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I met recently with the board of a fairly large not-for-profit organisation in Sydney and across New South Wales. This set me thinking about marketing not just for their specific needs, but also for not-for-profits generally.

Not-for-profits, or NFPs, are different from commercial organisations. The goal is not to make money just as an end in itself, but to make something better. But does that mean the marketing is different? For me, it’s only different in some ways.

Marketing fundamentals remain the same

Let’s start with the real basics of marketing. There are 5 questions I like to tackle before doing any marketing at all.

  1. Your market. Who do you want to reach?
  2. Your message. What do you want to say to them?
  3. Your money. What resources (include time and skills if you have more of those) do you have to execute your campaign?
  4. What media are best suited to reach your audience based on your budget?
  5. Finally, how are you going to measure results? This is important since it helps you work out what to do again and what not to do again. So your marketing gets better over time.

None of those fundamentals change when you are marketing for a not-for-profit.

However, some things are a little bit different.

Target markets are often more complex and varied

As an NFP, you may have more goals, and need to reach more different market segments.

Let’s start with brand awareness. Who needs to be aware of your brand? For a commercial business, it’s primarily people or companies who will buy from you. But for NFP marketers, there are a whole range of target markets.

  • The people you want to help. If they don’t know about your services, how can you help them?
  • If you’re trying to fundraise, you need to reach out to potential donors. (And depending on what your purpose it, the characteristics of likely donors may change!)
  • You may be seeking volunteers who can help deliver your service or manage activities for you.

That’s three different markets you need to reach, in order to achieve three different goals. Of course there are many normal businesses which have multiple markets, but in general, it’s harder to be a non-profit which has only one market.

Other challenges in not-for-profit marketing

1. How to justify investment in marketing

One thing I have noticed is that many not-for-profits find it difficult to invest a large amount of money in marketing.

NFP accounts are often open for scrutiny. Donors also like to know that the vast majority of their funds have gone to the end cause of the organisation. In addition, the people working in the NFP often have a strong sense of purpose and mission. So there’s an expectation that funds are used for operations which benefit the purpose. Diverting significant money to any other cause may be seen as not using money responsibly.

What that means is that fundraising and donor marketing becomes by far the easiest to justify.  If you can say, ‘Look, I invested $10,000 and now I have $100,000 which I can spend helping this cause’, you can show that your marketing has delivered real benefit. Compare that to, for example, an campaign to raise awareness. It’s much more difficult to measure return on investment and demonstrate value.

In general, then, not-for-profit marketing focuses either reaching beneficiaries of the organisation, or on fundraising. This delivers a clear and visible ROI, but it can mean that long-term awareness and brand-building are somewhat neglected.

2. Risk aversion

marketing for not for profits - risk aversionNot-for-profits are often quite risk averse in their marketing.

The driver seems to be fear of negative publicity. If you get something wrong and a campaign causes backlash, it’s not just the NFP which feels the backlash. It can also harm the very cause  your charity or not-for-profit is aiming to support.

This leads to some very cautious approaches and a fear of controversy. This can be even more extreme if the NFP is already working in a sensitive area. For example, if they’re providing services to prisoners and ex-prisoners, asylum-seekers, sex workers or LGBTIQ+ communities.

Of course, not-for-profit marketing is not 100% risk-averse. There are still campaigns which push boundaries.

We’ve seen a recent example with the Heart Foundation marketing. This campaign sent out the message that not looking after your heart was the same as not looking after your family.

Unsurprisingly, families who had recently lost someone to heart disease were upset. And vocal about it. As the negative publicity grew, the National Heart Foundation backed away from the campaign that they’d had. They even took out print ads where they apologised for getting it wrong.

But did they really back away? Those print ads include an open letter of apology, which includes the following:

So what could we have done differently?

We could have talked about the risk factors of heart disease.

We could have shown people living happy healthy lives thanks to a Heart Health Check.

We’ve tried those things before.

And the truth is, these approaches have not done nearly enough.

So despite apologising, they’re justifying why they did it. Was it all a clever trick to get more publicity and awareness? Whatever you think on that point, it certainly wasn’t risk-averse marketing!

2. Human interest and storytelling

Enough of the negatives in marketing for not-for-profits. On the plus side, many NFPs have rich opportunities for storytelling, human interest, and engagement.

The core role and purpose of pretty much every not-for-profit is to assist someone in need and make things better. That lends itself to a classic story arc. There’s a hero, a challenge and a solution. A classic emotional rollercoaster. And the NFP can present itself as a key player enabling or delivering the solution. That’s a really strong and emotional place to play.


So if you’re marketing for a not-for-profit, I have two tips.

  1. Try not to be too afraid.
  2. Tell the human story of how you help with an issue.

I’m always happy to talk about how that might look for your organisation.