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Four Questions Every Nonprofit Marketer Should Ask

September 24, 2016

Hands_upMost nonprofit executives will tell you that the competition for funding has never been tougher. Donors have an overwhelming variety of causes to choose from, an abundance of guidance and advice to listen to, and not nearly enough time to sort it all out and make an informed decision. The question for nonprofits is: What can we do to break through the noise and build lasting and meaningful relationships with donors? 

Having worked with nonprofit marketing teams and executives for more than twenty years, I'm well acquainted with the lack of planning that pervades the sector. Nonprofits tend to jump right into the program execution phase without asking the most basic marketing and branding questions. And this lack of upfront planning often results in more than confusion; it can cost a nonprofit money.

With nonprofit marketers about to dig in for the all-important final quarter of the calendar year, here's a handful of questions you should be thinking about:

What's the opportunity cost of our organization not having a strong brand?

A strong brand is more than just a logo, color palette, or mnemonic device. Your brand should create an emotional connection in the hearts and minds of donors that grows stronger over time. Once donors understand the fundamentals of your organization's work and how it differs from other groups doing similar work, the investment in creating that connection will pay off in a variety of ways. Because of that connection, donors are more likely to support your organization by doing more than just giving money. They'll attend events and volunteer. And, more importantly, they're more likely to actively promote your organization's work and recruit other supporters to its cause.

Ask yourself the following: 

  • Is our organization well known in our segment?
  • Do donors understand our mission and the work we do?
  • Are donors easily able to explain our mission to others?
  • Are donors willing to promote our organization to others?

If the answer to any of these questions is anything other than "yes," you need to understand there may be real financial consequences for your organization. Before things reach that pass, suggest to your colleagues that it's time to revisit your messaging strategy and think about how your brand is connecting — or isn't — with supporters and potential supporters.

What's preventing our organization from building a stronger brand?

Marketing initiatives aren't always easily communicated within organizations. Often, there's confusion between the role of the marketing team and the role of the development team. And in cases where a marketing initiative needs to span chapters or affiliates, securing organization-wide buy-in can be next to impossible.

That's why it is important for marketing executives to understand that they have internal as well as external audiences. And that means an organization's own employees need to be cultivated as "brand ambassadors" and made to feel they have a voice and stake in campaign planning and development.

For example, prior to rolling out its "Someday Is Today" campaign, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society held meetings with its board of directors and all sixty local chapter executive directors with the goal of obtaining buy-in. Research findings and advertising strategies were shared and style guides were developed to facilitate local deployment and modification of the campaign. A testament to the success of the approach is the fact that the campaign is still up and running nearly four years later.

Do we have a well-defined fundraising strategy?

Nonprofits often set financial goals without much planning or rigor. As often as not, they'll simply look at the total amount of donations received, set new benchmarks for the coming year or campaign, and resort to the same outreach activities they've used in the past. In contrast, a well-planned fundraising strategy involves some forethought.

Think about how your organization is planning to reach its financial goals. Are you targeting new donors? A broader slice of the general public? If you're planning to court new donors, you'll need to profile these groups (demographically, behaviorally, and psychographically) and assign a financial value to each one. Once you've done that, you can prioritize how you're going to spend your fundraising dollars, mapping out a messaging and media strategy that takes into account the motivations and behaviors of your top-tier prospects.

When doing this, it's important to remember that each donor group has a unique profile and that members of one group are unlikely to think or act like the members of a different group. Some people give because the act of giving makes them feel good; others are research-oriented and want to see impact. Some are looking for an emotional connection to a cause or issue, while others just want to make the world a better place. Some will engage digitally, while others will insist on communicating only through analog channels. Combining the right messaging with smart targeting is the first step to successful donor engagement and a more effective use of your organization's resources than the old spray-and-pray approach.

Are we doing our best to drive growth?

Growing your donor base is not just about attracting new donors to your cause or issue; it's also about getting existing donors more deeply involved in your cause. Think about what you are currently doing to cultivate relationships with your existing donors. Are you being transparent with them? Do they know what your organization is doing with their money? Have you shared with them examples of the impact their support is creating?

Do not underestimate the importance of sharing information with your donors and encouraging them to share that information with others. One way to do that is through a well-thought-out Customer Relationship Management (CRM) program.

At Interplanetary, our experience has shown that charities that actively practice CRM and engage their supporters in an ongoing dialogue benefit from a deeper level of engagement, leading to both more frequent donations and a greater willingness on the part of donors to promote the organization to others. Recently, we developed a CRM program for a nonprofit client that delivered custom-tailored information to donors based on their profiles and interests and were gratified when the program not only generated new names for the organization's database but significantly increased the average donation amount and boosted the organization's overall campaign revenue.

Headshot_andy_semonsThe benefits of infusing your marketing and fundraising efforts with rigor cannot be overstated. Our experience with our nonprofit clients has shown that when a brand's targeting and messaging strategies are clearly defined and aligned, when colleagues are on board with the plan, and when a good CRM program is put in place, donation revenue can increase by as much as 50 percent in a year. And that's nothing to sneeze at.

Andy Semons is a founding partner and strategic planning partner at Interplanetary, a New York-based advertising agency that has worked with many nonprofits.

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