Photo by Images Rouges on Canva
4 min Read
April 19, 2023

Marketing is not just for corporations. Here’s why.

If you consume Big Duck’s content on a regular basis, you probably also spend a fair amount of time thinking about communications. Still, the word “marketing” might make you nervous, immediately evoking memories of gimmicky slogans, late-night commercials, and glossy ad campaigns. How can marketing possibly fit into your communications strategy? And, more pointedly, how can marketing fit into your budget?

We know nonprofits are wary of investing in marketing for some very understandable reasons. Let’s break them down:

Marketing is “too corporate” for many nonprofits

The very concept of marketing might seem strange from a nonprofit vantage point. You may think of marketing as going hand-in-hand with sales and profit, as something too slick for your organization. Or, you may worry that sophisticated marketing efforts will signal that you have money to spare and don’t need financial support.

Here’s the thing: Your organization is doing some amazing work . . . but if you don’t tell your story, few people will know about it. At Big Duck, we think of marketing as the focused effort to get people involved in specific ways (e.g. attending an event, signing on to a pledge, or joining your list). Marketing is a component of your broader communications—the practice of advancing your mission through the creation of mindshare and engagement.

For nonprofits, marketing can be a very effective tool to amplify your work and expand your village. Strategic marketing efforts can help garner supporters, volunteers, and clients, while also connecting you to potential partner organizations. 

While on staff at a direct services agency, I often encountered fabulous organizations whose missions intersected with my own work. “How did we not know about each other?” we’d marvel. Those conversations often led to fruitful collaborations that leveraged resources and expanded our respective program offerings. As my agency stepped up our marketing, more businesses, nonprofits, and people (including donors) entered our orbit and engaged with us—which meant we didn’t have to rely on chance encounters to build partnerships and participation. 

Marketing efforts are a waste of resources that take away from the core mission

When you’re meeting an urgent need for your community, marketing can seem far removed and like a frivolous use of resources. But thoughtful, strategic marketing can be integral to your work. You can further your mission by finding supporters and reaching client communities. You can reinforce your values with the way you talk about your work. You can even demonstrate leadership in your field by convening and facilitating conversations with experts or sharing your programs’ successes.

There is no budget for communications staff

We know many nonprofits are treading water, keeping programs afloat despite tight budgets and limited funds for general operating costs. And although the industry has been challenging the overhead myth, donors may still question marketing and communications line items, including those for staff. Add in the limitations of restricted grants, and paying full-time marketing salaries can seem unfeasible. But fear not—there are many ways to build up your marketing without dedicated staff.

Maybe you have a relationship with a company or a local university that can offer some pro bono hours? Or space for an intern who can create a content calendar and draft social media posts in advance? Yes, staff should still provide volunteers with structure and education around your programs. But having an external person handle specific marketing tasks can lighten the day-to-day load and free some staff time for higher-level strategy.

Remember, you can advocate with funders for investment in staff; you can also apply for grants that specifically cover administrative costs or offer technical assistance. If your organization belongs to a professional association, you may be entitled to marketing resources or technical assistance as part of your membership.

And if you are working with a limited marketing budget, consultants can help you find your feet and a strategic direction. At Big Duck, we often build communications and marketing plans for organizations without dedicated staff through direct client engagement; we also provide communications planning guidance through webinars and other trainings.

A little (thoughtful) effort can go a long way

Most importantly, don’t think of marketing as an all-or-nothing effort. Instead, think realistically about your capacity for communications work and: 

  • Determine your marketing goals. Are you attracting visitors? Cultivating donors? Educating policymakers? Reaching potential clients or program participants? Develop a laser focus on those goals. Also, consider how these goals connect to your overall mission and future direction via your strategic plan.
  • Define and prioritize your audiences. Who (and where) are they? What do they care about? Some may love a pithy Tweet, but a physical flier or radio spot may be more effective for others. Don’t assume people will come looking for you – your marketing should meet audiences where they are.
  • Make it easier for people to recognize you. Try to be consistent with your content—think about fonts, colors, and graphics—to encourage association with your brand. If someone forwarded or shared your content, could their friends easily connect that content with your organization?
  • Build in moments to step back and evaluate what’s working. Don’t be afraid to change things—you can always stop what isn’t working and test new ideas.
  • Ground your marketing in equity. Educate yourself about savior narratives and white supremacy, and continually ask yourself “Who should be telling this story?”. If program participants or community partners are helping to create your content (sharing their experiences, posing for photos), be mindful of power dynamics and risks for re-traumatization. Also, be sure to compensate them for their time.
  • Space it out. Allow yourself to resist the impulse for urgency. You’ll never be able to do it all, and that’s okay!

An investment in marketing, whatever your capacity, can exponentially widen your network.  There are people out in the world ready to engage with your organization and support your mission. They just need to hear from you.