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  • Writer's pictureCasey Shaw

The Social Innovator’s Dilemma

Social innovation marketing has an interesting challenge. Like their traditional for-profit counterparts, nonprofits and mission-driven for-profits must build brands that differentiate the organization and express its value to different stakeholders. These can be customers and those who benefit from programs, as well as board members, community partners, and government entities.

The dilemma they face, much like for-profits, is differentiating while not talking about themselves too much. They must be stakeholder-centric and empathetic to each audience segment’s needs.

Traditional businesses make the mistake, constantly, of talking about their innovative ideas, products, and services without the old WIIFM (what’s in it for me) language that resonates with customers and partners. People react to this type of marketing communications with being impressed without making a real connection with the organization.

The social innovator has an added dilemma because it’s an even bigger temptation to simply talk about their programs, products, and services and how they’re making the world a better place. Yet, like their for-profit cousins, they operate within the marketplace constraints of still needing to bring in sustaining funds, die-hard volunteers, and of course, great employees.

They have to speak to the mission, they have to inspire, too, but they can’t lose the business case based on value to those investing in them.

Nobody sustains on inspiration or affinity alone. If you’re lucky, or your ideas are just that good, you’ll do well–for a while. But you have to put all those great ideas on a scale first and balance them with the business case.

The common language for nonprofits and mission-driven businesses is impact. So many social impact organizations fall into the trap, like their for-profit relatives, when they get a little too in love with what they do, and truly don’t understand the reason why they do it, and what was accomplished for the mission through the experience.

It’s a much easier trap when you set yourself up for an incredibly noble purpose. We recently worked with Tammy Johnson, founder of Empowering the Masses (ETM). This amazing organization equips often-uneducated single moms with education and career opportunities. They go from assistance to contributing to the vibrancy of their communities.

ETM’s work successfully breaks multi-generational cycles of poverty, by empowering dozens of her neighbors, as she refers to them, becoming taxpayers and people who buy houses. What’s incredible is that she did this herself, with a hand-up, as she calls it. Tammy is the embodiment of success, running an impactful organization and changing lives. It would be easy for her to get completely enamored with her personal founding story, which is awe-inspiring.

Yet, Tammy has taken her impact language to new levels of excellence as she’s moving through the Social Innovation Accelerator, a breakthrough program itself from the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. She comes loaded with her personal story, along with the fact that ETM graduates 80 people a year, mostly women of color and single moms from training programs in phlebotomy, community health, and an added dose of life skills.

She meets most of them in a food pantry that ETM operates. Her theory is, I can’t help you with your life if you’re hungry. Food must be secured, then ETM helps them take control of their destiny, as heads of households and dynamic professionals.

But it doesn’t stop there. She’s worked very hard, as many nonprofits neglect to do at the peril of winning funding, volunteers, and staff, to quantify her impact at an even higher level. As you can imagine, taking several dozen people from public assistance to sustainable, upwardly mobile careers in healthcare, has a community-wide impact. Each year, the economic impact of her organization tops $4 million. Four million dollars of impact, from one fierce little nonprofit engine that could.

We helped her with a recent pitch competition, and it was hard to resist focusing her presentation mostly on her personal story. It is, indeed, something like we’ve never seen. Yet, as we dialed that back, we dialed up the impact, focusing on her real-time and aspirational business case.

As Tammy has grown to trust not only her own story but the story of ETM as an organization, and that these stories will resonate with her stakeholders, she has found the wild success that she and her mission deserve.

The moral of the story for nonprofits and mission-driven organizations is not to bury your impact in the glory of your amazing mission, programs, products, and services. It’s darn near impossible to sustain an organization at a certain level of funding and impact. You’re either growing, or you’re declining.

By better understanding entrepreneurial concepts like scaling, you’ve given yourself the ability to run at 80 mph versus 35 and so that the metrics live and breathe in a different way. It’s an expression of the impact, because in a flash, financial backers and other stakeholders (who understand future-value math) are taking these numbers to heart. They can even help you see your full potential.

Today, it’s 80 families contributing $4 million in economic impact. Tomorrow, It could be 800 generating $500 million in economic goodwill. Those who are amazing should embrace building their brands in ways to bring their goodness to more and more people in their business life cycle.

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