Batman or Alfred – Choosing Our Nonprofit Persona

When we interact with advertising produced by companies trying to sell us something we rarely, if ever, take the time to consider if the company that is selling the product is worthy to receive the money. We are only thinking about the satisfaction, pleasure, or usefulness we will receive from the product we purchase.

I was realizing the other day that there is a large disconnect between how we interact with the corporate world and how we interact with the nonprofit, humanitarian world.

We demand that the nonprofit world prove that they are worthy to receive our money. We force them run on as little overhead as possible, to hire less qualified staff because higher salaries would mean less money going to the people we “care about”. In short we focus more on the company (organization) than the product they are creating.

Why is this?

I think it all comes back to marketing and branding, how organizations portray themselves.

Most nonprofits and humanitarian organizations are marketing and branding their organization or “their company” as opposed to their product. When organizations focus on themselves, and promote themselves as a brand they automatically bring scrutiny on the organization, it’s structure and its costs.

We as consumers have a very established relationship with products in general. Is it a quality product? Is it cheap? Does it do the job well? How long will it last? As long as the product does what is says we are happy and most of the time don’t even remember who made the product we are using. It becomes, “the toaster” or “my hairdryer”. We don’t know which company makes our favorite shampoo or toothpaste we only know the brand the company has created around the product.

For most nonprofits, the product they should be selling is positive change in the lives of real people. The type of change that can really only be seen in the lives of the people that are affected.

If a better life for real, living, breathing people is the real product, why do we see so little of it being marketed by nonprofits.

We see a lot of faces with catch phrases, slogans and quotes. Messages on programs and statistics about the problems are everywhere. We are bombarded with posts and tweets that tell us what our gift will do to as part of the program. While all of these messages contain the faces of real people, they are shallow. These faces look too similar and are portrayed in a similar way to the people we see selling and promoting our favorite cereal or shampoo. They become a messenger of the organization, rather than the product we really want to see.

If you want to see an example of what I think we as consumers of nonprofits are craving, check out Humans of New York. Photographer Brandon Stanton. has spent years telling the stories of real people. He has 18 million followers on Facebook alone. 18 million! Almost 18 times as many as World Vision, one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world. The stories he stares are often deeply personal and they are told by the people he photographs in their own words.

The reality is this, we as human beings connect with people. We connect people through the commonalities of our stories, children, pain, loss, happiness, marriage or successes, no matter our culture or language we have these things in common.

While I am not suggesting that we should make people products in any way. I am saying that as we think about impacting the world through the nonprofit humanitarian space we really need to refocus how we structure our branding and marketing.

We need to focus on building connections to real people. We need to tell their stories and make them the Batman to our Robin or more realistically our Alfred. We need to inspire people to give opportunity and empowerment to people and allow our organizations to simply be the conduit that allows this to happen. Moving the organization and quite honestly the donor as well, from the role of hero (Batman) to the role of facilitator that makes greatness possible (Alfred) moves the focus to the real reason the organization exists in the first place to make real people’s lives better.

Along with the improving the physical and economical aspects of their lives, we also have an opportunity (and an obligation) to improve the way people are perceived and valued by society. It is our part of our job to lift them up and remind everyone who will listen that they are valuable and deserve our respect.

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