Think like a charity when it comes to customer stewardship

We have been fortunate to work with dozens of charities across Canada. We have volunteered in the front lines and sat on the boards, built brands, strategies, campaigns and events.

Over those years, I can no longer count the number of times I heard someone say, “charities need to start thinking more like a business!”. It was a bit of a broken record about 15 years ago, and still plays today. While there may be some validity in the notion of putting a ‘for profit’ lens on charities, it’s time to flip the coin!  As we all know, and have seen over the past year especially, charities can teach the private sector a thing or two when it comes to resiliency, creativity and brand culture.

In 2020, we watched our office roommates, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Guelph shift from in-person to virtual youth mentoring in mere days (and it involved a lot more than downloading Zoom). Dozens of other agencies made similar adjustments to ensure their essential services would continue.

We also witnessed 15 poverty relief charities band together within three weeks with an incredibly organized food delivery program that has made the difference between eating and not eating for people in our community. They’ve done this without a grumble or whine (despite frequent calls from businesses that needed to pull promised funding) but with positivity, passion and incredible strength. They rallied, and they got it done.

Rallying their people meant connecting with valuable donors and supporters in their time of need. Nearly every charity needed money or another form of help, and they needed it fast. They were able to call on those relationships, and the trust they have together, to help them meet urgent needs.

What charities do exceedingly well – better than nearly every business I encounter, certainly including ours – is “stewardship”. Stewardship, by definition, means to “take care of something” and that’s exactly how they view it: they take care of their donors and volunteers with appreciation and attention.

I believe if companies looked at their communication as “stewardship” and followed some of the same practices, their connection with their customers – and ensuing loyalty form those customers – would be stronger for it. This was proven in spades during the pandemic, when customers were cautious about safety. They were much more likely to invite a telecom or heating contractor into their home when they already had a strong, trusting relationship. It made them less skeptical when contractors promised to follow strict protocols. We helped several clients draw on that ‘relationship equity’ and they rebounded faster during the pandemic than those who hadn’t already invested in their customers to the same degree.

Charities follow a proven process when it comes to donor stewardship; a process that can easily be adopted as “customer stewardship” in the private sector. They create richly detailed annual contact calendars that identify every single touchpoint, and they measure the effectiveness of each of their efforts. These schedules include things like personal telephone calls with their highest value donors at the beginning of the relationship, and on an ongoing basis. They communicate frequently via email, personal hand-written notes and letters, or quarterly bulletins. They spotlight donors on their social media feeds, taking the time to tell their story and underscore why the relationship is important to them. They send birthday or anniversary cards, small, unexpected gifts and give them “front of the line” access to their most desirable auction items or event swag.

Charities excel at storytelling. They recruit gifted writers to structure compelling and strategic narratives about their work, and the donors and volunteers they celebrate. They humanize their (often complicated) work, and they use stories to help their prospective donors see the value in getting involved. They create emotional videos that go viral – and many do it on a shoestring budget.

What’s more, most charities are very good at being transparent and honest about what they’re up to, the challenges they face, and the help they need. They are expected to be open and accountable – businesses should similarly expect to be accountable to their customers. All too often, we bury our problems in business so that our customers don’t see weakness. I’m keen to explore exposing a few of our challenges so customers understand, openly and honestly, how things are and what they can do to help. The present supply chain issues are a good example: some companies tried to position themselves as the hero that will “deliver” no matter what, then faced the consequences when they could not. Others were honest from the beginning and worked with clients to find an alternate solution. Through their actions, the honest and transparent companies were building or strengthening “brand trust”. And customers do repeat business with companies they trust.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve noticed charities aren’t afraid to draw on relationships to help make their organizations better. Their strategic planning process is robust and includes extensive engagement with their donors and volunteers, in essence to ask them to help shape their mission and execute it. Our customers are an incredible powerful resource that private companies do not avail themselves of nearly enough when looking to the future. Who doesn’t love to be asked for an opinion?

Looking to grow a better business? It’s time to start thinking like a charity.

Contact M
Contact M