Nonprofits often believe that because they don’t sell products, marketing doesn’t need to be a priority. But nonprofits do provide services, and because services are inherently relational, building relationships should be job number one.
That’s what marketing is all about: connecting people. Some individuals (and therefore organizations) feel awkward about self-promotion, but everyone knows that what keeps nonprofits going is the people they serve, the team providing solutions, and the donors and funders that make it possible.
You don’t need a multi-million dollar campaign to have successful marketing. The cash and even the tools that you have on hand is less important than the actions that you commit to taking.
There’s really only nine things you absolutely must have. And you likely have at least a few already. They just may need a little more thought and attention.
Key people. You’ve got people, but have you identified who the key ones are, the decision makers that unlock more outcomes, more possibilities? They could be policymakers, educators, healthcare providers, farmers, etc. Once you understand these folks deeply (what they care about, what makes them tick, etc.), you’ll not only reach them more successfully, but your work will have deeper impact.
Targeted messages. You might already have a tagline, or a paragraph about your organization that took months for your board to agree on. What you need, however, are messages that appeal specifically to your key people and that distinguish you from all the noise in their lives. For example, if you currently say “We empower youth to achieve academic success” but you are trying to reach school administrators to implement your programs, a more effective message might be “We equip schools to foster achievement.”
Stories of impact. These are what give your message credibility. Perhaps it’s data you’ve gathered about how mothers receiving your services benefit, or perhaps it’s quotes from social workers about how your program was a game changer for their clients. For more about using stories, read this blog.
Distinct style. Most nonprofits don’t have a designer on staff, but that is no reason to forego having visual standards for the materials you are sharing. (For you skeptics, think about how confused you’d be if you saw the logo of your favorite clothing brand or restaurant in different colors.) Consistency matters. It gives others the sense that you are serious about what you do, that you are trustworthy. Take the time to train staff to use the same fonts, colors, and formats when creating letters, fliers, etc.
High-functioning website. You want people to be able to find out about your mission easily. You don’t need a flashy, expensive website with lots of bells and whistles, but you do need one that, again, puts your key people first. Can they visit your homepage and instantly know where to go to find what they’re looking for? (If you don’t know what they’re looking for, go back to #1.) Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, so keep the number of pages and the amount of text to a minimum.
Social presence. As with everything else, what this looks like should align with your key people. If you’re targeting teenagers, get on Snapchat. H.R. professionals? LinkedIn. Neighborhood restaurants? Block party. Researchers? Academic conferences. No matter how you do it, sharing your organization’s messages and stories (and driving folks to your website) needs to be part of the everyday activities of your organization.
Active email list. When folks go to your website, encourage them to take action before they navigate elsewhere. Asking them to attend an upcoming event or donate money may be too big of an ask for a stranger, so give them a chance to get to know you better by inviting them to get regular emails from your organization. Your emails will not only let them know of future opportunities to get involved, but will also continue to showcase why they should. Never add folks to your list without their permission, always provide them a way to unsubscribe, and periodically remove inactive addresses. Quality over quantity.
Press contacts. This may take the most time of all, so the sooner you begin the better. If you really want your community to know that there’s an organization like yours addressing the very real problems that they hear about every day, then make it a priority to get yours talked about in a major news outlet. (By the way, these outlets will be looking for many of the pieces listed above when they assess whether yours is worth mentioning or talking about.) Read, watch, and listen to the outlets that your key people do and find out which writers, reporters, and editors cover stories about the issues you are working on. Reach out to these individuals when there is a current event that is relevant. If they don’t express interest immediately, keep trying as this type of opportunity is all about timing.
Goals, priorities, and measurements. Although this one is listed last, it may be the most important. Without a goal like proposing a ballot issue, you may never have a reason to gather stories or engage press. If creating a visual brand, website, or social presence isn’t a priority, it will never happen. And if you don’t track your progress, you won’t understand if your efforts are paying off and if you are having the success you seek.
Nonprofits like yours are doing some of the most important work that there is to do. If you are overwhelmed by what it takes to do this work, remember how overwhelmed your community feels just knowing there’s work to be done. They need your message, your stories, your presence. The hope that you can provide will be worth the effort it takes to share it.
If you are feeling like marketing is just too much to add to your plate, ask for help. Again, it doesn’t have to take a ton of money or new software, but it does require willingness to ask questions that don’t always have simple answers.
If you have such a question now, I would be delighted to answer it in an advice column that I will be writing on the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network - Denver blog. Send your frustrations, challenges, and curiosities about nonprofit marketing and communications to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond for the benefit of many! (There are no silly questions and you will remain anonymous, of course.)