Drop and Give Me 20 (Marketing Insights for Nonprofits & NGOs)

About half of my career in digital happened in Big Nonprofit world. Here are 20 things I learned

What I want you to give me is 20 insights that emerge from your expertise as applied to a particular focus… As you read your list of 20 things to me, nearly off the top of your head, will I have some aha moments? Will I learn something? … If you can’t articulate your expertise quickly and concisely and in a compelling manner, it’s just simply not true.

~ David C. Baker

I base my feeble-by-Bakerian-standards list on about 10 years of experience in technology, marketing, and fundraising consulting to the nonprofit/NGO sector. It skews towards US-based 501c3 organizations, which by no means represents the entire sector – I also worked for associations, healthcare orgs, political groups, and higher ed.

(I  also wrote another “20” for B2B firms, partly based on my experiences owning and growing a marketing technology agency that served nonprofits.)

Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Most organizations write most of their content by committee; this is the Achilles Heels of the nonprofit sector across most of the major verticals.
  2. On a related note, “content production” (how writing is often described) is often relegated to ghostwriters and junior staffers. When it is performed by experts in senior positions, it’s not done so within the context of a cultivated writing practice.
  3. A nonprofit’s need for a Mission statement is pronounced but that doesn’t mean it has to be exhaustive or laborious. In fact, all of these things can be efficiently expressed in a compelling way: values, purpose, mission, and vision.
  4. Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” approach to marketing is a good methodology for defining a purpose statement and makes for good about page copy. A nonprofit’s about page can be very compelling and is a wonderful opportunity to engage potential supporters.
  5. Most organizations are large and complex enough to justify multiple strategies; that’s OK. Devise as many strategies as the company’s mission statement logically dictates you do, and find ways for them to complement one another.
  6. Nonprofits often conceive of other nonprofits, NGOs, or government agencies, as their competitors. In fact, the for-profit world is their competition, particularly businesses who target discretionary income or leisure-time attention. Society spends only 2% of its GDP on social welfare.
  7. The goal of a website redesign is to improve the ability of your organization to communicate clearly and inspirationally to your audience. The goal is not to look good, be impressive, be funny, or be memorable, or be creative.
  8. Copywriting and the art of content creation are severely undervalued, relative to UX design and strategy. This is even more pronounced in the nonprofit verticals than elsewhere, given a) a cultural ethos that draws an invisible line between strategic thinking and writing and b) a lack of supporter/donor focus in written materials.
  9. All websites are content marketing tools, first and foremost. Some are only content marketing websites and nothing more. Most nonprofits tell impact stories at the point of engaging with a digital agency who recommends they do so, instead of as the result of systematic internal processes.
  10. Your website doesn’t need a blog for it to be a successful content marketing or fundraising website. It’s about 10x easier and more practical to publish a news feed than a blog. It’s also much less risky.
  11. Publishing a high-value, lead generating blog costs $30,000 per year, to start, in equity effort (approximately 20% the output of a senior staff member, plus UX, design, and content marketing costs). Outsourcing the writing of a news feed might make sense; outsourcing blogging rarely does.
  12. Nonprofits often invest in redesigning their entire websites when they might be better off rewriting them (and for a much more modest investment).
  13. Email marketing is the highest-ROI marketing function that a nonprofit’s website supports but each communication should be presented as a one to one conversation moving forward.
  14. CRM has been broadly adopted by the nonprofit sector but it’s still underutilized as a mechanism for unifying marketing, fundraising, and development efforts. At its core, CRM is not a technology; it’s a practice that aligns a nonprofit more closely with its supporters.
  15. Paid advertising is widely under-utilized in most nonprofit verticals; even if you don’t have a Google Grant, paid advertising might make sense. If you do have a Google Grant, make sure you optimize for it. Think of paid ads the way David Ogilvy encouraged advertising professionals to think of them: signposts in a crowded market, helping connect one person to another.
  16. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is impossible to accurately and objectively measure the performance of advertising; also A/B split testing is over-rated because of the high cost of ownership. Also, testing itself requires gut calls and experience to conduct well, just like writing survey questions. It’s one of those “you’ll know when you’re ready” things – if you’re unsure whether you should be testing performance, then probably you shouldn’t be.
  17. Every organization should understand how it is perceived and described (and what its competition is) by analyzing the search keywords that their audience uses to learn about the issues they want to own.
  18. SEO is still broadly misunderstood and underutilized. Especially the art of link building, which is not about being devious but about making meaningful value-connections. Exploiting SEO is an opportunity to unify supporters with their causes and a strategic imperative for most organizations.
  19. Every organization should be able to perform their own cold outbound marketing to generate development leads and SEO value backlinks, using some kind of refined list-building technique.
  20. Positioning was originally conceived by Al Ries as a brand messaging strategy for mass market B2C brands to deal with the information inundation of the day (the mid-20th Century). It’s now more relevant than ever for causes competing against millions of for-profit brands for attention. “Cause positioning” should be able to answer this question: what do you do, for whom do you do it, why do you do it, and – most importantly and most often neglected – how does your audience ultimately shape that formula?


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