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What Budget? 4 Marketing Challenges Only Non-Profits Understand

Blair Nicole Nastasi
Blair Nicole Nastasi
Mar 17, 2016

No one understands the challenges of marketing on a shoestring budget quite like a non-profit.

While navigating today’s wide array of convoluted marketing options can be an uphill battle for even the most savvy business owners, it’s tenfold for non-profits.

While budgetary concerns are usually the first barrier to entry, other challenges such as getting executive buy in can be similarly hindering.

New non-profits often lack the experienced marketing directors that for profit startup businesses have on their side, and if one is present, it’s usually in a volunteer capacity.

The main goals for virtually any non-profit are extremely simple: to gain supporters and subsequently turn those supporters into donors.

So, then how does a simple goal become so difficult to attain?

The breakdown occurs in communicating urgency to the non profit’s  target audience, and in developing a consistent and actionable plan that everyone can agree on.

Here are four marketing challenges only non profits will understand, with suggestions on how to overcome them.

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1: The Target Audience Feels Disconnected

Blame it on a branding issue, or blame it on the fact that society has become increasingly disconnected from each other thanks to social media. Either way, the problem is the same, and connecting with potential supporters and donors in a way that inspires action is a major problem for non profits of today.

Even more alarming is the fact that 76 percent of non-profit advisory boards that were surveyed admitted that their messaging only resonates with their target audience some of the time or not at all.

In an equally eye opening survey, 84 percent of non profits said their messages are difficult to remember.

Dr. Robert Selliah, founder of American Med Chem, a non-profit with the mission to discover precision medicine for kids with rare diseases talked about his challenges in messaging, “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:

Be mindful of your messaging and narrow down your target audience. Market research and targeting a specific niche are the first (and most important) steps of building any business, so why is this step so often avoided when forming a non-profit?

For all intents and purposes, non profits are still a business (albeit a not for profit one). You may have the best cause in the world, but if you fail to do your research, your philanthropic efforts will be a waste of a time.

Furthermore, it’s a huge mistake to target everyone as a potential supporter or donor.

This is where so many non-profits go wrong. Sure, everyone COULD be a potential supporter or donor, but in reality, that’s never the case.

Figure out who your ideal supporters and donors are, how much money they make, where they hang out and why they might be interested in supporting.

It’s only through narrowing your focus (and essentially alienating some people who aren’t your target audience anyway) that you’re finally able to tweak your messaging towards those who will truly resonate with your cause and become the donors that you’re looking for.

Kat Krieger, National Director of the Multiplying Good, talked about target marketing by saying, “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.”

Bottom line: If you treat your non profit like a business, you’ll be able to generate money like a business. Otherwise, you’ve just got a well-meaning hobby.

2: Getting People to Part With Their Money

All businesses have a challenge getting people to part with their money, but this is especially true for non-profits.

In a for profit business, people are exchanging their hard earned money for a tangible product or service that they want or need.

When people donate their money to a non-profit, the gratification isn’t as tangible.

And if the non-profit is new, people may not even be entirely sure where their money is going, so donating doesn’t seem as urgent.

Overcoming the Issue:

Lead your marketing messages with emotion in mind. More often than not, when someone makes a buying decision, it’s based on emotion and not logic. This becomes even more apparent with non-profits.

Since there’s often not a tangible reward for the donor (minus the satisfaction of helping someone), non-profits really need to speak to people’s emotions in their marketing messages.

For many non-profits this is done through the power of video marketing. In 2014 alone, non profits who used videos in their content marketing strategy generated over 670 million video views.

Not only can videos be used as a great awareness tool, but they can also be the forward momentum your organization needs to get the ball rolling on donations.

Equally important for potential donors is knowing 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, your supporters are unlikely to become donors.

To sum it up, lead with powerful and emotional messages and make it crystal clear where donations will be allocated.

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3: The Death of Print Impacts Non-Profits

Sure, the death of print has transformed most industries and businesses everywhere have had to adapt. But for most non-profits, the slow death of print has made an even greater impact on the bottom line.

Non-profit organizations are notorious for leading the charge with print materials, brochures, and direct mail campaigns to round up supporters and donations.

The problem with this is, most donors who respond to print campaigns and direct mail flyers are over 55 years old. This leaves a huge segment of potential donors on the table and untapped.

Overcoming the Issue:

Adapt to the rise of digital media and social marketing. Get your non-profit on social media, make sure you website is up to snuff and recruit volunteers who specialize in these areas of marketing .

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.

Similarly, instead of reaching out to your local print newspapers and magazines for PR coverage, you might reach a larger audience if you reach out to local news stations that are also digital, or reach out to local bloggers in your area to try and get them onboard with your message.

Afam Onyema of The GEANCO Foundation discussed how influential endorsements helped provide credibility for their organization, “Our biggest marketing challenge is securing support for a country that is notorious around the world for its corruption and email scams.

How do we successfully raise money and bring in supporters for GEANCO when almost everyone seems to have received a highly questionable email from a Nigerian prince or the daughter of a slain (yet insanely wealthy) general? We have nurtured relationships with celebrities which have allowed us to benefit directly from the massive credibility and affinity they personally enjoy.

[For example], Oprah, who enjoys perhaps the greatest profile and deepest well of goodwill in the world, became a GEANCO donor last year giving all current and potential donors a greater level of comfort in our work in Nigeria.”

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

4: Over Reliance on Volunteers

Unlike startups and traditional businesses, most non profits have a heavy reliance on volunteers.

Some non-profits only have one or two full time employees, and others have zero. Relying solely on volunteers can create inconsistency or even stagnation when it comes to marketing.

When someone resonates enough with your cause to volunteer their own time to move things forward, it’s hard to insist upon even more out of them when things aren’t getting done.

I can attest to this one firsthand. As a marketer and PR person by profession, and a volunteer addict by choice, I’m lucky enough to serve on the board for three amazing non-profits that I’m extremely passionate about. I’m usually brought in to lead the group in marketing and fundraising efforts, and I love every minute I spend doing it.

But, at the end of the day, sometimes life and my full time business get in the way, which can mean slow growth for those non profits. It’s a reality that can be tough to face, but it’s still a reality.

Overcoming the Issue:

First things first, if you can afford to hire a marketing person (even part time), do it.

Assuming you’ve got your non-profit licensing and advisory board squared away, the absolute most important thing you can spend your time on next is marketing.

I dare someone to challenge me on this.

If you’ve got the best cause in the world, but 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.

On the other hand, if you step away from the cause for five minutes, and create a sustainable marketing strategy, you stand to make much more of an impact.

If your non profit has the funds to hire someone, even a consultant, do it. Make sure every penny spent here is spent wisely and take your time choosing the right person.

Choose someone not only based on expertise but also someone who also resonates with your mission and core values.

But if you’re like many non-profits and can’t afford even a penny towards marketing help, you still have options. First and foremost, you need to hold regular meetings with your volunteers.

And these should be working meetings, not just meetings to have meetings. During your meetings, you need to remind your volunteers every single time, WHY they do what they do.

If your volunteers feel appreciated and that their work truly does serve a higher purpose, they’ll work ten times harder. Appeal to their emotions, recognize them when they do something good, and invest in your team.

Lets face it, without them you wouldn’t get anywhere.

Another option is to take advantage of free marketing help through resources like SCORE (sponsored by the Small Business Administration).

They’re a non-profit themselves; essentially a group of volunteers with business backgrounds, who volunteer to mentor businesses AND non profits on a wide array of topics including marketing.

They can help you create a marketing strategy, point you in the direction of marketing resources and just be an extra sounding board when you get stuck.

The point is, budgetary constraints can be challenging but they aren’t the end of the world when it comes to marketing your non-profit.


Marketing a non-profit requires a certain level of skill, passion and ingenuity that only a certain few possess.

Even if your non-profit is short on volunteers, cash and marketing savvy, with a bit of time investment, proper market research and consistent action, it’s possible to round up troves of supporters and donors, even in a cash strapped society.

When the going gets tough (and it will if you’re a non profit), remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, take a break and begin again.

The biggest keys to success in anything 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 who ever have.”

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Blair Nicole Nastasi
Blair Nicole Nastasi
How would someone describe Blair? PR Guru, Digital Nomad, Writer, Philanthropist, Sales Goddess, Singer-of-Horrible-Karaoke and Single Mom all come to mind… Blair Nicole is the CEO & Founder of Media Moguls PR, host of the #KickassPR podcast, and Columnist at several well-known business outlets. Marketing and traveling are her passions, and she travels around the world full time with her 4 year old son, working remotely, and speaking to business audiences of all shapes and sizes. Blair's motto is "Kick ass, don't kiss it!"