Although content marketing may be a new concept for some people thinking about nonprofit branding, the practice has a lot of parallels with a term that is probably quite familiar to their colleagues on the program side: the Theory of Change.

In the world of nonprofits, the Theory of Change involves defining long-term goals and then mapping backward to identify what preconditions — what needs, what knowledge, what circumstances — must be met to achieve the long-term goal of change.

Content marketing, with its key goal of being informative and useful, is an exceptional tool for bringing about much of the change a nonprofit seeks to accomplish.

How content marketing supports — and improves on — nonprofit branding

nonprofit branding

Let’s imagine a local youth services organization offering afterschool and summer recreation programs. Let’s call this hypothetical organization Sunny Center.

In a previous post in this series, I said that content  marketing was essentially sharing your organization’s expertise in ways that help your target audience and therefore establishes you as trustworthy and authoritative. So, let’s start by asking what Sunny Center as an institution knows? Where is Sunny Center’s expertise?

    • Working with and talking with kids
    • Health issues
    • Academic issues
    • The ins and outs of local institutions like the school system
    • Scheduling for busy families

Some of Sunny Center’s expertise comes from hard-earned experience in daily contact with the children who come to that program.

Some of their expertise comes through working collaboratively with their partners in the community.

Some of it comes from ongoing training and education.

And some of it comes through keeping in touch with the best-in-class research provided to them by national organizations.

All this expertise Sunny Center has developed has a tremendous value, which the agency puts to good use every day when they open up the doors, the kids walk in and their program staff starts its work.

But another way to use that tremendous value is to share it.

That’s basically all content marketing is — sharing what you know with a goal of helping customers or partners so much that they admire and appreciate you and want to stay connected.

Identify your audiences and speak to them directly

Sunny Center should put their expertise out in the community. For example, let’s imagine that one of their target audiences is parents who they want to get more engaged. So some of the content they could develop around the topics they know well might be:

    • How to talk to your teen about their day at school (Or about their future, their goals, their weight, money, drugs, etc.)
    • The common core and your child’s homework
    • Great exercise tips for the school break
    • Favorite craft ideas for grade schoolers
    • A guide to local health clinics (Or to charter schools, school registration days, free museum admissions, counseling programs, etc.)

Naturally, they would want to tackle these topics with an approach that carries the Sunny Center voice and point of view. Similarly, your topics and headlines will reflect your own voice and personality, so how in-depth, serious or playful the articles are will be unique to you. (Our content strategy brief template is a good tool for thinking through and documenting that voice.)

Now, suppose Sunny Center wants to engage a different audience than parents. For example, if they ask how kids themselves could benefit from their expertise, they’ll think of other ideas they could potentially develop:

    • Why your parents keep asking about your day at school
    • What do do if you’re feeling bullied
    • How to know if you’re accidentally being a bully

The same goes for other possible audiences, such as institutional partners or employers. All of these audiences have their own questions and pain points where your expertise can be brought to bear.

If Sunny Center’s marketing goal is to attract the interest of city hall, then it might make sense to develop articles like:

    • Ten cities with innovative solutions to the curfew question
    • Simple ways to dramatically improve city parks

If Sunny Center’s goal is to attract the local corporate community, then it might make sense to develop articles like:

    • An employer’s guide to local youth-at-work funding
    • Five unexpected benefits to businesses who partner with community centers

The idea is that this content is going to be more interesting to your target market than a press release about your new program. It’s more likely to get opened, clicked on and shared, and it’s more likely to attract a visit to your website.

You know why?

Because this content focuses on what your audience needs to hear rather than on what you need to tell them. It’s helping them with their problems rather than pushing your message.

And then I hit them with the pledge form, right?

No, not yet, in most cases.

Related reading: How Nonprofit Marketing Isn’t Quite Getting the Content Thing Yet

Remember: focus first on just being helpful.

Again, imagine each of these article possibilities with an approach based on being helpful first and foremost. It should be able to stand on its own even if they never talk about “what we do at Sunny Center” or if the name Sunny Center never appears.

That doesn’t mean Sunny Center can’t ever talk about itself. An article on “The Common Core and Your Child’s Homework,” can refer to Sunny Center and terrific work it does with afterschool academic programs if there is a natural and organic way.

But I recommend setting a high bar for that. When you are tempted to insert your nonprofit branding into the content, can you honestly say that you are the number one best expert to reference? Or, at least, the most relevant?

Related reading: 6 Higher Education Brands Killing It With Content Marketing

In that case, by all means, talk about your program. But if talking about yourself is your motivation to begin with, or if referencing you doesn’t add something valuable to the discussion, then readers are going to sniff it out, and it will undermine your credibility. It’s going to seem “salesy.”

Then why should it be us sharing this valuable information?

Many people get skeptical about content marketing at this point. Understandably so. How are you supposed to be building your nonprofit’s brand if you are biting your tongue every time you would normally say your name or boast about what you do?

One way Sunny Center can compensate for not having a strong sales pitch or call-to-action in this material is to make sure it is infused with the Sunny Center values and passions. This is their place to communicate the Sunny Center way of looking at the world.

Suppose you’ve got some blog posts that are 100 percent focused on being helpful. Then what happens?

A miracle occurs and your donations double? No, not quite.

In the short term, not much happens. You’re just getting started, and a few blog posts won’t change the world. You need more content, you need consistency and you need a plan to distribute and promote this material.

But assuming you are following a smart content marketing plan that is centered on being helpful, over time people will keep coming across your site. Your posts will show up in Google search results when people search on a question. Or those posts will keep coming across their Facebook feed or their neighborhood newsletter when their friends and colleagues are sharing.

Eventually, your nonprofit brand will be reinforced over and over with this content, as it is with any strongly expressed commercial brand. It will start to sink in that you guys know what you’re talking about and that it would be exciting to work with you to make the community better.

It’s actually better than the usual branding activities like advertising, because that is a beast you have to keep feeding. The ads may have value, but not lasting value. The value of good content keeps growing and growing. It takes a long time to turn the crank, but once you do, it’s like a flywheel, and you’ll find that miscellaneous odd blog posts and white papers you published two years ago keep bringing you new friends. The billboard you put up for a few months two years ago? Gone and forgotten.

Earn the right to ask

Those readers are going to sense your underlying values and passion. They’re going to see that you are experts. They’re going to realize that you are not just a great provider of services for kids but that you are thought leaders in this community on the issues they care about.

And, if they are in the market for an organization to partner with or support, they are going to think of you. They’re going to be more open to the calls-to-action that you do include. They’re going to click the “Find Out More” button or the “Donate Now” button, and now you have a lead.

And then you hit ’em with the pledge form.

Well, that’s oversimplifying, but the underlying point is that you earn the right sell or to ask by establishing a relationships of trust first. You introduce your appeal at some appropriate point late in the game.

There’s a lot more to it in practice, of course. For example, you want to maximize how effective it can be and you want to tailor this theory to your particular case. You want to be strategic and planful, you want to measure results and you want to use the best tools and shortcuts. We’ll cover all those more about that in the upcoming articles.

But that, in a nutshell, is the “theory of change” for content marketing. Give to get. Recognize that nonprofit branding is vital. Share your expertise steadily over time, staying “customer centric,” and eventually they’ll come to you.

Have you seen the rest of the Give to Get series?

Part 1: Why Content Marketing for Nonprofits? Because It’s a Perfect Fit.

Part 2: What Nonprofit Communications Can Learn From Content Marketing

Part 3: Let’s Get Honest About Your Nonprofit Marketing Strategy

Part 5: Your Nonprofit Blog is Not the Same as Content Marketing

Part 6: 5 Easy Ways to Create Great Content for Your Nonprofit Website


Robert McGuire

Robert McGuire


I have a vision of a content marketing agency that consistently produces standout material aligned with my clients’ business goals.

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