Why Some Organizations Don’t Get the Participation They Deserve

If you offer a solution, people with the corresponding problem will use it, right? Unfortunately, nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations are finding that is not always true. 

“Just because there’s a clear need for a social program or service doesn’t mean there’s demand. We call this the need-equals-demand fallacy,” according to The Bridgespan Group. The group conducted a survey and found that 70 percent of nonprofits reported shortfalls in program participation. Half said participation has worsened over the past five years.

Taz Hussein, a Bridgespan partner who led the study, says, “Our research points to the need for U.S. and international nonprofits to recognize that innovative social programs don't sell themselves. Getting a new idea adopted, even when it has proven effective, is often very difficult.”

In their report in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, co-authors Hussein and Matt Plummer write, “All too often, nonprofits take a ‘build it and they will come’ approach, focusing most of their efforts on creating services that they think are innovative or effective, and expressing surprise when those services go begging for participants.”

What if you are an organization that wants to achieve transformative scale and actually solve a social problem? All the evidence-based best practices and programs can’t make a difference without first addressing beneficiaries’ disinterest or lack of awareness.

Hussein and Plummer suggest that organizations and nonprofits must actively generate demand for social change. “It’s time for nonprofits to develop a more sales-driven approach to social change,” says their report.

The report suggests a three-pronged approach:

1) Make It Easy and Accessible

“Recognize the limits of designing primarily for effectiveness and design for ‘spreadability,’” write Hussein and Plummer.

It’s not enough that something works, it also has to be something that people want. It has to meet the needs of a beneficiary and not simply be something they should do because it is “good for them.”

Real World Example:

The Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) is a lifestyle program that is more effective than medication in preventing type-2 diabetes. Yet only 20,000 of the 86 million Americans who are pre-diabetic were enrolled in DPP last year. Omada Health, a for-profit company, expects to enroll more than 100,000 in DPP in 2016. How? They moved the program online, which made it more accessible than DPP taught in classrooms. They made it easy to sign up. They also made their DPP short and intense, only 16 weeks, and they ask participants to sign up for an additional six to eight month long maintenance program only after they’ve finished the initial program. “Omada also encourages prospective participants to test its program via free online demos, a feature that lowers the hurdle for signing up. And it provides a wireless weigh-in and online profile so participants can track and share their progress—increasing the odds that prospective participants will learn about the program by seeing others using it,” according to the report.

2) Target Early Adopters First

“Go beyond identifying a broad group of potential beneficiaries and focus first on a subgroup most likely to participate,” write Hussein and Plummer.

In any social change, there are early adopters, followed by the majority, and then the laggards. Remember when only college kids used Facebook? Those were the early adopters. Early adopters test out new things and then advocate for them. The majority of people don’t want to try something new unless it is proven. Putting resources into attracting early adopters is more efficient than trying to convince the majority to participate in a program or take advantage of a service.

Real World Example:

CPR was invented in 1960 and adopted by medical personnel in hospitals, but ten years later, despite its life-saving efficacy, the public wasn’t using it. Promoters of CPR then trained fire fighters. Then they trained 911-dispatchers to instruct callers in CPR. That was the tipping point. Now about 18 million people are trained in CPR every year.

3) Sell and Market Like a For-Profit Company

“Develop and resource a sales and marketing capability from the outset, right alongside budgeting for program delivery,” write Hussein and Plummer.

Reach out to beneficiaries. Entice them. This means organizations have to invest in marketing and sales. “Nothing can sell itself,” says Omada cofounder Sean Duffy. “It doesn’t matter how good the product is. Without a deliberate go-to-market strategy, it won’t work.” One quarter of Omada’s staff are sales people.

“Investing in a salesforce, while typical in the private sector, is unfamiliar in the nonprofit sector at best, and downright taboo at worst,” says Plummer.

Real World Example:

In 1971, oral rehydration solution was proven to help treat cholera, but despite the efficacy and accessibility of the treatment, they were seldom used. In the 1980s, BRAC, a Bangladesh NGO, deployed thousands of workers to teach villagers why and how to use the oral rehydration solution. (They even showed them how to make the solution themselves.) By the mid-80s, oral rehydration solution was the standard treatment for cholera and other diarrheal diseases.

There are barriers to creating an effective marketing and sales strategy. “Deeply held beliefs govern how nonprofits spend the money they raise,” write Hussein and Plummer. “These beliefs emphasize delivery of programs and services, the heart of any nonprofit’s mission, while causing them to scrimp on functions vital to sustaining an organization, including sales and marketing. Funders can help nonprofits to overcome insufficient demand by viewing demand-generating activities as extensions of programs or services and funding them in the same way.”

The first step that Hussein and Plummer suggest? Get educated about how to market your organizations services, which is exactly what we at Ignite have been working on since we became a company.

If you are just getting started, check out our articles on building an effective digital strategy, setting marketing goals, or finding your audience.