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Updated Jun 05, 2024

5 Marketing Challenges Only Nonprofits Understand

Nonprofits are uniquely affected by specific marketing situations and difficulties.

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Written By: Jennifer DublinoSenior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
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Table of Contents

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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. Nonprofits must spend money to gain supporters and turn those supporters into donors. 

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

Marketing challenges nonprofits face

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

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 that aims to discover precision medicine for children 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 — the people most likely to donate to your cause — 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: Many nonprofits make the mistake of targeting everyone as a potential supporter or donor. 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 resonate genuinely with your cause and become the donors you’re seeking.

Kat Krieger, former national director of service training organization Multiplying Good, says targeting the right audience and delivering a tailored message is key to creating consistent donor 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,” Krieger shared. “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
In addition to 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 they want or need. In contrast, when people donate their money to a nonprofit, the gratification isn’t as tangible. If the nonprofit is new, people may not even be entirely sure where their money is going and may be hesitant to donate.

Overcoming the issue

Lead your marketing messages with emotion in mind. For-profit businesses often 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 builds trust, 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 how their money will be spent. You could have a large group of supporters who understand and resonate with your cause but, if it’s unclear where donations are 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
Video can enhance your marketing strategy significantly. Approximately 57 percent 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. This leaves a huge segment of potential donors untapped.

Overcoming the issue

Nonprofits need to adapt to the rise of digital marketing and social media marketing. Here are some tips:

A well-mapped-out social media strategy, content marketing strategy — and even an influencer marketing strategy — will return your time investment tenfold if your target supporters and donors are on the younger side. Even if your primary donor base is older, digital marketing strategies will make you visible to the next generation of donors.

Digital strategies also play a role in public relations coverage. Instead of reaching out to local print newspapers and magazines, 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 marketing inconsistency or even stagnation. 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. Here are some best practices and tips:

  • Hire professional marketing help if possible: If you can afford to hire a digital marketing expert, 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 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. 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. Here are some tips:

  • 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, explain your cause clearly, 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 above board: Let potential donors know how seriously you take your mission and their trust. To remain compliant, it’s crucial to abide by all nonprofit laws and regulations, including nonprofit accounting regulations.
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 dos and don’ts for nonprofits

Here are some strategies to try and pitfalls to avoid when marketing your nonprofit.

Nonprofit marketing dos

  • Do take advantage of discounts for nonprofit organizations: Many companies offer discounts on their marketing and business tools to nonprofit organizations. Some examples include the following:
    • Constant Contact, a tool to create email campaigns and newsletters (read our Constant Contact review to learn more about this platform) 
    • Adobe, the maker of Photoshop and other top graphic design programs
    • BuzzSumo, a content strategy tool
    • Hootsuite, a social media management platform
    • HubSpot CRM, a top customer relationship management (CRM) tool (read our HubSpot CRM review to learn about its features)
    • Piktochart, a graphic design tool
    • SimpleTexting, a text marketing platform (read our SimpleTexting review to learn more about this tool) 
  • Use personalization to boost donations: Tracking prospect preferences and behaviors is crucial for sending effective personalized email marketing messages. Multichannel marketing tools like HubSpot CRM can help. Additionally, segment your email lists based on content supporters have interacted with and their actions. It’s also a good idea to become familiar with top donors’ interests so you can provide personal greetings at in-person events.
  • Tell your nonprofit’s story with impactful videos: Videos — both online and at live events — are an ideal medium to tell your organization’s story. They can vividly demonstrate the problems you work to address and reveal the results of your efforts. Repurpose longer videos by chopping them into multiple shorter videos and using them on your website and social media accounts. You can also use live video streaming for intensive fundraising events. 
  • Recruit brand ambassadors: Actively recruit volunteers and donors to be your nonprofit’s brand ambassadors. Ask them to share your cause with friends and co-workers, both in person and via social media. Brand ambassadors provide free advertising and their sincerity can help spread the word about your cause. Provide them with specific content to ensure consistent marketing messages and branding.
  • Publicly thank your biggest supporters: Tell your top supporters how much you value their contributions. Thanking them publicly can be particularly effective. Your supporters will likely share their awards and accolades online, giving your organization even more free exposure.

Nonprofit marketing don’ts 

  • Don’t ignore Gen Z: You want to build a brand that speaks to younger generations to ensure your nonprofit stands the test of time, so don’t forget to include Gen Z in your outreach efforts. The older members of Gen Z are approaching 30 years of age. They’re earning more than adults of previous generations and having children later, so they may have available funds to donate. This cohort is also known for being socially conscious. To appeal to them, use short and compelling statements that speak to their values and become active on social media channels like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.
  • Don’t ignore relationships with lapsed donors: You likely have donors who haven’t given in a while. Don’t forget about them. After all, you have already invested in marketing to attract them, they have shown interest in your cause and you already have their contact information. Use email retargeting campaigns to reignite your relationship with them.
  • Don’t try to be on every social media platform: If you post content on every platform, you are likely wasting time and resources. Your donors will use only a few platforms consistently. Research usage statistics, look for donor demographics and ask supporters which platforms they use. Focus on the most appropriate platforms and create a robust presence that will make a difference.
  • Don’t neglect website design and security: No matter how good your cause is, visitors will leave quickly if website design mistakes leave a bad impression. Poorly designed sites with slow page load speeds will confuse and frustrate visitors. Additionally, supporters will be reluctant to donate online unless they know your website security is sufficient to protect their data. Invest in a reputable web designer who can create a positive and secure user experience for your visitors.
  • Don’t rely on word of mouth: A consistent marketing effort is vital to successful nonprofit operations. Many other worthy causes compete for donations. Donors can move away, lose interest, have a change in their financial position or drop off your active list for various reasons. A constant stream of new potential supporters must counter this attrition. Create and execute a marketing plan consistently, assess what works and realign your spending and efforts for optimal payback.

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.”

author image
Written By: Jennifer DublinoSenior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
Jennifer Dublino is an experienced entrepreneur and astute marketing strategist. With over three decades of industry experience, she has been a guiding force for many businesses, offering invaluable expertise in market research, strategic planning, budget allocation, lead generation and beyond. Earlier in her career, Dublino established, nurtured and successfully sold her own marketing firm. Dublino, who has a bachelor's degree in business administration and an MBA in marketing and finance, also served as the chief operating officer of the Scent Marketing Institute, showcasing her ability to navigate diverse sectors within the marketing landscape. Over the years, Dublino has amassed a comprehensive understanding of business operations across a wide array of areas, ranging from credit card processing to compensation management. Her insights and expertise have earned her recognition, with her contributions quoted in reputable publications such as Reuters, Adweek, AdAge and others.
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