For nonprofits in a tough economy, marketing pitch must be perfect

New York (JTA) — Harriet Mouchly-Weiss has a two-foot tall stack of abject letters from nonprofit organizations telling her of their dire financial straits because of the economic meltdown.

It was probably an ineffective approach — at least for Mouchly-Weiss.

“If I get one more pathetic letter I am going to croak,” the New Yorker told JTA.

In the nonprofit world, marketing is often a nice word for fundraising, and if organizations are going to listen to anyone about how to message their causes now, it should be Mouchly-Weiss. She is the managing partner at Strategy XXI, a marketing consulting firm that specializes in nonprofits.

Mouchly-Weiss also sits on the executive committee of the UJA-Federation of New York, and is on the boards of the New Israel Fund, the Abraham Fund and the Israel Policy Forum.

Her message is clear: With nonprofits facing a shrinking fundraising pool as funders either lose money or become more tightfisted, organizations will have to come up with an effective pitch for convincing donors that they are running tight ships. And nonprofits have to recognize that their messaging may be their meal tickets.

Or as Gary Wexler, the president of Passion Marketing, a creative marketing firm that focuses on the nonprofit sector, puts it, “Marketing is going to be everything in this time.”

Wexler, a JTA board member, adds: “If nonprofits don’t tie their fundraising to marketing and integrating it, they will be sunk.”

The first step, Mouchly-Weiss says, is for nonprofits to become less frivolous. They must let their donors know that they are cutting ancillary expenses, such as expensive dinners, and focusing solely on fulfilling their missions.

“I hope the situation will compel us to go right to the issue, as opposed to focusing on entertaining people,” she said. “People are going to be much more critical of the way money is spent. People will look at overhead. And then I think that nonprofits are going to have to demonstrate the real need and effectiveness of their solutions.”

Eliminate the glitz

The Israel Policy Forum, an advocacy group that Mouchly-Weiss chairs, eliminated the glitz from its upcoming annual banquet. In June the group had booked the grand ballroom at the Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan, but recently decided to downgrade to a smaller space at the hotel.

IPF, which pushes for deeper U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also opted to focus more on an educational program instead of a posh reception, and slashed the ticket cost from $1,000 to $500.

“We have really tried to avoid the quintessential rubber chicken New York dinner,” the organization’s executive director, Nick Bunzl, said. “And this year we have particularly tried to focus on change.”

Nonprofits should emphasize their emergency, said Gary Tobin, the president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, which studies the Jewish nonprofit sector.

“What is going to matter most to people are those programs for the hungry and the poor, people on Medicare and the homeless,” Tobin said.

“You have to appeal to a shift in priorities and mission in a time of crisis. JCCs should be emphasizing scholarships, day schools the same,” he said. “Everybody needs programs that serve people in need. It’s just a matter of how you package it.”

For the Jewish Agency for Israel, the trick will be communicating to American donors that overseas Jewish needs are just as important as domestic needs, says the director of its North American communications department, Jacob Dallal.

The Jewish Agency, a century-old organization that focuses on promoting immigration to Israel and Zionist education in Diaspora communities, has been hit with a “double whammy,” with donations in the United States falling as the cost of providing services overseas rise.

For instance, because of inflation and the falling dollar, the cost of sending a child to a session at a summer camp in the former Soviet Union has jumped from $670 to $850.

While the Jewish Agency has made its financial troubles public, donors may not respond to that message alone, Dallal said.

“It’s part of the argument, but I don’t think it is the whole argument,” he said. “We have to explain how we fit into the larger picture and we will continue to do that.