Nonprofits Do Serve Customers



Quick question to my nonprofit friends, "How are you displaying your heart of appreciation to your customers this Thanksgiving?"

Yes, your customers.

We've worked with a number of nonprofits, and one of the first similarities we notice with most is many do not define the audience that they serve as customers.

Members, yes.

Donors, check.

Community, for certain.

We've even fabricated words like certificants, but few ever describe that targeted group of people who contribute to its lines of revenue as customers.

I do believe the premise is based on ensuring that the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit is clear. Keeping customers out of the nonprofit's main vocabulary helps draw a line of separation. However, could making "customers" a naughty word be keeping nonprofits for delivering on the satisfaction required to rock their missions?

Vikas Mittal, a faculty member at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University in Houston, brings up a thought to ponder. In his article, "What For-profit Businesses Can Teach Nonprofits About Customer Satisfaction," Mittal points out that nonprofits struggle with their priority list. The fulfillment of the mission goes out in front, even at the expense of the audience, leaving their needs unmet. The eyes on the mission prize produce an internal focus, and the nonprofit's customer remains in a blindspot, forever underserved.


It's a harsh observation, but I do believe that there is some truth here. Whether we call our audience members, donors, or certificants, at the end of the day, they are customers. They do come alongside nonprofits in their mission as partners but do not underestimate their need to be serviced by you.


Mittal shares three for-profit customer approaches that nonprofits should steal to push customer satisfaction to the #1 slot on the priority list.


To Serve Them is to Know Them.

Do you know those who join or support your organization, participate in your community, or utilize your services? If you are unable to answer this question, then how will you create an environment that attracts more? Customers and stakeholders are two different audience groups. Nonprofits should be able to differentiate between the two. It is perfectly acceptable to see stakeholders as customers, but it is another thing to consider your customer as a stakeholder.


The connection to your nonprofit differ among these audience sectors with one significant contrast. One contributes to your revenue and is the very reason why you exist. Here's a crucial question Mittal recommends every nonprofit ask itself,


"Mission aside, whose needs does the nonprofit organization exist to serve?"

Answer this question first, and then begin your journey of getting to know all about them.


Satisfy the Need.

Now that your customer is defined, it's time to move into action. The need is everything. Without knowing the needs and understanding of its impact on your audience, you can't truly create offerings that satisfy.


Mittal points out a few for-profits that build company success on the pillar of their customer's needs. Walmart sticks to low prices as that is what its customers require. Amazon elevates convenience in all that it does because its customer expects it from the online retailer. He also includes Apple, which focuses its efforts on providing innovative products with a sleek design. Again, Apple does so all because this is what will bring the most satisfaction to its core customers.


The need is everything. Identify the greatest demand and let it motivate the moves and decisions of the nonprofit.


Satisfaction Drivers.

There should be a process in place that measures satisfaction regularly. To do so, you must define your nonprofit's drivers or indicators of success. You seek to answer the question, "How do we know we are gaining traction in providing a high level of customer service?"

Mittal suggests that most nonprofits don't have any insight into the drivers of customer satisfaction. Said another way, nonprofits are clueless as to what makes their customers happy.


So, do you? If Mittal was to join one of your board meetings and ask, "What makes your members happy?" Could you answer the question?

Define and know your customers, understand their needs, and begin to satisfy them.


Showing Thankfulness All Year Long

Happy customers are customers that know they are appreciated. If nonprofits take the steps in ensuring that their audiences are always satisfied, Thanksgiving campaigns are just icing on the gratitude cake.


If we can't call them customers or at least see them as such, it is effortless to forget that we are here to provide customer service. Without a second thought, we dismiss the wants and desires of our members and begin innovating without them in mind. We launch programs and events that no one attends or engages in because they were built with internal assumptions, lacking audience awareness. We serve the mission and forget who the mission is for.


Uphold the customer. They'll uphold the mission.

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