Non-profit brands have it easy: they’re already mission-driven by nature

It’s that time of year again.

In addition to the crush of holiday ads, there’s another annual tradition that greets us as we watch our TV marathons, browse our favorite sites, and engage in some last-minute shopping. It’s the end of the year charity drive.

While December 31 might mark the end of the fiscal year for most donors (and thus an ideal time for charities to call upon some last-minute generosity), it’s also an important reminder of the amazing power of non-profits to call upon our sense of fairness, our eagerness to help, and our basic humanity.

But how do they do this so effectively? Are holiday bell ringing or TV commercials really the key to donor participation?
To see the inherent advantage that (most) non-profits have over (most) for-profit brands, it helps to think about why non-profits exist in the first place.

For most non-profit 501 (c) (3) organizations, their very existence is based around accomplishing a charitable goal. That’s why the IRS allows them a special tax category. And it’s also what sets them apart from for-profit corporations: non-profits are, by their very definition, mission-driven.

But corporations are mission-driven, too, you might argue. While a non-profit may be dedicated to environmental conservation or human rights protection, a corporation’s mission is to return a profit (and, in doing so, strengthen the economy, provide employment, and keep capital moving through the system.) And that’s true. But, increasingly, that’s simply not good enough for consumers.

Instead, consumers are expecting for-profit companies to be mission-driven in the non-profit sense, too. It’s not that consumers are expecting for-profit companies to do traditionally non-profit things in the same way non-profits have traditionally done them. Instead, they expect for-profit companies to be clearly solving a problem—preferably for society’s benefit—and to confidently articulate that goal both internally and externally.

Just take a look at this 2014 Gallup study, for example, which found that both customers and employees were happier, more loyal, and more likely to engage with a company that clearly articulated its core mission.

Whether its directly empowering consumers through tools or systems that they can use or developing a critical mass of customers in order to effect social, economic, and environmental change, mission-driven businesses can accomplish far more than their simply profit-oriented counterparts.

As University of Oregon professor Michael Russo wrote, companies should no longer debate whether or not they can make money by being socially responsible. Instead, they should ask, “how they can make being responsible pay.”

And that’s a question that many companies are starting to answer by taking tips from the non-profit world. As masters of being able to articulate their value proposition, their goals, and, most crucially, their mission, non-profits are a valuable model for businesses to consider when it comes time to develop a mission statement of their own.

Another good place to start is this strategic framework from Stanford’s Social Innovation Review, which challenges companies to ask themselves fundamental questions like, “What type of social change does the brand seek to produce” and “What tactics does the brand employ” to produce that change.

At one time, those types of questions were easily ignored or, at the very least, paid lip service to in annual meetings. But no more. Priorities have shifted amongst consumers, and they vote with their wallet. To truly capture a sizable audience and market share, increasingly companies have to articulate why they do what they do—and make sure consumers support their ultimate mission.

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