Sales vs training in nonprofit strategic planning
A past client recently posed this question to me:
Our agency trains parents to help their children to read. But we're struggling to fill our classes, even though our material is excellent? What do we need to change?
Here's my question behind that question:
What is your strategy - training or sales?
As you formulate your method of social change, it is important to recognize the difference between training based vs sales based strategies.
One of our clients approached us because it was not getting the results it desired. Their success depended on local law enforcement and child welfare services sending clients to them for a set of services that those agencies couldn’t provide very well but that our client could. All of those agencies had signed MOUs with the client and our client’s staff made regular training presentations to the partner agencies.
Yet still the referral rate was low and our client was frustrated. Why was this happening?
All nonprofits are in the behavioral change business. The question that every nonprofit then has to answer is: “What is our strategy for changing behavior?”
Many nonprofits emphasize training as a means for change. The primary assumption of training based strategies is that armed with the right information and skills, people will act in the right way. Childhood obesity will go down if parents have more dietary information, educational results will improve if teachers acquire the right instructional skills, donors will make better giving decisions if they have the right data on nonprofit impact, and so on.
A secondary assumption of training based strategies is that people will pay attention so long as the content is worthwhile. Nonprofits thus place great emphasis on curriculum, seminars, and hiring instructors.
Sales based strategies make a different set of assumption. The key assumption is that people naturally exist in stasis, and thus will not change unless so persuaded. Moreover, that persuasion may not just involve providing the right rational set of data. As the authors of the best selling book Switch demonstrate, cognitive research proves that people respond to all sorts of irrational, relational and emotional cues. Sales based strategies recognize that you will probably motivate parents to make different food buying choices by actually limiting and simplifying their information and choices. Sales grasps that teachers need to hear your content not as one more requirement placed upon them. Sales recognizes that most major donors give because someone in the organization built a personal relationship with them.
Moreover, the secondary assumption of a sales based strategy is that people are not naturally paying attention, that they are distracted and busy. Thus nonprofits with this strategy need to place a greater emphasis on marketing, on building mind share, on getting “boots on the ground” so that your target audiences experiences you more regularly in the course of their regular lives (versus having to come to your seminar).
Neither strategy is always right. Sometimes training is really the right emphasis. And this is not an either-or dichotomy. But you have to grasp the difference to analyze the factors determining your impact. In the case of our client, we made the point that they were overly invested in the training end of things. Their audience needed more sales: persuasion based on making access easier and more “boots on the ground” visits, relationships, and presence. This strategic realization will shape how they allocate resources and where they devote new energy.
So, what’s your strategy – training or sales?”