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Customer Service IS Mission Work

customer service is mission workI was chatting with a fellow consultant recently and the topic of responsiveness from our nonprofit clients came up. Specifically, we talked about how many nonprofits seem to be bad at keeping in touch and following through.

Now if you receive direct mail solicitations from any agency, or are on any nonprofit e-newsletter list, maybe you’ll disagree. Maybe you’ll say that we as a sector over-communicate in many ways.

But for sake of argument, I’m talking meaningful communications and connections here–with donors, clients, and volunteers…. You know, our nonprofit’s “customers.”

So, the question that I’ve been battling with is this: are nonprofits providing poor customer service? And does it really matter?

The answer—to both–is YES.

Many nonprofits are providing a tremendous community service and helping the greater good—but completely overwhelmed with the day-to-day operations and often times terrible at responding to requests or follow-through.

If we’re not taking care of our customers, we’re not operating as effectively as we can. And as a business that runs primarily on “warm fuzzies” we really can’t afford to tick off our customers.

So what we do to up our customer service game?

1.) Underpromise and overdeliver.

I have seen far too many nonprofit sector folks promise they’ll get back with someone the same day to sound more responsive only to have the ball drop because they’ve had proverbial (or literal) fires to put out.

First, be realistic about your time. If you do miss a promise/deadline, acknowledge the fault as your own as soon as possible (in advance, if you can!) and try to make up for it with real, solid effort, not just words. And if you weren’t able to follow-through because of a mission moment, share that with your customer. They might be interested in helping next time!

Second, go above and beyond when it comes to the little things. Several of the greatest for-profit business minds–Ray Kroc, Walt Disney, Estee Lauder–knew it was just as much about the experience of buying the product as the product’s actual quality.

What does your nonprofit product look like? How can we as nonprofits help our stakeholders have a good experience with our nonprofit and our mission work?

2) Re-evaluate your commitments.

Honesty time: How many of you would ever refuse guaranteed grant money? What if that same grant was exhausting your staff/volunteers and only helping a very small portion of your clients?

As nonprofits, we sometimes find it hard to say “no.” Especially when it comes to the funds required to make our mission work possible. This also happens with new programs. And board members. And executive leadership… and… well, life.

We live in a world where being busy and overcommitted is the norm. But let me give you permission to say no. There I said it; you can say “no” to that grant, or that donor, or that program.

If it doesn’t fit your strategy and mission work, JUST SAY NO. (Just make it a thoughtful no.)

Be mindful of what you’re committing to–whether new programs, new grant applications, staff growth or board development, all of these take resources.

As nonprofits, we want our board members to give their time, talent and treasure… but are we being mindful of our own capacity for all three?

When does “no” become an acceptable thing to say to maintain focus on your agency’s mission work? What does a thoughtful “no” look like for your agency?

3) Acknowledge the customer is important to you.

As servants of the public good, we cannot operate without the support of the public, but many of us treat our stakeholders like they owe us; we think in terms of what they can do for us instead of what we can do for them. We operate from a place of  “we need” instead of “we empower.

In truth: the nonprofit sector allows people to be part of community development and impactful change in a way they may not ever have the opportunity to in their day-to-day lives. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, and it’s important for us to remember that.

We should communicate to our customers what’s going on with our agency. Let them weigh in on it when appropriate, and let them know why we decided to go in a chosen direction.

We should promote transparency, dialogue, and ownership of our mission work. And be a steward of our customers’ time, talent and treasure, making sure they understand their role in our community impact.

Do your donors and volunteers know the impact of the work you do? What kind of information is meaningful to them and how are you communicating it?

I fully understand that using the word “customer” or “product” in regards to the nonprofit sector might be making you uncomfortable. I don’t use it to belittle the importance of all the people with a shared interest in the health of your nonprofit and our sector. And I’m certainly not saying we need to behave exactly like other sectors.

I am suggesting we remember that we are a business first–a nonprofit business with the intent of our profit being poured back into our mission; a business with a heart, let’s say – but a business nonetheless.

And as a business, many of us are failing to acknowledge our customers as the valuable commodity they are.

Let’s change that and make sure that they not only feel like they receive good service from us but that they help change the world while doing it.

This article first appeared in the Nonprofit Leadership Center of Tampa Bay May 2016.

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