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Not Just for Madison Avenue: The Basics of Nonprofit Marketing

When the topic of "marketing" arises in a conversation, it's always interesting to hear the numerous perceptions tied to this rather straightforward concept. The full spectrum of responses includes advertising, word-of-mouth, fluff, and my personal favorite—selling you something you don't need! I believe the problem with understanding marketing lies in the over-commercialization of the term, which ignores business acumen, strategy, and execution.

According to the American Marketing Association, "Marketing is the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational objectives." Sound simple enough?

Unfortunately, there is no marketing equivalent of accountants' Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) or manufacturing managers' First In, First Out (IFO) or Last In, First Out (LIFO) for inventory valuation. The following discussion is intended to help senior nonprofit managers evaluate and realign specific facets of their approach to marketing.

Every nonprofit has goals or objectives. In the process of reaching those goals, the organization needs financial supporters (donors) who hear its message and want to be part of its journey. Organizations then apply traditional marketing methods to reach those donors.

Think Like Your Donors

Most organizations try to reach donors through traditional promotional venues. For example, to increase donor gifts by 10 percent, nonprofit managers rush to mainstream media (radio, billboard, newsletters, and telemarketing). This unidirectional approach, sometimes called "insider mentality," delivers a stream of messages from the organization to the public. Without understanding the audience's current circumstances, however, the media used may not be suitable.

When generating a marketing plan, start with your donor base and work your way back to your organization. This exercise will unveil the most direct and meaningful approach to achieving your objective and may save you time, energy, and valuable resources. If donors are truly integral to your cause, understanding what's important to them will help shape your marketing plan.

Identify and Embrace What You Do Best

Identifying your organization's "value proposition" accomplishes two strategic objectives: it defines what your organization can do better than anyone else, and it delineates why what you do is important to donors. Your mission/vision statement is your value proposition; if it is not clear on these points, how can the rest of your organization and your donor base be clear about them?

For your marketing plan to be successful, your entire organization must be compelled by your mission and use it as a rallying cry each day.

Find Out if Perception Matches Reality

Noted marketing expert Al Ries said it best: "Perceptions, not products" (or services). Nonprofits often overlook this critical point, or they acknowledge it in the planning process, then set it aside.

One organization I researched had a lingering problem: the public's perception of its activities didn't match what it actually did. Although the nonprofit's mission, philosophy, and business plans reflected one set of attributes, the perception unveiled in donor surveys revealed a very different picture.

Does your organization suffer from this problem? Try this exercise: Approach two or more of your senior managers and ask them to define in one sentence what you do better than anyone else and why that's important. If you get an array of divergent responses, it's time to realign your mission statement, infuse those beliefs into the organization, and publicize them to the world at large.

Take Advantage of Public Relations

Public relations is the most widely ignored marketing tool. Great companies such as Starbucks and The Body Shop were built on public relations; they only used advertising later on to support or update their messages. If scarce monetary resources is one of your nonprofit's toughest dilemmas, let marketing public relations provide a venue to achieve your goals at minimal expense.

Most organizations publicize their efforts through volunteers or friends who can place an occasional story in the local paper or a regional magazine. You can stick with traditional media or target the places where your targeted donors work and play.

The sheer number of free placements available in highly segmented forums is astounding. Numerous Internet portals deal with nonprofit issues and seek a continuous stream of input to support their sites. In addition to the obvious regional and local papers, a variety of niche publications will gladly give you space to tout your message. Also, third-party editorials, according to Theodore Levitt of the Harvard Business School, are the most credible messages.

Develop a Clear and Consistent Message

When you hear the phrase "Overnight Package Delivery," does Fed Ex come to mind? Does "the Ultimate Driving Machine" make you think of BMW? How about "Just Do It?" Try Nike.

What is your organization's message? Every aspect of your communications, both visual and intangible, should specifically point to that mantra. Does your collateral material—i.e., brochures and handouts—mirror what you do?

The human mind can only attach one specific meaning or feeling to an item. Although the overall perception of that item represents a culmination of all of its attributes, we really only remember one distinct thing.

Simply put, every message you produce (business cards, newsletters, Web site, etc.) culminates into a single image for your organization. Each additional layer of messages you generate are either acknowledged or disregarded by the donor based on your original pronouncement. Be mindful of the context and character your organization delivers. Is your message clear and compelling?

Let's start with your logo and byline (sometimes called a "tag line"). A byline should be both emotional and descriptive. Going back to our BMW example, "ultimate" is an emotional aspect and "driving machine" is the descriptor. Does your byline capture the essence of your organization? Does it instantly tell the potential donor who you are and what your purpose is?

The by-products of your messaging should be passion and action. Most messages are directed at attributes and correlate cause to effect. This approach lacks inspiration and polarizes the recipient. Does your message invoke passion and action?


This essay addressed several key aspects of nonprofit marketing. A plan should center on customer circumstances and use a unique value proposition, public relations, and appropriate messaging to capture donors' hearts and minds. A consistent and pervasive message should emanate from every facet of your organization. In addition, all messaging should inspire your donors to join the journey toward your organization's goals.

Bill Nissim, November 2004
© 2003, 2004, Bill Nissim

Bill Nissim consults with nonprofit organizations on brand management issues. His Web site,, contains reference materials, links, and helpful articles on the many facets of branding. His article on nonprofit branding appeared in last month's Newsletter.
Topics: Nonprofit Programs Communications Marketing Plan