Differences between Nonprofit and Corporate PR

PRLab’s Goodwill account team with James Harder, Director of Communications at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries, at a client event (photo courtesy of Goodwill Boston via Facebook).

By: Olivia Zed, Account Supervisor for PRLab 

November 12, 2018

When considering potential career options after graduation, students of public relations are often guided down one of two paths: agency or in-house. While both routes can lead to an exciting and fulfilling career, there is a third option that is occasionally excluded: nonprofit public relations. Although many of the key functions of public relations are relevant to the nonprofit industry, there are several differences between nonprofit and corporate communications that are important to consider. This blog aims to explore a few of those differences more in-depth.

Driven by social purpose

All organizations, whether they are nonprofit or for-profit, work toward promoting and succeeding in their mission. The core difference with nonprofits, however, is that they are driven by their social purpose instead of a bottom-line. Rather than turning a profit, a nonprofit organization is more focused on the social value it creates within the communities it operates. For example, Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries, a client of PRLab, has the mission of:

 “To help individuals with barriers to self-sufficiency achieve dignity and independence through work.”

 Goodwill’s mission demonstrates the value of its services in terms of human impact. Unlike corporate mission statements that generally focus on the benefits that a company can bring to its customers, a nonprofit mission statement looks beyond the individual and is focused on its broader social impact. This is not to say that for-profit organizations don’t bring about any social value. In fact, consumers increasingly expect all organizations, not just nonprofits, to pursue a social mission in addition to their corporate mission. But for many companies, this social mission is not truly integrated into their corporate purpose.


Distinct stakeholder groups

The Stanford Research Institute defines stakeholders as “those groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist.” This definition has never held more true than for nonprofits, who depend on the support of two critical stakeholder groups: volunteers and donors. While for-profit organizations are generally concerned with customers and investors, the success of a nonprofit largely depends on the strength of its volunteer and donor bases.

This is not to say that nonprofits aren’t concerned with many of the same stakeholder groups as corporations. Both organizations must develop and maintain positive relations with government regulators, employees, and the local community among many other groups. However, the importance of volunteers and donors as stakeholders is unique to the nonprofit industry.

 Revenues are sourced from donors, not clients

In an agency setting one’s work is often dictated by budgets set by the client. But as mentioned above, a key source of revenue for nonprofits is donors. When working in account management at a public relations agency, two of the main priorities are ensuring billable hours are on track and that client relations are well-maintained. At a nonprofit organization, donors become the clients in the sense that one of the main goals is to create and maintain a favorable climate for fundraising (University of Florida Interactive Media Lab).

It’s also important to note that donors are not a homogenous group, but are comprised of many different actors including individuals, corporations, and foundations. In nonprofit public relations, these differences require you to segment your audiences during fundraising efforts. While the ultimate goal is to work with donors to raise money for a particular cause, the strategies used to engage each group could vary greatly.


Captivating storytelling is essential

In recent years, “storytelling” has become one of the biggest buzzwords in communications and is something that all organizations are looking to master in their public relations. For nonprofits, storytelling has the potential to be especially powerful. According to Network for Good, studies show that “donors tend to give twice as much when presented with a story about an affected individual as opposed to reading statistics about the scope of a problem.” Because of the nature of their work, nonprofits have a uniquely human element to them that allows for people to better connect emotionally with them. Additionally, nonprofits usually have a great story that is worth sharing!

The above is not intended to be an exhaustive breakdown of the differences between nonprofit and corporate public relations, but hopefully serves as a starting point for evaluating the industry. Is nonprofit public relations a career you’re considering after graduation? Let us know why or why not in the comments!