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Non-Profit Board Failure | A Lesson from History

Failure

Jul 22

In the autumn of 2007, I was working in the marketing department of a small private college in the Midwest. About fifteen years prior, the school had broken ties with its founding organization and decided to stay independent. Since then, money management and incredibly conservative spending was the mantra of the institution. Unfortunately, many people felt came at the expense of a quality education and resulted in a loss of talent from the employee level and a dwindling student population.

While the school lingered on, its impact was nothing of what it used to be and after some market research was done, found that the name of the school (kept hidden for the sake of the article) was known to only 3% of the city’s population. Despite a downtown location and direct access off of a thoroughfare connected to the interstate, this was a painful pill to swallow. Our department’s task was clear, but not an easy problem to solve. We had to grow awareness, but that awareness had to lead to direct business: new students coming in the doors.

A Solution for a Failing Non-Profit

facebook-logo-png-transparent-background-i2Facebook was still on the rise at that time; the site being well known internationally, but still growing at a very rapid pace. One of the newer features of Facebook, at that time, was the sponsored ads. Since the school was too small to reach massive volumes through grass roots and viral efforts, we knew we had potential, but we were going to need to make a major splash. I developed the idea of running an ad campaign of 4 ads – one for the school in general, one for sports, one for extra-curricular activities and one for our largest academic program. My campaign was to last 4 months long and would be measured in the following ways:

  • Number of impressions
  • Number of Ad Clicks
  • Number of Facebook Page Likes
  • Number of Click-Through’s to the School Website
  • Number of Contact Form Submissions that checked Facebook as their Lead Source
  • Number of Applications Received from those Submission Forms (Application Fees were $50)
  • Number of Registered Students from those Submission Forms (Average Student Cost for 1 year was $28,500)
  • Total Cost
  • Total Revenue

The targeting had to be specific; the school had very strict entrance requirements and did not want to waste any effort on people that would not be qualified for admission. I had to restrict these ads to a smaller portion of college bound individuals to fit into the mission of the school.

Facebook Advertising’s Overwhelming Success

We did not measure time in this, but it ultimately would have barely added up to a week’s worth of time over the entire span of the event, including a full day of presentations to the board giving a detailed account of the results. The 4-tiered campaign started in early December, which fit in perfectly with the dominance of the school’s basketball team, which ultimately won the national champion for our athletic association that academic year. Over the months, I consistently monitored the ad spend to fit into the $200 TOTAL budget I was given to test this new means of university marketing. I was not prepared to handle the results of my experiment.

I was called to give account to the VP of Advancement (in charge of the Marketing Department) and our Marketing Director within days of the end of the 4 months. The following was my report back to them (I personally kept my reports from this experiment for reasons such as this article):

  • # of impressions (people in our direct target market): 1.6 million in the US
  • # of Ad Clicks: 1,458
  • # of Facebook Page Likes: 603
  • # of Click-Through’s to the School Website: 88
  • # of Contact Form Submissions that checked Facebook as their Lead Source: 50
  • # of Applications Received: 3
  • # of Registered Students: 1 part-time registered student, 1 full-time student beginning the process of registration
  • Total Cost: $175
  • Total Revenue: $150 from Application Fees, $14,000 guaranteed with another $28,000 expected

Keep in mind that the interested parties had to click to the Facebook page first, then on to the website. Not one ad led directly to our website. I did not know we could skip the middle click until later. Obviously, this campaign FAR exceed our expectations in the marketing department and the VP of Advancement rushed this report to the President, who promptly set me up to present my findings at the next board meeting (a month later).

Non-Profit Board Failure

By the time I met with the board, the only thing that changed on the report was the one full-time student had fully registered, thus giving me a total revenue number of $42,150. There were no more occurred costs or stats, because at the recommendation of the President, my budget was put on hold until the board could decide what to do next with the information I was to present.

powerpoint_by_navdbest-d6186z9When it came time for the board to meet, I was dressed up and ready with a shiny PowerPoint presentation. However, no one knew I was part of the agenda. Somehow, my topic and presentation never made it on the official board agenda and they had to scrub me in at the end of the meeting after two board members had already left due to time constraints. I was asked to keep it short and had less than ten minutes to explain what happened. While very impressed with my efforts, the board would be unable to decide anything that day because there was not enough of them present to vote on anything.

My budget would have to stay on hold until the board could reconvene another month later, where instead of a compelling presentation and detailed information, my topic became a line item on the agenda and was never given the attention it deserved. Consequently, the board did not remember the stark numbers and success I had gained through the social media efforts, felt it was a little overly complicated of a process and chose to hold off on that until the summer planning meetings where they could devote hours to understanding the impact of this new social media tool.

Keeping Non-Profit Board Failure from Happening to You

With my new budget fully frozen, I decided enough was enough and started looking for what would become my next position. History always presents us with lessons to learn. So what does a small private college’s lack of desire to fund an obviously successful marketing strategy have to do with your board’s management? A lot. “Effective governance, with its corollaries, transparency and accountability, leads to increased public trust in the organization and a greater willingness by the public to donate funds and services” (Pro Bono Partnership Atlanta). The board I had to deal with was unorganized and ineffective. Though I am confident they were doing the best they could, there was no way to handle everything they had to handle inside their current organization structure.

What about your board? Is it trying to take on too much? Are there too many fires to put out? Without effective organization and communication, there is no possible way to ensure that your non-profit is making wise decisions. Hopefully you have not experienced a blunder like the college that did that I worked for, but with poor communication and non-existent organization, it is likely. Here’s to NOT letting history repeat itself.

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