Your nonprofit is definitely underfunded in one core area—here’s what to do about it

Your nonprofit is definitely underfunded in one core area—here’s what to do about it

It’s become clear that marketing communication has changed, but many organizations haven’t changed their thinking about funding and how to achieve their missions—and that’s a mistake.

“Marketing “may be the activity, but the word “communication” is more common in the nonprofit world; nonprofits hire a “communications director” not a “marketing director.” Regardless of the words we use, what’s important is what it takes to communicate, connect, and engage the audience you are trying to reach with the work you do so you can live your mission every day.

So what are you missing? The environment all organizations operate in has changed. Now the thinking about marketing communications needs to change with it.

Redefine how you see marketing

I think people often see “marketing” as selling, but for me “marketing” is about communication, connection, and engagement. It’s key to the health of all mission-driven organizations, and investing in it can mean having the resources you need to achieve your mission.

Technology can help us with the connections we want to make, but without proper investments, you could miss the next wave of Internet marketing strategy. It’s important to take the long view—in time, the next generation of 50+-year-old donors will not only be tech-savvy, but mobile devices will be their interface to your organization’s communication. The current divide between the more print-focused, older donors and the more digitally focused younger donors will disappear. Most nonprofits see this when they look at what devices people use to view their marketing communications right now. Don’t believe me? If you have an e-newsletter, look up what device people use most often to view it. What percentage is mobile vs. computer?

Are you setting yourself up for success now?

Communication, connection, and engagement in the digital age

Communication, connection, and engagement in the digital age

The options and channels for communication have exploded, and it looks like they will continue to grow. People want to connect to the work your organization does, and technology allows them to do that—when and how they want. Smart phones allows us to have that access 24/7—in fact, according to ExactTarget, 90% of smartphone owners access the same email account on their mobile and desktop devices.

Achieving your mission takes community and technology, and investing in communication will play a key role in your success. The good news is the way we use the Internet now will help you with that, but only if you understand what this iteration is and have a focused plan to take it on.

The first iteration of the Internet was information and access, the second was social and connection, and now we are moving into the realm of the personal and collaborative economy. As technology gets better at delivering information that truly resonates (based on the interests, behaviors, and location of the audience), organizations must increasingly have focused communication, positioning, and strategy. Plus a standout simple visual identity.

As the Internet moves into the realm of the more personal (let’s call it “what matter to me” content), the question is: will the new technology that delivers it to the audience you want have the information it needs from your organization to make those connections?

A few key components will help you get noticed: great expert content that’s delivered on a regular basis; a blog that lives on your website (not on a separate page); an active and engaged social community; and a killer website that looks great on the device the person is using: whether it be a computer, a laptop, a tablet, or a mobile device.

responsive websites

Your website needs to be set up using responsive design that allows you to connect effectively to your audience on whatever device they’re using. And you need to think about all of your messages and visual identity on a mobile device first, not second.

The key to success is how clear and focused the position of your organization is, and that requires a strong content strategy. The better you are at establishing a leading voice in your sector, the better your chances of utilizing existing and developing technology to connect to the right people.

The solution is a clear, simple communications strategy. Less is more: the more you focus on one thing, the stronger the connections are for your audience and the more likely that they will be driven to your work. When your message is viewed on a mobile phone this all becomes clearer: the small screen means that the only chance you have for success is simple, clear messages and strong identity design.

Investing in communication requires taking the long view

Investing in communication requires taking the long view

I know that in the past investing in marketing communications has not been a top priority for nonprofits or funders, but that has to change. Sometimes it’s good to look at the business world to get a pulse: the researchers at Gartner, Inc. have predicted that chief marketing officers will spend more money on IT than chief information officers by 2017.

Let that sink in a minute: the top cost of technology in the business sector will no longer be IT—it will be marketing.

Outdated thinking needs to change regarding prioritizing both the value of and investment in marketing communications.

Building blocks of your brand: what you need to invest in

If I almost lost you by using the word “brand,” remember that your brand is whatever comes to mind with someone hears the name of your organization. Investing and managing it is required—it’s no longer an option. The great news is it’s worth it because it helps you achieve your mission.

In short, follow these 10 steps:

  1. Invest in organizational strategy. Without a clear strategic plan that lays out simple priorities and how to achieve them, no effective communication or identity expression can take place. You should also identify the proper staff mix for the work you do.
  2. Invest in communication and development staff. We all know that without great staff, the work does not get done. Aim for a development director, a communications director, a community manager, and support staff. You can get interns as support if your strategy is sound. I know that is more staff than most organizations have now, but that needs to change. It really is what it takes to do this very important work in the digital age. Build what you can, but know the pressure is on this group to lead you to success.
  3. Invest in technology. In order to approach technology effectively, you need to have a clear understanding of your needs and the processes that work within your organization. The other key for thinking long-term is understanding what platform will give you the best choices as an organization. Open platforms means other developers can develop solutions or apps on that platform. Many people may be familiar with Blackbaud, which is built on the NetCommunity open platform but maybe Salesforce is less familiar to those of you in the nonprofit space. Salesforce is the leading for-profit CRM tool and built on the open platform. One reason to pay attention to Salesforce is that it’s mobile-enabled, and they are the largest platform. All of their latest acquisitions have been marketing companies. Once they have integrated these marketing tools into their platform, it has the potential to be an amazing solution for nonprofits (plus, nonprofits get a huge discount!)
  4. Invest in a strategic marketing plan. This is where strategy meets design. If you are bringing a new concept to life or if you need to achieve new relevance in your market, make sure your plan includes content strategy.
  5. Invest in a brand identity. Your identity is the visual expression of your brand, and the cornerstone of all communications. Only work with design firms who connect strategy to design. Design is distillation, and if the distillation does not come from your strategy you could end up with a visual expression that will not effectually deliver on your mission, connect to your target audiences, and allow you to stand out.
  6. Invest in the expression of your brand. This can take many forms: your website, email communication, donor cultivation pieces, blog, fundraising materials—even your annual report. These elements should come from your strategic marketing plan; they should also be based on what you can effectually manage, and factor in what is needed to achieve your goals.
  7. Invest in the content. Great content takes time. You need to give your staff time to write expert content; it is key to connection and success in the connected age.
  8. Invest in strong story-telling devices. Images and videos are key to powerful communication. Make sure you have an image library to work from and that you tell great stories in video.
  9. Invest in creating and managing your social communities. This is where a strong community manager comes into play. You have many online and offline communities that you need to help create, nurture, and manage. Social media means you need to be social, and that means you need people doing that work. It also means rewarding your top influencers—they are like employees that work for free by connecting people to your mission is ways you may never knew were possible. Give these top influencers expert data and information, help them grow in their knowledge in any way you can. Once you know who your top influencers are build a relationship with them and work together on spreading your expert point of view. Invite them to share their expert opinion—share your stage with them. Provide advanced information of data when you can, and give them time to form their opinion. Put them on a “HOT” list, and share any breaking news or important changes that take place in your organization.
  10. Invest in managing, monitoring and listening to all social communities. Monitoring is more important now than ever. It’s where you find your insights and see what is resonating where. With the right tools, we can manage and monitor social media like never before.

Funders and donors please take note:

Your investments need to include a much stronger communications and engagement approach, and focus beyond organizational strategy.


Get your funders to understand what the digital age means and how it connects to the purpose, aim, and goals of your organization. Taking the long view means understanding the current environment and making smart investments in marketing communication to achieve the engagement required to achieve your mission.

Together, we can do it!