While every organization is different, nonprofit marketing materials typically include things like print/digital brochures, blog articles, email marketing, newsletters, videos, social media posts, and publicly published reports. Ideally, these would be well-aligned with the organization’s mission, core beliefs, culture, and programs. But what happens when the marketing material is wrong? What should a nonprofit board member do when the marketing material is a mismatch?
Let’s take a look at the three most common ways in which a nonprofit’s promotional materials can miss the mark and give you advice on what to do to correct the problem:
The Materials Don’t Match Program Deliverables
One of the most obvious examples of a mismatch is when the materials do not match the organization’s programs. When program specifics or deliverables are not correctly presented, this is often due to materials being outdated. As organizations grow and evolve their program offerings, the materials may not keep up (especially during times of rapid change). Board members can help their organizations be good stewards of their supporters’ time by ensuring that the marketing materials are timely and accurate. Of course, there will always be instances where incorrect information is being presented because organizations are not perfect, but finding those slip ups quickly and letting leadership know is important to maintaining trust among community members, volunteers, and donors.
The Materials Aren’t Realistic
Of course, the example above assumes that the mismatch is a mistake. However, there are definitely times when nonprofits intentionally misrepresent their program deliverables to make their mission seem loftier than it is or their impact larger than it is. Board members should not allow the organizations they are a part of to portray themselves in a way that is unrealistic. A nonprofit’s promotional materials should never exaggerate their impact. In instances like these the board must work with the Executive Director or CEO to rein in these communications to truthfully reflect their organizational impact. The temptation to overstate impact by reporting larger outreach numbers or results than can be documented is a common mistake. The board questions should center on whether claims made can be documented if challenged. “What if a reporter asks us to document the number of people we reached last year? Could we do that?” This keeps the board in a governance and oversight role as opposed to seemingly questioning the integrity of the claims the ED is making in promotional materials. There are times when NOT reaching as many people can help make the case for expanded effort and investment.
The Materials Don’t Match the Culture
Every nonprofit is going to paint their organization in a rosy light. Of course, they are not alone. For-profit companies do this as well (as do most people). But when a nonprofit’s marketing materials indicate that the organization is welcoming or accepting or diverse when it isn’t, this creates a serious mismatch that cannot be ignored. An organization must be truthful when representing itself to their key audiences – the community, the people they serve, the people they employ, the volunteers they bring in, and the donors they rely on. So, if being welcoming or accepting or diverse is important enough to include in marketing materials, the organization better prioritize it in their day-to-day as well, and be able to point to tangible evidence of their work in that space!
If a board member brings up a concern that the organization is portraying itself in a way that it is not living up to, they need to be heard. If the rest of the board or the organization’s leadership is not responsive to these concerns, it may be time for the board member to leave on the grounds of an ethical objection.
Bonus: The Materials are a Mystery
If a board member reads this article and this thinks, “I really have no idea whether our organization’s materials are right or not,” then you likely have a different type of problem. If a board member doesn’t know whether the organization’s marketing materials are aligned with their programs, impact, and culture, they should ask themselves why. Marketing materials should be strategic, and not just fluffy, feel-good pieces. WHY are we talking about this aspect of our program right now? What do we want people to DO because they saw this marketing piece. If, when you review the organization’s marketing materials, you can’t tell what point or action they are trying to make, then you might ask if it was worth investing in the materials in the first place. What is the old saying about the fact that it is better to remain silent and risk that people think you a fool than to speak up and prove them correct?
Are communications too infrequent to be remembered? Is mission creep pulling the nonprofit in so many directions that no one knows what is actually going on anymore? Is there a lack of communication with the nonprofit’s Executive Director to know what’s really going on? Or do they simply not care enough about the organization to keep track of what it is doing? If it is the latter, the board member should probably consider stepping down to make room for someone who will be more passionate about the organization.
Remember, as a board member, if you notice a mismatch between your nonprofit marketing materials and the organization itself, there is a disconnect somewhere. Whether it is incorrect program deliverables, an unrealistic representation of the organization’s impact, or a false portrayal of the organizational culture, it is important to identify the problem and start working to solve it immediately.
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