What it means to be customer-focused in the social impact sector

Social impact professionals have a lot on their plate: writing appeal letters, planning golf tournaments or galas, running and building new programs, preparing for board meetings, writing grants for more support, and more. With long to-do lists it can be easy to lose sight of the customer.

Yes, I said it: customer. Often, social impact professionals hear the word “customer” and shut down. The word “customer” is equated with for-profit organizations and it conjures up images of the business expert on their board who keeps telling them “to behave more like a business!”

Honestly, when Heather and I first started the Social Impact arm of Moves the Needle we had many debates about using the word "customer."

After many experiments and empathy activities we realized using the word customer helped remind us that a customer is anyone for which an organization has an ethical obligation to discover, create, and deliver value.

Through this realization, we have found that being customer-focused in the social impact sector means:

… seeing every person your organization serves or benefits as a customer.

Every person truly means every person: clients/service recipients, individual donors, fellow staff members, board members, funders such as foundations or government, recipients of philanthropic support, volunteers, or the community at large.

Unfortunately, very few social impact organizations recognize that they have multiple customers, many up to six or more. Dig deep to really think about all the groups involved in your mission.

… identifying what value you are creating for each customer by solving a problem for them.

Creating value for customers is ultimately about solving a problem for them.

The customer may or may not be explicit about what kind of support they need from you.

But, the reason they are giving something of value to your organization is because they think you will be able to solve a problem for them.

Here are a few examples:

  • Clients have a personal need they are unable to fill on their own

  • Donors, funders, board members, and volunteers may want to have a personal impact on an issue they care about but do not have the connections or ability to accomplish it on their own

  • Board members and volunteers may want to not only give back but also gain experience to build their resume, meet like-minded peers, create business connections, etc.

  • Staff need money to support themselves and their families and are so inspired by your cause that they exchange hours of their lives to make a difference

We often forget that we are customers, too. Think about where you dedicate your time, energy, and money.

What “problem” does it solve for you? Why and how did you find them, like them in the first place, and why do you stay engaged?

Or, think about an organization with which you used to be engaged: what happened that caused you to drift away? Using empathy from your own experiences can give new perspective into how you can provide value for your own customers.

… recognizing that customers give something of value to your organization in exchange for solving their problem.

There are many forms of value that a customer can give an organization such as:

  • Clients exchange their money, time, and trust

  • Donors, board members, and volunteers exchange time and/or financial resources

  • Staff members exchange their time and talent

Regardless of whether the customer is giving an organization their time, financial resources, or even social support, the customer is giving something of value to the organization. Do not take this exchange for granted and do not confuse “exchange” with “transaction”.

Exchange means both sides have assets and power and it’s not a simple transfer of tit for tat. It is about honoring the relationship by deeply understanding those you serve and being intentional about creating value.

As long as an organization is providing value for their customers, customers will keep providing reciprocal value.

… understanding that you must solve the customer’s problem first in order to solve your organization’s problem.

Click to enlarge

This is one of the most difficult but powerful concepts to understand and convert to action. When organizations are immersed within their challenges, they often only think about internal solutions.

The key is to shift focus from the challenge at an internal, organizational level to an external, customer-facing level. Once the customer-facing problem is identified, the solution inherently has internal impact.

Just shifting your mindset about how you think about your own internal challenges, who is involved in that challenge, and thinking about how they are impacted, will lead you to create solutions that drive deep value for them.

Furthermore, once you learn about what motivates your existing customers, you can not only better engage them, but you can look for others that have similar characteristics and behaviors to create strategies to engage new customers.

Conclusion

In short, the secret to deeper impact is viewing each person your organization serves or benefits from as a customer, and focusing on solving their problems first in order to solve your own.

Organizations not only have an ethical obligation to create value for each of their customers but it’s actually the key to addressing organizational challenges and driving deeper social impact.

It is time for the sector to pause the busy-work and stop losing supporters, funding, and staff.

We need to refocus and reprioritize.

Your customers deserve it.

impact in action

Impact in action

One of our clients interviewed a number of their best volunteers to identify what motivated them to contribute so they could better understand how to recruit more volunteers like them.

The staff learned their most committed volunteers were involved because it allowed them to socialize with other people who were passionate about the same cause. They were originally very excited to buy “thank you swag” and throw a recognition gala to honor volunteers.

But, the organization realized they needed to understand what was valuable in their customers’ eyes rather than work from assumptions about what they thought their customers would like or need.

To find out more about Moves the Needle's Social Impact Program, click here.