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Nonprofit Vs. For-Profit Organizations: Key Similarities and Differences


Chris Martin and Ron Zywicki at DJG take a deep dive into the similarities and differences in branding, social media and PR initiatives between nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

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Chris Martin: Welcome to Stir & Tell, the podcast from the David James Group. My name is Chris Martin. I’m the vice president of public relations and social media for the agency. In this episode, managing director Ron Zywicki and I explore the similarities and differences between nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies. Welcome, Ron.

Ron Zywicki: Thanks, Chris. It’s truly a pleasure to be here with you.

Chris Martin: This is an interesting topic. A lot of our topics focus on the actual work we do, branding, PR, social media events, but this is a more conceptual, more mile-high type of stuff. That’s why we’ve invited you to this podcast because you’re the biggest, deepest thinker in the agency.

Ron Zywicki: Thanks, I think.

Chris Martin: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. Full disclosure, most of our clients are nonprofit associations, correct, Ron?

Ron Zywicki:  Yep.

Chris Martin: We have accumulated a lot of expertise, a lot of knowledge, a lot of cultural learnings from our work with associations over the years. But we also do some for-profit work. We get interest from some companies. We have a lot of expertise in branding especially, in marketing, digital skills and things like that. Things that for-profit companies, of course, can use. So they do seek us out occasionally and occasionally people will say, “Well, most of the work you do is with associations. How is that going to help me? How does that play out in my market?” How do we address that?

Ron Zywicki: Well, I think the big answer is that whether it’s a for-profit company or a nonprofit association, the challenges that they’re coming to us to help them solve are similar. For example, you mentioned branding. Fundamentally the work that we do, the prep that we do, our process for branding is applicable to both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. The background research we do, the brand position work that we do, the competitive analysis, all of that can be applied to either type of organization. There’s really not a lot of difference there.

Chris Martin: One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is this myth that for-profit companies are very ROI driven, which is true, but many people think that associations or nonprofit groups are not ROI driven. We’ve found that that’s not true.

Ron Zywicki: Right.

Chris Martin: The ROI is different certainly, but associations do care about how their budgets are invested and increasingly they want and ask for detailed reports and metrics on how their dollars are being invested, how they’re doing.

Ron Zywicki: Absolutely. I think one of the areas that we’ve seen over the years, one slight difference but it does come back together, is when we talk about for-profit companies, a lot of the engagements might be around, maybe it’s a product launch or general marketing of their organization, whatever it might be. Oftentimes a big component of those engagements is lead generation needs. How many leads can you get? How many leads can you put in the pipeline to get them to our salespeople? Now traditionally, a nonprofit or an association, we don’t really hear it in that way, you know, how many leads are we generating? But it is the same thing when you think about it from a member acquisition. At its core a member acquisition programming, it really is a lead generation approach because what you’re doing is you’re building awareness of your organization, you’re nurturing the pipeline.

Ron Zywicki: It takes time to introduce the organization and communicate how an association’s offerings match up to those needs of that potential member. It’s the same thing in a lead generation program. You’ve got a business-to-business company that has something to sell. It’s a product or a service or a solution, but it’s fundamentally the same. They have to communicate. First, introduce themselves, make the audience aware of who they are and what they offer. You need to build a relationship. You have to start conversations, nurture those leads, so different types of ways of coming at the same process.

Ron Zywicki: But you’re absolutely right. The smart associations today are really looking more at introducing a measurement component to any of their marketing efforts, that they really need to be. If that’s not part of the approach when developing a marketing plan, it really does need to be because you’re investing dollars. You have to answer to your volunteer board. You need to answer your internal stakeholders, whether it’s your executive director or a director of a program perhaps you’re servicing. Yeah, measurement and thinking of that way, an ROI is critical.

Chris Martin: Clearly we see with social media ad programs that we do, for instance on Facebook, we’re able to provide lead generation there, where we’re actually showing that the ads go right to the page where the people need to register. We’re capturing those metrics for them so they know exactly how much they paid. They know exactly how much each link click cost them. They can make a judgment going forward for the next year or even within that campaign where to put their dollars for the next iteration or the next part of the campaign too. In that case, they’re identical. There’s really not a lot of difference.

Ron Zywicki: Yeah, I think that’s one of those exciting things. You’ve got this tool that everybody’s familiar with, whether it’s a Facebook, a LinkedIn or a Twitter or Instagram. Associations, B to B, everyone’s familiar with these tools. The ability to use those tools to start introducing, particularly to an association who may traditionally again, may not have thought in those terms, lead generation, but that type of tool helps transition into that mindset very easily because right, you can show the results. Everyone’s familiar with it. It’s exciting.

Chris Martin: What about the cultural differences between for-profit companies and associations? I think there may be some significant differences that we need to be aware of and people need to be sensitive about it. But we do get that pushback from for-profit companies, that feel. I think I feel that if we work for an association, it’s not as cut and dried or it’s not as serious as a for-profit company because they’re trying to work with customers and they’re selling things and they really need to demonstrate that. I think that leads to in some cases, a faster-moving culture or environment, maybe quicker decision making. And associations, they’re typically made up of members or member companies so there’s a lot of input. There’s a lot of committee work. It’s more methodical. The associations don’t want to necessarily get ahead of their members, so we have to understand that, right?

Ron Zywicki: Yeah. I think one of the biggest differences, and you touched on this, are the speed of decision making and those who are involved with the decision. Typically when we do work with a for-profit organization, the timelines that we assign to a project, depending on what it is, but a lot of times they do need to be a little bit more accelerated, a little more aggressive. When we present creative or a plan, the feedback generally will receive, and any decisions made seem to be a little quicker with for-profit. They do just move at a little different type of speed. Again, typically with a for-profit organization, let’s say they have a marketing department, which associations have as well, but depending on the company in a for-profit, generally, the decisions that are made affecting marketing or public relations, are able to be made generally within that department. They’re empowered to do so.

Ron Zywicki: Usually you’re not going up to another level like the C-suite to get approve on certain things. They’re empowered to do so. I think what we find with associations, there tends to be a little more involvement of departments outside of the marketing function. A lot of executive director input is involved and that’s great because it’s how associations work. They just tend to be a little bit more transactional in that way. They work across the department at least from a decision-making process. Then of course with the associations, let’s say we’re doing either a new brand or a big marketing campaign.

Ron Zywicki: A lot of times, as you know, the first step is to present or discuss or make decisions with the internal folks, the staff people. Then there’s always the step to go to the membership. Not always, but generally it is a committee or something that has to weigh in on the decision making. With a for-profit, you really don’t have that second step. You’re working a little closer with the marketing staff. They’re making the decisions you’re moving forward.

Chris Martin: I’ve noticed in PR over the last five years that associations are investing a little bit more in PR and social media and for-profit companies are investing a little less in PR and probably more in social and digital. There was a very interesting article done I think in the Washington Post a year or so ago where a writer tried to do positive feature stories on a random group of Fortune 500 companies. He contacted all the companies and basically said, “Hey, I want to do a feature story on your company.” A significant percentage of the companies did not have anybody to tend to his request and work with a reporter and arrange interviews, provide background information, the nuts and bolts of what we do really. That sort of heralded the examination by the profession about this kind of trend and whether or not it was a fundamental shift in dollars and emphasis by for-profit companies away from PR.

Chris Martin: The trend has now gone from 10 years ago when people looked at social media, the notion was, “Well, we’re still doing PR. We’re still trying to get the media to do our stories.” Now it’s come almost full circle where the for-profit companies are their own media. They’re being their own media and they’re not relying on other media to do their stories. The result of that has been that some of them in part have abandoned traditional PR in total, which is a fascinating shift and will have a lot of repercussions going forward and long term I think, as we sort these things out. But on the association side, I don’t see that as much.

Ron Zywicki: Let’s think about it this way. Both types of organizations have missions. They have mission statements, they have vision statements. A corporation, generally the mission is developed around providing or offering some type of good or service to a consumer. There’s an ROI component. There’s how it affects their earnings and really more financially driven. Whereas an association, they’re literally mission-driven. They have some type of well-defined mission that is more about impacting an industry or guiding an industry or advocating on behalf of an industry or an area, healthcare or technology whatever it might be.

Ron Zywicki: They have a mission. They have a drive to communicate and to persuade and to get a message out on behalf of their membership. To me, it makes good logical sense that they are starting to get more sophisticated in the PR space. Not that they haven’t always been, but it’s becoming more part of the marketing mix and embracing that and social media to really build a bigger voice out there. They’re not really being driven by how it’s affecting the bottom line. I don’t know if that’s your experience?

Chris Martin: It is, yeah. It’s a nice summary of what I believe is happening to us. That’s very interesting. Learning the lessons of for-profit marketing and branding and PR and social media, how do you take some of those lessons learned and best-case scenarios and bring them to an association or nonprofit clients?

Ron Zywicki: Well, I think that’s one of the things that as an agency we’ve always pointed to, is that we do have this history of both association nonprofit marketing and experience in the business-to-business world. We have staff people here who have worked for associations. We have staff people who have worked in corporate settings. We have staff people that even work for consumer types of companies. We’re able to take this diverse experience and use it to go to our association clients and start those conversations. Or if they’re not happening around the concept of lead generation or measurement or ROI. All these types of concepts that we’ve learned in our work and the B to B side, introducing them, injecting them into the strategy and the planning that we’re doing for our clients and just leverage that experience.

Chris Martin: Do you think you’ll see more of the blurring of these lines between for-profit companies and their goals and nonprofit associations in 2020 for instance?

Ron Zywicki: Absolutely. Because associations are really looking at the marketing function critically. They’re understanding that as the demographics of their membership starts to shift. One common thing we hear across all of our clients is an aging membership base. They need to attract the next generation of members. Well, that takes marketing and that takes knowing today’s marketing tools. Associations are really focusing on how to market successfully. And that even means they’re bringing in their own directors of marketing who have experience in the for-profit world. So you’re going to see that happening on their side.

Ron Zywicki: From our point of view, yeah, we want to continue to talk about measurement, talk about lead generation ROI, bring these concepts into a nonprofit world because they make the effort stronger. Somebody’s investing somebody else’s money in all these cases. You need to do right. You need to be a steward of those invested dollars, which requires a little more B to B sophisticated type approach. The other thing I would say too is, from a creative end, looking at the work that’s being done. We want to see more creative that’s inspired by the B to B or the consumer world because at the end of the day we’re talking to people. I think the approach to creativity and the campaigns that are being done are going to continue to draw more from the for-profit world.

Chris Martin: Those are excellent points and show that the differences between the two are smaller than people might think.

Ron Zywicki: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yes, I would agree with that.

Chris Martin: Excellent. Well, thanks for joining Stir & Tell, Ron. My name again is Chris Martin. Ron Zywicki, managing director of the David James Group, thank you.

Ron Zywicki: Thank you, Chris.

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