What relevance do such corporate terms as “customer acquisition cost”, “customer retention metrics”, or “prospect target profile” have for the non-profit world? Too often the answer that my nonprofit clients or prospects give me is “none”, as they want to believe that morality and social vision reside on their side, while corporate values are uniformly lacking To them, the vocabulary of corporate marketing is either irrelevant or inappropriate. They make a sad mistake.

Wikopedia offers us this definition of “marketing”:

Marketing is the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers, for the purpose of selling that product or service. . . . a set of processes for creating, delivering and communicating value to customers. . .

Marketing is the science of choosing target markets through market analysis and market segmentation, as well as understanding consumer behavior and providing superior customer value.

From a societal point of view, marketing is the link between a society’s material requirements and its economic patterns of response. Marketing satisfies these needs and wants through exchange processes and building long term relationships.”

Of course the social service agency, theatre company, or environmental organization are not offering us gift wrapped products. They may provide food and social support to the needy, artistic performance that nourish our soul, protection of our land and water – services that do add value to our lives as individuals and as a society. Their products are services such as this; their “customers” are those of us who might support the endeavor beyond the level of our immediate individual need.

Communicating the value” for a non-profit takes place as they explain how their service benefits a segment of society – which may or may not be the segment that is being asked to contribute funds that support it.

Creating, delivering, and communicating value to customers” is the direct work that they do.

And the “market analysis and segmentation” that non-profits may or may not do is the analysis of who might support the program, how it needs to be packaged and described so that its value is most clearly broadcast, and which sub-communities might best be approached to take on each piece of work.

Marketing has always been a mixture of art and science, but the analytic tools to identify interested communities, and to explore how they respond to different approaches have been steadily growing in power and precision. It’s high time for a new community of non-profit leaders to begin using these technologies, and the related social understanding, to develop a stronger network of support.

But the gap between for-profit and non-profit sectors is about more than different notions of whether both really do “marketing”. There’s too often a cultural divide, based on an implied criticism of corporate organizations as being immoral and out of touch with human values. That’s certainly true of some, but there’s a significant community of for-profit groups that are wholesome in every way. There are also plenty of people within the corporate world who are not comfortable with all aspects of their employer’s behavior, but are challenged how best to confront it with a modicum of safety.

We need more programs like United Way’s “shared corporate executive” program that brings skilled executives into their non-profit to share specific organizational and technical skills. These executives can then return to their employer with a new confidence about how any corporate organization can adopt strong values, and can become an affirming community in which differences are an opportunity.

Once the stereotypes have begun to fade, we may all be better able to look at the tools of marketing as tools of helpful social intervention, via which useful products and services get defined, designed, and funded . . . and the world becomes a better place.