Marketing Your Nonprofit to Audiences that ACTUALLY Matter


This is a bit of a tough-love post.

The nonprofit sector has lots of hard-working people trying their gosh-darn best to create social change. And, yet, there are still far, far, far too many organizations headed by smart, thoughtful leaders flailing in their attempts to concurrently achieve their missions and ensure their long-term financial futures.

Many of these same organizations have researched their perceived competitive sets to learn from their nonprofit colleagues and peers…and, well, perhaps this is part of the problem.  Namely, many nonprofit executives are collecting information and doing everything in their power to keep up with nonprofit-dubbed best practices….and, perhaps that’s why a lot of them are still flailing…and why many will ultimately fail.

As a sector, many nonprofit organizations have confused “pervasive practices” with “best practices.”

These nonprofits are doing it wrong. Our hearts are in the game, but we continue to grapple with the same issues that have always challenged our effectiveness: burn-out, low-pay, fundraiser retention, donor cultivation, long-term solvency, etc.  Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Perhaps many of us have been called “insane” for sticking to the hard work that we do but, arguably, too few people call us out for doing the same thing over and over and thinking things are going to change.

I have a proposal of where to start stopping this insanity: Nonprofits must pay significantly more attention to the market. The market – not internal audiences and certainly not other nonprofit organizations – determines your organization’s relevance and long-term sustainability  

Here are some friendly reminders that may help your bottom lines of promulgating your mission AND promoting long-term financial solvency:


1) Nonprofits often determine importance but the market always determines relevance

Nobody caresLet’s not undervalue the critical role of our organizations: Many nonprofits are rightfully perceived as “content experts” in their respective fields and, as such, are highly-credible, trusted authorities.  In other words, as “experts,” nonprofits often are able to declare “importance.”

However, if the market isn’t interested in your area of expertise or does not find it salient in their lives, they may deem your “importance” to be irrelevant.  All too often, nonprofits misunderstand this relationship (or generally misunderstand the role of the public as the ultimate arbiters of an organization’s relevance), and spend significant time and resources essentially “talking at” people with their important voices.  These practices don’t amount to dialogue – and they certainly don’t foster the types of meaningful, lasting relationships that we are all endeavoring to develop with our audiences.

A part of even staying alive in the digital era is “showing” and not merely “telling.” Content is king, and building personal connections helps to provide opportunities to prove relevance and open the door to conversation regarding your “important” content. If you make your organization relevant through storytelling, you can help audiences understand what is important and why. But, and again, this is a harsh truth: If you are telling your story and solely explaining its importance without first establishing its relevance, then the market will speak…by not acting.

When evaluating the effectiveness of an organization’s messaging, I always revert to the most basic of marketing principles: What’s in it for the audience?  In other words, does my “important” message articulate a personal benefit to the target audience?  If your message doesn’t articulate a meaningful personal benefit, then it is likely to be deemed irrelevant.


2) The market determines the means by which nonprofits best communicate (not the other way around)

Many organizations are not adequately investing time and resources into web and social media support – in spite of abundant data that compellingly indicate that these are the most important marketing and communication platforms. Often, nonprofit leaders simply don’t understand social technology platforms (or are scared to dive in), and just keep chugging along trying to create impact through direct mail, brochures, billboards and 15 second spots on drive-time radio…in spite of data clearly indicating that no amount of paid advertising can make up for a lack of word-of-mouth advocacy like that achieved via social media.

Moreover, the more “traditional” marketing channels are considered less trustworthy than real-time communication channels, so sticking to these methods doesn’t do your organization any reputational favors. (And if your methods are so outdated, perhaps the audience may similarly perceive that your message cannot be that urgent. The market won’t wait for you to catch up.)

Here’s the point: You can have the best message in the world, but if you shout it into to an empty room, then it doesn’t matter. Nobody heard it. Instead, go to the room where the party is taking place and share your message through the channel that works best for your audiences and not the channel that makes you most comfortable.


3) The market (not other nonprofits) informs your strategy, so beware of unintentional collusion

follow the leaderJust because other nonprofits are doing something, doesn’t mean that they are doing it right or achieving a desired outcome…or even that they have any special information that you don’t possess. Often, nonprofits become subject to what we at IMPACTS call “unintentional collusion.” In other words, they base their practices off of what other nonprofits are doing, assuming (often incorrectly) that the nonprofit that started the trend either had some sort of “insider knowledge,” or that the decision yielded positive results. Time and time again, this proves untrue.

If you want to know what works or if something may be a good idea, look to the market and your audiences’ behaviors – not to the average operations of other flailing nonprofits. Nonprofit executives should care what the market is expecting, and not what other nonprofits are doing. For some reason, this seems to be a hard one for many institutional leaders. If the best that you want for your nonprofit is to be mediocre, then aiming for the middle or matching your marketing efforts to industry averages is the way to go. My guess, though, is that this is not what you want for your organization.

When it comes to informing your strategy, use case studies from successful organizations – for-profit and nonprofit alike – that are similar to your own in content, promised personal benefit, and primary audience. In other words, find the best of the best and learn from their examples. (Please note: By “the best of the best” I mean the organizations that are actually achieving their missions and performing well financially…not those organizations who may be getting by on perceptions that don’t align to their current fiscal realities.)

Talk to other executive leaders to discuss the outcomes of their most impactful initiatives, and match their experiences to market data to find out if a similar initiative would work for your organization. If all nonprofits aim to be the best they can be and are contemplative of how to reach their section of the market, then the industry can be elevated. If we all revert to the “average,” we cannot evolve. If we cannot evolve, then we cannot thrive in an increasingly competitive, fragmented world.

Nonprofits don’t seem to have a hard time paying attention to one another or paying attention to their own internal desires but, perhaps ironically, nonprofits are less frequently equally contemplative of the market. As a reminder to nonprofits: You need your followers more than they need you. Pay attention to what they want or you may be left alone on a soapbox self-importantly talking about yourself to a family of tumbleweeds.


*Image photo credit (in order) belongs to Dilbert, Hugh MacLeod, Eloqua and Funny-pics.

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 10 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

10 Responses to Marketing Your Nonprofit to Audiences that ACTUALLY Matter

  1. Merideth Lacina

    Thank you for such a tough-love post on the nonprofit sector. A compelling argument for real assessment and thoughtful management.

    • colleendilen

      Thanks so much, Merideth!

  2. casey

    You make so many valid and strong points here, Meredith. Kudos on an excellent post! I also think non-profits can learn some valuable lessons from start-ups and entrepreneurs and how they go about marketing themselves in order to grow. Many thanks!

    • colleendilen

      Much appreciated, Casey. Thanks for reading!

  3. Jamie

    Regarding: “When it comes to informing your strategy, use case studies from successful organizations – for-profit and nonprofit alike – that are similar to your own in content, promised personal benefit, and primary audience. In other words, find the best of the best and learn from their examples. (Please note: By “the best of the best” I mean the organization’s that are actually achieving their missions and performing well financially…not those organizations who may be getting by on perceptions that don’t align to their current fiscal realities.)”

    I think this sounds great but it’s not immediately clear to me how one might go about ferreting out these like-minded organizations, along with objective feedback about the quality of their programs. Any advice on where to start? Thanks in advance!

    • colleendilen

      Thanks for the comment and question, Jamie. One way to go about doing this is to know off-hand what other organizations function similarly to yours. That may be a mix of organizations and not just one (perhaps another organization in the same community, another with the same function in a different community that serves the same demographic, etc.) and connect with those folks. Figure out what they are doing, what risks they’ve taken and the actual outcome. Try something similar if the outcome was truly something that you are aiming for in your organization as well, and if the situations may match. Association conferences often provide a mix of models and examples (important to know the difference) that may feed some food for thought that may inform your strategy as well. Organizations may do well to understand that certainly not all organizations function the same way or are seen in the same light and this may affect outcomes or make one organization more likely than another to succeed in an initiative. Finding similar organizations and connecting/communicating based on case studies that prove successful may help inform your own strategy.

  4. Daniel

    A much needed post – working in a science centre, I find this illusion that we know best and ‘well, that other science centre is doing it too’ to be a dangerous thing. The market must come first but sadly, many in the industry still feel a calling to ‘correct the masses’ who are perceived to be misinformed. In those situations, one shouldn’t be surprised when visitation and impact falls short.

    Thanks for articulating this so nicely.

    • colleendilen

      Thank you for your comment, Daniel. I’m so glad to hear that this rings true for you at the science centre and I hope that it may be helpful in articulating some of your own sentiments. Thanks again for weighing in!

  5. Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime)

    Great post Colleen… I’ve been sharing it on my channels! However, life being essentially paradoxical, many thngs can be perceived in opposing ways. I agree that drawing new audience to our events will determine the future of our particular non-profits… so much so that I quit my orchestra to make the case for symphony music playing in clubs, churches, schools as well as concert halls. I’m trying to convince American orchestras that future audiences matter now a bit MORE than traditional audiences… yet it’s the traditional audience and esp. the big DONORS who keep the bills paid in tough times. Really changing the message and methods to draw future audience has to become a SACRIFICE the big donors and musicians are willing to make. They will be rewarded when they witness the difference this makes, but they must first LET GO of their expectations that everything be by-the-book, high class and sterile. And letting go is the hardest thing we have to do.

  6. Judy

    Some real gems, Colleen! Liked “the public is the arbiter of your relevance” and “Pervasive practices are not necessarily best practices.” Great words.


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