A Guide to Working for Nonprofit Clients

June 27, 2018

Yumiko Whitaker
Yumiko Whitaker

Independent PR practitioners can focus their businesses in a number of ways: by specialty, industry or some other niche. Many independent PR pros cater to the needs of nonprofit organizations, work that has some differences compared to representing other types of clients.

One independent who serves the nonprofit community is Yumiko Whitaker, owner of Hummingbird PR in Southern California. She also provides PR services to for-profit businesses, and says it helps to know what the two kinds of clients have in common.

“In my experience working with nonprofit and for-profit clients, they all have the same desire: positive results,” she says. “Yet their resources and infrastructure may differ greatly.”

Nonprofits face a “never-ending quest for funding,” she says, “often forcing professionals within the organization to wear multiple hats — to provide programming or conduct research while also raising money,” for example.

When working for nonprofits, independents need to keep many things in mind, Whitaker advises. Factors to consider include the client’s available resources and operating funds; the makeup of its leadership, staff and volunteers; and the organization’s relationship with donors and the community.

“Many for-profit organizations are prudent in their management of resources, yet they may have immediate access to capital or budgets to build business that nonprofits often don’t have,” she says. “It’s important to quickly assess a nonprofit’s situation to offer relevant and sustainable solutions.”

When working for nonprofit clients, independent PR pros have an opportunity to solve problems, sometimes beyond the scope of traditional public relations.

“Often, clients don’t know what they need until you are there and they have the opportunity to experience your full capabilities,” Whitaker says.

“When this first happened, I wondered why I was being asked to handle certain responsibilities, and then I realized I became a valued thought partner and moral conscience, which is the greatest compliment.”

Aligning values

Whitaker says she loves the challenges of serving both for-profit and nonprofit clients. Her attraction to the nonprofit sector is driven by a sense of commitment to her community and a desire to shape positive outcomes that may help fulfill societal needs, she says.

But she also points out that not all nonprofit organizations are created equal — something that PR independents should consider before taking on certain assignments.

“Some nonprofit organizations are set up like businesses, with lots of infrastructure and resources,” she says. “Others may be very grass-roots.”

To a large degree, the type of nonprofit clients you should work for depends on your temperament, she says. “I suggest identifying organizations whose values align with your own. If you can, you may want to start by serving as a volunteer or by establishing a pro bono relationship.”

Whitaker cautions PR independents not to assume nonprofits have very limited budgets — a common misperception, she says.

Many nonprofits have small budgets, but not all, she says. “Do your homework to see where the best fit may be, perhaps within a foundation or museum. I often see businesses operating like nonprofits and vice versa,” because in either case they have “clear goals, focus and a strong talent bench with solid leadership.”

Whitaker says these dynamics are universal and make working for both business and nonprofit clients a natural fit for her.

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the “Shaping Opinion” podcast. Email: timobrien@timobrienpr.com. Twitter: @OBrienPR.


Bev Carlson says:

Great advice. Plus, one of the best things you can do for a non-profit is introduce them to the power of video storytelling. Some may be able to afford a professional, some may not -- but if you can find a way to help them get at least one solid video that shows their impact, it can be a game-changer for them. Very fulfilling PR work.

July 12, 2018

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