You can find dozens of articles about nonprofit marketing that identify great uses of content, but none of them account for variations in the definition of content marketing.

For many marketers, content marketing is as simple and broad as the phrase. You are using content to market a product or service, even when it is promotional or even approaching advertisement territory.

For other marketers, content marketing needs to serve consumers without directly promoting the brand. Jay Baer, an early proponent of content marketing, called it Youtility marketing.

Similarly, Robert McGuire keeps the emphasis on usefulness to the target customer when he defines content marketing as “a plan to grow and engage your customer base that is built around discovering what you can do for someone else, developing and delivering related content, and then measuring the results.”

Nonprofit marketing is good at engaging

In the meantime, many other practitioners define content marketing somewhat more broadly as material that engages your target customer by entertaining or inspiring them.

So far, most nonprofit marketing that uses content falls into this category. Here are some examples.

  • Content Marketing Institute Co-founder Joe Pulizzi cites charity:water as a nonprofit that practices exemplary content marketing. The content on charity:water’s website is high-quality. The videos and stories in the “Water Projects” section inspire people to donate by showing off charity:water’s impact. Mashable cites a series of videos charity:water produced to thank their loyal customers and celebrate a milestone.
  • This next one is an example of the “entertain them” approach. It’s a video of kittens performing scenes from classic horror movies, with the help of lots of cute props. At the bottom of the video is a link to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [ASPCA]. The more people share this viral video, the more potential donors will click through.

Both approaches are valuable, but at heart, these are especially beautiful and creative examples of the kind of promotion that nonprofits have always done, so they don’t really illustrate a new approach. These are examples still have the organization and its work (and its fundraising needs) at the center. They haven’t put their target market at the center by focusing on helping them with their own issues or questions.

In other words, they aren’t examples of the “Youtility” or of the “discovering what you can do for someone else” referenced above.

That kind of content marketing — very common now in tech companies — is not so common in the charity world, but smart nonprofits should consider it. The skeleton of this approach generally includes these steps:

1. Plan for distribution so it gets discovered.

2. Ask yourself what you are expert in that might be helpful to your target market if you shared it.

3. Develop content that shares that expertise, focusing more on being helpful than on asking for support

4. Plan to measure how effectively this content attracts supporters.

5. Review, adjust and repeat.

Steps 3, 4 and 5 are necessary. Too many companies that think they are doing content marketing are really just indulging in wishful thinking that blogging and tweeting will yield results. That unplanned and unmeasured approach will justify a lot of the understandable skepticism about content marketing.

The resource guide approach

One basic approach that follows that outline is to produce a library of resource guides or blog posts. One good example of that in nonprofit marketing is the resources page on the site of an organization named Best Friends, which aims to prevent animals from dying in shelters by ensuring they have homes.

This very helpful page includes guides for pet owners and animal activists with actionable tips that go beyond Best Friends’ own efforts. It stays focused on the reader’s needs rather than promoting what the nonprofit is doing. In other words, it’s an example of the “Youtility” mode of content marketing.

Educate your customers

In a sense, anything helpful is going to be educational at heart, but some of the most innovative content marketing is explicitly set up as an educational opportunity, put in the form of a class or webinar.

Nonprofits are especially well positioned to do this, because they have expertise that isn’t proprietary. Unlike a business that may want to guard whatever processes or industry expertise it has that gives it a competitive advantage, a nonprofit organization is more likely to want to share its “secret sauce” rather than to guard it.

One excellent example of this approach is a free online course offered by the conservation organization United for Wildlife. Anyone in the world can work through the lessons in this course to learn the fundamentals about conservation and some of the innovative new approaches. The course is positioned as a kind of entry-level orientation for aspiring conservation professionals, but it’s open to all.

This course does not directly solicit for donations to United for Wildlife, but visitors do need to create a login and join the community to take it. That is a good lead generation tactic for appeals for support later on.

And the course itself, by making people more informed, should build commitment to the cause, which should lead to financial support over the long term. A smart content marketing project will have a plan to measure for this.

And the course furthers the mission, since public awareness is crucial to this organization’s work. Hitting that sweet spot of doing the organization’s work while promoting the organization may seem easier in an advocacy organization, but even nonprofits offering direct services to clients should think creatively about how educating potential donors in ways that inform, help and inspire them can also further the mission.

Adding content marketing doesn’t mean subtracting something else

Retaining current donors or customers and attracting new ones with content that entertains and advertises the nonprofit’s efforts is important. Don’t let up on that where you know it is working. You do need to toot your own horn, and you do need to ask for money.

Nonetheless, the nonprofit world will continue to miss out if it doesn’t add to the mix the kind of content marketing that attracts attention by helping people with their questions and problems.


Joseph Rauch

Joseph Rauch

Guest Author

Joseph Rauch is a content writer and journalist who plans to publish his novel and use his content marketing skills to ensure it sells.