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John Mix, GSS ’17 and CMDO at Physicians for Human Rights, Talks Success in Nonprofits


John Mix graduated from Fordham GSS in 2017, and has over 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. He has recently accepted a position at Physicians for Human Rights as its Chief Marketing and Development Officer (CMDO). 

What attracted you toward this company, and specifically this position? What are you most invested in about this new role?

It’s something that I think has evolved over the course of my career—which was not my intention in the beginning—but I really do like being the change-maker and the team-builder. I enjoy walking into organizations like Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and there are so many of them, that when you find out what it is they do, they’re just too good to not be known. PHR was one of those. I had worked at Human Rights Watch previously, so I was already familiar with PHR in the human rights space.

During the interview process, as I got know more about PHR and the organization—learned more about what they do, and the lens through which they view human rights from the rigor of medical research—it just became more and more appealing. They are an organization at a precipice; at any moment, they could just launch much larger onto the world stage. The work they’ve done—and I kind of hate this expression, it’s used all the time in nonprofits and it annoys me because they shouldn’t have to say it but—they’re punching way above their weight.  If appropriately resourced, they could grow their reach and impact exponentially. So, seeing where they are, where the teams were in particular  the communications marketing and fundraising teams, the opportunity to transform that organization by just unburdening these talented professionals and letting them focus on what they’re good at is what was most appealing.

How did you acquire the skill to be able to go into an organization and be a change-maker? Is it just from experience?

Well, I’ve done it to greater and lesser degrees of success. And culture change is one of the most difficult things to do, as pretty much everyone knows. What’s the expression? Culture eats process for breakfast. It’s true. It has been a skill sort of hard-earned over time through the successes and the failures, but one of the biggest advantages I have is my time at the International Rescue Committee as the Data and Systems Analyst. The nice thing about it is having at least some semblance of a skillset around data and analytics helps immensely. It can put an end to endless discussions and debates about opinions. All the teams I’ve ever worked with, they quickly know I’m the testing guy. Especially in digital, there is no reason not to be testing and learning from everything you do. So, I don’t have to necessarily be the one who can scream the loudest, I can convince people and they believe.

What’s the first step you plan to take to take this company to the next level?

 I usually walk into a team that is under stress. And I’ve lived through it where bosses or leaders come in and say We’re gonna turn this place upside down; I’m gonna go off-the-chain. [The employees at PHR] are all adults and professionals who are doing amazing work. I’m not moving a thing until I actually understand what they do. So, usually the first thing is to just meet with them all, find out what it is I can do to alleviate some of the stress and work, to then actually focus on what needs to be changed and how we can change it.

You have over 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. What initially drew you into it?

 So, my undergrad degree was in Art & Design, with the intention of going into advertising. And I tell people my career path is sort of that cautionary tale of what happens when you’re not paying attention. After graduation, I attempted to get a job in advertising; it was not a good time to get a job in advertising. I was working on Long Island and I had been  a park ranger. Through that, I got to know people in the parks department. After graduating, I got a job back with the parks department, but in their museum services. I ended up working in a museum that was once an estate home of one of the Guggenheim brothers. Then, in 1991, the Guggenheim in Manhattan opened after its expansion, and they had a ticket selling job, and I got it specifically because the woman who hired me thought it was so cool that I had worked in a Guggenheim home. I thank my German mother for this, as a ticket seller, my cash drawer was always correct. And because of that I then got a job in their Development department entering data.

The jobs morphed over time as well as the nonprofits. I began working in the sector first as a data analyst, then in fundraising.

Would you say you feel a bit more job and career satisfaction doing marketing and communications for a nonprofit, as opposed to an ad agency?

 Yes. And a lot of my friends say, John why don’t you just get a job at an ad agency, make more money, and then just become a major donor? But at the time, it was just my conscience couldn’t. And something I didn’t realize until later in my career was just how competitive I was until I really got into marketing. Because I love nothing more than when I beat the corporate advertisers. When I can garner the kind of attention that they pay a lot of money for, I’m like, gotcha.

 Why did you choose Fordham to pursue your education?

 For one, it’s Fordham. You can’t beat the Jesuits when it comes to academic study. I’d also say just the Jesuit tradition, and specifically GSS’s longstanding tradition of advocating for human rights and social justice drew me to the program. With my personal upbringing and beliefs, it was important for me to go to a place like Fordham exactly with that tradition. It was the perfect melding of the rigor but still the soul of it and the credibility in the sector, and having it recognized as something of value.

A lot of our students go out into the workforce and need to market themselves – either as a potential employee, or a self-owned private practice clinical practitioner. Do you see marketing and other business aspects something that could have a place in a MSW degree?

 It’s absolutely crucial. For the nonprofit sector, it’s still something I fight for within organizations. When it comes to fundraising, people are so hesitant to do it. Everyone feels like, it’s so business-y. That’s not us. It will just happen. And it won’t. it won’t just happen, and it’s so crucial to be successful. And for a nonprofit, if you want to do the work that is so important, it’s just the nature that we have to raise funds.

When I give talks about marketing and fundraising for nonprofits, and the attendees say, well I don’t want to ask, I ask them, do you love this place? Do you think it should stay around forever? And they say yeah and get all fired up. And I say, why wouldn’t you ask for money? You should be proud to ask for money for this. When it gets down to it, there are so many useless services out there, and if you’re actually there to help another human being with a real issue that’s going to impact their quality of life, you have to compete against those not-so-necessary services that do have more money for advertising.

What are some tangible, actionable steps nonprofits can take to get the word out, if they don’t have a large budget, or a budget at all for marketing activities?

 I get this all the time, especially when I come into a new place and impose all these procedures and policies, and the argument is: John, we’re so busy, we have so much to do, we can’t do this. But I say the one thing you can do for free is a best practice. Best practices are best practices for a reasons and those are free. My biggest lesson would be to learn those, and outside of the spend sometimes it might seem counterintuitive—we don’t have much money to push this ad, so why should we really work on it or pay extra for a photo? Even though I might have very little to spend, I will go buy a licensed photo from Getty images. Why? Because I will get greater engagement around that advertising with a good photo.

There’s an expression attributed to Abraham Lincoln that goes, If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend four of them sharpening the axe. I think it’s so important in marketing, and especially digital marketing, because there is no special place for nonprofits. Amazon doesn’t care; Proctor and Gamble doesn’t care. And all the internet service providers are watching; they’re always watching. If your email is not being engaged with, if your ads are not being engaged with, they’re not going to push it. It doesn’t matter how much money you have; people don’t like what you’re doing. So, make the stuff good.

Especially considering the new privacy policies implemented in new Apple iPhone updates, do you think creative is becoming more and more important?

 Having originally come up in art and design, it’s fun to watch it getting back to old school. You’ve got to be creative; it has to be good. Back in the heyday [of digital advertising], you couldn’t not make money, the targeting was so good. You could show a picture of a rock and someone would send you a donation.

What are some key skillsets someone who wants to be successful in nonprofits should be working on?

 Many of the tech platforms. At many nonprofits, you’re probably using the Microsoft Suite a lot, and depending on how heavily the organization is relying on it to get their work done, it would benefit anyone to really actually learn it. Not just, oh I know how to do Word. Things like formatting and maybe going into level 2 formulas in Excel and learning pivot tables—making a compelling PowerPoint presentation. I’ve seen a lot of nonprofits have a friendly audience when they walk into the room, only to lose it because their PowerPoint was horrible, or they had no presentation skills. So, learning what some might consider the boring fundamentals of any office-type job. And that even goes for people on the programmatic side, because in a nonprofit they’re all getting pulled into service for other things, whether it’s meeting major funders or individuals, or advocating, it’s beyond just what the job description says, especially for programmatic work. You might say, why would I ever need to learn that, but you’d be surprised. If a funder wants to hear from you, the researcher they’ve been supporting, how that relationship continues could depend on that person.

Marketing is 24/7. It’s brand. People are going to get an impression of you no matter what you say. It’s just going to happen. Wherever I work I tell everyone, brand is going to happen. Now, either we’re in control of it and it goes the way we want, or we roll the dice and let the people decide what it is, and hopefully it’s what you were looking for, otherwise, you’re going to have a heck of a time trying to dig yourself out of it.

Additionally, everyone must take at least one class on statistics and one on data analysis! I think it should just be required by every university in order to graduate, but until that day I will preach the virtues of it. It is vital regardless of what side of the shop they are going to work with.

What do you do in your free time? Do you have any?

 Ha-ha. Free what, now? A hobby I’ve gotten into that has sort of consumed me is bee keeping. I’ll also throw this out from a career standpoint. I just threw it on my LinkedIn and my resume, and it’s one of those things that just always starts the conversation. Or it’s the thing that separates me from the crowd. I was speaking to a colleague who I’m coaching who also has a bit of a wacky hobby and I thought they should leave it on their resume. Interesting hobbies can separate you in a search.


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