Too much nonprofit marketing?

Zeenat Potia, who now works at and blogs for Oxfam America, started her career in book publishing.  In her first year in the book business, Zeenat would often be asked at parties whether she was an editor, and she’d say no, that she was in marketing.  But:

“I did not like casting myself as a marketer because their inevitable response would be a smug, quasi-judgmental “ah.”

The premise: the editors do the high-status, high-value work (finding manuscripts, editing them, working with the authors); the marketers are just peddlers.  And look where the book business is today.  What’s the right balance between editorial and sales & marketing?  I don’t know, but I’d guess that it’s in the ballpark of 50/50, not the 90/10 or 80/20 that I’d guess it is in the book business (at least from a status perspective, maybe from a time and effort and honing of craft perspective too).  The goal is to find great books and get them into the hands of readers, isn’t it?

Zeenat makes the right analogy to the nonprofit world: just swap out “editors / marketers” with “program staff / development staff” and you get the exact same equation.  “Program” is where the people who do the “real” work go, the ones with the PhDs who really know what’s going on and what works.  The development staff just run off and package the “real work.”  Ancillary and low status.

This is what gives space for Zeenat’s question.  Marketing is “just selling,” right?  So you should do just enough to be able to do the real work.  It’s possible to do too much marketing, right?

Probably, but I bet that there’s not a single iPhone owner (or craver) out of the 22 million owners in the United States who discusses whether Apple is wasting its money on “all that marketing.”   Same goes for Amazon.  And Virgin.  And probably even Wal-Mart. Same even went for GE in the heyday years of Jack Welch (the story was just different).

When done right, marketing helps us discover solutions to our problems, influences how people see the world, and helps them make decisions.  When done wrong, it’s peddling something someone doesn’t quite need and quickly regrets buying.

Let us not, as a sector, fall into the trap of listening to critics who say that we should minimize the dollars, effort, brain power, and ingenuity that goes into everything but the “real” work (programs).  In so doing, we risk forgetting that our role is BOTH to find solutions to the persistent problems of inequality and injustice and malnutrition and infant mortality and safe drinking water and AIDS and malaria…AND to figure out how to explain to the world that these problems matter, that we have the tools to solve them, and that if was have the tools to solve them, then we must all act.

It’s not easy.  But that’s marketing.

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4 thoughts on “Too much nonprofit marketing?

  1. I was one of those who had a chance to review the Blue Sweater and it was the storytelling, the marketing that got it in my hands. I’m forever changed by her words that I would have entirely missed if not for the marketing. No matter how powerful her message, I needed the story and the message in marketing form first.

  2. Sasha,

    I completely agree with you, but I also think in the broader context of marketing content versus creating content there is a bigger story. See for example this upcoming conference in SF.

    These people are master marketers and we can learn from them. But they can also diminish the quality of the content conversation by drowning it with promotion. But there are also ways to get the benefit of both as you say…


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