Every nonprofit organization begins with a mission to provide help in some way. It can be as simple as TED’s mission which is to “Spread Ideas,” or as thorough as the American Red Cross’ – “The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.” ​

The ability to accomplish their mission and the overall success of the organization lies deeply in the goals they set for themselves. The ultimate mission of a nonprofit is extremely important but there are steps in between that enable their mission. Funding and raising money are crucial for a nonprofit. If any nonprofit organization has aspirations to thrive, they need to be able to retain their donors and continue to get new ones. They also need to be able to attract volunteers as well. 

The organization needs to have excellent communication between itself and the people surrounding them. This is where a marketing plan is vital.

One of the best ways to make sure a customer, donor, volunteer, or client remembers what an organization says is through storytelling. Storytelling does more than just state facts and figures. It creates an emotional connection that forms trust between the nonprofit and their audience.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou

Storytelling is only one part of the strategy. An effective marketing plan will allow nonprofits to have excellent communication with the people around them and be able to provide continuous guidance and direction throughout its lifespan. 

Challenges in Nonprofit Work: Time, Workload, and Communication

Phone on table with chart on screen. Finger pointing to text on phone. Pen on top of paper next to the phone.

Time is extremely valuable. Whether organizing campaigns or managing events, it may seem like there isn’t enough of it. Yet, there always seems to be more than enough work to do. 

Board members or trustees will often have some other full-time job. They have an additional part-time job, with a full-time workload. And those who take on full-time nonprofit positions are likely just as busy, if not more. As tasks and work pile up, stress does as well. 

Aside from this immediate workload in front of them, nonprofits need to think about the future. The sustainability of the organization is just as important as the success of the year. This relies heavily on keeping everyone around them engaged. This ensures that donors and volunteers will be retained and the likelihood of converting potential donors is much higher. 

Time and workload can impede communications and engagement. Nonprofits are often so busy doing important work that they forget to tell people about it. An effective marketing plan addresses all three of these challenges.

What is a nonprofit marketing plan?

People change over time so the marketing plan needs to change with them.

A true nonprofit marketing plan is a detailed playbook that instructs a nonprofit on how to engage and interact with their audience. 

4 Characteristics of an effective marketing plan

1. Actionable

An effective marketing plan contains attainable tasks or goals that can be completed and measured. The results should be tangible. 

High level, aspirational goals are important in the right context. Being reminded of the overall goal or impact a nonprofit is trying to achieve makes all the stress and hard work worth it, but these goals alone will not help an organization in its day to day business. An effective marketing plan should produce quantifiable results.

An example of a poor goal for a marketing plan: “To lead the way in advocacy for our industry”

While this is a great standard to aspire to, it is extremely vague and focuses on theory. Answering the question of how an organization will lead the way in advocacy will provide much better actionable goals for a marketing plan. 

For a nonprofit organization that wants to lead the way in advocacy for climate change, their goal should be to identify gaps in knowledge. Put effort into filling in these gaps of knowledge and setting a goal to produce a certain number of articles or posts within a specific time frame about what they found.

2. Detailed

Poor marketing plans are vague. An effective one can be looked to for guidance when direction is lost or needed. An organization should be able to look to the plan every day or week and understand what needs to get done. This will ultimately save time because less of it will be spent figuring out what to do and more time can be allocated to getting things done. 

A strong marketing plan for any organization will state what needs to be done, when it has to get done by, and who is responsible for it.

An extremely valuable aspect for a nonprofit is having a detailed understanding of who their audience is. This may not be something that needs to be referred to every day but knowing who the audience is and being able to tailor messages, ideas, and tasks towards them is a key difference between success and failure. It’s a vital piece of information that can position nonprofits to share the great things they’re doing in the best way possible.

Understanding who makes up an audience allows organizations to build off of common ground. This builds trust in the relationship between nonprofit and donor/client. Knowing what an audience likes and dislikes, what resonates with them, things that move them means organizations can highlight or avoid specific topics. 

For example, if a large part of a nonprofit’s audience has pets or likes animals, incorporating pets or animals into their marketing plan will resonate strongly. They will likely associate the positive feelings they have with pets to the nonprofit. This will also build trust between the audience and organization which will make it easier for the nonprofit to get the audience to perform some sort of action like subscribing to an email list or donating to their cause.

With detailed, actionable tasks and plans, nonprofits and their members will understand exactly what needs to get done.

3. Versatile

A strong marketing plan is an opportunity to do the unfamiliar. Using a plan, a nonprofit can try something new, measure the results, and make adjustments for the future. If organizations only do what they are comfortable doing, they’ll never be able to provide better options for different situations. For example, a nonprofit that historically gained notoriety through word of mouth and print assets might be hesitant to launch an email or social media campaign. It’s important to remember people change as time goes on and the methods that are most effective in reaching them have to change too.

Trying new things gives nonprofit organizations the ability to see what works and incorporate them into future projects. Actionable, detailed plans allow them to measure these new and adjust to provide the best possible options later. They’ll diversify themselves so the next time a similar opportunity does come around, they are better equipped and more confident.

4. Plastic

No, not like plastic wrappers or containers. Plasticity refers to the ability to adapt to new circumstances. An effective marketing plan should be able to be adjusted if needed. It should be re-evaluated after a certain time frame or if certain events occur. Like before, people change over time so the marketing plan needs to change with them.

Here’s an example: If engagement on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook only grow x% over y number of months, the plan must be adjusted.

How a nonprofit benefits from a marketing plan

Graphic of a person holding a pointing stick. Stick is pointed towards part of a graph up on a wall.

When a nonprofit employs a marketing plan with the effective characteristics from above, the challenges also from above will be addressed.

By having a plan, results will seem more consistent. Consistency builds momentum and forms routines and in doing so, will form strong habits. It also allows nonprofits to keep the big picture in mind while remaining productive because as tasks get completed, it will also be easier to see larger goals and aspirations come to fruition. 

Organizations will also be more accountable. With detailed, actionable tasks and plans, nonprofits and their members will understand exactly what needs to get done. Because of this, they’ll also be able to determine what areas need more attention. 

If an organization is ever unsure of what the next steps are or they lose sight of their goals, the marketing plan will be there to help refocus

Time and how it’s managed won’t be so stressful. By knowing exactly what needs to be done, it will probably seem easier. As a result, the workload will seem more manageable even if the amount is the same or greater.