Dear Nonprofit Organizations, You are in Sales

If you work for a nonprofit organization, your job is in sales.

You heard me right. You might not like it, but our professional world is no longer clearly divided between the hardnosed salesperson and all the other people, who can happily avoid the uncomfortable business of getting others to commit resources to an organization. Today, the most important parts of our jobs are all about selling.

I’m in sales too. I’m not trying to sell you a product or a service in the traditional sales sense, but I am trying to persuade you to part with a valuable resource–your time.

The stuff we write on Nonprofit Hub is completely free, a gift of education to the NGOs of the world. But if I want anyone to change, improve their organizations or learn something new, it’s my job to sell you on the value of what I’m writing. I’m in sales.

Redefining Nonprofit Marketing as Sales

Selling is more than pushing products and seducing clients, according to Daniel Pink’s latest book To Sell is Human (2013). Instead, we’re all in the business of persuading others.

For example:

· Executive Directors sell an organizational vision to the board.

· Fundraisers sell your mission to donors and foundations.

· Program coordinators pitch program ideas to their ED–and pitch sponsors on the idea of funding events.

· Every nonprofit employee has to demonstrate his/her value to the organization–selling the value of their contributions.

If you aren’t aware of the selling component of your work, you aren’t exempt from it. You’ll just be at a distinct advantage–because you can’t see the game that’s being played around you.

Without good salesmanship, nonprofit professionals can’t learn how to better persuade others of the value of our organizations nor of the change we want to create in the world.

3 Steps to Develop a Nonprofit Sales Mindset:


1) Attunement:

“Attunement is the ability to bring one’s actions and outcome into harmony with other people and with the context you’re in” (Pink, 70). Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is at the heart of nonprofit sales. If you’re going to persuade donors to support your vision, you had better cultivate a deep understanding of who your constituents are, what motivates them and what beliefs they hold.

For example, if your nonprofit emphasizes the importance of perinatal care education, who is your audience? You’re hoping to serve and educate new parents, sure–but are new parents also the people who are funding your mission? Are the people you’re caring for also your primary donors? I’d be willing to bet your donor pool is different from your audience in important ways. Identify exactly whom you need to attune to, and then work to deeply understand them.

2) Buoyancy:

In the nonprofit world, we encounter a lot of resistance. We try to persuade petulant board members, apathetic prospective donors and skeptical foundations. Buoyancy is the key to “how to stay afloat amid that ocean of rejection” (77). Here’s the cold, hard truth: not everyone is a perfect fit for your cause. You need to stay encouraged and sell your mission even when no one appears to be “buying” it.

One way we can develop buoyancy is to practice what Pink calls interrogative self-talk. Asking “Can I convince this donor our cause is important?” is better than telling yourself “I can/can’t convince this donor,” because a question forces you to search for solutions: finding out why you can achieve something, and what steps to take. Another key to buoyancy is balancing positivity and negativity. We need enough positivity to keep us “selling” our causes, but a select amount of negativity to be able to understand when we need to improve.

3) Clarity:

Clarity, “the capacity to help others to see their situation in fresh and revealing ways,” is vital for nonprofit marketing (127). Nonprofits who possess clarity understand how to use their time to produce the best results for the time invested, and help others to see that way as well–instead of just investing in everything.

Clarity is the secret problem behind the depressing UnderDeveloped report from the beginning of this year: not enough clarity exists in the typical Executive Director and Development Director relationship. Fundraisers often have a hard time communicating the value of their efforts in terms of how each interaction translates to eventual donations and sponsorships, and EDs become understandably frustrated.

Clarity is also vital when we communicate our mission to the public at large. I know it’s easy to focus on trying to treat the symptoms of a problem, but it’s important to clarify how your nonprofit solves the underlying problem. If you’re a homeless shelter, you’re feeding people and housing them. But your most important work is transforming lives: changing people and helping them achieve dignity.

Now, Go Sell

You’re in sales–but that’s not a bad thing. Persuading other people to help them realize deep and significant truths about our world isn’t a sleazy pursuit. It’s a noble one. And I hope I’ve sold you on the idea that the most important thing your nonprofit work does is to deeply move other people–by selling people on your nonprofit’s mission.

We’ll revisit this topic next week. In the meantime, you can learn more about Daniel Pink’s new book To Sell is Human. I recommend it for anyone in the business of moving others.


Marc Koenig

Marc Koenig is a regular contributor of Nonprofit Hub. Marc believes smart, ethical marketing can make the world a better place, and strives to create content that helps nonprofits tell better stories, push their organizations to excel and do work that matters. You'll find him writing Nonprofit Hub featured posts, brainstorming infographics and tweeting up a storm at @npmarc - follow him and say hi!

March 7, 2013

You May Also Enjoy

Become a Member

Whether you’re with a large team or a solo entrepreneur looking to start the next great cause, we have a membership package that will help you grow your network and your cause.