What nonprofits can teach small businesses

What nonprofits can teach small businesses

It can be true what they say: those who can’t do, teach. So while nonprofits aren’t building a business model around revenue and profit margins, they can still be good sources of wisdom and insight for small businesses.

For one, the two groups have a lot of similarities, as each stands behind a product (or mission) and is always looking for new customers (or donors) to cultivate and steward.

But nonprofits have a few extra tricks up their sleeves to get this done with (sometimes) limited resources.

When you’re trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents, you have to get creative.

So what can nonprofits teach small businesses?

Put emotion into the brand

When it comes to tugging at heartstrings and appealing to the humanity of their community, nonprofits have the game locked down.

Instead of shining a light on how great the organization is, they give the glory to the people and the mission itself.

This human aspect of their storytelling is front and center to make their work and “product” more personal and meaningful.

While not all businesses always have blatantly emotional appeal, there are still ways to integrate some feelings into your brand. Tell the story of your “why.” Tell the story of your customer’s “why.”

There’s a time to “sell,” and talk about all your bells and whistles. But also consider taking a page from the nonprofit book, and attach some emotion to how your service or product helps your customers.

All those buyer personas you created? Turn them into the stories of your brand. This means your marketing materials and branding should not be all data, all the time. Nonprofits get this right by using inspirational tales, with a healthy mix of facts and figures.

Of course small businesses want to grow their revenue and create some staying power, but consider describing your bigger mission, and letting the full-on sales pitch take the back seat a bit.

Or, use those stats and numbers to enhance your messaging. An education nonprofit, for instance, might tell donors that their $100 donation will provide two after-school sessions for an at-risk youth. In the same way, add a value-proposition to your business.

Create a sense of urgency

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Nonprofit messaging is all about the call to action. “Give today.” “Donate now.”

Take this sense of urgency and replicate it. Let your customers know what you need and when you need it. This is especially true for small and new businesses.

They don’t know your brand yet and they don’t yet know what you need. Guide them on how to engage with the company and how to make a purchase or connection.

This doesn’t just mean creating a generic limited-time offer or sale. Nonprofit urgency is often created out of extreme necessity: natural disasters, humanitarian crises, etc. These are times when “now” really means now.

Does your small business sell all-weather boots and a big snowmageddon storm is coming up? Offer free two-day shipping for anyone who makes a purchase within the next 12 hours. Throw up a picture of a cute family in the boots. Sold!

Say yes (and thank you) to help

Nonprofits have the benefits of dedicated volunteers and experienced board members. Not only do these individuals provide critical manpower, but they come with lots of helpful expertise and (fingers-crossed) solid networks.

Small businesses can use this model to work with experienced advisors who are interested in seeing the company succeed. For instance, if you are a new business in the community, invite in leaders to offer their insight of the local business terrain.

Connect with financial pros, leaders in your market, and those who know a thing or two about a thing or two.

Small businesses can also replicate how nonprofits thank their donors and supporters. “Because of you, we have achieved our goals.” “We could not do this work without you.”

Claire Axelrad, Principal at Clairification, agrees.

“Effective stewardship can be summed up in two words: gratitude and impact. Think hard about what you’re grateful to your donor for. It’s not money; it’s the impact they’ve made possible. Tell them; show them. It doesn’t matter how great your relationship is now. If you don’t demonstrate repeated gratitude and/or can’t show your donor their money is creating an impact, there won’t be much of a relationship for long.”

Small business customers, vendors, and partners should feel the same amount of appreciation. Everyone likes to feel like they are part of the bigger picture.

Cultivate your customers and create relationships

Each sale should be treated as a buy-in to the brand and company. These are not just customers. These are the members of your company’s tribe.

This is a tribe built over time with a lot of personalized attention and targeted communication.

Nonprofits get this right by stewardship marketing and events that can be easily duplicated.

Send out a targeted newsletter based on purchased products. Offer a non-salesy article via email to fill customers in on a topic they might find interesting. Hold a special VIP event in your store or office for new customers. For frequent customers. For customers who haven’t purchased in a while.

This means you need to do a deep dive of your people, and keep doing it. Find out what motivates your customers to buy, why they buy, and what would stop them from buying.

A better understanding of your audience should, obviously, inform your marketing efforts, and will definitely make your customers feel more valued.


Small, but oh-so-mighty. Small businesses and nonprofits might not have an abundance of resources or visibility, but what they lack in size, they make up for in dedication and commitment to their brand and cause. And, even with their differences, it turns out both could learn a thing or two from each other.

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Lindsey Thieken

Lindsey is a passionate community-builder and storyteller. When she's not writing, she's traveling, reading as much as possible, and practicing her left hook with her new obsession—boxing.

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