Marketing in general is undergoing a dramatic change that many people have been reluctant to look at squarely and respond to. And nonprofits aren’t immune to these changes. Nonprofit marketing strategy needs to get real about the digital transformation and about the changes happening in buyer behavior.

But first, a word about where I’m coming from. We’re now on our third article of this series — a good spot to pause and explain why I’m so interested in content as a nonprofit marketing strategy.

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

Part 2: What Nonprofit Communications Can Learn From Content Marketing

Much of the reason I have my team working hard on this series is personal. I treasure the work nonprofit agencies do for their local communities, and I believe the sector in general is underappreciated as an economic force. Strengthening nonprofits has a been a big part of my professional life. I got my start in marketing as a communications associate writing client success stories for the website of my local United Way in the early days of its online presence.

I moved on from there to managing program evaluation and grantmaking, which gave me a pretty comprehensive understanding of one city’s nonprofit ecosystem and a peek into the operations of dozens of individual organizations. I understand the challenges local agencies have with finding resources, building relationships and working well with one another.

After I become an independent marketing consultant and eventually started my own content marketing agency, I stayed active in my local nonprofit community by volunteering in programs, chairing development committees, serving as chair of the board of directors of the largest homeless services organization in my state and, of course, doing lots of pro bono marketing work.

So I’m personally invested in the success of good nonprofits.

But also, I’m writing this series because I honestly believe nonprofits are missing the boat on content marketing. There is a reason high-flying software companies and the scrappy startups trying to compete with them are both using this valuable approach. The reason is that it works.

I want to correct the current lack of content marketing in nonprofit marketing strategy because I believe content marketing is uniquely suited to nonprofits.

In other words, this isn’t a case of nonprofits imitating a tactic from the business world the best they can. Nonprofits can actually be better at this, because content marketing is more aligned with their core — if they face up to an uncomfortable truth.

First, let’s look at the good news. We have some advantages we can take advantage of!

The perfect nonprofit marketing strategy: helping people

There is an understandable level of fatigue with and skepticism about content marketing out there. A lot of junk flies under the content flag, and a lot of organizations produce content without a real plan to use it effectively.

However, the anecdotes, case studies and research demonstrating that content marketing works are quite persuasive. It’s especially easy to see lots of examples from fast-moving startups. But we’re also starting to see this tactic used in other areas like higher education, local bricks-and-mortar businesses and professional services firms.

Nonprofits aren’t startups, of course. In fact, many have long and distinguished histories going back decades.

But nonprofits are scrappy, and they are working with limited resources in comparison to many other brands. Relative to the Goliath brands trying to get attention from your donors, nonprofits are Davids. But content marketing was made for Davids.

For example, I’ve said that I define content marketing as trying to understand what your target customer needs and wants and would find useful, and then trying to provide that. Nonprofits are in the business of helping people. So, a marketing strategy built around helping people is a natural fit.

The timeline works for nonprofits

Content marketing really requires a long-term commitment. You can’t write one blog post and expect it to start yielding results, so most content marketing projects succeed by accumulating results over time.

That’s a feature, not a bug, as they say in the startup world.

Nonprofits are in a better position to play that long game because they are committed to their communities for the long term. They have deep roots. They’re not going anywhere. They don’t have stockholders or investors expecting a quick return on their investment.

Most startups are built with the hope of growing fast, building a perception of a lot of value and hoping to turn that into an “exit event” by selling quickly to a larger company or to investors in the stock market.

If content marketing can work in that environment, it should be even more effective for a brand that is built to last the way your average community center or arts organization is.

But the main reason I so strongly believe in this approach for nonprofits is because of a more unsettling fact . . .

What you’re doing now probably isn’t working

Like startups, nonprofits are usually trying to compete for attention in a noisy environment where the target audience has many demands on their time.

Put another way, you are competing not just against other places where charitable dollars might go. You’re competing against every other thing your donors and partners might possibly give attention to instead of you.

Let’s imagine that your quarterly newsletter went out this week. The print version dropped in the mail yesterday, the electronic version went out to your email list today and your online version is getting the usual distribution on social platforms.

Now imagine one of your donors goes home this evening. She sorts through the mail on the kitchen counter and catches a glimpse of the print newsletter. Then later on, while half-watching TV, she’s on her smartphone scrolling through email — the eleventh message down contains your electronic newsletter. Right before bed, as she’s checking Facebook, a link to the electronic version appears in her newsfeed.

That’s three impressions. Terrific, right? Almost halfway to the seven impressions that marketing folklore tells us is necessary.

But did she pluck the print version out of the mail pile? Did she open the email? Did she click the Facebook post before it disappeared and got replaced by the latest viral video?

That’s difficult to answer, but one thing is almost certain . . . . with every passing quarter, your prospects are less likely to engage than they did with the same newsletter last quarter. And next quarter’s will be a tiny bit less effective.

Because the demands on this donor’s attention are getting greater every day. You know this true, because it’s what’s happening to you. It’s getting tougher every passing day for brands to get your attention, and it’s getting tougher every passing day for your newsletter and your email blast to make the same impression it did yesterday. The value of those three impressions is eroding over time, and it’s going to take a lot more than seven.

In short, your competitors aren’t other non-profits. If you are a youth services program, your competitor is not the other youth services program down the street.

Your competitor is Coca-Cola, the NFL, Pokemon Go, Netflix, and car karaoke clips shared on YouTube. It’s the endless stream of links and articles and blogs and memes that your donor is actively seeking via Google. It’s all the posts on your donor’s Facebook stream that your message is drowning in. Your competition is everything else the internet has to offer and every device that connects to the internet.

Be heard above the noise

But you can use this to your advantage. Your prospects are engaged with so many mediums and they’re looking for good content. If you are deliberate and thoughtful about content development, to whom it’s targeted and how to distribute it, making content marketing part of your nonprofit marketing strategy can completely transform the way you connect with your audience.

My next two articles will delve deeper into how.

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 4: How Nonprofit Branding Using Content Marketing Can Get Results
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.

How can we help?