What Nonprofits Can Learn from Retailers That Are Beating Amazon


"How can a retailer flourish in such a daunting environment? By providing 'emotional fulfillment,' which is one of Mr. Freeman’s favorite phrases. He means the joy customers take in seeing, touching, sniffing and testing the product before they pull out the credit card. A computer can’t match that experience."

Source: Wall Street Journal

I often think that smaller, less well known nonprofits can identify with retailers that are battling Amazon. While the competition is not as singular as Amazon is to retailers, nonprofits know what it's like to compete against bigger, more savvy and more well-heeled organizations. As nonprofits and businesses share a similar challenge, they may also share a solution on how David can beat Goliath.

1. Nonprofits need an entrepreneurial mindset. Just as successful stores aren't best run by accountants and lawyers, the best nonprofits aren't run by do gooders who don't understand marketing, technology, storytelling and innovation. Some of the best nonprofits I've come into contact with, like Charity: Water and Pencils of Promise, bring an entrepreneurs mindset to how they run and grow their organizations.

2. Embrace your physical and/or local identity. Great stores focus on the experience of shopping and making it unique, memorable and enjoyable. The other day I took my 86-year old mother food shopping. She loves to go to a store called Market Basket and now I know why. Food shopping was actually fun! The place was decorated to the nines for the holidays, staff was on the floor and helpful and every checkout line had a bagger. It was a supermarket at its best. Conversely, when I took my mother to another supermarket to cash a check, there were none of these things. "Why not just order my groceries online," I thought.

Local nonprofits, museums, cultural and historical sites need to embrace their physicality. That's what I love about George Washington's Mount Vernon. You're missing something by not visiting Mount Vernon - although they have a great web site! - because it's more than just the ancestral home of our first president. It's also the place that has Christmas and New Year fireworks. They have a road race that begins and ends at the mansion. They have revolutionary war camps and reenactments on the grounds. You can't get that on a website. 

As Kemper Freeman of Bellevue Square points out in the WSJ article, it's all about customers seeing, touching, sniffing and testing. If your nonprofit is local or if you have a street front, you need to embrace who you are because people still love real-life!

3. Get out from behind your computer. Freeman spends an hour or two every day day walking through stores and watching and chatting with customers. He's doing his market research and so should you. Get out and meet with the people that visit or benefit from the services your nonprofit offers.

There's a great story about how President Lincoln took time almost every day to meet with regular people at the White House during the Civil War. He talked with them about their concerns and heard their grievances and tried to help, comfort and assure. Lincoln's staff urged him to give up the meetings. They were too time consuming and draining, they said. But Lincoln knew better. They kept him in touch with normal Americans.  He called them his "public opinion baths."

A bath is a good way to think about what retailers and nonprofits need to do to keep large and online competitors at bay. You need to immerse yourself in physicality and humanity. As Freeman explains, “We are social animals. We aren’t robots who are going to make all our purchases from robots.” 

The same is true of donors. We're not going to donate all our money to far-off nonprofits that boast active Facebook pages. We're social animals and we crave each other's company. Nonprofits that can provide this should.