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A Marketing Manifesto For Nonprofits

by | Mar 17, 2020

By Robert Whittle

A manifesto is a public declaration of views. Calling it that doesn’t necessarily make it correct, but I’ll bet you’ll find yourself agreeing with most of these points even if you’re not a nonprofit marketer. As someone who’s been practicing the marketing arts for decades, this could’ve been written by my much younger self and still hold true today.

We hold these truths to be self evident (or at least they are to us):

Prioritize marketing. If your organization isn’t giving marketing the highest priority, then you get exactly what you deserve. It is astounding how many nonprofits say to us, “marketing is not a priority; we’re too busy fulfilling our mission”. We believe that marketing your mission should always be a critical part of your mission. If your supporters and potential supporters don’t know the good work that you’re doing, how long can you expect to keep doing it? You’re a dead organization; you just don’t know it yet.

Update and then again. If you don’t have a regularly updated strategic communications strategy and plan, you’re throwing money to the wind. Most nonprofits have a mission and a vision and even a strategic plan, but they stop there and do not spend the resources to create a strategy for their communications. Everyone says they know the difference between strategy and tactics, but far too many rely almost exclusively on the latter as their nod to marketing. “Hey, we have a Facebook page and we ran a contest. Look at how many ‘likes’ we got!” they say. But they don’t know what they’re going to do with their followers or the cost-per-acquisition and they haven’t got a plan for a long-term relationship.

Small budgets are no excuse. How do you think you’re ever going to get a larger budget if you whine about not having enough money? Start with that strategic communications plan. If you do it in-house, it only costs you time. You’ll be amazed at how effective you can be and how much farther your dollars will go.

Take advantage of your status. You’re a 501c3. People, corporations and the media want to help, even in the marketing of your brand. But they want to know what you’re doing with that money. Not just the tactics, but the Big Picture—the strategy. Commercial marketers often as not have to devote the vast majority of their marketing budgets to purchasing media. It can be their second biggest expenditure after payroll. A nonprofit can get millions of dollars in media for free! But the vast majority turn their backs on PSA programs. With a smart plan, there’s always plenty of help out there from the “haves” for those who don’t have as much.

People buy on emotion and justify on logic. A great idea, a great plan, a great ad, a great tactic, a great op ed piece, a great solicitation doesn’t cost more than one that is shopworn or recycled. In fact, it costs much less based on ROI. Spend the time to get your core narrative together so that it has some emotional punch. Do a competitive analysis. What are others in my space doing out in the marketplace? What are the best-in-class ideas out there? Are those ideas working? Does my idea make people cry? Laugh? Feel something about my brand? If the answer is yes, go with it – but measure it every step of the way.

Have a multi-platform strategy. We recently met with a marketer who wanted to quadruple their business in ten years. They insisted that online marketing – and only online – was the way to go. We knew immediately that they would fail because as powerful as digital is, there are so many more channels to consider. What about awareness and brand image (neither of which they possess in abundance)? Theirs is a transaction-only strategy and is doomed. Each case is different, but the most powerful and successful plans take advantage of the myriad of media options available. Social, digital, direct, broadcast, even – gasp! – print. The more impressions you make, the more likely you are to create action that benefits your brand.

Get everybody on board. Perhaps the single most compelling factor in a successful marketing campaign is having everyone in the entire organization singing loudly and enthusiastically from the same hymnal. Great concept, right? What many marketers don’t understand is that it takes a lot of time and effort to get there. It’s not just a memo from the Director of Marketing. It starts from the top with a commitment from the CEO and it extends through the Board and the staff right down to the volunteers. If everyone is aware and has bought in to that unifying theme, that core narrative, then the campaign itself not only has a lot more voices, it carries much more veritas.

Refresh. Rinse and repeat. When ties are fat and yours is skinny or when skirts are short and yours is at your ankles, what does it say about you? No, it’s not the end of the world, but appearances do matter. Many brands have come to us to refresh their look. They almost always end up wanting more – a core narrative, a new communications strategy, a new way of talking about their brand to new audiences through new channels. Rightly so because their supporters are flat lining or even declining and they realize their focus has wavered. Their outdated logo is only a symptom of a greater problem. A new logo and tagline is a signal to your internal and external audiences that there’s a new sheriff in town, a new realization that business as usual is not good for business. So, when brands refresh their look, they often take the opportunity to refresh their entire approach.

Measure. Everything. Not just Facebook likes and Twitter followers. Everything. Do you think that successful commercial marketers don’t account for every dollar they spend in terms of ROI? Of course they do. Including market share, favorability, awareness and propensity to join in. Benchmark research need not be expensive; it’s one of the best investments you can make. You can measure the effects that even a broad branding campaign is making. If it’s not clearly and visibly working, change it before you’ve shot your budget.

Have a ball. If you choose to retain a partner to help you with your marketing, please understand that, while it’s a serious matter, it’s also a lot of fun. People in the organization like participating in creative endeavors. Even staffers down the line can be creative and like flexing the left-sides of their brains. Plus, they almost always understand how much a plan, a re-brand or a strategy is needed. Make sure you choose a partner you get along with personally. Ask yourself if you can see yourself working closely with these folks over a period of months or years. Do you like them? If those answers are in the affirmative, then go for it.

For more “Ideas that Generate Change for Nonprofits”, visit our website williamswhittle.com.

About the Author

Williams Whittle

Rob Whittle is CEO of Williams Whittle, a leading mid Atlantic marketing communications agency with clients in nonprofits, transit, economic development and other industry categories. We win Effie Awards (and not a few Addys). We were named Marketer of the Year two years in a row by the American Marketing Association for our work marketing nonprofits. Increasingly, we are focused on marketing nonprofits--Metro, USO, American Red Cross, among others. A quote from a client: "Williams Whittle basically invented the modern way of marketing a nonprofit."


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