Must nonprofits be involved in selling?

Lenann McGookey Gardner
Lenann McGookey Gardner

Leann McGookey Gardner

Many nonprofits and values-based organizations face challenges – too few volunteers, small donations, budget shortfalls.

Is the answer to the problem that such organizations need to get better at selling?

No one in the nonprofit community, in my experience, wants to think of themselves as a salesman.

The thought conjures images of conniving, manipulation, pushiness – all incompatible with the principles on which nonprofits were founded.

Is there a middle ground? Does an organization have to get aggressive about salesmanship in order to survive?

The answer is no.

But the approach taken to become better at outreachto volunteers, donors and others who may participate in creating the future you envision for your organization – should be carefully thought through and implemented with sensitivity.

The good news is that the best selling today is done in a way that is deeply respectful of the “buyer.”

This has come about because people’s tolerance for disrespect has declined dramatically. That’s an appropriate development. While no one wants to be “sold,” people “buy” things all the time.

So the challenge is to make the “buyer” – that is, the potential participant, volunteer or donor – aware of the opportunity you represent so they can decide whether they would like to take advantage of the opportunity.

Be careful about assuming that such people already understand the opportunity you offer.

Your organization may have been around for decades, but if people are not involved with you now, the chance that they fully appreciate the opportunity your organization represents to them personally is slim.

Look at your messages. Do you have short, powerful, provocatively-expressed ideas that will create interest where none now exists?

Developing such ideas is a process called “positioning,” and it’s crucial that you do it.

Once you have your positioning messages, it’s time to get those messages out to people you’d like to attract.

You may be buying advertising or supporting a website, but don’t assume that those things are being read. The best vehicle to share your messages is a human being.

So you’ll need to have people who are able to go out and share those powerful messages, build relationships and handle conversations in such a way that maximizes the likelihood that the appropriate people choose to become involved.

The skills to do that are selling skills, adjusted appropriately to fit the type of organization you represent.

These are not the selling skills of the past – nor the depictions of salespeople we see in the movies.

The approach to handling such conversations most effectively today begins with a “clean heart position,” which is a sincere desire to see the other person get where he wants to go.

So to have an effective conversation about engaging with your organization, we begin by trying to understand where the individual with whom we are speaking would like to go.

Be prepared to learn that, while most people have some idea that community involvement is a good thing, they lack specific ideas about how to bring such involvement into their lives.

And since they perceive themselves to be busy already, they worry that they won’t be able to find the time, so they simply do nothing.

Handled properly, a conversation in which we offer them some structure makes it possible for them to see specifically how they might live their professed commitment to their community.

There are several skills for handling this type of conversation, and doing appropriate and timely follow-up on it, that will maximize your effort to attract appropriate people and donations to your organization.

These skills should be based on recent sales research and writings on the subject.

We know that how people like to be approached these days is quite different from the approaches that were effective just a few years ago.

By getting up-to-date on what’s working now in selling, and applying that knowledge appropriately in the context of your organization’s history, goals and values, you can grow your organization, even in challenging economic times.

But be careful: Reading a couple of articles about selling doesn’t make you an expert on what’s working now in selling.

And relying on what you think you know about selling – from a class years ago or a movie you saw – is a classic error.

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