What’s Your Reputation Worth?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 2nd, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Call me crazy. Or desperate. Or both. But in reading John Harris’ recent “Altitude” commentary in Politico about the possibility that President Trump might actually have a very limited kind of “genius,” I found a lesson that nonprofits might want to learn.  

Here’s  what Harris had to say:  “Trump’s genius, as illuminated by the [NY] Times, isn’t simply for self-promotion, but for harnessing self-promotion to a coherent and comprehensive strategy for personal gain. Profit gets paid out in multiple ways: money, of course, but also reputational currency.”

Nonprofits should seriously ponder some key phrases in Harris’ statement, namely “harnessing self-promotion,” “reputational currency” and “comprehensive strategy for personal gain.” Let’s examine them in order.

I’ll be the first to admit that self-promotion is not only anathema to me, but the thought of doing it, let alone harnessing it, turns my stomach. But there is little to argue with the end result of successful self-promotion:  increased attention, the ability to command the press, being sought out and after, and more.  

What nonprofit doesn’t want—and need—that? So why don’t nonprofits engage in self-promotion? I am amazed when addressing a room full of nonprofit staff board members that I’ve asked to introduce themselves that most just say their names and the name of their organization, with no elaboration. No elevator speech, no mission statement, no explanation of any kind.  In other words, no self-promotion. Even when invited to do so.

Why is that? Are we shy? Embarrassed? Uncomfortable promoting our organizations? Is it due to a lack of faith in them?

If we really believed that our organizations are so worthwhile and effective, wouldn’t we use every opportunity to promote them?  So why aren’t you and your people engaged in self-promotion and, better yet, a campaign of self-promotion? 

If you aren’t doing so actively, you are restricting your currency—which brings us to Harris’ second key phrase. In my work, I constantly message that “a nonprofit’s reputation is its currency.” Yet, no matter how frequently I say it, it doesn’t seem to sink in. I can bring it up and then 15 minutes later in the same conversation say something about whose money will you/won’t you accept? Inevitably the sheepish response is “We accept anybody’s money.” 

That brings us back to reputational currency and how it is more valuable than a huge gift from the wrong donor. Anyone who doesn’t understand that needs to leave the sector or risk ending up doing more harm than good. As currency, our reputation must be protected. But if people don’t know of you, there is no reputation to protect. And with no reputation, there is little to no currency.  Simple equation, too often forgotten.

Lastly, the third phrase:  “comprehensive strategy for personal gain.”  In talking about marketing, my favorite way of getting people in the nonprofit sector to understand that we generally don’t engage in marketing is to share this anonymous lesson: “If the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying “Circus – The Fairgrounds – This Sunday,” that’s advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk him through town, that’s promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor’s flower bed, that’s publicity. If you can get the mayor to laugh about it, that’s public relations. And, if you planned the whole thing, that’s marketing!”  

This illustrates how marketing is a comprehensive, integrated strategy of multiple moving parts, all done with the ultimate goal of organizational gain. It is about presentation and positioning, what is said and how it is said and what is done and how it is done. It is about never taking eyes off the prize:  coming out on top. Failing to achieve that ultimate goal is an all or nothing deal:  coming in second is unacceptable.

Ironically, while this life philosophy is repugnant when followed by individuals, it may be essential for nonprofits seeking to survive.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.