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Startup Mentality and Nonprofits: A Match Made in Heaven?

Matt Hill June 10, 2019

What if I told you that nonprofits aren’t engaging with their audiences to their full potential? Having a background in marketing, I naturally think the way direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands do. It’s an effective way to gain brand voice and recognition. When I started One Tree Planted, a nonprofit that is based on a simple premise of $1 = 1 tree planted, I went with the approach of successful D2C brands by offering simplicity, creating community, and generating a memorable donor or partner experience. I always ensure that these traits are shining through all of the activities we undertake as an organization, be it business and community outreach or marketing strategy. It just makes sense, because complexity creates barriers to engagement.

The benefits in simplicity are priceless

Many D2C brands, such as the mattress startup Casper, were launched with a single product. This approach caters to a well-defined audience and thrives in a 1:1 economy that eliminates the need for middlemen. We keep our model very simple as well: One dollar plants one tree. The simplicity in language and execution allows us to connect immediately with donors. It enables brand recall and also serves as an effective call-to-action.

I wanted to ensure donors (both businesses and individuals) were directly involved in getting trees in the ground. An uncertainty surrounding corporate philanthropy and donating to a cause is that once the money leaves your hands, you never really get to see the execution or where the money is being funneled. It’s too intangible and abstract. But planting a tree is clear, measurable, and easy to understand. Despite being a nonprofit, I focused on developing a storytelling strategy that takes a direct-to-consumer approach.

We encourage donors to choose the area where they would like their trees planted, after providing simple and easy-to-read information on how the different projects benefit the people or environment of a particular region. Following this, donors are always kept in the loop when it comes to planting their trees. A core business value at One Tree Planted is to have completely honest and open conversations. You’ll see that in everything from our customer service to our social media. We are responsive and down-to-earth, communicating the main points in a way that is concise, authentic, and uplifting.

We rely on these easy-to-grasp and transparent concepts instead of big statistics, figures, and high-level conversations to help tell our story, which is a more positive one about simple actions that make a difference. This helps build lasting relationships and brand loyalty. As the chief environmental officer at One Tree Planted, it was also clear to me that the brand had to emphasize the message of the importance of corporate social responsibility. We just do it in a unique and simpler way.

Community is fostered through dialogue

The Truth About Disruptors: 2019 Challenger Brands Study from AdWeek Intelligence shows that of 209 brand marketers surveyed, nearly half believe that the ability to craft a compelling narrative is the tactic that allows D2C brands to set themselves apart. Also, nearly 45 percent think that the creation of a community of consumers is one of the top contributing factors to what forms the DNA of these brands.

At One Tree Planted, we’ve adopted a similar belief. We want our donors to be able to have an ongoing conversation with us. We often find environmental nonprofits leaning heavily into climate change and natural disaster led messaging. In order to keep customer experience at the center of One Tree Planted donations, we made a conscious choice to stay away from that kind of messaging. Instead, we utilize a mix of funny, fresh, and unique content. Our Instagram is heavily peppered with positive and uplifting imagery and fun-facts on nature. I believe that this contributes greatly to donors having a positive experience while interacting with us, and each other.

It also positions us as a brand that is friendly and easy to reach out to, opening steady communication lines between us and our donors. We undertake creative projects and collaborations with like-minded brands that echo our messaging strategy as well, which helps to nurture a sense of community.

Today, the experience is everything

Visual marketing, social media, and consumer experiences are the elements of modern-age marketing that go hand-in-hand. As I mentioned earlier, building community is a key underlying value at One Tree Planted, and our content strategy with donors forms a big chunk of the communication donors receive that contribute to their brand experience. According to Havas Media’s Meaningful Brands survey, it is great content that drives meaning, but almost 58 percent of the content brands put out is not interesting or engaging to consumers.

This signifies a big gap in communication put out by brands, but consumers need to be part of the experience, and in fact they want to be, when it’s a good experience.

We often underestimate the power of emotional connection, brand loyalty, and the experience in interacting with customers. Applying a D2C-type experience model to One Tree Planted has allowed us to invite engagement with donors and learn about what resonates and motivates them through every step of the journey. Listening to feedback and being in constant communication has enabled us to have frictionless interactions with businesses and donors, while also giving them the complete experience and insight into seeing where each of their dollars are being planted. What they tell me again and again is that they like us because we keep things simple, we’re friendly and flexible, and we respond right away. Who wouldn’t want to work with a partner like that?

Driving experience and emotional connection has allowed One Tree Planted to work in over 200 cities in 13 countries and plant 1.3 million trees in 2018 alone. Our donors are so involved that we’ve had about 4,000 volunteers work to plant 90 species of trees in 82 volunteer tree-planting events. Tree-planting events are another touch point we use to engage with our community that actually gives them a chance to get their hands in the dirt right in their own community. That is a valuable experience that connects them with something deeper than just our brand. It connects them with nature, and that’s what this is really all about.

Overall, through simple marketing tactics and a model that’s easy to understand, we’ve created a way for both individuals and companies to make a big difference in our environment. I saw a nonprofit world that was complex, at points not transparent and unapproachable. By thinking like a D2C startup, we’ve become just the opposite.

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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