Nonprofit Marketing Isn’t A Bad Thing

Megan Donahue

Does the word “marketing” make you nervous?

When you think about marketing your nonprofit organization, do you feel unqualified or unsure of what you’re supposed to be doing? 

Does the whole thing feel a little…icky?

If so, you may be thinking about nonprofit marketing all it wrong. Marketing your nonprofit isn’t about “selling” your organization, or launching a glitzy ad campaign. It doesn’t require a ton of secret knowledge, only known by people at marketing agencies. You’ll probably never need to consult a focus group or spend a million dollars. 

At its core, marketing is about inviting supporters to connect with you. 

It’s anything you do to tell your story, empower your audience and bring them into a closer relationship with your organization. So, your monthly email newsletter? Marketing. Your annual report? Marketing. Your social media accounts? Marketing, marketing, marketing. 

Marketing a Nonprofit Organization Helps Donors Connect

There are two major audiences that nonprofit marketing seeks to connect with—the people who know you, and the people who don’t, yet. Many of us hear “marketing,” and solely think of the latter group—strangers. We think it’s all about spreading the word, but that’s only part of marketing your nonprofit.

Connecting with new people is important, but staying connected with your existing supporters is even more so. Those are the people who’ve already taken steps to engage with you. Keep the engagement going, and deepening, by continuing to market your nonprofit to them. 

Donors crave connection. They want to be part of something, as well as give to it. Today’s donor considers their charitable giving part of their identity, not a simple transaction. By telling them the stories of your organization, the people it serves and the people in the field, you engage their imaginations and empathy, making it easier for them to connect. 

Nonprofit Marketing Examples

Take a look at this marketing project from charity:water. The digital picture frame is designed to remind people of the organization they support, and the company that makes it will match each purchase with a donation. Then, they’ll push stories and images from charity:water’s work periodically to the frame, to keep it top of mind. 

Make no mistake, this is selling something. In this case, charity:water’s partner is selling a physical object.  But it’s not about the picture frame, it’s about the connection. They even spell it out, “Aura will keep you connected to your impact.” 

For established and potential supporters alike, storytelling builds connection. Unicef dedicates an entire section of their website to stories. They tell several different kinds of stories that are important to their audience–factual updates on crises around the world, stories from people they’ve helped, and first-person narratives from people in the field. 

This “Insider” story introduces us to one humanitarian, but connects with supporters by using a second-person headline that calls out to them directly. It brings supporters deeper into the organization by giving them an “insider” perspective and showing how they’re part of a worldwide community of people trying to save the world. It’s not an accident that the Unicef blog is labeled “Connect.” 

Help your donors connect to your organization with marketing by:

  • Telling the stories of your impact
  • Introducing them to the people in the field
  • Giving them a behind-the-scenes perspective
  • Addressing them directly

Smart Nonprofit Marketing Strategies Build Trust

Your marketing can help people connect, but it can also help people trust you more. This is important, because trust in institutions, including nonprofits, is currently quite low. Use your marketing to demonstrate that your organization is trustworthy. 

Be Responsible

It doesn’t matter if you’ve written the best email in the world if you send it to someone who told you they don’t want to receive emails. Respect your supporters’ communication preferences, it shows that you’re listening to what they tell you. 

Be careful of how you use and store supporter data. Personal data is a gift your donors have given you, so guard it carefully. Ensure that any marketing vendors, like direct mail processors, are also careful with data.

Be Useful

By being a consistent source of reliable, accurate information, you’ll establish your organization as a trustworthy expert on your cause. You’ll also show your audience you have their best interests in mind when you provide them with something they value. Your stories, updates, and educational content all give your audience something they want–more information about a cause they care about.

Be Human

Faceless institutions do not inspire trust, but people do. Humanize your organization with your marketing by introducing your staff, volunteers, and board members. When you tell the stories of why they care about your cause, you leverage social proof–people are influenced by what they observe other people doing and trusting. 

Donor-Centric Nonprofit Marketing Keeps People Engaged

Attention is hard to come by these days. Advertising is constant, personalized feeds allow people to check-in regularly with broad social networks, and everything is customizable and tailored to individuals’ preferences. We’re basically all watching Netflix while checking Facebook, with fourteen other tabs open, all the time. 

When attention is fractured, it’s easy to think you have to be the loudest or the flashiest to stand out. It might feel like you need a million-dollar advertising budget or a memorable gimmick to make any headway. You don’t need those things, you just need to center your donors in your marketing.

People are busy, but not ungenerous. They want to do good and make a difference, but they don’t have time to waste. They will naturally sift out anything that doesn’t seem relevant, so your nonprofit marketing has to spell it out for them. You’ll attract donors’ interest by showing them their impact and the difference they make. Show them why they matter and what they can do, and they’ll be interested. 

Gratitude in Nonprofit Marketing

Consider the annual report from Partners in Health, which precedes their donor list. It cuts right to the chase—thanks to the donor, a specific child had access to necessary healthcare. 

Or the Boys & Girls Club of America. They immediately tell supporters how to help, and shows that they’re important in fostering the next generation of leaders in America. Is there an ask? Sure. The final point in the list is  “Support youth development organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs through giving, volunteering, and advocacy.” But they also give four other ways an interested individual can help make a difference. They’re talking just as much about the donor as they are about what Boys & Girls Clubs do. 

Center the donor in your nonprofit marketing by:

  • Directly addressing the donor (“you”) as much as possible
  • Connecting donor action to real-life impact
  • Celebrating the donor’s contributions

Effectively Marketing a Nonprofit Organization Requires Everyone

Even if your nonprofit has marketing or communications staff, you need everyone at your organization on board for effective marketing. Call it a “culture of storytelling,” call it, “educating people about our mission,” but it includes program staff, volunteer management, board members, fundraisers, administration and the person at the front desk. 

You can help include your community in marketing by:

Soliciting Stories

Your program staff is your first stop for impact stories, since they’re the people with the most direct contact with your mission in action. Volunteers are also a great story source. 

Help people understand what kind of stories you’re looking for by providing examples. Without guidance, they may think only the most dramatic stories will interest you. Check-in regularly to see how the work is going, and always make sure you share the finished marketing pieces with them when you use their stories. 

Coaching Storytelling

Your board, administration, and staff will have many opportunities to serve as ambassadors for your organization. This, too, is marketing. Help make the most of these opportunities by providing people with talking points about your mission, while also giving them leeway to add their own stories and personality. 

Share inspirational stories with your ambassadors, so they’ll always have a bank to draw from. Offer to practice talking about the organization with them–it might feel silly at first, but roleplaying is a useful way for advocates to smooth out their storytelling and feel more comfortable marketing your nonprofit organization. 

Interviewing and Featuring 

The people within your organization have their own reasons for being involved, which may resonate powerfully with your audience. Featuring their stories can make your marketing more human, add another perspective for your supporters, and help people feel more connected to your organization.

Consider adding a program staff member profile to your next newsletter. Add a Q&A with a real volunteer to your website. Interview a board member about what brought them to your organization. It will give your supporters a fuller picture of the community they’re a part of. 

Learn More Nonprofit Marketing Strategies

As you can see, nonprofit marketing is a way to build connection, trust and community with your supporters. It’s how you show them they matter and can make a difference in the world. Not a bad thing at all!  To figure out the best ways to get started, check out Smart Marketing Spends for Nonprofits: How to Optimize Your Efforts.

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