The Most Common Misconceptions in Nonprofit Marketing

I’m inspired by nonprofit organizations and am proud to live in a city that’s home to some of the most respected nonprofits in the country, addressing society’s most pressing issues like public health service, cancer, poverty and education. Since Bo and Glen founded Jackson Spalding in 1995 (of the PR firms in Atlanta at that time, the first to be founded here) the agency has maintained our mission to advance clients and communities through “great work and good works.” It’s what attracted me to a marketing job at JS a decade ago and what inspired me to formalize a corporate social responsibility (CSR) and nonprofit marketing practice here.

I’ve been asked what the difference is in marketing for a nonprofit organization and marketing for a business, and on the surface, it’s very similar. The communication principles that shape your marketing strategy, and the tactics used to implement it, are the same for the most part. It’s what you’re marketing that’s different. You’re often “selling” intangibles – emotion, behavior change, giving. The key audience consideration “what’s in it for me?” becomes “what’s in it for others?”

Those differences can often present unique challenges to nonprofits and companies partnering with nonprofits to address societal issues. Finding new ideas to help our clients overcome marketing challenges is why I applied to our PROI Worldwide exchange program to visit C+C, a partner agency in Seattle that specializes in social marketing. While we traded many best practices, these are the seven biggest (and easiest!) obstacles to overcome to be a better nonprofit marketing professional.

1. You are not your audience

Julie Colehour at C+C told me that one of the most common obstacles she uncovers when beginning work on a behavior change marketing campaign is teams think their target audience is like them and make assumptions based on their own experiences. But what motivates you may not resonate at all with your actual audience. If you don’t nail your audience’s motivations, no marketing tactics you implement will be successful. I love working with nonprofits because their people approach their work with passion and sense of purpose. But it’s easy to forget your audience likely isn’t as passionate as you and is certainly not as well-versed. This is why engaging a communications agency can be so helpful; we can look at things with an unbiased, fresh perspective.

2. “Everyone” is not your audience

So we know you are not your audience, but neither is “everyone.” I see this often:

ME: “So who are you trying to reach?”

NFP CLIENT: “Well, everyone. This is extremely important and everyone needs to know this. Everyone should want to donate to this. It’s in their best interest to give and help this cause!”

I agree! Most of time, the issues nonprofits are tackling are issues that affect huge populations of people. However, unless you have a marketing budget comparable to a FORTUNE 50 company, you may need to narrow the focus. For starters, research your current audience to understand who your current volunteers and donors are. What motivated them when they were skeptics? Secure your base first. Keep them engaged.

Now, of course you know you need to expand your fundraising web beyond those currently giving in order to propel your organization forward. What other audiences might be most easily influenced to join your cause? When your marketing budget is tight, it’s tempting to skip audience research. Please don’t! Research doesn’t have to be elaborate and expensive. But if you skip it all together, you’re at risk of wasting a lot of time and money on everything you do next. Honing in on your target audience is the best way to be efficient and effective with your marketing.

3. Storytelling is not bragging

The biggest strengths of those working at or partnering with nonprofit organizations can also be their biggest weaknesses. I am talking about earnestness and authenticity. They genuinely don’t want to be in the spotlight lest they overshadow their cause. That’s a valid concern, and it’s why you make your cause the lead star of your story and make your organization the supporting actor. When done this way, telling your story and your successes is not bragging. You are advancing your organization’s mission when you excite others, and it gives your supporters (and potential supporters) an opportunity to be a part of your work.

Your brand should look good, too; some nonprofits worry they’ll look too slick and give the sense that they overspend on non-mission related expenses. Significant donors (foundations, philanthropists, corporations, etc.) understand the importance of marketing. They want a level of comfort in knowing that you know what you’re doing. They want to affiliate with success and impact. As Glen Jackson notes in his seven pillars of preeminence, pre-eminent organizations understand that part of a brand ambassador’s role is telling stories clearly and effectively to demonstrate brand identity. They create a retelling ripple effect through those who hear the stories and, in turn, tell these stories to others.

4. Don’t play it safe

Bryan Cohen at C+C thinks big – constantly – and has no interest in “safe” ideas. C+C’s awesome bomb is their approach to getting organizations to the edge of their comfort zones to create effective, memorable influencer campaigns, marketing campaigns or PR campaigns. Does the plan make you nervous? If it doesn’t, you are leaving opportunity and potential in your pocket. It took me some time to get comfortable with this way of thinking. In my experience, nonprofits tend to be more risk-averse than corporations. After all, you want to be good stewards with your donors’ dollars and don’t want to invest in something that may fail. However, in a time of nonprofit proliferation, it’s more important than ever to distinguish your organization through unique, effective marketing – which means finding new “awesome bomb” approaches to your storytelling. Do you think the Ice Bucket Challenge had skeptics? I am sure it did. “What does ice water have to do with ALS?” some may have asked in marketing meetings. Nothing. And everything.

5. Measure impact not output

So what have you accomplished? How have lives improved? What’s the data? We live the “output” (aka, the work), but savvy donors want to know the work yields results. In the book Measuring and Improving Social Impacts, the authors explain how business leaders, donors and investors want the same accountability and performance excellence that they expect in the for-profit world. They want to understand the objectives, the paths to success, and measures of success – to see evidence that they’re making a difference. One organization they use as an example in the book is KaBOOM!, a nonprofit that JS clients have partnered with to build playgrounds in “play deserts.” KaBOOM!’s output is playgrounds and the impact is healthier kids and communities. Donors don’t care about how many playgrounds have been built – they want to know how communities have improved because of those playgrounds.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask for the money

Gosh it’s tough asking people for money. I know. I’ve done it, too – and struggled with it early on. But this isn’t a job communication teams can leave for their friends in the development department to do alone. Fundraising is only successful when it’s paired with a strong story. Make your case to the right audience in the right way, and close with asking for their help and donation. Build excitement with potential donors by painting a clear picture of how their gifts will advance the mission and improve lives. Cite real examples. Make it simple. Make it tangible.

7. Take a long-term approach to donor education

It’s not uncommon to hear development teams and programming teams have philosophical disagreements when it comes to donor dollars. This scenario may sound familiar:

The development team shares the exciting news that a philanthropist or corporation has made their first big donation to your organization. While the new donor’s requests for the use of their money generally matches your organization’s overall mission, it doesn’t 100% align with your priorities at the time. The programming team pushes back because they want to put the dollars to something more specific or turn it down altogether if it can’t be reallocated.

This is where your communications team can help! Get your donors engaged by connecting with them where they are and then use storytelling to educate them over the long term so your priorities become their priorities. Once you’ve proven you’re good stewards of their dollars, donors will be more open to how you recommend they designate their funds – not to mention give more! Relationships are built over time. Keep at it. Be resilient. Tweak messaging if you uncover new insights that would make your communications more effective.

OK, so I know I said these are the easiest things to change to be better in your nonprofit marketing job. What I didn’t say is that these are all things that may push you out well out of a comfort zone. With so many things in life and in work that are out of your control, I encourage you to be motivated by this post and see these things as aspects you can grab ahold of and use to put rocket fuel in your communications engine. Like I mentioned earlier, you doing what you do inspires me to be better at what I do. The world needs you.