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5 Marketing Challenges Only Nonprofits Understand

Updated Oct 31, 2023

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No one understands the challenges of effective marketing on a shoestring budget quite like a nonprofit. Nonprofits want every possible dollar to go to their cause, not marketing. However, it’s challenging to bring in donations without spending some money.

Virtually any nonprofit’s primary goals are straightforward: gain supporters and turn those supporters into donors. However, accomplishing these goals isn’t as straightforward, because it’s challenging to communicate urgency to a nonprofit’s target audience and it’s difficult to develop a consistent, actionable plan everyone can agree on.

While nonprofits share some of the same overall marketing challenges as other businesses, they’re uniquely affected. Other challenges are entirely exclusive to nonprofits.

We’ll explore five marketing challenges you might face as a nonprofit and offer suggestions to overcome them so you can successfully support your cause. 

1. The nonprofit’s target audience is too broad.

Today, people are bombarded by news of wars and disasters on a 24-hour news cycle, and it can be challenging to impress them with your cause’s unique urgency. Even though you may feel that everyone should care about your cause, connecting with potential supporters and donors in a way that inspires action is a significant problem for nonprofits.

Dr. Robert Selliah, founder of American MedChem, a nonprofit with the mission to discover precision medicine for kids with rare diseases, explained his organization’s messaging challenges. “There’s a major lack of awareness in the marketplace when it comes to rare diseases. Making people aware is a challenge because people don’t want to talk about sick kids. It’s a touchy subject.”

Overcoming the issue: Remember that not everyone is your ideal donor. Some people will sympathize with your cause, while others may have different priorities. If you try to convince everyone to donate, you’ll waste a lot of money you could have spent more wisely.

To pinpoint your target audience, be mindful of your messaging and follow these best practices: 

  • Conduct market research. The first step in narrowing your target market is creating a market research plan. You may have the best cause in the world, but if you fail to research your audience properly, your philanthropic efforts will be a waste of time.
  • Target your ideal supporters. Targeting everyone as a potential supporter or donor is a huge mistake and where many nonprofits go wrong. Determine who your ideal supporters and donors are, how much money they make, where they hang out, and why they might be interested in supporting you.
  • Tweak your messaging. Narrowing your focus allows you to tweak your marketing messaging toward those who will genuinely resonate with your cause and become the donors you’re seeking.

Kat Krieger, former national director of service training organization Multiplying Good, discussed targeting the right audience to tailor a message and solidify relationships. “Using the intelligence gathered on website visitors, media partners and event registrants, we succeeded in tailoring our outreach based on specific behaviors and actions across a base of more than 35,000 contacts. Subsequently, we were able to continue strategically engaging and nurturing key stakeholders and continue building more consistent relationships in the long term.”

Did You Know?Did you know

Along with business-centric programs like Google Ads, the search giant offers the Google Ad Grants program, which offers up to $10,000 per month in free advertising for nonprofits.

2. It’s difficult for nonprofits to get people to part with their money.

Getting people to part with their money is challenging for all businesses, but it’s especially difficult for nonprofits.

In a for-profit business, people exchange their hard-earned money for a tangible product or service that they want or need. When people donate their money to a nonprofit, the gratification isn’t as tangible. And if the nonprofit is new, people may not even be entirely sure where their money is going, so they may be hesitant to donate at all.

Overcoming the issue: Lead your marketing messages with emotion in mind. For-profit businesses try to emotionally connect with customers to make a sale. Without a tangible reward for the donor (minus the satisfaction of helping someone), it’s even more essential for nonprofits to speak to people’s emotions in their marketing messages.

To reassure people that parting with their money is the right thing to do, try these tips:

  • Use video marketing to tell your story. Video is a powerful storytelling medium, allowing a nonprofit to demonstrate how it fulfills needs and impacts people, the environment, creatures or whatever cause it supports. Video content creates awareness and can provide the impetus your organization needs to get the ball rolling on donations.
  • Let donors know precisely where their money is going. It’s crucial to let potential donors know exactly where their money is going. You could have a large group of supporters who understand and resonate with your cause, but if it’s unclear where donations are actually going, supporters are unlikely to become donors.
  • Show off a charity evaluator rating. Organizations like Charity Navigator evaluate and rate nonprofits to reassure people that they’re dealing with reputable organizations. If you’re featured on one of these sites with an excellent rating, show it off in your marketing materials. If you’re new, try registering with these organizations to get evaluated or featured. 
  • Gather testimonials. Testimonials from people who have benefited from your organization can also help build credibility and trust with potential donors.
FYIDid you know

Online video is a powerful way to build a brand for traditional businesses and nonprofits alike. In fact, 57% of people who watch a nonprofit’s video make a donation, according to Nonprofits Source.

3. Nonprofits must adapt to the rise of digital marketing.

Nonprofit organizations are notorious for leading the charge with print materials, brochures and direct mail campaigns to round up supporters and donations. However, most donors who respond to direct mail postcards and letters are over 55 years old. This leaves a huge segment of potential donors untapped.

Overcoming the issue: It’s essential for nonprofits to adapt to the rise of digital marketing and social media marketing. Here are some tips:

  • Create social media profiles for your nonprofit.
  • Ensure your website is well designed.
  • Recruit volunteers who specialize in digital marketing.
  • Create email marketing campaigns to raise support.

A well-mapped-out social media strategy, content marketing strategy or even influencer marketing strategy will return your time investment tenfold if your target supporters and donors are under the age of 55. Even if your main donor base is older, digital marketing strategies will make you visible to the next generation of donors.

Digital strategies come into play for PR coverage as well. Instead of reaching out to local print newspapers and magazines for PR coverage, reach a larger audience by approaching digital news outlets or local bloggers with your message.

Times are changing, and if you fail to evolve with your target donors, you’re unlikely to get your nonprofit off the ground or to the next level.

TipBottom line

On your website’s About page, clearly tell your nonprofit’s story, share examples of its work, detail its mission, and demonstrate its successes.

4. Nonprofits rely on volunteers.

In addition to slim marketing budgets, the lack of money for organizational purposes cascades throughout nonprofit organizations. Unlike startups and traditional businesses, most nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers.

While nonprofits benefit from volunteers’ free labor, these supporters are less reliable than paid employees because they contribute on their own time and schedule. There’s also no guarantee that your volunteers come with expert marketing experience. 

Relying solely on volunteers can create inconsistency or even stagnation when it comes to marketing. But when someone resonates enough with your cause to volunteer their time, it’s hard to criticize them or make additional demands.

Overcoming the issue: Create as professional a marketing presence as possible to help move your organization forward. You could have the best cause in the world, but if no one knows about it (and no one’s donating to it), you’re extremely limited in your capacity to make a difference in the world. 

  • Hire professional marketing help if possible. If you can afford to hire an in-house marketing person or consultant (even part time), do it. Choose someone based on their expertise, but more importantly, ensure they resonate with your mission and core values.
  • Hold regular meetings with volunteers. If you’re like many nonprofits and can’t afford even a penny toward marketing help, you still have options. First and foremost, hold regular meetings with your volunteers to keep them updated, informed and trained in marketing methods. Remind them why they do what they do. If they feel appreciated and know their work serves a higher purpose, they’ll remain invaluable team members. 
  • Find free marketing help. Take advantage of free marketing help through resources like SCORE, which is sponsored by the Small Business Administration (SBA). SCORE comprises a network of expert volunteer business mentors who can help with a wide array of topics, including marketing. They can help you create a marketing strategy, point you in the direction of marketing resources and be a sounding board when you get stuck.

5. People may not be aware of your nonprofit.

Even if you use digital advertising, email and direct mail, you may be leaving potential contributors in the dark. People who are considering donating to a cause tend to go online to learn more, so it’s essential to ensure there’s plenty of information about your organization. 

Overcoming the issue: Ensure your online content is broad and deep.

  • Be where your potential donors are. You should be everywhere potential donors are to catch their eye and present information about your cause. This includes your website, but don’t ignore social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn. You’ll also want to reach potential donors through well-placed ads and articles on third-party websites. 
  • Ensure your content answers potential donors’ questions. Your website and online videos (on YouTube, Facebook and other platforms) must address potential donors’ questions. For example, clearly explain your cause, how you help specifically, what percentage of funds raised goes toward the cause and your activity’s outcomes. Potential donors should know enough to feel comfortable that their money will be in good hands and make a difference. 
  • Demonstrate that your organization is aboveboard. Let potential donors know how seriously you take your mission and their trust. It’s crucial to abide by all nonprofit laws and regulations, including nonprofit accounting regulations, to remain in compliance.
TipBottom line

Create an email newsletter to keep donors engaged and entertained. Newsletters are a low-cost way to reach out, and you can include donation and event links.

Marketing your nonprofit successfully

Marketing a nonprofit requires skill, passion and ingenuity. Even if your nonprofit is short on volunteers, cash and marketing savvy, investing your time, conducting market research and maintaining consistent action will help you round up supporters and donors, even in a cash-strapped society.

When the going gets tough (and it will if you’re a nonprofit), remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, take a break and begin again. The biggest keys to nonprofit success are passion and consistency.

As Margaret Mead once said, “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all we ever have.”

Blair Nicole Nastasi contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Jennifer Dublino
Contributing Writer
Jennifer Dublino is a prolific researcher, writer, and editor, specializing in topical, engaging, and informative content. She has written numerous e-books, slideshows, websites, landing pages, sales pages, email campaigns, blog posts, press releases and thought leadership articles. Topics include consumer financial services, home buying and finance, general business topics, health and wellness, neuroscience and neuromarketing, and B2B industrial products.
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