When will nonprofits wake up? Yes, yes, I’m aware that Twitter’s all the rage among socially conscious mavens. And I know that every nonprofit that ever filed a 990 has a page on Facebook and Linked In.

But I’m talking about MARKETING, not posting some data or some tidbit or the attendee list at a recent conference.

We need game changers. We need to seriously spark fundraising and engagement and impact. Whether that translates into creating viral online videos or taking out old-timey newspaper ads, or developing dramatic story lines that galvanize would-be donors to pick up the phone —  in other words, marketing messages, not just placeholders — then we might be able to bolster the scarce resources.

We need smarter nonprofit branding. Who’s up for that?