Even a great crowd at your nonprofit event might not be enough if you only attract your existing supporters. Growth depends on reaching new people who haven't yet heard your message.

Many organizations spend significant resources marketing to their existing customers.  That is sound marketing practice, as it builds a loyal fan base which will hopefully drive repeat purchases.  Or, perhaps it will entice customers to purchase even more – what marketers call “increased share of wallet.”

When developing a marketing and communications strategy, it is important to distinguish between attracting new customers and deepening relationships with existing customers.  The basic tools of either campaign might be the same, but messaging is different. How you access people is different. Goals are different.

Think about cars:  should Volvo work to ensure that existing Volvo customers purchase another Volvo when it is time to replace the car?  Or should they focus on selling more Volvos to more people, convincing people to switch brands and recruiting first-time buyers?  Both important, but two very different marketing campaigns.

Recruiting new customers costs more than retaining existing customers.  However, retention alone is not a growth strategy, unless customers buy more.  And how many cars does one really need?

Nonprofit organizations recruit and retain “customers” or “clients” with relative ease.  Their marketing challenge is attracting donors and volunteers. The well-managed ones wisely inform supporters about the good works they do through focused communication. But growth relies on reaching and converting more people into supporters, since expanding “share of wallet” is a limiting strategy with a finite donor base.

Enhancing one’s public image within the community is critical to financial sustainability for a nonprofit because it brings new support, new resources.  Social media is helpful, because it relies on a circle of influence mode. Participating in other community organizations like the Community Foundation, Rotary and the Chamber will raise your profile within circles of engaged people.  And yes, sometimes you have to pay for additional advertising and marketing.

Advertising one’s charitable good works may feel like bragging.  Or spending dollars on marketing is frowned upon because it diverts funds from services.   Maybe you think you don’t have time to network. Time to rethink that.

All businesses, but nonprofits especially, need to move past these biases.  Preaching to the choir is not a sustainable model. The choir isn’t big enough.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...