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Don’t Waste Your Research Dollars. Here’s How.

Posted by on June 8th, 2022
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Communications   

Recently, an affordable housing organization called us to say they knew their messages were ineffective and their stakeholders didn’t understand the full range of their services. Could they hire us to conduct research to determine whether this was true? They believed doing so would help them convince their board to invest in a messaging project.

There’s a tendency in the nonprofit, foundation, and education sectors to research issues that are actually already clear. And spending time and money on research that will tell you what you already know isn’t the best use of your limited budget. Yet money is wasted that way all the time.

Instead, build a solid foundation for your strategic plan, brand strategy, key messages, or campaign communications with research you really need. Here are three ways to ensure you maximize, not waste, your research effort.

1. Research Before You Research 

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Does data already exist that you can leverage to make your case?

We worked with an environmental organization that wanted us to conduct a survey to investigate the disparate attitudes of their stakeholders, from farmers to urban environmentalists. Instead, we were able to maximize their research budget by first leveraging the good work previously done by the nonprofit think tank, FrameWorks.

The FrameWorks Institute has a wealth of information on how to effectively message and shift attitudes on topics as varied as the arts, environment, housing, education, and more. Through FrameWorks we uncovered key language that has proven to connect with their target audiences, allowing us to focus more narrowly on uncovering new insights to build the right brand strategy for this innovative and inclusive environmental organization.

You may also find valuable insights through associations to which your organization, or you personally, belong. For example, the National Association of Independent Schools and the Enrollment Management Association research and publish a variety of findings about parent and student attitudes toward independent schools, demographic and social trends, and more. Likewise, the Rand Corporation has numerous papers analyzing attitudes about key issues of our day.

If you can find the answers you need through these types of secondary research sources, you’ll save money and time. Then, in your primary research, build on, don’t repeat, what you’ve already learned.

2. Don’t Research What you Already Know

It’s not uncommon for schools to contact us to create a new brand strategy in support of their admissions goals. A common theme we hear is that they are not perceived as academically competitive with other schools in their market, and they hope we can research: 1) their current reputation, and 2) insights to shift this reputation.

If you already know that you’re not academically elite in reputation or curriculum, you don’t need research to prove it. Instead, focus research on what you do offer that can be leveraged to differentiate you and attract families who are looking for something other than elite academics.

Relatedly, we sometimes hear from nonprofits and foundations who tell us their name is confusing or they’ve outgrown it. They want us to survey their constituents to prove what they already know: the name is no longer working. In our experience, organizations seeking this kind of validation are worried about the reaction to a name change and want data to defend them against later criticism. 

Instead of paying to confirm what is already clear, consider what you can document to make your case without expensive research. Quantitative data may not be needed if you can share the qualitative findings that you’ve gathered. Those might include feedback that people routinely can’t find your organization on Google, that clients or donors mistakenly go to someone else’s website instead of yours, or that your prospects find your name disconnected from your offering (or even off putting). 

Evidence comes in many forms, so use what you have on hand before underwriting what may not be needed.

3. Leap Before You Look

In our work with clients, creative recommendations are made based on sound strategy. We don’t draft names, taglines, or messages until the brand goals are clear. We don’t design a new logo or produce a capital campaign video until the brand strategy is sound. And because the brand strategy itself is based on carefully crafted research, we can be confident in the brand expression—such as name, tagline, and logo. 

Said another way, if you start with focused research that delivers the insights needed for your brand strategy, you can trust it, and all that deliberately springs from it. So instead of testing which of two names is “right,” lean on which most powerfully brings your brand strategy to life. As the architect of that strategy, you, not an external audience, are in the best position to decide. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

As for your key messages, they are meant to be more adaptable to your audiences and specific communication vehicles. So when it comes to your messages, testing them before launching is not necessarily a wise spend. Like your other brand signals, if they are written with your audience in mind and map back to your strategy, they will hit the mark. Take the leap and start using your key messages, and if you see a place where they can be honed, do it based on your experiences, not surveys. As a guide, learn our Minute Message Model to create powerful brand messages for your organization.

There are lots of insightful learnings you can uncover through qualitative and quantitative research to help move strategically forward. We just don’t want you spending your limited resources on information you can get elsewhere, or simply don’t need to know.

To learn more about how Mission Minded can help you strengthen your organization’s brand, this six-question guide will help you scope a brand project that gets results in the most efficient way.


Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one leadership coach.

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