Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Steve Ainsley. Many of you may remember when Ainsley was publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press from 1992 to 1999. Most recently, he retired as president and publisher of Pacific Standard magazine. You will find a summary of his illustrious career at the end of this article.
Ainsley’s comments focus on four key areas: marketing, differentiation, collaboration and transparency. His extensive experience with the newspaper and publishing business and his long-term service to various nonprofit organizations give his message significant value for those interested in improving their organization.
Give marketing a high priority in your organization.
Most nonprofits think everyone knows about the work they do, but the fact is that most people do not know what each nonprofit does — not really. They might know the general area of service, such as serving children or the homeless or housing, but most don’t know about the actual services or the impact they make in our community.
Nonprofit staff members are usually so focused on their mission and providing their organization’s services that they don’t have time to devote to marketing or to even give it much consideration. When they do think about marketing, it is not uncommon to discover there is little collective marketing expertise within the organization.
Similarly, board members often miss the need to incorporate marketing in the organization’s mission because they knew enough about the organization to join the board and so assume others in the community are just as aware of the mission. Both board and staff members often feel uncomfortable singing their nonprofit’s praises to the public. They just want to do their good work.
Yet an effective marketing effort can enable a nonprofit to do more of its good work by serving more people. Many staff and board members see fundraising and marketing as separate issues. They are not. A robust marketing plan will multiply fundraising efforts many times over because it actually sells the nonprofit.
Effective marketing will garner support from a broader base of contributors and volunteers as the nonprofit’s work becomes better known. In the long run, marketing is a key component of capacity building and sustainability for any organization.
A nonprofit can start by inviting a good marketing professional to join the board. Having a marketer on the board is part of high-level board development and can help focus attention on the opportunities marketing can create. Also, the organization’s website is a great place to start marketing. For example, some organizations post a map on their site highlighting the general area where their clients live, its broader service area and its proximity, if appropriate, to those areas of the community most in need of nonprofit support.
Show how your organization is different from the others.
Most people in Santa Barbara tacitly agree that we have a lot of nonprofits here — maybe too many. Or maybe we have too many seemingly doing the same thing. Nonprofits often think that “no one does what we do, or at least no one does it as well.”
Engaging in serious self-reflection can help a nonprofit identify areas where it might be offering services that are similar to others and where they are actually different. When self-evaluation reveals true superiority of services, the nonprofit should shout their marketing from the rooftops. The practice of differentiation is a key business strategy. It is the responsibility of the nonprofit organization to ensure the community understands how its services are different from similar services in town and the impact they have on the community.
Consider collaboration or merger with other nonprofits.
If after honest self-reflection the nonprofit determines that some of its services may duplicate services of another organization, it’s time to have a serious conversation. Leaders from each nonprofit will benefit from learning more about each other’s programs to determine whether there are opportunities for collaboration or strategic alliance.
It’s possible that one nonprofit may choose to dissolve and become a department or a program of another nonprofit, or they may find areas where they can work more closely together to provide a higher level of service to clients. As a result of this type of honest discussion, it is also possible that some organizations may decide to redefine their mission.
It is important for any organization to continuously examine and re-evaluate its mission. Imagine what would have happened to the newspaper industry if it refused to do anything different than what it had always done — print newspapers. Successful newspaper entities are those that realized their mission is delivering the news regardless of the method. So they made significant changes to their age-old model and entered the digital world. Nonprofits can take a page out of the newspaper book by asking themselves what would lie fallow if they ceased to exist and what they can do better in partnership with others.
Be as transparent as possible.
There’s no such thing as enough transparency. Achieving an ever-higher level of transparency should be a key goal for nonprofits that want to succeed. Transparency not only creates a higher level of confidence by donors, but it can also serve as a powerful marketing tool. The more the community at large understands what the nonprofit does, how it does it, who the recipients of service are, who the board members are, and how it collaborates with other groups, the higher credibility and support will be for the organization.
Transparency should also reflect the organization’s funding sources. Nonprofits can expect that in the future they will be called on to provide more of the services that government currently provides, requiring ever increasing levels of funding. But they cannot fall prey to viewing their fellow nonprofits as competitors for public contributions. This kind of thinking is toxic! The donor community is interested in seeing nonprofits leverage their resources by finding new ways of collaborating and joining forces on a very basic level to provide more cost-effective services for all clients.
. . .
Biographical information for Ainsley: Ainsley recently retired as president and publisher of Pacific Standard magazine, a 100,000-circulation bimonthly magazine with a national and international circulation based in Santa Barbara. He was named to this position in 2011.
Prior to assuming this role, Ainsley had worked for the New York Times Co. for 31 years, publishing newspapers throughout the United States owned by the company before retiring in early 2010. He served as publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press from 1992 to 1999 before moving to Tampa, Fla., to become president and COO of the New York Times Regional Media Group.
Prior to his first retirement, Ainsley was serving as president and publisher of The Boston Globe and Boston.com, the Globe’s website, also owned by the New York Times Co. During his time at The Globe, the newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes.
In his spare time, he enjoys reading history, outdoor cooking, home brewing, gardening and photography. He is an avid runner and cyclist and a reluctant swimmer. He has a passionate interest in visiting the battlefields of the Civil War.