A persona is a profile of a hypothetical customer. The purpose of a persona is to make it easier to see a situation from the customer's perspective. Data can tell us what that perspective is, but it's stories that help make it feel real. In this case, we were doing a project for some nonprofits that were hoping to get more support from local small businesses. So, the "customers" were these small businesses. To help the nonprofits improve their strategy, we created the persona described below. We are sharing the full report, not just the persona, so you can get a sense of how we typically communicate our recommendations to clients.
This document provides a hypothetical example of what a successful strategic alliance between a nonprofit and a business might look like. It is written from the perspective of the business, and emphasizes how the alliance addresses business needs. This is because we are working from a marketing perspective, and the starting point of effective marketing is understanding the needs of the customer, from their perspective. What will allow you to make a compelling proposal to a business is having a deep understanding of their needs, and recognizing ways in which your own organization can help meet those needs.
Note that this is a fundamentally different approach from traditional fundraising. In typical fundraising, it is common for a nonprofit to go to a business, describe the nonprofit’s needs, and ask if the business can help. This is the exact opposite – you are going to the business, talking about the business’ needs, and offering to help them.
We are not suggesting that one approach is necessarily better than the other. They are different, and have different strengths and limitations. The obvious advantage of the approach described here is that businesses are more likely to agree to an arrangement that benefits them than one that doesn’t. The obvious disadvantage is that you need to actually deliver those benefits, while ensuring that the nonprofit gets what it needs as well. Doing that well is a lot more complicated than just asking if someone can write a check. However, a nonprofit that develops the capacity to build such strategic alliances can reap significant benefits, not only because it’s easier to get businesses to say yes, but also because it allows you to tap into a whole range of resources for fulfilling your mission that you don’t get access to when the relationship is just a one-way transfer of cash from the business to the nonprofit. With that, we turn to the example.
Acme Art Supply is a 40-year-old business located in downtown Elm City. Early in their history they sold art supplies to everyone from parents of kindergarteners to avid hobbyists to professional artists. However, over time they have seen steadily increasing competition, first from large chain stores like Joann Fabrics and Michaels, and more recently from e-tailers. Acme’s market share has shrunk dramatically, and they now primarily serve a niche market of what might be called serious amateurs. Currently their typical customer is between 50 and 70, white, and affluent. Based on informal inquiries by store staff, their main reason for coming to Acme is to have a chance to talk with store staff or other customers about art in general or their personal projects in particular, an experience that is difficult to obtain at chain stores or on-line. Although these customers are loyal, they are getting older, and it’s unclear whether Millenials and Gen-Zers will feel the same draw of a physical gathering place. In addition, this is a small market, and presents limited opportunities for growth. Although some staff members have expressed concern, for many years the previous owner showed little interest in changing course. However, two years ago that owner retired and sold the store to the current owner, Angie. Angie immediately started taking stock of where the business was at and developing a strategy for long-term success.
After discussion with store staff and consultation with other local businesses, Angie concluded that one competitive advantage they have relative to chains and e-tailers is that they are local and have a long history in the community. On the other hand, she also concluded that compared to other local businesses, they aren’t very active in the community. In particular, they can’t point to any direct ways that shopping at Acme benefits the community beyond the fact that the owner lives in town.
Angie also considered what new customers she would like to reach. She knows that kids are major users of art supplies, and also that in the past parents of young children made up a substantial portion of Acme’s customer base. She decided to pursue a marketing campaign aimed at this audience, built around the idea that Acme is a local business.
As an initial step in this direction, Angie decided to make a donation to a local organization. She identified the following criteria for an optimal organization to donate to:
- There is some kind of connection to art
- The organization works with kids
- There is some way to link the donation to Acme’s slogan, “Your home for art”
Angie identified an organization called Nellie’s Nest that seemed like a good fit for her goals. They provide a place to gather after school for kids who otherwise would have no safe place to go. There is a range of activities that kids can participate in, including art two days a week. Thus, the program connects to art, kids, and the idea of home.
Angie reached out to Jorge, the program director at Nellie’s Nest. She offered to make a donation of art supplies to Nellie’s Nest in exchange for receiving some artwork created by the kids that they could post in their store. Jorge accepted this offer, and it was agreed that Angie would come pick up the art one month after the donation.
When it was time to pick up the art, Angie decided to come on one of the art days to watch the kids for a while. She made several observations:
- The kids preferred cheap art supplies from a discount store over the high-end supplies donated by Acme.
- When they did use the high-end supplies, the kids did not have the technical skills to gain any benefit from them compared to the cheap supplies.
- Consequently, Nellie’s Nest probably received little real benefit from the donation, and Jorge may have agreed to the arrangement only to not appear ungrateful.
- Nevertheless, many of the kids were highly engaged by doing art. Their relationship with art just centered on self-expression and sharing with staff and other kids rather than technical mastery.
Based on these observations, Angie realized that if the relationship with Nellie’s Nest was going to yield the benefits she was hoping for, it would need some adjustments. The artwork to hang up in the store was nice – once customers were in the store. But it wasn’t going to get them in the door in the first place. What she really wanted was to build Acme’s reputation as a community-minded business. Furthermore, she realized that if she was going to be successful in expanding Acme’s customer base to include kids, she needed a better understanding of what kids want.
Angie called up Jorge to discuss her thoughts and come up with ideas for improvements. Jorge said that in terms of benefitting Nellie’s Nest, their biggest need was usually people. They have a very small paid staff, and rely heavily on volunteers to run their programs. He noted that volunteering can be good PR for a business. However, if Angie wanted to go that route, he requested that it be more than coming 2-3 times for some photo ops, as that wasn’t fair to the kids. Angie felt that volunteering would be a worthwhile investment as in addition to the PR, she would learn more about what kids like and want in art. She agreed to do 10 hours of volunteering over the next month and then evaluate again.
To learn as much as she could from these visits, Angie decided to systematically vary what she did each time. Her first visit, she just did her own art alongside the kids, using a few supplies she brought from the store. She also asked some of the kids if they would tell her about their own pictures. The next time she brought a book with photos of many different famous works of art. She asked the kids which paintings they liked best. For the abstract paintings, she asked the kids what they saw. On her third visit, she would ask a kid to pick an emotion, and then try to make an abstract picture depicting that emotion.
At the end of the month, Angie evaluated how things had gone:
- With volunteering, Angie felt much more confident that she was providing a real benefit to Nellie’s Nest compared to donating art supplies. In turn, she felt more confident in using the volunteering to show that Acme was a community-minded business.
- Angie also felt like she had learned a lot regarding how kids think about art. This would be helpful for marketing, as she’d hoped for.
- She also realized that her new knowledge would be helpful for customer service. If a parent and kid walked in the door, she would be better able to recommend products that the kid would enjoy. That would increase the chances of repeat business, or of that family recommending Acme to others.
- Somewhat surprisingly, Angie found that she was thinking about art a little differently herself. She was so used to working older adults who painted landscapes and still lifes that she’d forgotten how personal and emotional art can be. Working with the kids had reminded her that art transforms people as well as transforming a canvas, and she had rediscovered some of the passion for art she had felt when she was studying it in college.
Based on these observations, Angie decided to expand the volunteering to include her 7 staff members in addition to herself. Specifically, she would give each staff member 2 paid hours per month for volunteering at Nellie’s Nest. Angie believed this would be a worthwhile investment because it would help:
- Improve the ability of her staff to provide good customer service with kids
- Motivate her employees and raise morale
- Provide a solid basis for marketing Acme as a community-minded organization
Things to Note
- By the end of the scenario, Acme has built their support for Nellie’s Nest into their business model, and all employees are actively involved in the partnership. The contribution of 14 volunteer hours per month is modest. However, it is likely to be sustained over time because Angie has developed a business case for doing it, and integrated the partnership into Acme’s marketing. In this way it provides a stable increase in capacity for Nellie’s Nest, allowing them to potentially serve more kids.
- At the point the scenario ends, Acme is not providing any financial support to Nellie’s Nest. However, the relationship that has been built would provide a solid foundation for doing so. In particular, since Angie wants to use the relationship in her marketing, promotions to benefit Nellie’s Nest would be a natural next step. For example, Acme might run a promotion where on Mondays 10% of their proceeds are donated to Nellie’s Nest.
- Angie is obviously focused on how the partnership can enhance Acme’s reputation in the community. However, through its marketing activities Acme can also increase the profile of Nellie’s Nest in the community.