Nonprofits Should Take a Page from This Survival Guide


There's isn't a more endangered business than independent bookstores. Margins are low and competition from Amazon - never mind everyone else - is fierce. Still, some bookstores are doing more than just surviving. They're thriving, thanks to marketing smarts and a lot of hard work.

Take Green Apple Books, which has been a fixture of San Francisco's Richmond neighborhood for over forty years. I read about them in the Wall Street Journal. Their success is a real page-turner, and nonprofits would be smart to bookmark these three chapters.

The value of (instant) gratification. Pete Mulvihill, the co-owner of Green Apple, knows his store is a natural for the harried shopper that's forgotten a party gift. That's one reason why he's grown his children's book section from three book cases to twenty-five. Giving people what they want NOW is something Amazon can't do.

Instant gratification is important for nonprofits too when do-gooders are searching for that local charity to give a holiday or year-end gift to. But like Green Apple, you need position yourself for success. If you're not top of mind, they'll skip over you.

Another advantage for local nonprofits and their business partners is everyday gratification - the joy of shopping somewhere physical, which can be enhanced by giving to a cause. This is where location-based services such as can add value for consumers and the small businesses that serve them.

This video explains how Check-in for Good works.

When shoppers check-in to a business with the mobile app they can support a good cause and get a discount on their purchase. The gratification effect is key for local nonprofits and businesses. And coupled with mobile technology, Check-in for Good delivers a consumer experience that is unique and satisfying.

Sell more of what's selling. Mulvihill points out that after 9/11 travel books took a nosedive but are now hot again. Green Apple contracted and expanded its travel section as consumer demand fluctuated. While a lot of nonprofits don't have the same flexibility, they have more than they think. Hospitals, for instance, can focus on specific areas such as pediatrics, cancer or autism services, or, in the wake of a disaster, emergency services. At the Boston hospital where I worked our biggest "seller" was a food pantry that fed tens of thousands of poor residents. Is a food pantry usually associated with a hospital? No. Was it a popular program and hot seller with supporters. You bet. Head toward where the first are burning.

Nonprofits need to experiment to find out what's resonating with supporters. Of course, they'll worry: "But what people want to hear may not be what we really do." The owners of Green Apple will tell you that getting the customer in the door trumps everything. They can't browse the cookbook and fiction sections if they don't stop by to buy that last minute gift. 

Big things happen with small change. Mulvihill stressed that consumers can support independent bookstores by paying with cash. Bookstores would keep two percent more of each sale. It doesn't sound like much, but it adds up. So will the donations when nonprofits and businesses use pinups, round-up programs and donation boxes to capture coins and dollars at the register. Just as many small businesses prefer cash, nonprofits should be exploring how they can cash in too.

I'm a big believer that nonprofits should learn from businesses, and not just from other nonprofits. The lessons of bookstores such as Green Apple are ones that every nonprofit should read again and again.