Resourceful Nonprofit Marketing: Get Results on a Budget

Nonprofit Marketing On A BudgetIt is no secret that marketers at nonprofit organizations have limited time and resources. Commonly, nonprofits have a one-person marketing department or marketing tasks are divided between overloaded staff members and volunteers. On top of limited human resources, marketing budgets are typically small or nonexistent. To combat these constraints, nonprofit organizations need a marketing strategy with tactics that are both low-cost and effective. Through my experience helping market a variety of nonprofit organizations, I have discovered several key tactics that can help an organization get results on a budget. If these tactics are combined with a solid strategy, they will help any organization increase key performance indicators including awareness, donors, volunteers and clients.

Get Strategic

Before touching on tactics, a strategy must be determined. This will save time in the future by helping to maintain focus. Likely, the organization has determined its mission/vision and target constituency. If not it is time to decide ‘what’ specifically the organization wants to do and ‘how’ it will serve the community. Care should be exercised to ensure that the ‘what’ and ‘how’ tie directly into the overarching ‘why’. This ‘why’ is the ultimate dream, which will serve as the catalyst for the organization’s identity. Without this direction, many organizations become mediocre at many things when they could be remarkable only if they had more focus. Remember to consider what other organizations are already doing. Consider what unique value the organization can create and capitalize on that.

Nonprofit Marketing Strategy

With this concrete focus, a list can be created of all the people that the organization wishes to reach through its marketing efforts (potential clients, donors, volunteers, community members, etc.). Group this list into the most logical segments and begin to elaborate with characteristics, values and motives for each. If little is known about a specific segment of people, query them through surveys or interviews. After a good understanding of the target audience is established, it’s time to decide what segment(s) is(are) most important to the organization and should be the primary target of its limited outreach budget. By selecting the top priority, the organization is ready to frame its marketing message. According to the Rule of Three (a nonprofit branding strategy), it is effective to come up with three qualities that describe the organization and that resonate most with its target segment. All marketing tactics should reiterate these three qualities giving stakeholders a mini-script to articulate what the organization is about when talking to friends, colleagues and family members. These three qualities form the base of the brand. By creatively leveraging this base, a marketer can build a compelling brand that attracts a targeted segment. With the strategic legwork completed, it is time to spread the organization’s message using low-cost but effective tactics.

Get Found

With the strategic work done, it’s time to talk about making sure the messaging and organization get found. One of the most powerful marketing tools that a marketer has at her disposal is word-of-mouth. It may be the oldest tactic out there but it still can drive a significant amount of people to the organization. In addition, the internet has become a one stop information source for people around the world. It is crucial that a nonprofit marketer uses this far-reaching but incredibly cost effective medium to get out her message. There are several key tactics to consider when marketing a nonprofit online including website creation, Search Engine Optimization, Paid Search Advertising and Local Marketing.

  • Word-Of-Mouth: As mentioned before, establishing a strong brand can help guide messaging that is spread through word-of-mouth. Therefore, think carefully about the brand and how to succinctly express the mission. Strategically branding the organization makes it easier for its constituents to amplify marketing free of charge. Also, the advent of social media has taken word-of-mouth online which will be discussed in detail later.
  • Website Creation: Although website creation and management may seem like a daunting task, it is rather intuitive and cost effective when using the proper tools. The best place to start is to look for a quality content management system (CMS) for the site. Currently, there is a whole host of open source, free systems available online. I recommend using the WordPress platform which is currently the most popular CMS and widely considered the best. Setting up the site using this platform can be done in three easy steps. First, find a web host to provide server space for the site (top options include Bluehost and DreamHost). Second, select the domain and install the WordPress software (many hosting platforms offer one click WordPress installs). Finally, get familiar with the backend of the site by customizing the site’s content and design. If you’re in over your head with the technology, find a young tech savvy volunteer to help facilitate the process. When all is said and done the organization will have a professional website, which only will cost about $100 a year for hosting.
  • Search Engine Optimization: Now that the website exists it is crucial to make sure it can be found. Search engines are the most widely used tools for finding content on the internet. The ultimate goal of a search engine is to serve a searcher the most relevant results for whatever they may need. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice of positioning a site to appear for searches that are relevant to an organization. So how do you do this? First by selecting a solid technical foundation for the site like WordPress. Once the foundation is made, relevant content needs to be created for the site that includes terms an individual would use to search for the organization. Finally, the marketer needs to obtain links from other relevant sites to show its relevancy and authority. A further breakdown of SEO can be found in another of my blog posts. SEO is about positioning the site for success and comes at no cost besides time and effort.
  • Paid Search Marketing: On the inverse side of SEO, Paid Search Marketing is paid inclusion in a search engine rather than earning a position. As the title suggests this tactic is not free. Depending on goals, running paid search ads may be beneficial. If an organization is trying to rank for terms that have little competition, clicks it receives from this marketing tactic can be as little as 5 cents. In addition, Google offers grants and discounts to nonprofits so they can leverage the tactic at a low cost or free of charge.
  • Local Marketing: For local nonprofits, online local marketing can help bring community members to the organization. Although there are many facets of online local marketing, the most important for a nonprofit is claiming office/resource locations on online map provides. This can be easily done by follow the claim processes for Google, MapQuest and Bing. Claiming the nonprofit on these services gives it control over the content provided with its listing and will eventually help drive more people in the community to the organization.

Search Results Breakdown

Get People Engaged

Now that the organization has been found, it’s time to get people engaged. A tried and true way to market a nonprofit is by attending community events. This community presence helps develop a face for an organization and encourages community members to engage with the brand. Now that a significant amount of interaction has been taken online through social media it is important that organizations engage with people there as well. Pursuing both of these cost-free tactics will help cultivate advocates from those who are just aware of the organization.

  • Local Events: To become truly engaged in the community, it is imperative that representatives attend and participate in local community events. This is a tactic that is intrinsic to a nonprofit but sometimes is underutilized. Make it a goal to develop meaningful relationships and connections through these events. And don’t take the organization to seriously. Create a fun interactive experience that will be sure to instill the brand and message.
  • Social Media: Now that over half of all adults use social media there is no way its influence can be denied. People are having conversations, gathering information and talking about what is important to them on immense networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A nonprofit organization should strategically participate in these forums to build engagement and enable online advocates. By no means am I saying marketers should go online today and create an account on every main social site. What marketers can do is consider what platforms their target audiences use and how much time they have to upkeep those profiles (note: save time by using a management dashboard like HootSuite to maintain multiple platforms). Create the profiles that are logical investments for the organization. In the end, well maintained and interactive profiles will provide a direct outlet for feedback and support which will considerably strengthen the brand.

Social Community Engagement

Get Results

All these low-cost tactics are only worth our time if the organization gets results. Therefore, measuring the impact of efforts is the best way to understand what tactics work for the organization and how to plan future marketing efforts. Unfortunately, the goodwill and impact gained through traditional tactics like attending local events and word-of-mouth are hard to measure. To the contrary, all online results can be easily tracked using free analytics tools. The most robust of these free tools is Google Analytics. By simply placing a small piece of code on the website, a world of insight is opened. Out of the box Google Analytics tracks traffic, referral sources, pages viewed and many other universal statistics. On top of this basic functionality, conversions can be set up to track donations, volunteer signups or whatever is important to an organization. This tool can easily show a marketer what tactics (SEO, Paid Search, Local Marketing and Social Media) are driving traffic and conversions. In addition, further insight can be gained through additional analytics dashboards provided by many of the top social media platforms. With these insights efforts can be refined and resources can be allocated to tactics performing the best for the organization. Empowered by this wealth of data an organization can certainly obtain its strategic goals and get results on a budget.


*First two photos via

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  1. On July 09, 2012 Bob Gilbreath says:

    Great summary guide, Nathan! Often folks on the not-for-profit side feel overwhelmed by the choices and marketing jargon. This is a nice step toward making it manageable.


  2. On July 12, 2012 Irene Dickey says:

    Nathan, this provides a clear framework for managing marketing for non-profits and more. The question of WHY? should really be addressed, as its often overlooked in order to get the work done. The Rule of Three is well defined and practical, as well as strategic!

  3. On July 12, 2012 Nathan says:

    Irene this is a good point that you bring up. All your marketing tactics should ultimately stem from the “WHY?” because when you can’t tie a tactic back to that it’s most likely not worth your time.

  4. On July 12, 2012 Kevin Schultz says:

    Very nice guide Nathan! Digital marketing can be deceptively approachable (anyone can create a Facebook Page!) but truly doing it right can be daunting.

    I have an additional suggestion and a caution for coaching non-profits about effectively building engagement when they’re using social media.

    Many folks (in the non-profit world and beyond) don’t think about making their social presence exclusive and unique.

    I’ll take this in two directions – first as a caution, I’m careful about getting people into tools like HootSuite because they make cross-posting all too easy which can create a slippery slope of using your social media as a broadcast tool, not an engagement tool. HootSuite is decent for management of many moderators and monitoring, but shouldn’t be consistently used in place of native interfaces for posting and managing the page.

    Why do I say that? Well for one, you can miss out on certain incremental improvements or changes that get quietly built into the native interfaces of products. An example of that would be Facebook’s recent addition of post engagement numbers that split between an exact number of organic and viral views. That’s not visible in HootSuite at the moment. Further, it’s important to use the social tool as part of the community in order to really build community with your users, and tools like HootSuite put you in a bubble.

    Secondly, people should be careful about just using their social media presences as a parrot for their press releases or other regular messages. They need to share information and build conversation around and about things related to their cause that they share or do nowhere else. They need to give people a reason to find value in their social presence. An example would be perhaps be something like posting nice, edited photos from a fundraiser on their website, but posting some neat backstage shots only on their Facebook page.

    As a third thing I’d also make mention of the importance of managing the people who will be involved in the digital marketing process. In many smaller or informal organizations (common in the non-profit area) there is a tendency for everyone to think they can adequately pull off digital marketing because they once attended a free webinar, or something. It’s better for organizations to build up competent resources (using advice like yours) and dedicate one or two people to comprehensive management of their strategy.

    Overall your advice is very strong! Good work! Thanks for the opportunity to add some of my own advice!

  5. On July 12, 2012 Nathan says:

    Kevin thank you for your feedback. I agree with your cautionary warning about social media. It’s easy to have a profile but not easy to use it effectively for your organization.

  6. On August 14, 2012 Alex Hamberger says:


    Your recommendations and tactics are spot on. These are terrific ways for cost-conscious non-profit organizations to create a presence for themselves and share their great work both with current friends of the group as well as bring new constituents in.

    I wanted to share another strategy with your readers, namely analyzing your donor base to see if there are individuals or groups who can assist with you marketing tactics. In other words, do you have anyone in your inner circle who works at or with an established marketing agency? I can speak from experience that partnering with folks at an agency who are passionate about your mission will take you a long way. So far the group my organization has been working with has focused on creative and branding pieces for us (as opposed to online promotion), but in the short time we have been working with them, they have created new collateral for us that elevates our organization to a next level. In turn, we are able to share this work with potential new volunteers, donors, and committee members and exude a level of professionalism that conveys success with the organizations. Additionally, we can always expand the scope of the relationship to include additional tactics, or perhaps network with our current contacts to see if they have other folks to put us in touch with.

    I know many non-profit organizations often feel like the lion’s share of the workload often falls on the staff, so don’t forget the importance of delegating tasks when appropriate to volunteers, whether they’re professionals or just eager in that field (something you already touched on).

    Great article!

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