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Corporate to nonprofit: a marketer’s journey and the lessons learned

By Lisa Bowman – Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for United Way Worldwide.

At one point or another, most of us stop and take a hard look at ourselves and wonder if there’s more we should do help our fellow human. For some, it’s a sense of obligation, while others find joy in giving someone a leg up in life.  Whatever your motivation, I firmly believe that the generosity of the human spirit is needed now more than ever.

Growing up in Chicago, I saw firsthand how much my parents enjoyed and thrived at their jobs – Dad owned an ad agency and Mom was a VP of Development at the March of Dimes. Inspired by their work ethic and sense of purpose, I studied marketing and spent the past 20 years creating relationships between brands, teams, individuals and companies in various industry sectors. I spent the bulk of that time at UPS, building relationships with customers and ensuring their experience with the brand was positive, even meaningful.

About 10 years ago, I was tapped by UPS to participate in a month-long community internship program in McAllen, TX. I stepped away from my daily office work and spent my time learning about the challenges facing the community and how best to address them. The experience was eye opening and prompted me to take a hard look at my life. I’d always been quick to write a check for charity, but now had the opportunity to see from a firsthand perspective what was happening on the ground in a community vastly different than mine. As a result, I was able to “get my hands dirty” to actually do the work, versus providing financial support from afar.

Soon after, I began working at The UPS Foundation where within my portfolio of social investments sat the responsibility for overseeing the transportation company’s annual United Way campaign. This gave me the unique opportunity to leverage my marketing skills to rally employees to improve lives around the world. Through the simple act of positioning United Way as a product for purchase, with features and benefits, I was able to increase the campaign from $48 million to over $65 million in four years.  When United Way needed a new chief marketing officer, I jumped at the chance to leverage the intersection of my professional power and personal purpose to further our shared goals of building stronger communities around the world.

Now, after nearly four months on the job, I’m struck anew by the breadth and depth of United Way’s work and its ability to create lasting, long-term change. From Bakersfield, California to Buenos Aires, Argentina, United Way’s Born Learning campaign has provided more than 15 million parents with the tools they need to be their child’s first teacher. In Milwaukee, I’m seeing my fellow female corporate leaders working to reduce teen pregnancy rates, which they have cut by 56 percent since 2006.

From my new vantage point, I can also see that nonprofits and businesses share more in common than I previously thought. In the same way that companies are accountable to shareholders and investors, nonprofits must answer to their stakeholders – the donors and volunteers that invest their resources with us with the intent of generating a social return on investment.  As a nonprofit organization, we must be cognizant and appreciative of each and every “sale” we make – whether it’s $20 million, $200 or 20 hours of volunteer time. As with any product, we have to ensure a good experience and customer satisfaction, the drivers that provide them a reason to “buy more” and recommend us to friends and family.

As the largest privately-funded nonprofit in the world, we have a unique platform to create expansive change. With that comes the great responsibility to continually deliver on our promises and provide our stakeholders the best return on their investment.

We owe them that. Our work is fueled by the passion of 2.9 million volunteers and 10.3 million donors who through the power of our network speak up, unite and take action on issues through giving, advocating and volunteering. They’re fighting to create a better world, and the best way we can support them is by honoring the trust they’ve instilled in us.

 Bowman is the Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for United Way Worldwide.