What I wish I knew when I worked at a non-profit brand

Don’t let madness become the mission

Everyone remembers their first job. Droll hours spent stocking shelves or packing grocery bags. Late nights serving fast food through a drive-thru window. Waiting tables while wearing 37 pieces of flair. Despite their differences, these jobs are all the same thing in the eyes of a teenager: an act of futility. 

It’s not until you get your first career job that things get interesting. There’s nothing like getting spit out of college, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to make your mark on whichever organization is willing to take a chance on you. For me, that organization happened to be a non-profit—which made me all the more excited to get to work, backed by a passionate mission. 

But what I quickly realized is that the futility of stocking shelves, flipping burgers, and waiting tables can manifest in other ways—even at a non-profit. It’s not that people don’t care; on the contrary—I worked with some of the most passionate and caring people I’ve ever met! Instead, it’s that futility arises when you’ve got an unlimited amount of energy and creativity… but no strong frameworks for channeling it into measurable results. 

Here’s what I wish I knew then (and what I know now) about channeling effort into action—and what I’m intent on helping non-profits learn as I get the opportunity to work with them today.

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Waste not, want not for enthusiasm

I stepped into a decent-sized pair of shoes right out of college, running a small department in a non-profit organization. We, like every non-profit, had very specific rules, fonts, pictures, brands, and verbiage… and absolutely zero direction for applying them. 

We were told to use marketing materials to create our own flyers, social media posts, and anything else that went out to the public. What resulted was a Frankenstein hodgepodge of tidbits from different collections—or whoever could find the clearest logo on Google first. 

I was considered the “expert” in social media marketing for our entire branch. Now, looking back (quite horrified), I can see that even though I poured hours and hours into establishing our social presence, I wasn’t doing anything remotely useful. Sure, the feed was full… but full of what? Poorly-edited stock photos. Pixelated snapshots. Photos of computer screens or paper flyers (yikes). 

My team and I had a task: to get the word out. We also had enthusiasm—there’s no other way to justify some of the posts we published. What we lacked was a framework for putting two and two together to get four: not a crudely drawn picture of four hastily slapped on a timeline. 

The definition of madness

Back then, I always wondered why we didn’t have a marketing department. But something that never occurred to me back then—and occurs to me now—is to wonder why we never looked at numbers or set tangible goals. Even with just two months of experience at JXM, I can clearly see a real disconnect, and challenge that I feel most non-profits share.

  • They don’t have a marketing department because they can’t afford one. 
  • They can’t afford one because they can’t justify the expense. 
  • They can’t justify the expense because they don’t measure impact.
  • They can’t measure impact because they don’t set goals.

While this is well and truly an oversimplification, and not every non-profit struggles in the same way, it’s nonetheless representative of the disconnect I’m talking about. For non-profits, mission comes first, above all else. But so often, measuring impact takes a back seat to throwing everything you’ve got at tasks that are often seen as simply the means to an end—not contributors to a well-defined goal.  

They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. Non-profits make due with what they have, continuing to push out best efforts instead of spending money to do it right, measuring impact, justifying that spend, and making productive investments in marketing and outreach. It’s not just madness: it’s an exercise in futility. 

Measure impact to further the mission

As I scope out my old non-profit’s social feeds today, I see that nothing’s changed—not just in the branch I used to run but across all five or six others that comprise the organization. They’re still doing what “works” because there’s no way to quantify it, and any effort is better than no effort. 

I want to reach out to them. I want to tell them that there are numbers that could be hit, and so many potential members that could be reached. There are ways to improve the caliber of their creative in ways that, yes, involve spending money, but also create massive ROI in the form of engagement, donations, volunteer hours, community support, and numerous other quantifiable benefits. 

I want to reach out because their mission resonates with me—even though their creative doesn’t. In fact, I think I might—to help them better-understand how measuring impact can help in generating it. And, if you’re a non-profit faced with the same feeling of futility, I’d love to chat about your mission, to help you better-share it with the world.