Business Lessons from Nonprofit Organizations About Inspiring Customers

By Terry Barber

Inspirational taglines can be misleading. Judging by many of today’s corporate taglines and promises, you would assume many inspiring sound bites belong to nonprofit organizations. Listen to just a few of my favorites from some of the world’s most recognized brands:

  • “To inspire and nurture the human spirit”
  • “Your potential, our passion”
  • “To improve the lives of the world’s consumers — now and for generations to come”
  • “To contribute to the overall health and wellness of our world”

These are not statements associated with just a social responsibility policy. These are core parts of mission and purpose statements proudly displayed on corporate websites. As today’s brands attempt to differentiate themselves from their many competitors, more and more will attempt to be truly inspiring brands.

And why not? Companies who genuinely converted from old-line commercialism to do-good capitalism are likely to find a powerful connection to the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the customer. This is exactly the kind of connection businesses need in order to acquire and sustain a loyal and passionate following these days.

Following this trend, we can anticipate more and more businesses will be using inspiration as an advertising technique. This can confuse even the savviest of companies and consumers, further blurring the lines between for-profit and not-for-profit. In order to help your business get your message across clearly and effectively, I’d like to provide some guiding principles that I have used with nonprofits for years for those in business who aspire to inspire.

To inspire the consumer, you must help him believe in something that he once thought was impossible. This is where innovators will thrive and institutions will die. Innovators will think in quantum leap fashion. “Institutions” will think incrementally. If you have to describe your company’s dreams and ambitions only in the context of a percentage of growth, you are not inspiring anyone. A key indicator is how you are communicating your promise in your tagline. Here are a few inspiration busters to avoid:

  • “We want to be the best.”
  • “We want to sell the most.”
  • “We just want to make a fair profit.”
  • “We promise the best value for the dollar.”

All are noble. None are inspiring. Making me believe in something that I once thought was impossible begins with words like imagine, dream, accelerate, change, empower, or energize.

Some of the most dynamic meetings I have ever been involved in were those in which I asked my clients, who are nonprofit organizations, “What would the world look like if you were to fulfill your mission tomorrow?”  Try that for your next team meeting and you will quickly uncover whether you have the capacity to be inspiring or not.

To inspire the consumer, you must show genuine appreciation for his or her business. Nonprofit organizations are by and large exceptional at making their donors feel special. Even the average donor receives a thank you note.  At some level, usually at the $100 giving level, they may even receive a thank you phone call.  By those standards, how many companies should you have received a thank you call from? Hey, by those standards, I should most certainly receive thank you calls from Whole Foods, Starbucks, and American Express!

Loyalty programs are effective in retaining customers– until a better loyalty program comes along. That’s because so-called customer appreciation days are typically traps for more up-selling, and people know that. So their “loyalty” is, understandably, short-term.

Conversely, expressing genuine appreciation creates a lifelong relationship. Imagine how a customer would feel if he received a message simply saying, “Thank you for being such a great customer [or client]. We are not calling to sell you anything else, only to say thank you.”

To inspire the consumer, you must help him see that he is a part of a bigger community of world changers. One of the most powerful fundraising terms is the word join. “Join the fight.”  “Join the cause.”  “Join me.”  All these statements indicate that you can be a part of something much bigger than yourself. More than ever before, our identity is being defined by the communities we are a part of, even if those communities are virtual.

If businesses can follow the lead of nonprofit organizations, its leaders will participate in social media for the sake of connecting customers to other customers. In so doing, customers, just like donors, will lead the way into new relationships and new markets. Create or tap into platforms for connecting people in and around your mission.

To inspire the consumer, you must communicate how you are making the world a better place. I recently had the privilege of traveling to Guatemala with a child sponsorship organization. This is an organization I had supported in a modest way for years. But after that firsthand look at how my dollars were being used to help children who were truly impoverished, my giving level will never be the same.

I recently met with a CEO of a Fortune 500 Company and saw this principle illustrated in the most dramatic fashion.  There I noticed maps throughout the building with pushpins marking various towns, cities, and villages around the world where this company and its employees were providing clean drinking water for indigent people. There was an underlying message there that said, “What we are doing as a company is helping to make the world a better place.”

No matter what kind of business you are in, learn from the nonprofit sector that you can inspire your customers by illustrating how you are making the world a better place.

Do you aspire to inspire your customers? Give them something to believe in that they once thought was impossible. Demonstrate genuine appreciation for their business. Help your customers connect with other customers to illustrate that they are part of a bigger community and communicate how you as a business are making the world a better place.

Lead and they may follow. Teach and they may learn. Inspire and they will never be the same.

Terry Barber is the chief inspirator for Grizzard Communication Group. He primarily serves the nonprofit healthcare segment, as well as colleges and universities in the subject area of philanthropic branding.

[From the June/July 2009 issue of AnswerStat magazine]