Learn more about training your nonprofit marketing team with the right resources.

Marketing is still a bad word in a lot of nonprofit circles. It’s easy to see why. 

Unfortunately, the whole field of marketing, especially for businesses, is stained with bad example after bad example. For those of us of a certain age, it can be summed up in a series of very popular 1980s Isuzu car advertisement series where actor David Leisure blatantly told over-the-top lies about the benefits of the product. Everyone felt that they met a “Joe Isuzu” at some time in their lives. He checked all of the stereotype “marketing man” boxes that still linger, reinforced by much more sophisticated “Mad Man” characters who would do anything to sell a product.

Added to the negative image, the concept of good marketing remains unknown to most people. And let’s face it, most people came to the nonprofit sector to do good work through their mission—not put precious time and money into slick advertising campaigns. After all, shouldn’t just doing a great job be enough for anyone to see?

Unfortunately, no. 

But that’s okay. You’d be surprised at how many things you never considered are actually forms of marketing, and how, when done right, they can really boost your income and visibility.

It starts with keeping one thing in mind: everything is marketing. Take a look at these examples:

  • Marketing is whether your receptionist smiles at everyone coming in the door, and sounds cheerful answering every call.
  • Marketing is whether you have fresh paint on your walls and clean furniture for your clients.
  • Marketing is being transparent with your financials, so you build trust with your donors, clients, staff, and volunteers.
  • Marketing is building pride in your staff so that they treat every client like they’re special.

These examples of solid, baseline marketing actions aren’t expensive. They show that every part of your organization has a hand in marketing, whether it’s in their title or not. It changes the role of a Marketing Director to a coordinator of the entire organization’s look, feel and image—and not just one who creates the website or places advertisements in the local newspaper. 

Perhaps the biggest mistake anyone makes when considering marketing in a nonprofit context is to first focus on the tools of marketing, rather than on the purpose and message. Consider that you can have an award-winning website, but if you’re focusing it on people who will never use or support your services, then it’s no good. 

So, before jumping in with training your nonprofit team to be exceptional marketing professionals, be sure to ask yourself these questions:

What are your goals? 

Before you get started, however, you need to know why you are marketing. Are you looking to take on new constituents who will be served by your organization? Or are you seeking to secure generous donations from individuals who support your mission and want to help fund your programming.

It’s critical to avoid the Cheshire Cat, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there,” problem. (Which, by the way, can be very expensive in marketing). Answering the following questions can help as you craft the rest of your plan. 

Who do you need to speak to?

This goes right back to your mission. Who you need to reach will make a major impact on what you will say (your message), and how you will say it (the tools and channels you will use).

Do you need more money (of course)? Where does your money come from? Donors? Government? Paying clients? Insurance companies? Are you facing a particular issue, like a zoning fight, where you need community and government support?

Are you getting the right clients for your mission? Are you focused on a specific geographic area, or a larger demographic? It should give you pause, for example, if you’re an HIV/AIDS clinic that targets a young Latino market, and you get more baby-boomers than anyone else. 

Just remember, good marketing starts at home. Perhaps the biggest, most overlooked audience for your marketing are the people who live and work with it daily: your employees and volunteers. Missing them is a major blunder. These are exactly the people who can validate everything you say, and carry your message far and wide—if they hear and see a message tailored specifically to them.

What do you want to say to them? 

What specific information do they need, and what emotions do you want them to feel? This is a good place to remind yourself that good marketing is not manipulative, and it is definitely not counterfactual. But you can tell people what’s important in ways that resonate, like stories backed with solid facts.

So how do you get this information? Interview previous constituents for stories. Collect and analyze data. Take some good pictures. It might take a bit of time, but it’ll be worth it when you see the dynamic impact that your carefully crafted messaging has on its intended audience.

What do you want them to do?

In marketing-ese, it’s called a call-to-action. It’s the action or next step you want the consumer of your message to take. Do you want them to show up for services? Volunteer? Work for you? Vote? Give? Always market with an action in mind, and don’t be afraid to ask for that action, directly. 

What tools do you want to use?

Of course, you’ll think of the traditional strategies, like print or online advertising, social media, email, direct mail, and much more. But what about the less obvious, subtle marketing means, such as consistent email signature lines, new blinds and updated bathroom fixtures? 

Blinds? Bathroom fixtures? Yes, think of the inexpensive ways you update your home. When you do, doesn’t that make you feel better about where you are? You’ve marketed the comfort and safety of your home—to yourself

It’s the same thing with your nonprofit’s marketing. Let’s say potential clients are an important group to your nonprofit. They come in and find mismatched or outdated handles on all the bathroom sinks and blinds with missing slats in a grimy conference room. When pointed out, you think “we’re being thrifty and focused on the important things.” They’re thinking, “if they don’t have enough to keep their facilities in order, do they have enough to give me quality service?”  

And that leads to the biggest lesson of them all: Always look at marketing from the point-of-view of the people you want to speak to. 

We can all think of times when we said something innocently that ended up offending someone. It happens, and you are never going to be perfect. It’s not that you need to tip-toe around everything and water down your message—not at all! But when you want support for your mission, you need to know your audience and speak to their concerns with empathy, understanding, and strength. Basically, keep in mind what’s in it for them when they support your cause with their presence, money, votes or whatever else you are asking them for. 

How can you train your team to be good marketers?

Now that you have an idea of what marketing is and how it can improve your overall operations, here are some powerful training resources that can give you ideas on how you can be marketing aware, and marketing effective, affordably:

  1. Marketing for Nonprofits: Get an overview of what makes effective marketing with the video, Marketing for Nonprofits. This free online webinar gives you 10 steps that every nonprofit staff member, board member, and volunteer needs to know about marketing—so you can get more money, and clients, for your important mission.
  2. CX University: An essential, but largely forgotten group when it comes to nonprofit marketing are your clients! Clients are who you serve, yes, but their experience has the power to bring you more clients or keep others away!
  3. Your Daily Dose of Nonprofit Newsletter: Think of it as a “drip marketing” course to your nonprofit brain. You’ll find content on communications, management, email, SEO, copywriting, marketing, video, storytelling, design, HR, events, social media, data security, public speaking, and more. 
  4. Smart Marketing for Small Nonprofits: How about one of the most popular podcasts on the web for nonprofit marketing: the Smart Marketing for Small Nonprofits Podcast? Each week nonprofit marketing expert Cindy May gives you marketing tips, tools, resources, and ideas that help you generate greater awareness and fundraising support for your cause. Each episode is designed to help you take immediate action on the most important marketing strategies that will move your mission forward. 
  5. Mission-Based Marketing: Let’s not forget books! This book from Peter Brinckerhoff is in its third edition, and deservedly so. It’s a great handbook on how to get your program off to the right start through strategic, mission-based marketing tactics.

Most of marketing isn’t crafting clever advertisements, designing impressive billboards, or even sending fundraising letters. It’s deciding what you want to accomplish, who you need to talk to, and what you want to say. Then, beginning with the small, barely noticed, and relatively inexpensive things. Start there, train your team effectively, and grow significantly!


Matt Hugg is the founder and CEO of Nonprofit Courses.This was a guest post contributed by Matt Hugg of Nonprofit.Courses.

Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses, an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with thousands of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.