What Nonprofits Can Learn from Southwest and United Airlines

 November 20, 2013 |

Over the last two weeks, we’ve been traveling to various Philanthropy Day conferences nationwide, from Hawaii to New Jersey to Connecticut. All of the speeches and presentations we’ve given on donor retention, donor communications and nonprofit marketing would not have been possible without the fine people of the airline industry. While the numerous flights I’ve been on recently have all blurred together, two distinct experiences stand out in my mind – and I believe there’s an important lesson that nonprofits can learn from them.

SouthwestSouthwest Airlines

We try to fly Southwest as often as possible. They have some of the clearest brand values of anyone in the airline industry, and it shows through everything they do. Plus, bags fly free.

On a recent flight, a Southwest flight attendant showed why their brand creates such loyal customers. While taxing to the gate after landing, the attendant opened up the intercom and began singing “Nobody Does It Better,” the old Carly Simon hit. She had a beautiful singing voice, and everyone on the plane seemed all at once amazed by what was happening. Numerous cell phones started appearing over the tops of seats. Passengers were photographing and recording the performance! I overheard several say they were tweeting and instagramming the footage. Many walked off the plan with a smile on their face.

Anyone who saw that content being shared on social media probably wouldn’t have thought of Southwest airlines that evening, let alone shared in such a unique experience. Not only was it free advertising and free publicity, but it also enhanced brand loyalty among the passengers.

United Airlines (Or Something)

On our way out to speak at the 2013 AFP New Jersey conference, we flew United. Actually, I honestly have no idea what airline it was. It might have been United, or Delta, or US Airways. The point is: it wasn’t Southwest. I know when I’m on a Southwest flight. This was not a Southwest flight.

Something odd happened on this non-Southwest flight, and a fellow passenger let me know that it’s a common occurrence on other airlines. Prior to descent, the flight attendant took to the intercom system to pitch us an airline credit card, promising a free quantity of frequent flier miles in exchange for signing up for the card. After the end of her sales pitch, another flight attendant walked up the entire length of the cabin holding up the applications, waving them in front of every row he passed.

Not a single person took an application. It was nearly midnight and many passengers were trying to nap.

I wonder how often a new credit card is opened. They probably get enough applicants for the practice to be worth it, but at what cost? Diminished brand perception and customer loyalty?

Needless to say, no one got out their phones to record the sales pitch, let alone share it online.

When it comes to your nonprofit, do you strive to create a memorable experience and relationship with your donors, or do you simply go for the cold, hard sell? My guess is that if there were less nonprofits who operated like United (or whoever) and more who operated like Southwest, the average donor retention rate would not as low as it is.

How can you create a memorable experience for your supporters, one that doesn’t involve a solicitation? Maybe it’s sharing valuable content, or writing a handwritten thank you note, or offering to take a first-time donor out for coffee to tell them what their support means for the organization. Something unexpected! Something memorable.

If it matters to your donor, it should matter to you.


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