07/12/2007 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nonprofit Marketing: Harder (and More Important) Than Corporate Marketing

Gillette spent one billion dollars on marketing for the launch of the Gillette Mach 3 razor system in 1998.

Brown, black, or pasty white, men's faces are told by social dynamics that they should be shaved on a regular basis - so as big a budget as that is, one billion dollars spent on a potential market of a couple billion repeatedly shaving, contorting grills makes some sense. And, admittedly, those billion dollars are probably a big reason that I, and a lot of the men I know, have used the $.04 handle with accompanying $97 cartridges (you might do a price check on that). I'd give props to the Gillette marketing department - they did get me to buy their product - but then again, COME ON...when your budget is a billion bucks, their job was easy.

The Gillette case is one of a handful of extreme-end examples, but whether it's a billion dollars or ever so slightly less, corporations spend a crap-ton of money getting you and I to do things every day - whatever their proverbial "thing" may be. TV advertisement spending ran at $61 billion dollars last year. Online advertising: $8 billion. Print ads: $285.1 BILLION dollars (the consolation: at least it's "not growing as fast" as the others...).

With 1.5 million organizations and an annual contribution to the US economy of somewhere between $670 billion and $1 trillion (depending on who you ask), the US nonprofit sector is a formidable force in the battle for eyeballs and ears - or more appropriate in nonprofits' case: hearts and minds. It's an important battle, and one in which a majority of Americans participate in some way; be it donating time or money, or simply telling friends about an issue.

I just left the American Marketing Association's Nonprofit Marketing Conference, and I've been struck - as I have been each year - by just how serious, hard, and important nonprofit marketing is. No one knows exactly how much the US nonprofit sector spends on marketing each year (any graduate or PhD students out there need a research project?), but I do know in working with many different organizations - from the very largest to the small - that the collective expenditure of the entire sector can't be more than a couple billion dollars. If that. I.e. I'm pretty sure 1.5 million collective organizations' spending = roughly Gillette's marketing budget.

Yet, despite the lack of massive financial resources with which to compete, there are nonprofit organizations that have some of the highest brand recognition and loyalty of any brands period. I'm talking Apple-level recognition in the US and abroad. Red Cross, UNICEF, Oxfam, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Girl Scouts are among them. Bear in mind as well that while Gillette has a very clear and measurable goal for you: "Buy our 67 bladed, flexy, faux-carbon fiber razor that will make you feel like a fighter pilot." The goal of many nonprofits is actually to convince you not to do something: "don't eat so much so you don't become obese, get heart disease, diabetes, or something else and need help from the Red Cross, hospitals, and other nonprofits." Their measure of success: an American family that they likely never see buys fruit instead of Little Debbie's or goes walking for ten extra minutes each day.

In the case of influencing your behavior to do something; who else except a nonprofit can get you to leave your home, walk into a room, let someone stick a needle in your arm, take an eighth of your body's most valuable resource with zero financial incentive...and get you to feel good about it all?

Professionals who make the decision to work in the nonprofit sector are often seen by their corporate counterparts as "nice folks who can't cut it in the real business world." The funny thing about that myth is many Directors and VPs of Marketing for nonprofits left the for-profit sector because they got sick of peddling widgets, and wanted their professional lives to be about something they cared more about (imagine that). To the bigger point, though, winning hearts, minds, AND wallets is freakin' hard - harder than corporate marketing - particularly without a multi-million (or billon) dollar budget. In fact many organizations that serve you and your communities have a marketing budget of $0... and yet you know about them and contribute to them. These guys are damn good.

I'd love to take a team like Wal-Mart's marketing department, strip it of any significant budget, and see just how good they are combating poverty, the climate crisis or HIV/AIDS. It's possible they'd be pretty good... but I bet they'd be met with stark reality.

What company's marketing team out there wants a challenge?