Marketing for non-profits: Empathy starts at the CMO's desk

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Credit: Feeding America via Youtube

During the course of their careers, many CMOs contemplate giving back by working for a non-profit. But few make the leap. And those that do often struggle in the face of diminished resources and unexpected internal politics. To better understand what it takes to succeed at a non-profit, I spoke with Catherine Davis, the CMO of Feeding America, which helped provide 4.2 billion meals to 46 million people last year.

Davis, whose career includes being CMO for Harris Direct and SVP of Marketing at Diageo, doesn't see a strong distinction between the functional responsibilities of a CMO at a non-profit versus a for-profit organization. As she points out, both jobs require a clear understanding of strategy, the ability to create empathy for your product or service, and most importantly, how to track performance over time. The biggest difference, at least for Davis, is that "even when you have a bad day, you know that you fed someone."

What is your primary role as CMO?

My number one role across my brand and communications and marketing teams is to create empathy for the people who don't have enough to eat. Part of the reason why people blame people who are hungry is because there are a lot of issues out there that need to be solved. People have a lot of decision-making criteria that they use to decide whether to support something or not. There's a lot of bias and misperception out there, and my first job is to fight those misconceptions and provide really good qualitative stories to supplement our very strong quantitative data.

How exactly do you change perceptions and create empathy?

Non-profit and issue-based marketers tend to default to the statistics, which are fairly easy to dismiss. What people can't dismiss is real people and individual stories. You have to take it down to individuals, people that feel like you and me. We could face exactly the same issues. The difference between being potentially hungry and being stable is between 250 and 500 dollars. It takes one car repair for a lot of people to be put out of whack. It's about having people better understand it and being able to relate to a single person. As part of our network, we have 200 food banks and 60,000 points of distribution, which is helping people to start critical conversations. One of the things that we measure is intent to support, a more quantitative measure that asks people if they would potentially volunteer or advocate or share something digitally or donate. At the end of the day, I just want people to have conversations. I don't care if I can measure it or not.

What is an example of a crystallization of some strategic thinking into an action in your time as CMO of Feeding America?

My line is always, "be a human," because oftentimes people are too academic about things. If you're not talking on a level that people can understand and that's human, then people are not going to connect with you. You've given them an opportunity to dismiss it. Last summer, we realized we hadn't talked all that much about summer hunger for kids. We wanted to do something that would stand out in the marketplace that would take a different approach to it. We worked with the Ad Council and Facebook's creative team to create an ice cream truck that went around the United States, visited our food banks, and really started to raise awareness around the issue of hunger. We saw huge increases in awareness, in intent to support, in revenue, all because people just hadn't put it together. We also just did several spots with StoryCorps, which were easy to share on social media. They're just people telling their stories about when the hurricane hit, a father and a son or a mother and her son.

Is there much of a difference being a CMO at a non-profit versus a for-profit?

It is very much the same. You're still trying to persuade people of something. You're defining a brand and the service that you provide, trying to make people more aware of it, and trying to get people to participate in it. I view it in many ways the same. Being the CMO of an NPO is a bit different because when you have a bad day, you know that you fed someone. We're raising awareness of an issue that needs to be fixed, so it feels very personally fulfilling. The other difference is that when you're working on a for-profit, you think in terms of quarters and years. At a nonprofit, it could take a decade to eradicate a problem because its overall societal change. It really is a long game.

How do you know you're making progress towards solving the problem?

First of all, we look at how many people we're able to feed, and we look at how many pounds we're able to get to them and distribute. We are also focused on basic awareness of Feeding America, which is at about 50 percent, and we've had a terrific uptick over the last nine years. But 50 percent is still just 50 percent, so we're really trying to go into the 80s. We look at brand awareness. We look at emotional connection to the brand. We look at intent to support Feeding America. Separately, we also measure passion for hunger because we want to solve the issue overall. What's interesting is that we've measured this for the last 10 years, and we've hovered around 34 or 35 percent in terms of people who are passionate about the issue of hunger and want to do something about it. About two years ago, around six months before the presidential election, we started to see this significant uptick. In a two-year period, it went from 34 percent to 51 percent, simply because people were having more conversations about hunger.

So how do you get from 50 percent awareness to 80 percent awareness?

Because we don't have a hundred million dollars, we need to do things that make people feel things. We cannot be wallpaper. One of the things I feel really strongly about is that one person is accountable for every message. While lots of people can have input, one person is accountable, and it needs to represent a single point of view. It can be fit for purpose within the overall context of a brand, but you cannot do things that make people feel like there is no risk. Due to our large donations of media presence, we don't necessarily have any control over the target audience, and we can't do anything about frequency. At the end of the day, if you're really trying to go from zero awareness to awareness, or from awareness to consideration, then there needs to be some frequency and recency.

What do CMOs need to be thinking about if they are considering making the leap from for-profit to non-profit?

You should pick something that you feel passionate about and that you really want to be able to make an impact on from an issue standpoint. The second is don't assume all non-profits are the same. Make sure that you end up somewhere that has a culture that you're comfortable with since cultures vary from NPO to NPO.

What are two 'do's' and a 'don't' for nonprofits in terms of their approach to marketing?

Be really clear about who you are and what you stand for. Then, execute that in a way that people can't turn away. Brand tracking matters. Understanding your target audience matters. Never assume that your audience is just like you.

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