The 2018 Nonprofit Marketing & Brand Barometer Study

How do top performing* nonprofits approach marketing and brand development?

This is the question we endeavored to answer in our inaugural Nonprofit Marketing and Brand Barometer study.

The results are enlightening. Among our data, interesting findings emerged, such as:

  • Top performing nonprofits are 3x more likely to have a formal marketing budget than average performers
  • A majority of top performing nonprofits have a formal brand strategy (52%) and marketing plan (65%), while a majority of average performers do not
  • Top performing nonprofits are almost twice as likely as average performers to align their marketing plan with their strategic plan

These data point to the importance of prioritizing marketing and brand strategy, structure and resources and the impact of that prioritization on your nonprofit’s performance.

This year’s survey underscores what we’ve been saying for quite some time: marketing is about more than awareness and fundraising. It’s about overall performance and positioning your nonprofit to advance its mission. Read on for full study results and then tell us: how are you using what you’ve learned about the marketing practices of top performers to improve your nonprofit’s approach to brand and marketing?

* For the purpose of this study, top-performing nonprofits are defined as those with three or more stars on Charity Navigator. See Methodology for more information.

Top performing nonprofits put more of their operating budgets toward marketing.

This year’s study makes it clear that top performing nonprofits are investing significantly more – not just money, but also time, resources, and energy – in marketing. Let’s begin by taking a look at how marketing investment correlates with nonprofit performance.

Money isn’t everything when it comes to marketing, but a healthy budget does make a difference. Top performing nonprofit organizations spent a larger percentage of their total operating budget on marketing in 2018. When asked how much of their total operating budget was spent on marketing, 5.1% to 10% of total budget was the most common response among top performing nonprofits who knew their budget (28% of top performers), while 0-2% of total budget was the most common response among average performers who knew their budget (37% of average performers). Simply having a true marketing budget can make a difference in nonprofit performance, too. 61% of top performers reported they have a formal marketing budget, while only 48% of average performers reported the same.

The takeaway: If your nonprofit wants to get real results out of marketing in the year ahead, a formal marketing budget is a must. You should aim to allocate at least 5% of your total budget to marketing, including paid staff, agency or other professional services, paid promotions etc.

Question: Does your nonprofit have a formal marketing budget?

Question: What percentage of your organization's overall operating budget is allocated for marketing and communications, including paid staff and consultants (approximately)?

Top performing nonprofits put more strategy and structure around marketing.

The presence of a marketing strategy also correlates with nonprofit performance.

Top performing nonprofits are more likely to put concrete plans in place to guide their marketing efforts. 63% of top performers reported they have a formal marketing plan in place, while only 49% of average performers reported the same.

The takeaway: If you want to improve your nonprofit’s performance in the year ahead, one of the best things you can do is put a formal marketing plan in place now, and then organize your team’s daily operations around that plan. Rather than making your marketing plan a running list of tasks that “need to get done,” aim to set marketing goals for each goal or priority in your organization’s strategic plan. This will allow you to move toward treating marketing as a true strategic activity that can advance every aspect of your nonprofit’s mission, beyond just building awareness or driving donations. See the next section for more information about aligning your strategic plan and marketing plan.

Question: Which of the following best describes your nonprofit's marketing plan?

Top performing nonprofits are more likely to align their marketing plan with their strategic plan.

The vast majority of all nonprofits we surveyed had a strategic plan, but top performers were far more likely to use that strategic plan to guide their marketing plan.

48% of top performing nonprofits said they aligned their marketing plan with their organization’s strategic plan, while only 39% of average performers said the same.

The takeaway: While alignment between these two plans can mean different things to different organizations, we generally suggest making sure that each goal in your marketing plan ties back to a goal or objective in your organization’s strategic plan. You may be surprised at just how many of your organizational goals can be addressed with marketing when you take a careful look at them. If you can show a direct connection between your marketing efforts and the advancement of your organization’s goals and mission, you’ll be far more likely to earn marketing a “seat at the table.”

Question: Is your nonprofit's marketing plan aligned with your organization's strategic plan?

Top performing nonprofits are more likely to have a brand strategy and align their internal and external identity with their mission.

52% of top performers have a brand strategy (vs. 42% of average performers) and 70% of top performers say their internal identity and external image are both well-aligned with their nonprofit’s mission (vs. 64% of average performers).

While a brand strategy isn’t as common among nonprofits as a marketing plan, you’ll be more likely to find a brand strategy at top performing nonprofits than average performing ones. This means top performers are likely to have a more cohesive identity established internally (with staff, board members and volunteers), and present a more consistent image externally (with target stakeholders like donors or program participants).  Interestingly, top performing nonprofits are also more likely to say their brand image and identity are aligned with their mission.

The takeaway: If your nonprofit’s brand strategy is not yet firmly established, the time to begin developing it and documenting it is now. The bigger and more complex your organization becomes, the harder it will be to reign in your brand image and identity. Continue to the next section to learn more about what a brand strategy should include.

Question: Does your organization have a defined brand strategy?

Question: Are your internal identity and external image aligned with your mission?

When building their brand strategies, top performing nonprofits are most likely to include a visual identity, key messages and a positioning statement.

Since a brand strategy can be approached many different ways, we asked survey respondents which elements their brand strategies included.

The most common elements named included a visual identity (77% of top performers), key messages (63%) and a positioning statement (40%).  Other elements we asked about are also shown below.

The takeaway: As you get to work on developing a brand strategy, you’ll get the best results when you focus on the elements that make the most sense for you. We suggest that, at minimum, your brand strategy include a positioning statement, key messages (who, what, where, how, why, and to what end), stakeholder profiles and visual brand guidelines (logo usage, imagery and color usage etc.) Each element should be rooted in your mission so that your brand becomes an embodiment of the change your organization is working to drive.

Question: Which of the following brand elements have you defined for your organization?

Top performing nonprofit organizations trust their stakeholders to personalize how they talk about their brands.

If you ask top performing nonprofits, the days of strictly policing their brands are long gone.

59% of top performing nonprofits (vs. 45% of average performers) answered yes when asked if they trusted their staff to personalize the way they talk about the organization’s brand. 51% of those respondents said they provide concrete guidance to help staff personalize the brand, while 8% said they do not.

The takeaway: This finding is representative of a larger trend in the nonprofit world that researchers call Brand Democracy. In today’s fast-moving, social media age, they say nonprofits are recognizing that efforts to strictly regulate communication about their brands are futile. Instead of holding all your staff to a strict approvals process where everything they write and say about your organization must be vetted, consider putting guidelines in place that encourage consistency without limiting freedom. You should also consider Brand Democracy when going through a rebrand and aim to involve staff in all levels in the process.

Question: Do you trust your staff to personalize the way they talk about your organization?

Generating awareness and fundraising are the most common marketing goals among all nonprofits, but top performing nonprofits are more likely to utilize marketing to generate earned revenue.

The most commonly cited marketing goals among all types of nonprofits include raising awareness and fundraising, but top performers are far more likely than average performers to cite generating earned revenue as a marketing goal.

An overwhelming majority of top performing nonprofits and average performers named both generating awareness of their organization and fundraising as marketing goals. While marketing goals are generally similar between the two groups, a significant delta exists in the number of top performers versus average performers who cited generating earned income as a marketing goal.

The takeaway: Awareness and fundraising are important marketing goals, but they’re not the only ones. To maximize your mission impact, you need to think bigger about the potential marketing holds. If your nonprofit doesn’t already have an earned income strategy, it may be smart to begin exploring one soon (and supporting it with marketing). Traditional sources of nonprofit funding are becoming more unreliable all the time. Top performing nonprofits are those that learn how to create their own sustainable sources of income and market their diverse offerings effectively.

Question: Which of the following marketing/communications goals are you focused on at your organization right now?


There are several grading/evaluation systems for nonprofit performance, including BBB Wise, Charity Navigator, GuideStar and others. Each system uses its own criteria to rate nonprofit performance, with a focus on information shared, financial performance, impact and more.  None of them is comprehensive or perfect in and of itself, but together, they paint a good picture of a nonprofit’s performance and effectiveness. For the purpose of this study, we have defined top-performing nonprofits as organizations with a rating of 3 stars or more on Charity Navigator. We made this selection because Charity Navigator looks at three important factors when rating nonprofit organizations, including financial health, accountability, and transparency, and also shares information with GuideStar. Learn more about CharityNavigator’s rating system here.

Upon establishing a method for identifying top performing nonprofits, we surveyed approximately 250 organizations, approximately 20% of which qualified as top performers, using an online survey. Responses were then compared between top performing nonprofits and all other respondents with an eye on significant differences between the group.

About Prosper Strategies

This study was commissioned and conducted by the Prosper Strategies Research Institute, an initiative of the Chicago-based marketing firm Prosper Strategies.

As the leading marketing experts for nonprofit and for-profit social impact organizations, Prosper Strategies has helped hundreds of changemakers across the world build powerful brands and advance their missions. Learn more at prosper-strategies.com.

We’d like to thank all the participants in this year’s study for taking the time to share your responses. We know your time is valuable and appreciate your commitment to furthering social sector-specific marketing research!

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