Four Things That Business Can Learn From Nonprofits About Inspiring Customers

When you hear many of today’s corporate promises and slogans, you would think they belonged to nonprofit organizations. A few of my favorites are: 

To inspire and nurture the human spirit –Starbucks

Your potential, our passion –Microsoft

To improve the lives of the world’s consumers–now and for generations to come –Proctor and Gamble

To contribute to the overall health and wellness of our world –Pfizer

These are not just lines from some social responsibility policy. They are core statements of mission and purpose proudly displayed on corporate Web sites. As today’s brands attempt to differentiate themselves from their many competitors, more and more of them must be truly inspiring. 

And why not? Companies that genuinely leaven their commercialism with a sense of higher purpose are more likely to build powerful connections–intellectual, emotional and spiritual–with their customers. Those are exactly the kinds of connections you need to acquire and sustain a loyal and passionate following these days. 

However, it isn’t easy. Unless you are willing to associate with and support an inspiring cause genuinely, consumers will strike back with a vengeance. As the Cone 2004 Corporate Responsibility Report noted, when a company is perceived as acting badly, 90 percent of consumers would consider switching to another company’s products or services.

Make Me Believe

To inspire the consumer, you must help him believe in something he once thought was impossible. This is where innovators will thrive and hidebound institutions will die. Innovators think in quantum leap fashion while most institutions think incrementally. If you can only describe your company’s dreams and ambitions in the context of a percentage of growth, you will inspire no one. 

Here are two types of inspiration busters to avoid:

  • “We want to be the best.” (as in AutoNation’s “Driven to be the best”) 
  • “We want to be the most recognized.” (as in the United Airlines mission statement, “To be recognized worldwide as the airline of choice”).

Both are noble. Neither is the least bit inspiring. Making me believe in something I once thought was impossible requires words like imagine, dream, accelerate, change, empower and energize. A dramatic illustration of this occurred when Microsoft announced its HealthVault initiative, with a vision to build a platform that would store electronic medical records for every American–for free! It would then sell the service to other countries, providing the impetus to transform health care for good.

So, as you assess the impact of your business on your customers and the wider society, ask yourself this question: “What would the world look like if I were to fulfill my mission tomorrow?” Try asking this at your next team meeting, and you will uncover very quickly whether you have the capacity to be inspiring or not.

Appreciation Works

To inspire the consumer, you must show genuine appreciation for her business. Nonprofit organizations are exceptionally good at making their donors feel special. Even the small contributor receives a thank-you note, and with a donation at the $100 level, there’s usually a phone call, too. By those standards, how many companies should have had someone call you to express their gratitude for your business? I should most certainly receive calls from the CEOs of Whole Foods, Starbucks and American Express! 

Loyalty programs are generally effective in retaining customers–until a better loyalty program comes along. People recognize that even so-called customer appreciation days are typically traps for more selling, so their “loyalty” is understandably tentative and short-term.

Conversely, expressing genuine appreciation creates a lifelong relationship. Imagine how you would feel on receiving a voice mail that said simply, “Thank you for being such a great customer. We are not calling to sell you anything. We only want to say thank you.” I received such a call recently. It was my local nursery guy on whose business my wife and I spend much of our discretionary income. His call was short, genuine and simple: “I am calling to tell you how much I appreciate your business.”

I also received a similar call from someone at Direct TV in the same week. Now, I won’t even consider going somewhere else to buy plants or get a television signal. 

A Place at the Table

To inspire the consumer, you must also help him see that he is a part of a community of world changers. One of the most powerful fund-raising terms is the word join: “Join the fight,” ”Join the cause,” “Join me.” These exhortations all indicate that you can be a part of something bigger than yourself. More than ever before, our identity is defined by the communities we are a part of–even virtual ones! 

If business wants to follow the lead of nonprofit organizations, its leaders will participate in social media for the sake of connecting customers to other customers. Then, they, like donors, will show the way to new relationships and new markets.

Create and/or tap into platforms for connecting people in and around your mission. Harley-Davidson has done this very effectively with its “Join the Family You Have Always Wanted” campaign. Think about what your business can offer that consumers will join you in enthusiastically. 

Show the Outcomes

Finally, to inspire the consumer, you must convey how you are making the world a better place. A short time back, I had the privilege of traveling to Guatemala with the child sponsorship organization Compassion International. I had supported CI in a modest way for years, but after that firsthand look at how my dollars were being used to help truly impoverished children, my giving level will never be the same.

I saw this principle illustrated in the most dramatic fashion when I toured the Huntsman Corporation offices in Salt Lake City, UT. Throughout the building, wall photos showed people in towns and villages all around the world where the company and its employees were providing medicine, clean water and education. The underlying message was: What we are doing as a company is helping to make the world a better place.

I also find this illustrated every time I walk into a Chick-fil-A store and see a life-sized poster of the founder, Truett Cathy, alongside pictures of the young people in whose lives his company is investing. And, I see it at the headquarters of International Paper on whose Web site you’ll actually find a link to donate to the World Food Programme (

No matter what kind of business you are in, the nonprofit sector can teach you how to inspire your customers–but only if you are making the world a better place and show it. Give those customers something to believe in that they once thought was impossible while also demonstrating genuine appreciation for their business. Furthermore, help them connect with other customers as part of a larger community, and communicate how your business is improving the world. 

Lead and they may follow. Teach and they may learn. Inspire… and they will never be the same. 


Terry Barber is the Chief Inspirator for Grizzard Communication Group. As a speaker and consultant, he primarily serves the nonprofit health care sector, as well as colleges and universities, in the area of philanthropic branding. Barber is author of The Inspiration Factor (Inspiration Blvd., 2008). Visit his website at:

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