Don’t Start Yet Another Nonprofit

start a nonprofit

“If you’re the kind of person who tends to succeed in what you start, changing what you start could be the most extraordinary thing you do.”

I previously featured this quote in a post about why society needs great marketers. If you’re a marketer interested in or working in the public and social sectors, maybe you’ve wanted to start a nonprofit of your own. As someone who has started his own business and worked at startups and nonprofits, I advise you to think long and hard before you start a nonprofit. It might not be the best way to have the impact you desire.

What Facebook and Nonprofits Have In Common

Dustin Moskovitz, one of the founders of Facebook, gives a great talk about why you should start a company. I think it’s just as applicable to nonprofits.

Moskovitz hears budding entrepreneurs cite several common reasons for starting a company: financial gain, massive social or commercial impact, lifestyle, and control. Most of the time, Moskovitz says, these are pipe dreams.

He also hears passion and aptitude as reasons to start a company. These are better reasons.

Moskovitz goes on to make the case that if you have passion and aptitude, and want financial gain, massive impact, and even the founder’s lifestyle, you may be better off joining an established but growing organization.

The same goes for nonprofits.

It’s Hard Work To Start a Nonprofit

Nonprofits may have a lower failure rate than businesses. Getting volunteer labor and donated capital may make it easier for small organizations to hang on. This article on gives reliable statistics about 10-year survival rates for nonprofits. The rates are lower than the proverbial 80 percent failure rate for startup businesses.

Still, you probably want to accomplish more than merely hang on.

There is fierce competition for donations, as well. The top three percent of large nonprofit institutions account for more than 90 percent of nonprofit revenues. According to Charity Navigator, nearly half of all charitable giving goes to religious and education groups. Unless you’re starting a church or a university, your pool of available funds just shrunk by half.

Even if you can get funding, a lot of hard work lies ahead. As a marketer, you know that design, distribution, pricing and promotion are fundamental activities for any organization. You’d need a vision for these four core areas for your nonprofit. In addition, consider the other necessary-but-time-consuming tasks in founding an organization, such as

  • Legal compliance
  • Facilities
  • Human resources
  • Accounting

If you lack passion or aptitude for these tasks, or feel they will detract from what you want to accomplish, maybe you shouldn’t start a nonprofit. And that’s okay.

If I Don’t Start a Nonprofit, Then What?

Don’t start yet another nonprofit, unless you have the passion to wade through all the heavy lifting without losing sight of accomplishing your vision. There are plenty of ways to contribute to our social good. Consider these choices:

  • Give money directly to those how need it. Research is demonstrating the power of direct cash payments.
  • Donate your time and money to an established nonprofit that aligns with your goals. They already have the infrastructure you need to support your work.
  • Change careers to join an established nonprofit. This is harder to pull off, but nonprofits are always looking for experience professionals with new perspectives.
  • Start a business, instead. There’s good support for a business solution to poverty, for instance.

If you’ve read this far and aren’t deterred, here are a couple next steps:

  • Visit the National Council of Nonprofits for resources on how to start a nonprofit.
  • Consider franchising a nonprofit from another community.  Instead of starting from scratch, adopt the model of a nonprofit already succeeding in another community. You’ll help them scale while building on the work they’ve already done.


(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

City Design: Redesigning Failed Shopping Malls

redesigning failed shopping malls

According to Credit Suisse, up to one-quarter of U.S. malls will close by 2022. During the past 60 years, malls served as a major public commons in the U.S. The design and stewardship of commons is a crucial component of public-sector marketing. Redesigning failed shopping malls could be an huge public-sector opportunity.

Continue reading City Design: Redesigning Failed Shopping Malls

How to Fund Holistic Water Quality Management

holistic water quality management

Governing common shared resources such as water supplies relies on layers of resource management. Each level of management has different roles and responsibilities, from neighborhoods and cities through to regional, state, national and international governance. Currently, the way many cities approach water quality is inefficient because resource management is not regional. Water agencies ignore problems upstream, where water quality problems start. Applying funds to upstream problems is a marketing decision related to how we price our social goods. Fixing those upstream problems reduces costs downstream for water treatment.

Continue reading How to Fund Holistic Water Quality Management

With, Not For: Nonprofits and Client-Centered Design

nonprofits and client-centered design

If you design goods and services for your clients, instead of with them, you are forced to make assumptions. Inevitably, your assumptions will be wrong. With bad assumptions you risk your goods and services not meeting your clients needs. That means you are wasting your time and money, and your clients’ time and money. With basic needs like health and sanitation, you are also be risking your clients’ lives. At the intersection of nonprofits and client-centered design lies fulfilling your mission for your clients.

Principles for Designing With, Not For, Your Clients

In the world of computer software, the concept of designing with clients is known as client-centered design.

True to form for the software industry, there’s an accompanying international standard (ISO 9241-210). An official copy of the standard costs more than $100. Instead, this article lists the six main principles of client-centered design:

  • The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
  • Users are involved throughout design and development.
  • The design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation.
  • The process is iterative.
  • The design addresses the whole user experience.
  • The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.

The good thing about standards is that they try to be universal. The bad thing about standards is that being universal makes them vague. How, specifically, do you “address the whole user experience,” have “an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments,” and make sure that “users are involved throughout design and development”?

Here are some specific approaches for involving clients in designing your products and services.

Quantitative Methods For Nonprofits and Client-Centered Design

Use quantitative methods to gather structured, numeric data that can be measured and analyzed to statistical significance if need be.

  • Market research tells you about the number of people or communities experience a problem; the cost of the problem in terms of money, time, resources, or lives; what people are currently doing to solve the problem; and how much they are willing to spend on the problem. Governments collect much of this data and make it available for free. This type of data gives you some insight into your market and clients. However, if you only do market research, then you’re still designing for and not with your clients.
  • Surveys give you responses from specific people and groups to a list of questions. You can draw on existing surveys, like the U.S. community survey. You can also conduct your own survey. See my brand strength survey series as an example. Surveys give you more detailed information than market research, but don’t replace working with individual clients.
  • Experiments are the ultimate quantitative approach. The approach you take depends on your product or service, your audience, and your budget. For a simple experiment, you can conduct A/B tests with your web content and advertising. A complex experiment might involve a control group, experimental group(s), and measurement methods suitable for statistical significance. (See this white paper for more information on complex experiments.)

Qualitative Methods For Nonprofits and Client-Centered Design

Use qualitative methods to gather and learn from input from individual clients. There are ways of quantifying the results from qualitative methods, but these are generally not as numerically robust as quantitative methods.

  • Interviewing clients gives you direct access to what they are thinking. You can interview clients by phone or online conferencing. One benefit of online conferencing is the ability to record the interview for later reference. Develop a script or questionnaire to keep your process consistent and focused. In my experience, you usually need just a handful of interviews to uncover useful insights.
  • Observing clients shows you exactly what clients are doing. Observing is more expensive and obtrusive than interviews, because you need to be in the client’s environment recording what they are doing. Observation is more powerful and interviews, though. People can tell you one thing in an interview but do something different in real life. Develop a score card of objects, people, actions, and statements you want to look for while observing. Video recording your observation session is very useful, but not always possible or acceptable to clients.
  • Focus groups uncover the thoughts and attitudes of a particular type of client. For instance, you can hold a focus group with five single parents from a neighborhood to learn about local child care options. With focus groups, you can probe attitudes and possibly try out new ideas on potential clients.
  • Form a client advisory board. Ask several existing clients if they’d be willing to give you an hour or two of their time every quarter. This group gives you a forum to introduce new ideas, gather feedback about existing products and services, and learn more about the evolving needs of your market.
  • Host a design workshop. Invite a group of your existing or prospective clients to participate in a half-day or whole-day meeting where they give input and ideas for design. This is probably the ultimate example of designing with your clients.
  • Perform field tests. Take a new product or service into the market to see how well it works for clients. These tests may give you the most useful and honest feedback on how well you are meeting your clients’ needs.

Examples of Nonprofits and Client-Centered Design

See these examples of nonprofits and client-centered design from previous blog posts:

In these cases and many others, smart people tapped into the needs, desires, and intelligence of their clients to develop powerful and sustainable solutions.

What can your current and potential clients tell you?

Need help designing with your clients, and not just for them? Contact me for marketing services to uncover new client and market insights.


(Image courtesy of Flickr)

Three Ways To Eliminate Low-Quality Charitable Products

low-quality charitable products

Are you designing and distributing low quality charitable products? How do you know? Just because your clients may benefit from, and even rely on, products that are free to them doesn’t mean you can give them crap. It also doesn’t mean they stop becoming savvy consumers just because something is free to them. Your products and services may be free to your clients, but in areas like healthcare and water they can also a matter of life and death.

Here are three lessons from two cautionary tales of low-quality charitable products.

Low Quality Threatens Healthy Babies

Low-quality charitable products can threaten healthy babies.

In India, TED Fellow Zubaida Bai encountered a midwife who used a small farming implement to cut umbilical cords after delivery. The sight stunned Bai. After delivering her own child in a modern hospital, Bai spent a year trying to shake an infection. What were women in villages going through?

She made it her mission to offer a low-cost kit of medical tools for delivering babies in the developing world. At first, she was thrilled to find that such a kit already existed. Her excitement faded when she final received a kit. Its contents were unhygienic, did not follow medical best practice, and turned off expectant mothers and midwives. Also, the kits were only available when there was charitable funds to support them.

Bai worked with midwives, mothers, and medical experts to design a better kit. For just $3, which was $1 more than the old kit, Bai’s company ayzh created the Jamma clean birth kit with proper and hygienic tools packaged in a purse that mothers could keep and use. So far, the kit has helped more than 600,000 mothers and babies.

Low Quality Threatens Clean Water

low-quality charitable products

Low-quality charitable products can also threaten access to clean water.

In Ghana, Kevin Starr saw the pioneering work of Saha providing clean water in arid, rural areas. The Saha nonprofit business model, supported by both donations and affordable client fees, was thriving in multiple locations. Saha’s ongoing testing at the water source and in client homes showed that their system consistently delivered bacteria-free water.

In one village, though, the local Saha provider was struggling after two years in business. During that time, three different charity programs came to the village, distributed free water filters, and left. While the filters worked, clients stopped using Saha. That’s not to say the filters were effective at removing harmful bacteria. Eventually, the filters clogged or broke, and there was no way to repair or replace them. If free solutions kept arriving and not working, they would kill the one effective method for delivering clean water.

Three Lessons About Low-Quality Charitable Products

Lots of lessons spring from these two stories, but in the context of this blog, three items stick out.

Design matters

Both Saha and ayzh invested effort to design products that were affordable, met measurable standards, and appealed to clients. Both organizations designed products with, and not just for, their clients. For both these companies, competing products that were poorly designed promoted infections that were harmful and potentially deadly.

Business model matters

Saha providers charge pennies for clean water, but compete against free water filters. ayzh charged $1 more for their clean birth kit than the competing charity version. Both companies have build business models with products that cost clients more than all-out charity. However, that additional cost fit within clients’ means and assured quality products with ongoing benefits.

Designing affordable solutions with self sustaining business models is the business solution to poverty and the best way to scale.

Sustainability matters

As Kevin Starr said, there’s an opportunity cost to failure. People in poverty have much less ability to absorb that cost. Solutions for vital services like clean water and health need to work reliably and continually.

Saha’s clean water solution works because it relies on local products and labor, receives revenue in exchange for water, and performs ongoing measurement to ensure quality. Clients don’t get sick and possibly die from infection. One-time interventions with products that wear out can’t match this.

ayzh’s clean birth kit keeps mothers and babies safe from infection. It might sound crass, but this helps sustain the market. ayzh receives revenue for the kit, which ensures ongoing support and product improvements.

Probably the kit’s most clever sustainability aspect is packaging the kit in a purse that the mother could keep. One, the packaging is reusable, making the product more environmentally sustainable. Two, it made the kit more appealing to mothers, sustaining interest in the product. Three, after the birth the purse became a promotional tool when the new mother carried it with her. That helps spread word-of-mouth about the product.

In the end charitable work, like business, requires dedication to a market. Anything less is a disservice and potentially harmful.

Read more about The Business Solution to Poverty.


(Images courtesy of Flickr and WikiMedia)

Engaging Millennials In Your Cause: Three Times the Work, Three Times the Reward

Engaging Millenials In Your Cause

In reading this New York Times article about engaging Millennials in your cause, one paragraph caught my marketing eye:

Millennials expect transparency, sophisticated storytelling and technical savvy from their charitable organizations. And many donors will not only give money, but will also volunteer and lend the force of their own social networks to a cause they believe in.

Continue reading Engaging Millennials In Your Cause: Three Times the Work, Three Times the Reward

Government Investments, Not Government Subsidies

government investments

The terms we use matter when designing and promoting public and social goods. I don’t like the term “subsidy” when applied to government programs. It lacks the related themes and ideas that I think we want associated with public spending. The term has also taken on negative connotations that further hinder strengthening our communities through the marketing of social goods. I prefer to think about government investments.

I’ll illustrate my point with a personal story from my early career at Microsoft.

Continue reading Government Investments, Not Government Subsidies

Turning Bright Spots Into Products and Services

Turning Bright Spots Into Products and Services

Look for bright spots of success and hope among your market audience, and you may find your next big idea. Here are lessons from a story about how one underfunded aid worker used turning bright spots into products and services to change a nation.

Continue reading Turning Bright Spots Into Products and Services

Reach and Frequency Are Fundamental Marketing Metrics

reach and frequency are marketing metrics

Reach and frequency are marketing metrics for planning and evaluating promotional activities. Is your message reaching who you want to reach, as often as you want to reach them?  Here are ways to plan for and increase reach and frequency.

Continue reading Reach and Frequency Are Fundamental Marketing Metrics