non profit marketing toolboxWhen it comes to developing a nonprofit marketing strategy, I beg you to think outside the greens. The golf greens.

It’s charity golf season and according to CTGolfer.com these events happen almost daily from now through October. And, while I have nothing against this form of entertainment and frustration, my experience in nonprofit marketing tells me they are ineffective when it comes to improving the overall financial health of a nonprofit. They also do little to broaden public understanding of a nonprofit’s mission.

So what can a nonprofit do to raise awareness, bring in financial support, build an engaged volunteer force and showcase the issues they stand for? And how do they do it on their traditionally limited budgets?

Here are five tips based on our 30+ years of developing nonprofit marketing strategies.

Build and Preach Your Brand

Many times when we start working with nonprofits they assume everyone knows who they are and why they should care. I call it the “Big Brown Eyes Syndrome.” It sounds like this: “Our cause is right and just and true and anyone with a heart should care about it.” If the current political season has taught us nothing, let’s acknowledge that “right and just and true” isn’t resonating. It’s a fantasy. A lovely fantasy. But a fantasy all the same.

Do NOT assume everyone knows and loves you. Even your most ardent supporters probably have their own narrow view of who you are. Your brand needs to be more than that. It needs to encompass what’s important to the people you serve; the unique value you bring to the universe and the differentiating reason you exist. “A brand is who you are in someone else’s terms” to quote the North Carolina Center for Non-profits. That means it needs to speak to the needs of those you serve in a language they understand.

So, before investing one moment, one dollar, one brain cell in developing a marketing strategy for your nonprofit, I beg you to know and understand the unique value you bring to those you serve. That’s your brand. That’s the message that will form the core of your marketing strategy and the key messages you’ll deliver. Know who you are before you try to convince others to support you.

Identify and Understand Your Target Audiences

Each of the groups you need to impact wants and needs different things from you. Your clients may want independence, help, support, understanding or the ability to change. Those who care about them may want the comfort of knowing they aren’t alone in providing the best for those they love. Volunteers want the satisfaction of knowing their time and dedication are making a difference and donors want to know their dollars are being spent well. So how do you create a marketing plan that satisfies these diverse needs? By going back to the essential reason you exist; the one that’s embodied by your brand.

Create and Disseminate Key Messages

Now that you know who you are (your brand) and what your target audiences want from you, it’s time to develop key messages that you’ll deliver through all of your communication tactics. Key messages are like the branches of a tree. Once you establish them, you hang everything off of them. Key messages speak to what people want from you and how you can deliver it. No matter how noble the mission, if an organization is not telling its story consistently and strategically, it will fall on deaf ears.

Use Earned Media – It Still Works

While social media is the latest shiny object, it’s not THE answer to all of your communications challenges. It’s one answer. Traditional media – TV, radio and print – still have credibility and sway. In a 2014 survey by InkHouse and GMI, social media ranked as the fifth most preferred news sources, after TV, online news, print news and radio. I would also add that community news, in both print and online (like Patch.com) are terrific ways for nonprofits to get their messages out. People still read their hometown papers. Why do you think The Hartford Courant recently reintroduced a Community News sections? If it’s local it’s interesting. If you’re in there, you must be interesting too. Use traditional media’s credibility to shine a light on what you do.

And how do you do that? Let me start by saying this to every cause-loving person: your organization’s goodness is not self-evident. Nor does it make everything you do newsworthy. Self-serving releases (“The Good Two Shoes Agency announces that we have a new exercise machine for those suffering from…) is NOT worthy of a front-page story. Or any story. Before you send out one more “Ain’t We Good? Ain’t We Grand?” press release, remember the sign that hung in every old-fashioned newsroom: SO WHAT? If the editor or reporter who gets your press release is left with that question, they won’t use the story. Why should they? You haven’t told them why it’s newsworthy.

Make Your Website Your Communications Hub

Websites and social media give nonprofits the ability to be their own broadcasters. Use them well. Use them wisely. That means keeping in mind the SO WHAT sign in everything you post.

Think of your website as your owned-media hub. Driving traffic to it should be the goal of every communications tactic you use. Why? Because that’s where you can say what you want, inspire people with what you do and move them to action.

As long as you remember what they want from you. That means putting up content that addresses the reasons people come to your site. If you’re an addiction recovery agency, the person coming to your site is probably there because addiction is causing pain – for them or for those who care about them. Telling them that you were founded in 1982 by a doctor who came over from England doesn’t get them any closer to solving their problem through you. Content that tells your website visitor that your approach is based on understanding their addiction and developing a unique plan to battle it makes them think, “I’ve come to the right place.” See the difference? Content in the first example is all about you. Content in the second is all about the person searching on your site.

A key component to drive people to your site is your blog. Here’s where you get to show off just how much you know and how much you care.

  • Make it the responsibility of one person in your organization to find and comment on issues that relate to your area of expertise.
  • Look for contemporary sources of information to fuel content ideas for your blog.
  • Fill your posts with key search terms that people use to find that information.
  • Do frequent posts that demonstrate just how engaged you are in these issues. These pieces don’t have to be long. Two or three paragraphs will do the trick. It’s better to blog frequently than to blog loquaciously (yes, yes, I know this post violates this rule, but forgive me this excess. I want so much to tell you all there is!). And don’t forget to include links to any material you used for inspiration. It’s great for SEO, while giving you the ability to give credit to those who created it (which you should!).

Once you’ve posted that blog, push it on your social media with an intriguing tidbit from the post. Don’t try to be on all platforms. Choose the social media your target audience participates in. Want to reach Boomers? That’s Facebook and LinkedIn. Want to reach Millennials? That’s Instagram and Snapchat.

Use Social Media To Engage

Employ social media to involve the people who care about your issues and to inspire them to action. And like the rest of your content, make it about the topic; not about you. Before you post anything ask yourself, “Would I pass this along to a friend? Would reading it make a difference? Or am I just using the platform to toot my own horn?” So, instead of a Facebook post that says, “Look at us. We were on NBC-CT last night” how about “Want to know how to shop at a Farmers’ Market and get more from your money? Check out this segment on NBC-CT.” There you go. News you can use. That’s what I’m talking about.

And remember, social media is a conversation. Don’t use press release language to “address the troops.” Instead, use a casual tone that invites conversation.

And Now Back to the Greens…

The point of this extra-long post is that nonprofit marketing must be about building year-round support and understanding for your very-worthy cause. It needs to go beyond a once-a-year golf tournament.

This may be the (golf tournament) season, but ask yourself, “What’s the reason?” Then use all the energy that goes into planning your annual charity golf tournament to create a year-round marketing strategy; one that contributes to the ultimate health of your organization.

And isn’t that the best way to help you do the good you want to do?

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this appeared in the July 5, 2016 Hartford Business Journal and The Nonprofit Marketing Daily 

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