When Nonprofits Exploit Clients for Marketing Gain

Nonprofits working with critical social issues must learn to effectively market the impact of their work and the issues they face in the community. A civil society depends on it.
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The NY1 television news station covered a fire at Mt. Horeb Spiritual Baptist Church in Brooklyn last month as part of their local broadcast. The segment contained typical footage of the fire and included interviews with a fireman and one of the victims wrapped in a blanket plastered with Red Cross logos.

It took me back to the middle of a cold winter's night two years ago when loud, insistent knocks on the front door woke me. I ran to the door to find dozens of firemen swarming the street. The top right unit of my building was ablaze -- not just a small kitchen fire, but an inferno with flames and debris blowing out the window.

I quickly gathered my wife and two small kids and left the building to stand with our neighbors in the snow. We watched the building burn. After about 90 minutes, a representative from the Red Cross arrived to help us and the displaced residents. They began distributing blankets and letting folks know they would help us find temporary housing.

While the residents were being served, a local news van showed up. As soon as the Red Cross representative saw the vehicle with its media insignias, she stopped her work and went to her truck. You could see her through the window adjusting her hair and makeup in the mirror. She emerged and approached the news crew and spent the next 15 minutes being interviewed for TV.

My wife and I stood in the snow with our kids in shock. This woman had made the media a higher priority than getting us out of the cold.

The Red Cross is critical resource around the world, and they can't do their work for free. They need to raise money and constantly build and sustain public support for their work. Live on-the-scene disaster coverage is one of the best marketing opportunities to showcase their value.

But where do you draw the line? In the case of my family's experience, it is easy to argue such behavior crosses the line. But what about the logos all over the blankets they distributed to the victim interviewed by NY1? That falls into a gray area. It didn't really harm the victim, but was it in good taste? Would the Red Cross argue that the logos were simply to make sure the blankets got returned?

Marketing is increasingly critical to the survival and success of nonprofit organizations. It is not only about meeting critical fundraising needs, but also about educating the public on issues in a world where the media often provides more spin than news. Nonprofits need to get their stories out so Americans understand the real challenges facing their communities. Without this component of education and advocacy, we will have policy and public perception that isn't rational or effective.

In a recent meeting with nonprofit leaders, an executive shared the struggle she had in educating the public about the realities facing children with severe facial deformities. Her organization provides these kids with expensive reconstructive surgeries on a pro bono basis, and it is a life-changing service.

Once they have the surgery, the children and their families want to leave their past in the past. They are embarrassed by it and want to put the pain behind them and reinvent their lives. As a result, when the nonprofit asks them to volunteer to speak to members of the community, foundations and policy makers about their experience, the response is nearly always "no."

Another nonprofit executive in the room stated with strong conviction that the organization should require clients to become advocates and make their story public in order to get the free surgery. There are many more kids that need the service than the nonprofit can serve, so why not make this a criterion for selection? It is a small price to pay, and it could enable the organization to raise the money for the next three kids while giving hope to countless more.

This recommendation was flat out rejected by the rest of the room. You can't coerce a child into become spokesperson by dangling life-changing surgery in front of them, they argued.

It is another very difficult ethical line to draw. While not usually this dramatic, many nonprofits are increasingly taking marketing into consideration when making decisions about care for community members. It is not always conscious and is often so taken for granted that no one realizes they may be crossing a line. Nonprofits select clients based on how well they will show up as case studies or impact their outcomes and measurement metrics, which are used by the government and foundations to make funding decisions. We nearly all do it every day.

Nonprofits working with critical social issues must learn to effectively market the impact of their work and the issues they face in the community. A civil society depends on it. To do so, however, will require us to be a voice with integrity, and that may require some broader structural changes to remove incentives that tempt us to cross the line.

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