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What happens when nonprofit meets marketing?

The world of marketing is a completely different world than nonprofits. It is not structured to support nonprofit goals. It was designed for the business world. So, when nonprofit meets marketing, it’s no wonder that some unique challenges emerge....

A passion for mission-driven work got me into this space, so I learned the world of nonprofits first. A few years later, when I began to thoroughly immerse myself in marketing, I began to realize that not only was the world of marketing a completely different world than nonprofits, it was not exactly structured to support nonprofit goals. It was designed for the business world.

So, when nonprofit meets marketing, it’s no wonder that some unique challenges emerge….

1. Marketing gets lumped in with fundraising, limiting its potential to further the mission.

A wise consultant in this space, Zach Hochstadt of Mission Minded, once said at a training:

“One way you can tell if a nonprofit values marketing is if there is a Marketing Director at the same level of seniority as the Development Director.”

So often, we see marketing as fundraising’s less important younger sibling. There’s nothing wrong with using marketing to support fundraising, but this mindset limits nonprofits’ potential for impactful marketing. When marketing is housed in fundraising, other departments (programs) don’t have equitable access to marketing resources. Besides a fundraising tool, marketing can build awareness, support program recruitment, and create two-way communication channels with the communities nonprofits serve.

​2. Marketing is added to the already overflowing workload of an employee or volunteer with limited marketing experience.

“Let’s have the volunteer run our social media.”

We’ve heard it a thousand times. What many nonprofit leaders don’t realize is that marketing is a concrete skill set requiring an extensive knowledge base. Marketing is an area of expertise. Social media is an area of expertise. Being young is not a valid prerequisite for being “good” at social media, and being older does not discount professionals from having that skill set. If you are hiring at the entry-level for your marketing role, it’s your job to set that person up for success, by making sure they have access to the training, mentorship, and resources needed for effective marketing. Especially if they’re a volunteer.

3. Organizations don’t allocate the resources they need for effective marketing.

A marketing staff with a healthy budget has more potential to thrive than a marketing staff that is spending time researching free software solutions. Many tools can increase your marketing’s efficiency, help you evaluate the effectiveness of your marketing, and ensure your marketing stays on brand. Many are free. However, some require investment on your part. Some tools to consider dedicating dollars to include:

  • Posting software

  • Design software

  • Email software

  • Survey software

  • A CRM (Constituent Relationship Management System)

  • Paid digital advertising

  • Professional printing

  • Branded photography

  • Stock assets

  • Video

4. Stories become commodified, creating risk for exploitative storytelling practices that contradict organizations’ values.

​We’ve all met the development director that has the rule of thumb: impact story in every communication touchpoint. It comes from a good place, the idea that people connect emotionally with stories, and there’s a lot of research that backs this up. However, this strategy gets our Communications Specialist scrambling to find program participants who are willing to tell their stories. And it gets donors used to hearing about how their dollars are helping.

The problem is the way we tell stories often casts our donors as the hero and our stakeholders as victims in need of saving. This practice actively harms folks nonprofits serve.

Telling stories can be retraumatizing, getting consent from clients can be ambiguous when the nonprofit is in a position of power, and often short-form stories lose their impact. We need to reimagine the way we tell our stories.

​5. When a marketing expert comes on board, they often don’t speak “nonprofit” and the nonprofit doesn’t speak “marketing.”

Nonprofits and marketing, I have found, speak two different languages.

Thus, when you bring a marketing professional on board they must know how to translate marketing jargon to plain English (so you can understand), and nonprofit jargon into words that resonate with your community and donors.

6. Marketing becomes chaotic, with no real strategy or goals to back it up.

A talented Communications professional introduced me to the concept of “Pizza Order Communications.” Does this sound familiar?

  • A program manager asks for a tweet about recent impact numbers.

  • The executive director asks for a partner-facing email.

  • The volunteer coordinator asks for an Instagram story depicting a group volunteer day.

All great ideas, but none have an underlying strategy. Without a strategy, it is impossible to learn what works best for your organization, measure your success, and align your marketing to your organization’s strategic goals.

The antidotes

The good news is that there are antidotes to all of these challenges and Catharsis is here to guide you through your options. Did any of these resonate with you? If the answer is yes, schedule a time to chat. It will at least be cathartic and at best be the beginning of a beautiful paradigm shift at your nonprofit.


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