On June 28th I have the honor of presenting a plenary session to the Kids in Need Foundation’s (KINF) national meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. KINF’s mission is to ensure that every child is prepared to learn and succeed by providing free school supplies nationally to students most in need. They stay very busy, for obvious reasons. The topic of the plenary session, marketing for nonprofits, is one that can be overlooked by nonprofit organizations struggling to get through the day on smaller budgets, with less staff and increased demand for services.

The economy has made it hard for all of us. But especially hard for the nonprofit sector, who are struggling to stay afloat in a severe and competitive world. In 2014, the NonProfit Times reported that approximately 1.44 million nonprofits registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2012. 

image of color painted child handsDemand for services is increasing as is the competition for funding and other resources. Maintaining strong relationships with donors, volunteers, and other stakeholders is essential. Developing and fostering new relationships is vital. Getting and holding your stakeholders’ attention in today’s chaotic and fast-paced world can be difficult for underfunded and understaffed nonprofit organizations.

Enter marketing. 

According to the American Marketing Association (AMA), Marketing is defined as the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.  A vital function for any business or nonprofit organization. For every nonprofit that understands and employs marketing strategy effectively, there are many who do not and who would not even know where to start.

Is your organization marketing to your stakeholders and potential donors?

Nonprofits and charitable organizations are becoming much more entrepreneurial, learning lessons from the private sector about how to operate more efficiently and do more with less by adopting marketing techniques to enhance their fundraising efforts or even starting their own small businesses to help generate income to fund social programs.

Marketing Planning

image of kids learningAs a nonprofit, your marketing plan should include elements from strategic planning, public relations, fundraising, community relations, branding, media relations and social media. Your marketing plan should be approved by your board and serve as a tool and resource throughout the year. A written marketing plan helps you achieve your organizational goals, increases the likelihood that marketing will not be overlooked and assists staff and volunteers in staying on task. According to a survey conducted by the Nonprofit Marketing Guide in 2012, only one-quarter of nonprofits (24%) have a written and approved marketing plan in place for 2012.

The type of marketing plan you write, and the level of complexity and detail it contains, will vary depending on your organization’s culture, the direction provided by your board and what you hope to accomplish. Here are some of the elements you will need to include in the planning process:

Strategic Planning

The strategic plan describes the vision of your organization’s future and outlines the steps you will need to take to bring that vision into reality. Your marketing plan should be designed to help you achieve the goals and objectives detailed in your strategic planning.

Public Relations

Public relations programs are vital for building trust and credibility with your stakeholders and other target audiences. Public relations programs are valuable for many things including promoting fundraising campaigns, generating much-needed publicity and in crisis management.


Every nonprofit needs financial supporters (donors). Your donors and prospective donors will be one of your target audiences, and you will benefit from looking at your organization through their eyes. Your marketing plan must include strategies and tactics to stay in front of your existing donor base and to build new connections with prospective donors and funding sources.

Community Relations

Your organization serves many different communities. These can include your clients, volunteers, funding sources, public officials, other nonprofits, potential donors, and media. Your community relations programs can (and should) utilize traditional channels of communication as well as social media tools and social networking.


Strategic branding can drive long-term goals for your organization. Traditionally branding has been considered a tool for fundraising and communication but is more and more being used as an integral part of the organization, anchored in its mission and values. According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “…a growing number (of nonprofits) are moving beyond that approach to explore the wider, strategic roles that brands can play: driving broad, long-term social goals while strengthening internal identity, cohesion, and capacity.”

Social Media

Social media offers the nonprofit sector a powerful set of tools for communicating with stakeholders and potential donors. Nonprofits are flocking to social media, and many are using the tools creatively and well. Social media for nonprofits can make sense. But, like all other channels of communication, using social media effectively and strategically takes time and planning.

So Where Do You Start?

image of school girlStart by reviewing the basics. Ask and answer the following questions:

Who does your organization serve and who are your donors?

Look at your organization through their eyes and communicate with them using language that will resonate. Do you know how they perceive you? Perception is half the battle, and you want to be certain their perception of your organization is in line with your mission and stated values.

Who, within your organization, will help execute the plan? Who supports the marketing plan and its initiatives and who may resist them? Who can you call on for help in creating the messaging, the print pieces, the email blasts, the social network updates? Do you have the staff or will you be able to outsource to an agency or consultant? Will you need to entrust some of this to your long term volunteers or board members?

What goals and objectives do you want your marketing to help achieve?

Is your primary objective to increase your donor base or the number of financial contributions? Are you introducing new programs and services? Do you need to build out your volunteer community? Pull your goals and objectives from your strategic plan and make sure that what you are trying to accomplish is specific and measurable.

Where will you find the people you need to market to?

Who is your audience? Depending on who they are, you may find them online, or you may find them reading a newspaper or taking a phone call. While the world is going online and using social media, don’t overlook the traditional offline channels of communication because they can be remarkably effective–especially if they resonate with your audiences.

Why will they notice you?

Why will your target audiences notice you? What can you do to get and hold their attention? In today’s uber-connected but chaotic world we are inundated with marketing messages and breaking through that noise is challenging. This is where knowing your audience (and understanding what their perception of your organization is and why they support you) is so valuable. What stories can you tell that will tug at their heartstrings? What images can you share that will catch their eye? What statistics? You will need to be able to tell compelling stories that tie in with your mission and with what your stakeholders find valuable.

When will you find the time to put your plan in action?

Time is money they say. If getting the answers to these questions down on paper feels challenging, finding the time to put the plan into action may seem almost impossible. Putting your marketing plan to work will benefit the entire organization. Whether you have the available staff or need to outsource or bring in trusted volunteers, you must think through how to take the plan from idea to action. It is crucial to review your resources and identify the people who will help you implement your plan.

How will you know you have been successful?

Starting with specific and measurable goals for your marketing will help you evaluate the success of the program at the end. There will be obvious successes and failures in some channels. Using measurement tools for the others will help you determine how your programs have performed. Knowing what has worked and what needs to be revised or removed is an essential part of using your marketing as a tool to move your organization forward.

In Summary

image of child doing homeworkNonprofits will benefit from creating and using a marketing plan that works in concert with their strategic plan to help meet organizational goals and objectives. Building the plan, identifying the resources needed to implement the programs and then measuring the results, will help your nonprofit organization remain viable and true to its mission.

There are a wealth of tools for to nonprofit marketing available online today. Take advantage of them and remember to ask and answer the questions posed above. Nonprofits that thoughtfully create a marketing plan designed to help achieve their organizational goals will continue to thrive in an uncertain and challenging economic climate.

Does this seem like more than you can handle? We can help. We are experienced in working with nonprofit organizations to define goals and objectives and create an integrated marketing strategy. Give us a call at 419.740.1262 or email us at [email protected].


Allen Mireles is principal of Allen Mireles Consulting, an integrated marketing and social media consultancy in Toledo, Ohio. You can find Allen on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Images courtesy of fotolia.com and kinf.org