Non-Profits: It’s all about the people, Part I

Hello. My name is John and I’m a non-profit addict.

No kidding. I love running non-profits! I’ve managed several, in fact.

While the rewards were incredible: new relationships, good works, helping people, petting dogs (yes, I got to do that), there was a prevalent theme between every non-profit that I have had a leadership position in. And it wasn’t a positive theme.

Before I continue, I’m warning you that the next two posts are going to be long. I may split them into bite-sized morsels one day, but until then, set aside some time if you are really looking for direction and advice on growing a non-profit that is stagnating.

The same struggles were had year after year. Finances (for some, but it’s an indirect relation), enough hands to do the work, but most importantly, membership numbers stagnated or dwindled.

I’m now part of an international organization called the Society of Creative Anachronisms (SCA)… it’s a hell of a fun group where we basically learn and live the medieval times (in a very succinct nutshell). To be clear, I haven’t left all the other non-profits, but I try to minimize how many leadership obligations I take on because burnout is a constant threat.

When I first started, it was about having fun, which is a theme in my life. If something isn’t bringing me joy, it isn’t in my life. About a year ago I took on a local leadership position; the equivalent of president of the local chapter. Now, the SCA is basically split up into two worlds, the legal / formal world that has non-profit paperwork, has to do corporate reporting, has to make sure people are safe and all sanctioned activities abide by city, state, and federal laws, etc. The other world is that of actually “experiencing the medieval times”. My job is the legal side in order for the group to enjoy the “play” side.


I have come up with a phrase, a cross-non-profit phrase, to describe the participation in a non-profit’s activities (I’m just going to call it an org now, for organization, cause non-profit takes too much typing).   The phrase is, “Do the Do.”

Let me give you some examples so you understand that phrase, as I’ll use it several times over the next two posts.

Doing the Do, is putting your purpose for your participation into action. SO! If you volunteered to walk a dog at a humane society, walking the dog is Doing the Do. Is that the only thing that needs to get done? No. But that’s why you’re there. To walk the dog.

If you help support NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) by participating in one of it’s annual walks, you support them by raising money for your walk, go the day of the walk, and walk!  Is that all that happens to make that walk happen? No.

How many of you have bought crack from little kids? Don’t lie to me. I see the thin mint stains on your shirt.  Girl Scouts have been pushers for many years. I’m sure you’ve either helped sell them or have bought them. You didn’t show up to give your life over to running the organization (some did, but we are talking about cookies right now). You were Doing the Do. You participated at a “participant’s” level. You bought or you sold the cookies. Was that simple transfer of money the end of running this organization? Not at all. But you participated at a participant’s level. You were Doing the Do.

In all these, when you were finished Doing the Do, you walked away and did something else.

I am going to get more into that phrase and the consequences of it in the next post, but it was important you understand the phrase itself because I will inevitably use it sooner.

Back to the main thought!


Because I’ve had the position of President or have been responsible for either growing membership or money in all the orgs I’ve helped lead, I became aware of complaints and struggles that each org had. Growth and participation.

I watched as members attempted to create successful events, either social, fundraising or membership drive events. The execution from a non-profit standpoint was “successful” in that no one got hurt, a couple dollars were earned, or maybe someone saw you and maybe they might join one day.  To be honest, there’s usually nothing wrong with the event itself. The banners were hung, signs were posted, the event was staffed, the stuff was ready.  I mean, not every event runs smoothly and some are better prepared and run than others, but in the end, it averages out. What really fails consistently is that no one shows up.

What really fails consistently is that no one shows up. Why? Because they either didn’t know about it or they didn’t get emotionally attached in the 3 seconds of seeing your yellow poster with black letters enough to bother to show up.

This is a consistent issue. You can see the orgs that don’t have this as a fundamental problem because they have a TON of people showing up to Do the Do.

I’m not saying that there are non-profits that don’t have to work at membership and participation, they ALL do, I’m saying that some are doing it so not-right that it becomes a foundational issue that sends ripples of struggle throughout the organization.

What does it boil down to then?

Marketing. And Sales.

How many of you have a marketing and sales background? I sure don’t. Yet, I’ve been responsible for functions in non-profits that boil down to those two things. Except for some Nation-sized non-profits (that function more like for-profits), most people don’t even use the term marketing or sales when it comes to membership or participation planning. And when those terms are used, it’s the diminutive form. Marketing is the putting up of posters on telephone poles and sales is the delivery of chocolate in exchange for money.

They are not used in a workflow context. Meaning, when someone says marketing in the a local non-profit meeting, they typically don’t mean the process of identifying the market, defining the target, creating a plan to bring an individual in that market from complete ignorance to full awareness and buy-in.

Why? Because we aren’t marketers. We are homemakers, engineers, janitors, teachers, lawyers, cops, and taxi drivers. So, how are we supposed to know this information, let alone be skilled in it, in order to create a marketing plan?

Exactly. How many have created a brochure that was lack-luster because they didn’t know the proper use color, font, and spacing?  How many have created a web site that did what we wanted, but didn’t scream, “I’m AWESOME!”?  That’s a constant struggle with non-profits, finding skilled people amidst people who are willing to work for free?

For some reason, among all the other activities (bookkeeping, filing, web sites, computers, brochures, etc), marketing seems to suffer the most. We can find people who can at least “figure out” how to do those things, but marketing? It’s almost non-existent.

Because I’ve seen this pattern, I started applying the concept of a sales funnel to non-profit membership.

The sales funnel, which I like to call a marketing funnel, because marketing and sales are really just the same thing, illustrates the steps that a person goes through from complete unawareness to buy-in, as well as the general shape which indicates the gradual decrease in market size as you progress toward buy-in.

What does it look like?

Ignore the magic curtain for now and let’s walk through these. If you’ve been in marketing, I’m not going to say anything that you haven’t heard already, mostly.

Each zone is a step where your prospective person is, they could be anywhere from completely unaware to a regular participant. And near the beginning of the funnel, it’s hard to record metrics, which I will only talk briefly about.

Between each zone is an opportunity for us to bring them to the next zone. What’s VITALLY important is that you understand your goal is not to find someone who is unaware, grab them by the hand, and drag them into the “Regular” zone. Your only focus is to take them from one zone to the next. THAT’S IT!  If they are unaware, make them aware. If they are aware and uninterested, make them interested.  There are plenty of opportunities to help them from one zone to the next. However, most “sales” are lost because the focus is on the sale and not on the person and where they are.

Let’s walk through the funnel and see if we can connect some meaningful dots.


Typically a person starts out at No Clue. They don’t know you. They don’t know your organization. They’ve never heard of what you are doing. People are born this way so there is no reason to flog them for not knowing how great your organization is and that they should have joined you 20 years ago.  Don’t approach them like that. Your only job to do is make them aware of the organization. If you’ve done that, you’ve done something good. How do you do this? Posters, flyers, ads, word of mouth, being visible in your activities, etc. It’s up to your creativity.


Now they know who you are, so what? They aren’t going to do anything with that. They aren’t going to join cause they heard something about something from someone and my stomach is growling so I’m going to go eat. Here is the opportunity to get them interested.  This becomes the sales pitch arena (or the elevator speech).  This is where you share the vision, the activities, the story, the possibilities.  Whet their whistle. If you are lucky, they will become…


“That sounds interesting.”  “That sounds like fun.”  Great phrases to here and solid indicators that they are teetering into the “interested” zone.  But let’s face it, how many of you have been interested in skydiving, mountain climbing, scuba diving, spelunking, brewing, martial arts, etc, and have not lifted one finger to do anything with that “interest”. I mean, you haven’t even opened a web page to check it out.  Interested is good, but interested and, “I’m a single parent with 4 kids and zero time,” is different than interested and, “We’ve been looking for something our family can do together.”

These three states comprise the “No Action” zone.  Meaning, while they have no clue, are aware, or are interested, they’re are not going to take any action.  That happens when you have peaked their interest and their situation allows for progression into…


I separated INTERESTED and RESEARCH because one is interested and taking no action and the other is interested and taking action. Honestly, from a membership perspective, getting someone from INTERESTED to RESEARCH is the hardest part. It’s easy to get someone excited about something because you are excited about it. But the moment you walk away they are on to talking movies and burgers. You are basically sustaining them with your effort. Which is ok, but you have to understand that it’s a temporary thing. If not, we’ll hit a burnout point that I’ll talk about later.

INTERESTED to RESEARCH is also an opportunity to shove people out of the funnel altogether. Have you ever seen someone ask a question about a group and then the person who answers either grabs their arm (figuratively) to drag them into the depths of volunteerism? Or becomes an almost mouth frothing zealot, trying to convince the questioner that basically the universe will be saved if they join?

Members also make the mistake of thinking idle questioning, or maybe even just questioning to get a feel for what they’re talking about, is an indicator of someone ready to commit, and act accordingly.

Don’t use RESEARCH as an opportunity to push people out of the funnel. Provide them with information. Get to know what they are looking for. Do they like fighting? Do they like getting out on a Saturday with their family once a year to either support a good ideal or just do some family activity and are looking for an organization in which to provide that framework for a day? Give them information and continue sharing the story.

Before we continue through the funnel, let’s take a step back and look at some practicalities.

Firstly, what I have called “your opportunities” are really your opportunity to provide someone else with an opportunity. Unlike commercial sales tactics that lean towards causing you to do something you may not be happy with in order to convince you to part with your money, you want someone to self-qualify. You want them to want to be there. If you convince someone to do something they don’t want to do, you may succeed in getting them to pay a membership fee or show up to a meeting or two, but then their life expectancy as a member will shrink greatly.  You can’t force someone to look up at a poster, but if they see it, you can present the opportunity to become aware. You can present them the opportunity to become interested.

But, they must walk each of these bridges themselves. While quantity is a factor in marketing for membership, quality is also a factor. Having the best, most convincing poster ever that basically causes 100% of the people who see it to join doesn’t do anything if you have only one and only a few see it. Conversely, having 1000 posters does nothing if it does not help 1 person hop to the next zone.

Also, and let’s face it, you’re not going to put out a poster that shows your organization’s name and nothing else. You’re not going to create a fabulous poster that says “XYC, a non-profit corporation that helps do cool things!”. I mean, you can, but you aren’t going to. Why? Because if you were so big that you could put your mark on a tennis show and everyone would know who you were, you would already have a massive marketing team.  No one knows you, so when you put your name on something,  you are building your brand, not maintaining it.

So you’re aware, I’m using posters as an example, how you communicate to people is up to you.

Your poster is not going to just take them from NO CLUE and drop them into AWARE. Your hope, and my hope for the person who designed the poster, is that not only do you provide an opportunity for someone to become AWARE, but to also become INTERESTED and also start RESEARCH. Not only that, we are going to put simple to use starting points for research, beit website addresses, phone numbers, facebook pages, etc.

While I separate the three “zones”, we are really going try to cross all three in one effort. If it’s a demonstration, a presentation, a pamphlet, poster, an online ad, even a business card, the intent is to use the right techniques to either get them to RESEARCH or nudge them a step of the way there.

And if you are a fledgling non-profit, make sure that you have something to RESEARCH! You need to have a web presence because that is where they will look. Most people don’t necessarily use Facebook for research (information) but for getting a feel of an organization. Sure, “we cure all diseases,” but if our social presence is non-existent or our interactions are off-putting (as in the person who does our social media is abrasive, doesn’t understand customer service, or doesn’t respond) then regardless of the information on the web page, the RESEARCHER is going to get a bad vibe and spend their effort elsewhere.

Driving a thousand people to a bad site is as bad as, and almost worse than, driving no one to a great site.


Convincing someone to ATTEND a meeting or activity is a continuation of RESEARCH. They’ve already decided to taken some action. ATTENDING can be considered part of RESEARCH as they are still exploring the fit and whether it’s something they want to partake in. The difference is the location. One is done on the phone or computer and the other is done by showing up in person. It’s a good sign, but that doesn’t mean that everything is done and we can leave them to their own devices.

Let’s be frank for a second. Half of what you do is work. I mean, most of what I do is work when non-profit is involved. The non-profit could be about adults playing on trampolines and even then there is work involved. I don’t mean effort. Even play takes effort. I mean work. I’m bordering on crossing over into Part II of this topic, but needless to say, or needing to say from what I see, most of the get togethers for organizations are not fun.

Sure, you may get to socialize for a few minutes. But they’re not fun. Business meetings are not fun. I’ve never gotten out of a business meeting and thought, “OMG!!!! I COULD DO THAT ALL FREAKING DAY!”

Yet, when we invite new people to attend a meeting or activity, what do we have more of? Fun events or business activities? Exactly! For everyone 1 fun event we have 5 business meetings to plan it.

I’ll put a pin in this one after this point, if you are inviting someone to attend (not even participate in) an activity for the first or third time, be aware that you are still marketing your organization to them. No one (almost) is ignorant to the fact that organizations require work, but they are ATTENDING to Do The Do and see if it fits them. It’s better to bring someone interested to a fun activity than to a business meeting, even if they have to wait.

Conversely, if you only have one fun activity, regardless of size, every few months, you may lose the prospective member’s interest. Do something low key and more frequently.

You are selling them The Do, not The Work.


You’re done!!  Haahahaha, psych. You’re not. Just because someone shows up on a REGULAR basis, they may be simply occupying a seat.  A REGULAR is the status for someone who you cause to come regularly by inviting them over and over. Or maybe someone who shows up but doesn’t do anything.

This is where personalities come in. Some people are wall flowers. It’s not your job to make them not wall flowers. They want to be present and enjoy being around people as long as the focus is not on them. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to help or participate, but they may not have the comfort zone to become engaged in the activity.

There are people who want to do stuff, have no clue what they’re doing, so they give up.

And there are a thousand variations of personality before, between and after the two.

The point is, at this point, if you stopped showing up, they would stop showing up. They are REGULAR but they are not…


This! This is where you want a member. This is when you have completed the initial investment. Not that you shouldn’t invest in your members, but the effort to create a new member is much greater than sustaining one.

A member becomes SELF-SUFFICIENT when they, on their own steam, participate to the level that they choose without needing anything further from you. You don’t need to convince them to continue coming, you don’t need to give them a free membership, you don’t need to remind them, or encourage them to Do the Do. They are doing it with or without you.

Getting someone to SELF-SUFFICIENT is going to be completely different based on the vision and mission for your non-profit. Completely different. The definition of SELF-SUFFICIENT is going to be different. But, generally, the underlying ideal is that they are there because they want to be there. They are Doing The Do and require no motivation, encouragement, or resources from anyone else to do that.

Now, I’m not saying they don’t ask questions at this point. In every non-profit I have been involved with, there is the possibility of life long learning in that area, which requires questioning, seeking, learning, etc.

I mean, specifically, the SELF-SUFFICIENT are no longer a drain to your recruiting resources.


If SELF-SUFFICIENT was the end, why do we have another layer? Because! The best sales people are the people who have bought and love the product. In every industry, everywhere. No one can sell a cure better than a person who was cured. No one can sell an experience better than someone who has experienced.

You can’t take someone for SELF-SUFFICIENT to ADVOCATE, they do that all on their own. You can, however, provide the experience where they would want to make that jump. If you get people to this point, it will become a force multiplier. Basically, for every hour of effort you put in, you’ll get 2 hours worth of benefit. (Not that simple, but kind of).


Woooooh, now. What’s this? This wasn’t anywhere in the documents! No, it wasn’t. This is behind the curtain. And to know more you’ll have to read Part II



I’ve decided to include a side note on metrics, because if you can’t measure a thing, you can’t improve a thing.

Metrics are a fancy word for numbers. Numbers that measure things. So, the height marks made on the door jamb as kids get older are metrics. They represent a change over time. If you compare those numbers to events and activities, you can measure the quality or effectiveness.

So, if you are actually putting a marketing plan together for your non-profit, keep track of your metrics. I’ve included some simple examples.

  1. Where did you hear about us? (if a poster that you have multiple of, ask where)

There you go. As simple as that.  If you track the answer to that as well as surrounding information, you’ll get quick a bit of value.

For instance, what is their name? (track it) What is the date?

From there you can compare when you posted ad X (be it, poster, pamphlet, online ad, demo, activity, whatevs), how many people that affected (efficacy of ad as well as the efficacy of location). If of 100 people asked, 75% saw a pamphlet and decided to reach out, then you know the pamphlet is doing something good. If you only have $35 left in your marketing budget, you can make a more informed decision on where to spend those dollars.

I’ll add a suggested marketing plan in another post.

For now, enjoy. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. And please stay tuned for Part II!