In the world of non-profits and charities, the terms donor, benefactor, grantor, and stakeholder are often used to describe individuals whose patronage and contributions are intrinsic to the operations and livelihood of organizations. In the commercial, for-profit world, the same individuals are referred to as clients or customers, and this is something that non-profit organizations should think about more often.
In the 21st century, customer relationship management has become the most important process that companies should observe and practice for business success. For companies such as Amazon, Southwest Airlines and Zappos, good customer relations and excellent customer service are now the pillars that their global brands stand on.
Charitable and non-profit organizations have a lot to gain from adopting certain aspects of successful business models, and they should start with treating stakeholders as customers. Many non-profits exaggerate their efforts to set themselves apart from the world of business enterprises; the idea behind such efforts is to avoid being compared to greedy companies that only care about the bottom lines of their quarterly financial statements. The problem with this insulation from the business world is that it ignores the fact that can be learned from the sector, particularly with regard to managing customer relations.
How Customer Relations Sharpen Competitive Edges
Even though managing stakeholder relationships can be a more intricate process compared to customers who purchase goods or services, many of the strategies used in the business world can be successfully applied by non-profits.
There is no question that charities operate in a competitive sector, and this makes customer relations even more important. In the case of Southwest Airlines, for example, the company’s budget airfare business model has been adopted in recent years by major airlines such as Delta, American and United; however, Southwest has been able to withstand the competition because the company has built a legacy of excellent customer service.
An air traveler who has had positive experiences with Southwest will likely continue to choose this airline even when a competitor such as United, which has a dubious track record of customer service, offers tickets for a few dollars less. Likewise, a donor who enjoys the way she is treated by her favorite charity is unlikely to be swayed by a new non-profit dedicated to the same cause.
In the business world, customers are easy to define as shoppers, clients, subscribers, or end users. Non-profits have beneficiaries who can be defined as clients, but the term customer can apply to more than donors; it can also extend to volunteers, contributors and others who provide material support or value. Based on this determination, non-profits have an even greater need to excel at customer relations.
What non-profit leaders choose to call their customers is not relevant. National Public Radio, for example, divides customers into underwriters, listeners who contribute to periodic funding drives, and the public in general. Quite a few non-profits refer to their customers as friends and make a point of including this designation on their corporate communications and marketing materials, an example in this regard would the Friends of the Sierra Vista Animal Shelter in Arizona. Naturally, it is not a good idea to call supporters “customers;” NPR never does, but this is an organization that truly excels in terms of customer relations.
Essential Non-Profit Customer Relations
The first step in customer relations for charitable organizations is to realize that a beneficiary today may become a volunteer, contributor or donor tomorrow. Let’s say a chef who is down on her luck is helped by a food bank or community kitchen; in the future, her gratitude may turn into volunteering or donations. To this effect, non-profit customer relations start with treating beneficiaries like VIPs whenever possible.
Volunteers and contributors should be treated with the appreciation for their abilities. Donors must be treated with gratitude, transparency and thoughtful communications. A charity that manages a monthly giving program, for example, should be completely on point with regard to communications. This does not mean contacting donors every single day or more than once a week; it means delivering communications that show exactly how their funds are being used while at the same time thanking customers for their support.
In the end, non-profit leaders and managers should take time to review customer service case studies from companies such as Amazon and Zappos; the lessons that can be learned from these market leaders can inspire organizations on how they should be treating their stakeholders.