Communicating to exist, or existing to communicate?

This week I will be giving a talk on marketing and communication in NGOs at the 4th Social Third-Sector Congress. I plan to begin my remarks with an insightful quote from a third-sector executive: “Our institution prefers to act before communicating.”

Over the last 10 years, communication has grown spectacularly in Spanish NGOs in terms of budgets, staffing and departments. This growth has been similar to that seen in the healthcare services marketing sector, described by Eric Berkowitz as “a dramatic increase in marketing budgets, reflecting an acceptance of advertising and not of marketing in the true sense… investing heavily in advertising when marketers knew virtually nothing about the target audience”.

These two very socially oriented sectors face similar difficulties and confusion when it comes to finding a place for communication and marketing. In NGOs, this confusion manifests itself in the use of communication primarily for fund-raising purposes: communication with potential donors is given higher priority than communication with the social base.

Marketing in NGOs should communicate within a reference framework like the one described by Toni Puig at ESADE: organisations that prioritise ideas over management, whose mission is to raise awareness among citizens, and which therefore see communication primarily as an uninterrupted ethical conversation about how we should live and how to achieve it. This communication should be directed at the three audiences that define an NGO: external (society at large), internal (collaborators), and intermediary (highly involved external stakeholders such as members, donors, volunteers and sympathisers). And the services simply come afterwards.

All this is perfectly synthesised in an article by José María Herranz of the Miguel de Cervantes European University (UEMC): as long as companies communicate in order to exist, NGOs should understand that they exist in order to communicate.


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