Marketing teams deserve a seat at the table in your nonprofit organization.
I'm a believer that nonprofit marketing communications does not equal fundraising. But many organizations lump the two together and this is a problem because it holds nonprofits back.
Please note: I’m in no way questioning the value of fundraising itself. And yes, many fundraisers are, and need to be, excellent communicators. And strong fundraising must include strong communications. And marketing communications and fundraising need to work closely together.
However, if you’re responsible for marketing communications for a nonprofit organization, your work extends beyond helping to reach fundraising goals.
Colleen Mulholland, President & CEO at Burlington Community Foundation says:
“In our organizations, we are all working towards a common goal of making life better for our beneficiaries. Yet sadly, too often, there is a systemic lack of respect and understanding of the strengths and skills that distinctive professions have to offer to the whole of our organizations.
“Just as fundraising takes on many different shapes and forms – from major gifts and planned giving, direct mail and door-to-door campaigns, to corporate social responsibility and point-of-purchase programs – so too does marketing and communications.”
Nonprofit marketing communications: a wide range of responsibilities and goals
Here is just a sample of nonprofit marketing communications responsibilities:
- Promotion of programs and events
- Social marketing/behaviour change communications
- Community engagement/building
- Volunteer recruitment
- Brand development and management
- Raising the profile of your nonprofit and keeping it relevant/top of mind
- Serving your community by providing information/education/content
Yes, your audiences include donors but that’s just one segment. You also need to communicate with the communities you serve, volunteers, foundations or government funders, board members, employees, influencers or experts in your space, policy makers, members and other stakeholders. As Mulholland goes on to explain:
“From brand management, internal/external communications, crisis/issues management, media relations, through to compelling donor-centric storytelling – distinctive and effective marketing and communications is a critical part of an organization’s success in reaching and educating the constituents it serves, and ultimately in fulfilling its mission."
Marketing communications is being treated as a fund development tactic
Though the importance and role of marketing communications should be obvious, it’s clearly often forgotten. Or worse, it’s known and ignored, or simply not prioritized.
I see this when I meet nonprofit communicators who are only allowed professional development if it’s fundraising-related. Or when I meet the only communicator at a nonprofit, who is actually a 'development coordinator'. You can see it in the lack of professional associations, conferences or networking opportunities for nonprofit communicators (part of my motivation for creating the Nonprofit MarCommunity).
I also see this attitude in the support and advice available for nonprofits. For example, I came across this statement in a post about nonprofit blogging: “If you do blogging, and you do it well, here’s what it all adds up to. It adds up to loyal supporters. The most important reason you’re going to blog.”
Advice like this assumes that all nonprofits have a single, common blogging – and communication – goal and audience.
Nonprofits have so many reasons to communicate. So much information to share, policy change to affect, programs to fill. So much good work is happening and the reality is, just because you’ve built it, it does not mean they’ll come! These offerings need to be supported by strong marketing communications in order to succeed.
Why is this misconception a problem?
Marketing communications need to be recognized as a valued and necessary part of moving an organization toward fulfilling its mission. Without this recognition and value, marketing communications in the sector will continue to be viewed as a luxury, frill, expense/overhead or even a 'bad word' – which holds nonprofits back.
I spent six years as an in-house nonprofit communicator at a very large organization and I was lucky. Marketing communications had a seat at the senior management table and was a distinct department. We had our own budget – including room for professional development.
But since leaving that role and in my eight years of supporting and working with hundreds of diverse nonprofits as a consultant, trainer and blogger, I have learned that my experience was very much the exception. And back at my former employer, marketing communications has been absorbed back into fund development – back to how things looked more than 15 years ago.
But some nonprofits are demonstrating what can be made possible when communications is truly valued for its role. Markus Stadelmann-Elder, Communications Director at Maytree explains:
“As a senior communications professional, I’m expected to keep the organization’s main objectives in mind. I can be an advisor to everyone – and make sure that everyone’s voice gets heard. I can listen to all project managers and make sure that their projects fit the organization’s mission, that their messages don’t contradict one another, and that they may even support one another.
Without communications at the most senior management table, this ‘neutral’ view would be missing.”
Benefits of strong nonprofit marketing communications capacity
A strong, empowered marketing communications professional or team can bring specialized skills to your organization. For example:
- Research skills, including market research, evaluation and competitive analysis; all of which inform smarter, strategic decisions across the organization
- Deep knowledge of audience segmentation and creative concept development to help your organization to differentiate itself and capture attention
- Strong understanding of channel management and effectiveness: to truly allocate marketing communications dollars wisely
In his article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Case for Communications, Sean Gibbons, Executive Director of the Communications Network indicated that organizations that excel at communications are “stronger, smarter and vastly more effective.”
What can nonprofit organizations do to maximize the potential of marketing communications?
Shift your thinking!
Consider whether your organization needs to evolve the role of marketing communications. Empower your marketing communications team members to play a bigger role than making a flyer for a program or 'doing social media'. Support their professional development –this is essential, because marketing communications today is always changing.
Bring a marketing communications presence to senior-level conversations and give it a place in senior management teams. “With a direct line to the president,” adds Stadelmann-Elder, “I’m expected to identify what messages work best with key audiences, to work with all staff to shape those messages that they become their own yet follow the main ones, and identify opportunities to have those messages heard.”
It should be obvious that there is more to modern nonprofit marketing communications than fundraising. Don’t underestimate nonprofit communications, nonprofit communicators and the powerful role they can play to affect change. As Gibbons says in his article: “At their core, foundations and nonprofits are in the business of developing and advancing big, bold ideas. If you want your ideas to take hold and win, you need to communicate and communicate well. It’s not an option anymore – it’s a necessity.”
As a sector, let’s improve our attitude toward this important field and see its potential unlocked for more nonprofit organizations – starting with yours.
Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.