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Marketing for Non-Profits: A Lesson from St. Paul

By Sarah Blodgett
Talent Zoo

After working for some years with non-profits, both professionally and as a volunteer, I've learned that there are many in leadership positions who still consider "marketing" a bad word.

They think marketing encompasses nothing more than a corporate bag of dirty tricks, which they dare not allow anywhere near their mission, lest it be forever tainted. My response to them has become what I like to call the 'Paul Speech.' As in Saint Paul.

Regardless of your beliefs, you have to admit that Christianity has name recognition. This is in large part due to Paul's willingness to promote the fledgling organization using nearly every channel of mass media available to him at the time -- including books, letters, public appearances and word-of-mouth. He condensed and refined Christianity's message for a number of different audiences, even changing its essence to fit new demographics. Paul was, in short, a brilliant mass marketer: a true Karl Rove for the ages. And he was a massive success.

The point? No matter how pure the mission, the methods must be practical. Today, with 77 million baby boomers moving into prime volunteering age, non-profits of every description have a tremendous opportunity to grow, increasing the impact of their philanthropic initiatives along the way. But growth can never happen as the result of good will alone. Non-profit leaders have to engage with the wisdom of their more worldly peers, and put tried and tested marketing methods to work for them.

Establishing trust may be the single most important thing a non-profit can do to ensure growth -- a reality that may in fact make marketing for non-profits harder than marketing consumer products. While most of us are quick to part with our money for a new gadget, we need compelling reasons to commit time, energy and heart to an organization that usually offers nothing tangible in return.

Non-profits can use the idea that consumers are more likely to buy a gadget from a company they've heard of to their advantage, however. The majority of volunteers and donors in the coming years will shop for volunteer organizations in the same way they shop for consumer products: they will look for brand names.

The largest American non-profits -- United Way, American Red Cross, AARP, Big Brothers Big Sisters -- have adopted the sophisticated branding techniques that have proven successful in influencing the behavior of the boomer generation. They have well-crafted mission statements, are consistent in their messaging, employ logos and taglines, have branded collateral, and embrace the technologies of the Internet. It's clear they've invested time and thought in who they are. All of which makes it easier for volunteers to evaluate, and subsequently get on board with, their mission.

Many organizations continue to worry that adopting such a "professional" approach will make them appear too corporate. This reluctance doesn't address the fact that there are many competing demands on people's time and energy, and most people have limited time to make decisions about their charitable and volunteer activities. Looking good and having easy-to-understand objectives is going to be the difference between someone's making the split-second decision to pursue a relationship with an organization or looking elsewhere.

Another concern is that non-profits don't wish to look like they're spending too much money on self-promotion. While financial accountability will always be important for non-profits, the success of our brand-name organizations suggests that this suspicion is unfounded. People want to enter relationships with organizations that are trustworthy and create recognizable change in society. Donors seem to understand, better than executive directors in some cases, that the success of the mission of the organization depends on its being shared with as many people as possible. If a well-planned, well-funded outreach strategy helps to reach this goal, it's a necessity, not a luxury.

The opening example could have easily replaced St. Paul with Tom Paine or Martin Luther King. Anyone can have a vision for humanity, but those who've successfully changed society recognize that everything is a sell. In the end, why should corporations be the only ones who benefit from sound marketing concepts? is the online destination for both job seekers and employers in the communications industry. It's also a must for up-to-the minute content on industry trends, news, career guidance, or just to schmooze. Find a better life with Talent Zoo (

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