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What Nonprofits Can Learn From One of The Best Commercials Ever

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

It was late 1989. Airline ticket prices had been rising for four years and a recession was around the corner. United Airlines knew that meant business travel was in trouble, so it started airing one of the most powerful commercials ever. In the ad the boss, Ben, gathers his staff together to say he got a phone call from one of their oldest customers, "After 20 years, he fired us. Said he didn't know us anymore."

Ben says the company has lost the personal connection with its clients. "Well folks, something's gotta change," he says, and starts passing out airplane tickets for his staff to go visit their clients face-to-face. The last lines seal the deal.

"Ben, Where are you going?"

"To visit that old friend who fired us this morning." (Fun fact: the narrator of the commercial is Gene Hackman!)

So what does that have to do with nonprofits? Well, we have been under the shadow of COVID for two years. Nonprofit leaders have done a great job of shifting tactics to appeal to donors who were hunkered down and only available by Zoom and phone call. Despite everything the pandemic threw at them, America's nonprofits found away to connect and collect when it came to fundraising.

Now we are emerging from COVID and people are trying to get back to normal. Is your organization ready for this new normal? We've gotten used to the way things have been. We kind of liked all the time we saved by not having to drive across town to meet with donors or hold evening home introductions. We didn't have to worry about business cards and leave behind material. We fell into a new paradigm.

We called the pandemic The Great Pivot, because it required such a sudden change in the way we did business. Now it is time for The Great Reset. Do you have a plan for this next phase? Here are a few suggestions:

Start with an internal audit

  • Are everyone's business cards up-to-date?

  • Are your brochures and other collateral leave-behinds fresh and do they reflect your current programs?

  • Do your print, online and video content reflect the new normal or the pandemic? Specifically, are people wearing masks?

  • If you changed your programs since the pandemic, do your donors know how they changed?

  • Can you describe how you are emerging bigger and better?

Shake off the cobwebs and get out there

  • Organizations need to get back into the habit of face-to-face engagement. It's too tempting to say yes to zoom and no to driving in rush hour traffic to meet for breakfast.

  • Network, network, network. Donor acquisition is going to be one of the biggest challenges this year. Networking is how you solve it.

  • Move at the speed of your donors. Many of them are out of the habit of meeting as well. It has been along time since they invited guests over for a home introduction. Some nonprofits have found that, where volunteers used to be willing to drive an hour to a project, now they are reluctant to drive 15 minutes. You can't push them, but you also can't be stuck in the pandemic rut when they are ready to move on.

Finally, if you are the executive, follow Ben's advice and personally go see that old friend, your most loyal donors. If you need help updating your communications material, let us know at!


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