After distinguished careers in a variety of nonprofit organizations, John Burke and his wife, Janice Gavan, founded VisABILITY in 1985 to supply logo-imprinted branding products to public radio stations for on-air fundraising premiums. Today their company is the primary source of promotional items for public radio programs and stations nationwide. John is the primary author of the Nonprofit Branding blog. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of and a frequent contributor to the MKCREATIVE blog.
MKC: How did VisABILITY come about?
John: I was vice president of a university and secretary of the board of trustees and after seven years of that, I had an urge to start my own company. The president, who was my best friend, and the university lawyer, and a few others, made ourselves a committee to figure out what businesses to start. And at hand was an NPR station that worked for me. We realized that the entire public radio industry – this is back in 1983 or 1984 – was struggling to mature and learn how to raise funds on air and how to use premiums, and doing a miserable job of the latter. So my wife and I said, let’s form a company, and begin to service public broadcasting with premiums for fundraising and marketing. And quickly, NPR hooked with us, and Car Talk and All Things Considered and on and on, and all of a sudden we became the national supplier for all the major programs. We were also providing stations their own station-specific items.
I should point out that we were figuring it out as we went along. We were not experts. I mean, we had spent our careers in nonprofit management. But in the beginning none of us in the industry knew what the questions were, much less the answers. But by figuring it out as we want along, we came to be considered the experts, the gurus in the mountains. (We live in the Colorado foothills near Boulder.)
Years passed and new generations of leaders entered public radio. So many other very good, very competent people picked up our original analyses and heresies and made them more sophisticated and more modern and carried them along. It’s been wonderful to watch. Public radio now is a very solid, responsible entity. It’s no longer the flaky alternative radio of the ‘70s, it is now the nation’s premier news source and has an audience of 30 million with an incredibly strong demographic.
MKC: How long have you been blogging?
John: Well, let me restate your question to one I’m more comfortable answering. When did you start? Maybe January or February. When did you figure out what you were doing? Oh, probably April.
I was writing stuff and it was too long. I hadn’t thought to put photos in it, or that I could tighten it up if I got more serious, I was just spinning along. Then I started to get these nice comments. I figured I’d better grow up and take it more seriously. There’s an art, I think, to doing a blog, and I’m trying to figure out how to balance the voice – how informal to be, how sensitive to be, how much detail to offer, how to sequence content. It’s not that it’s hard, but for me it’s uncharted territory. But the blog is getting an awful lot of response and I’m kind of tickled, so what we’re saying here must be making sense to some folks.
As a blogger I sometimes stare at a blank screen and get a little panicky and say, ‘Do I have anything interesting to say? Will I be able to get it right and get it out now, because I have a deadline coming up in a couple days?’ The indications, then, of people reading give me so much reassurance and satisfaction. That’s what keeps me doing it.
MKC: Do you have an objective in blogging? Is there something you’re trying to accomplish?
John: Yes, there is. As our little company was sailing along, serving public radio, we would get approached by various large outfits. We turned them down, because we were afraid we would let down the people who depended on us if we took on additional big clients. Over the years we turned down the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra, a couple of others. We had an artificial sense of purity. But we also operated with a small staff and the software of the time, and we could not feel confident that we could handle those folks without letting down our current clients. Time passed, and we began to acquire a bunch of nonprofit clients, and we got more comfortable. Then about two years ago, we decided that what we do is so highly appreciated that we’re going to open up to all nonprofits in a serious manner. So we began a progression of upgrading software, changing our office configuration, establishing new policies, weaning out some services, so we could reduce ourselves to the core and then expand from there. A big part of that, once the infrastructure was in place, was for me to start blogging and sharing information about nonprofit branding in a way that gives us credibility and reach. So that’s the specific goal. We are now within a couple weeks of launching our marketing campaign to Colorado nonprofits first.
There is no national supplier to the nonprofit sector with the kind of experience and credibility we have, because we spent years managing nonprofits, consulting nonprofits, and then servicing them. We’ve supplied pretty close to 20,000 branding and marketing campaigns since 1985. And we’re still figuring things out as we go.
I think the nonprofit world is a very special world with special values, and I think our success results from the fact that nonprofit people find a comfort level dealing with folks who understand their world and speak the language and have held or supervised the jobs they now hold.
MKC: Are nonprofits more receptive to talking about marketing now than when you began in the ‘80s?
John: When I was a college vice president, I was discussing how we had to do some marketing, because we were thinking of offering two new programs. I wanted to know how many students would be interested, how many of our current students might want to shift major, etc., etc. To me that market survey was just common sense. And the university president slammed the conference table, so hard it made the graduate dean jump, and said, “Goddammit Burke, don’t ever use the word ‘marketing’ in my presence again!” Then he explained, “We know what the students need, and we’ll build our programs based on that.” I wrote about this incident in a blog post.
This guy was very famous. He was dead wrong, but he really represented an anti-marketing viewpoint that I encountered again and again. I’ve consulted with 26 or 28 regional and national nonprofits over the years, and that attitude was really, really common. I’m not so sure it’s totally gone today.
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.