Nonprofits tackle challenge of age

I usually try to shy away from writing about nonprofits. After all, I’m supposed to be a business columnist.

But when a Home Depot exec called to tell me that its foundation was holding a “strategy meeting” for metro-area nonprofits to discuss “business issues,” I couldn’t resist. I’m a sucker for the word strategy.

It turns out that at least two nonprofits at the meeting are facing the same demographic issue that many businesses confront — marketing to a new age group to remain relevant. (My own industry is dealing with that, but that’s another story.)

In this case, the target age groups are far apart, although they’re both younger. The Atlanta History Center needs to attract more kids, while Senior Connections is searching for more Baby Boomers.

First, let’s talk history, which too few kids are doing.

“Most history museums are facing a younger population that is illiterate about history,” said Sal Cilella, CEO of the Atlanta Historical Society, which operates the history center. The challenge is intensifying, he said, because some schools are de-emphasizing American History in their curricula.

Sal Cilella

Sal Cilella

“We lose families and their children to the zoos and the aquariums,” Cilella said.

To combat this, the history center is trying several initiatives, including:

– Magic Mondays, a monthly toddler program for those 18 months to 5 years. You can never start too early when it comes to arts and crafts projects, story time and, of course, snacks.

– With schools shying away from history, the center started programs for home-school children and their families.

– History Rhymes, a booklet of original illustrations and rhymes that conveys events in a fun way. You’ll never confuse it with a textbook.

On the other end of the age spectrum is Senior Connections, which tries to foster independent living, primarily for those in their 70s.

But operating senior centers and providing meals, in-home care and home repairs in this economy require new income streams, said Kimberly Cooks, chair of the organization.

Kimberly Cooks

Kimberly Cooks

“How do you expand your clientele?” Cooks asked rhetorically. By going after the preceding age group — Baby Boomers — to provide revenue, she said.

To do that, the group has added courses to attract Boomers’ attention and checkbooks — topics including entrepreneurship, computer skills and nutrition. In addition to the short-term revenue boost, the Boomers also get accustomed to the organization and may use it for more of its services as they age.

The business principle: Hook ’em early and often.

These days, many nonprofits are functioning more like businesses to survive. The History Center, for example, rents out its “Grand Overlook” room for events and Senior Connections uses its kitchen to cater events to earn extra money.

Cooks simultaneously walks in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds. In addition to chairing Senior Connections, she’s a vice president of AT&T Business Solutions. The main difference between the two arenas, she said, is that nonprofits can’t abandon their central mission, even if the financial challenges are daunting.

Still, there are a lot more similarities than differences. In both cases, Cooks said, “you still have to figure out ways to make money and reduce costs.”

- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat

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2 comments Add your comment

Eddie Long

November 23rd, 2010
6:52 am

Your reporting is riveting.


November 23rd, 2010
9:27 am

It’s great that they’re being so innovative, We’re receiving so many solicitations we’ve decided to stop giving to any of them. The multiple requests are a waste of money and an insult to our common sense, and the selling of our name and address counterproductive. Instead of giving one charity $100, in a short time you’re giving 100 a dollar. The phone solicitiations should be banned too, as an invasion of privacy. The risk of fraud is too great.