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What Can Business Learn from Nonprofit Organizations about Inspiring Customers?

By: Terry Barber
May 2009 Communication

Judging by many of today’s corporate taglines and promises, you would assume these inspiring sound bites belong to nonprofit organizations. Listen to just a few of my favorites from some of the world’s most recognized brands:

  • “To inspire and nurture the human spirit”
  • “Your potential, our passion”
  • “To improve the lives of the world’s consumers-now and for generations to come”
  • “To contribute to the overall health and wellness of our world”

These are not statements associated with just a social responsibility policy. These are core parts of mission and purpose statements proudly displayed on corporate Web sites. As today’s brands attempt to differentiate themselves from their many competitors, more and more will attempt to be truly inspiring brands.

And why not? Companies who are genuinely converted from old-line commercialism to do-good capitalism are likely to find a powerful connection to the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the customer. This is exactly the kind of connection business needs in order to acquire and sustain a loyal and passionate following these days.

In anticipation of a wave of business entering the waters of inspiration, further blurring the lines between for-profit and not-for-profit, I’d like to provide some guiding principles that I have used with nonprofits for years for those in business who aspire to inspire.

1. To inspire the consumer, you must help him believe in something that he once thought was impossible. This is where innovators will thrive and institutions will die. Innovators will think in quantum leap fashion. “Institutions” will think incrementally. If you have to describe your company’s dreams and ambitions only in the context of a percentage of growth, you are not inspiring anyone. A key indicator is how you are communicating your promise in your tagline. Here are a few inspiration busters to avoid:

  • “We want to be the best.”
  • “We want to sell the most.”
  • “We just want to make a fair profit.”
  • “We promise the best value for the dollar.”

All are noble. None are inspiring. Making me believe in something that I once thought was impossible begins with words like imagine, dream, accelerate, change, empower, and energize.

Some of the most dynamic meetings I have ever been involved in were those in which I asked my clients, who are nonproft organizations, “What would the world look like if you were to fulfill your mission tomorrow?” Try that for your next team meeting and you will uncover very quickly whether you have the capacity to be inspiring or not.

2. To inspire the consumer, you must show genuine appreciation for her business. Nonprofit organizations are by and large exceptional at making their donors feel special. Even the average donor receives a thank-you note, and at some level, usually at the $100.00 giving level, even a thank-you phone call. By those standards, how many companies should you have received a thank-you call from?  Hey, by those standards, I should most certainly receive thank-you calls from Whole Foods, Starbucks, and American Express!

Loyalty programs are effective in retaining customers-until a better loyalty program comes along. That’s because so-called customer appreciation days are typically traps for more up-selling, and people know that. So their “loyalty” is, understandably, short-term.

Conversely, expressing genuine appreciation creates a lifelong relationship. Imagine how a customer would feel if he received a voice mail simply saying, “Thank you for being such a great customer [or client]. We are not calling to sell you anything else, only to say thank you.”

3. To inspire the consumer, you must help him see that he is a part of a bigger community of world changers. One of the most powerful fund-raising terms is the word join. “Join the fight.” “Join the cause. ” “Join me”-all indicating that you can be a part of something much bigger than yourself. More than ever before, our identity is being defined by the communities we are a part of, even if those communities are virtual. If business can follow the lead of the nonprofit organization, its leaders will participate in social media for the sake of connecting customers to other customers. In so doing, customers, just like donors, will lead the way into new relationships and new markets. Create and/or tap into platforms for connecting people in and around your mission.

4. To inspire the consumer, you must communicate how you are making the world a better place. I recently had the privilege of traveling to Guatemala with a child sponsorship organization. This is an organization I had supported in a modest way for years. But after that firsthand look at how my dollars were being used to help children who were truly impoverished, my giving level will never be the same.

I recently met with a CEO of a Fortune 500 Company and saw this principle illustrated in the most dramatic fashion. Throughout the building there were maps with pushpins marking various towns, cities, and villages around the world where this company and its employees were providing clean drinking water for indigent people groups. There was an underlying message there that said, What we are doing as a company is helping to make the world a better place. No matter what kind of business you are in, learn from the nonprofit sector that you can inspire your customers by illustrating how you are making the world a better place.

Do you aspire to inspire your customers? Give them something to believe in that they once thought was impossible. Demonstrate genuine appreciation for their business. Help your customers connect with other customers to illustrate that they are part of a bigger community, and communicate how you as a business are making the world a better place.

Lead and they may follow. Teach and they may learn. Inspire . . . and they will never be the same.



About the author

Terry Barber is the Chief Inspirator for Grizzard Communication Group. He primarily serves the non-profit healthcare segment as well as colleges and universities in the subject area of philanthropic branding. Some of the organizations he consults with include Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, Duke Cancer Center, University of North Carolina's Lindberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and The Huntsman Cancer Center of Salt Lake, Utah. Barber is a popular speaker for corporate training and events, and an inspirational resource to the nonprofit community and is known in many circles as the Chief Inspirational Officer. The Inspiration Factor can be purchased from www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com

Terry Barber
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