Marketing and Communications Planning for Nonprofit Organizations

13 min read

Marketing and communications are mission critical. 

They’re the forces that help people understand what your nonprofit does, why it matters, and how they can get involved. Effective marketing and communications can support every goal your nonprofit sets, from recruiting volunteers, to building partnerships, raising funds, diversifying revenue streams, fostering staff engagement, and helping people access your programs and services. And you can’t have effective marketing and communications without a solid marcomm plan.

However, marketing and communications planning can be a complex and challenging process. It requires you to align your marketing and communications goals with the bigger picture goals set in your nonprofit’s strategic plan and to choose the right tactics and approaches for reaching those goals within the constraints of an (often very limited) budget and team. It also requires that you determine how to measure the impact of your marketing and communications efforts on your organization’s mission and bottom line.

We created this post (and an upcoming accompanying guide) to share our proven process for marketing and communications planning so you can learn how to make planning work better for your organization.

This post includes three parts:

Part One: People – guidance on involving your stakeholders in marketing planning

Part Two: Strategy – the nuts and bolts of marketing planning

Part Three: Progress – managing and tracking the success of your marketing plan

Read on to learn what makes a marketing plan work and find out how to develop yours →

Part 1: People

An effective nonprofit marketing and communications plan can’t be shaped by your department’s leadership alone. It must be developed in partnership with all of your many diverse stakeholders.

An effective nonprofit marketing and communications plan can’t be shaped by your department’s leadership alone. It must be developed in partnership with all of your many diverse stakeholders. Click To Tweet

That’s why we suggest starting the marketing planning process by developing a primary planning committee made up of a cross-departmental group of staff who will steward the development of your marketing and communications plan. Of course, this group should include the person at the helm of your marketing and/or communications department, as well as key staff within that department. But you should also consider including folks such as:

  • Your executive director/CEO/president: this person can provide a valuable perspective on your organization’s strategic plan and big picture goals, which your marketing and communications plan should ultimately align with.

  • Your director of development (or a similar role): there is often a great amount of overlap between marketing/communications strategies and development/fundraising strategies. Including someone in a development role in your primary planning committee can help you determine the unique roles each department should play, as well as the areas where marketing/communications can support fundraising.

  • Your director of advocacy (or a similar role): similarly, if your marketing and communications department often works to support your organization’s advocacy efforts, including a leader from this department in your primary planning committee can be helpful.

  • Your director of HR (or similar role): most nonprofit marketing/communications departments play an important role in internal communications, so including voices from HR can be a good way to ensure your plan supports efforts to foster a healthy staff culture.

  • Program staff: those who work directly with your organization’s beneficiaries can provide valuable insights into how those folks should be represented in your marketing and communications. They can also share ideas about how marketing and communications can help the right people access the programs and services they need most.

Your marketing/communications director (or someone in a similar role) will ultimately be responsible for developing your plan, and their team will ultimately be responsible for executing on it. That said, including a cross-departmental group like the one outlined above in the planning process is a great way to ensure that your plan acknowledges the important, strategic role marketing and communications should play across every facet of your organization.

Additionally, we recommend developing a board marketing planning committee, which is comprised of a select group of board members who are engaged at strategic checkpoints throughout planning to provide input on elements of your plan. This group should include no more than five board members. Ideally, these will be folks who have experience with marketing, communications, development, advocacy and external affairs. For some organizations with more hands-off, governing or institutional boards, this committee may not be necessary, but you still may want to gain perspective from select board members through surveys or interviews.

Finally, but most importantly, you should develop a stakeholder committee, made up of beneficiaries/clients, community members, donors, funders or any other individuals who impact or are impacted by your marketing and communications. You’ll ask them for input at key points in the planning process – often through a survey at the onset of the process, a listening session once you’ve determined your marketing goals, and a review of specific elements of your plan or messaging once they’ve been developed. This is critical to ensuring that your plan actually addresses the priorities of your stakeholders, and that the communications to come out of it represent your beneficiaries in a way that feels true to them.

Once each of these committees are in place, you’ll want to think carefully about how to involve them in the marketing planning process. The primary planning committee will likely meet regularly throughout the process, while the board and stakeholder committees may be tapped for input through tools like surveys and interviews, and convened just once or twice at key points in the marketing planning processes. You’ll also want to establish a decision-making framework, like DARCI, to determine who gets to make final decisions in the marketing planning process, and what roles everyone else should play.

Keys to success in the People phase:

  • Form a cross-departmental team to shepherd the marketing planning process
  • Include all your organization’s stakeholders
  • Ensure planning groups don’t become too large
  • Require individuals to attend every meeting their committee is a part of (you don’t want people coming in and out of the process)
  • Establish a decision-making framework, like DARCI

Part 2: Strategy

Understanding who your stakeholders are, how they will be involved in marketing planning and their current perceptions of your nonprofit’s approach to marketing and communications is step one in marcomm planning. Next, you’ll want to move into the strategy phase of the process beginning with step two, research.


Working with your primary planning committee, you’ll want to conduct an organization assessment, where you’ll review important documents, such as past marketing plans, plans for the other departments your marketing function supports (like development and advocacy), metrics from your website, email and other channels, existing marketing collateral, and more.  Then, you should conduct an ecosystem assessment, where you’ll analyze the messaging, marketing and communications approach of five comparator organizations, or nonprofits similar to your own. This information helps to get your primary planning committee on the same page about your current approach to marketing and communications, and ensures the group knows how your organization is currently positioned relative to other nonprofits in your ecosystem. 

Comparator MatrixA high-level version of this organization and ecosystem assessment can also be shared with other groups, like your board marketing planning committee and stakeholder committee.

The combination of stakeholder inputs gathered beginning in the people phase of planning, along with these assessments, will begin to manifest strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats related to your nonprofit’s approach to marketing, as well as other ideas you will likely want to address in the marketing planning process.

Pillar development

Armed with inputs from your stakeholders and the research you’ve conducted, your next step is to choose 3-4 pillars, or priorities, around which your marketing and communications plan should focus. This should be done initially by your primary planning committee, who will then seek input from others. First, brainstorm as many potential pillars as you can that marketing and communications could focus on during the duration of your next plan (which is usually 1-3 years in length). Examples of potential pillars include things like:

  • Launch and recruit participants for a new program
  • Expand awareness among potential high net worth donors
  • Revamp our brand and messaging
  • Foster employee engagement
  • Develop new pipelines for community and corporate partnerships

As you can see, Pillars do not address tactics, like social media or email marketing, but rather the big picture things marketing and communications can accomplish for your organization.

Then, narrow that list of potential pillars down by assessing where each priority falls on the Eisenhower Matrix (see below). This will likely require a good amount of discussion and debate among your primary planning committee.

Eisenhower Matrix (High Impact/Low Impact) (High effort/low effort)

You’re aiming to end up with 3-4 pillars that land toward the top right corner of the green box. Because these items are likely to have both the biggest impact on your mission, and require the heaviest lift, it’s worth making them key priority areas for your marketing and communications plan. Things that fall into the yellow and pink boxes don’t need to be excluded from your plan entirely. Instead, they can be added to a “keep the lights on” section of your plan, where you’ll be able to keep track of them and ensure they’re addressed without giving them the same level of focus and resources as the items that ultimately become pillars. Items that end up in the red box (low impact/heavier lift) should likely be removed from your marketing plan entirely. They require too much effort for the amount of impact they produce, and your team should spend their time on other things.

After you’ve made an initial attempt at narrowing down to 3-4 pillars for your marketing and communications plan, you may want to run those pillars by your board and stakeholder committees for feedback.

Keys to success for the Strategy phase:

  • Ground yourself in a thorough assessment of your organization’s current approach to marketing and communications, as well as past successes and stumbling blocks
  • Choose 3-4 pillars (aka priorities) for your marketing plan
  • Relegate other items to a “keep the lights on” section of your plan, or eliminate them entirely
  • Get input from your stakeholders on your pillars
  • Don’t venture into tactics at this phase

Part 3: Progress

The Progress phase of the marketing and communications planning process is about bringing your plan to life in your day-to-day work by setting and measuring objectives and key results (OKRs). 

For each of your marketing plan pillars, you will create a set of 1 to 4 objectives, which are the measurable key outcomes that need to be reached to achieve each pillar. Keep in mind that effective objectives are:

  • Ambitious: objectives should represent a significant change or leap forward, not something that would be likely to happen through continuing “business as usual.”
  • Memorable: objectives should be concise and easy to remember, recite and reflect on while you’re going about your day-to-day work.
  • Mission-aligned: objectives should play a clear role in advancing your organization’s mission via marketing and communications.

This is the spot to bring tactics in, if appropriate. You’ll see how that happens in the example below.

Here’s how objectives could be set for the first example pillar, from above:

  • Pillar: Launch and recruit participants for a new program
    • Objective 1: Brand new program
    • Objective 2: Introduce new program via effective PR campaign, local media spend and paid and organic social campaign
    • Objective 3: Drive program participation

Then, for each objective, you will also set 1 to 3 key results (KRs), which are the measurable indicators of whether objectives are being achieved. KRs should be time-bound.

Here’s an example of key results for each of those objectives:

  • Pillar: Launch and recruit participants for a new program
    • Objective 1: Brand new program
      • KR1: Develop name and visual identity for new program by Q1
      • KR2: Get new program up onto website by Q1
      • KR3: Develop suite of marketing materials for new program by Q2
    • Objective 2: Introduce new program via effective PR campaign, local media spend and paid and organic social campaign
      • KR1: Secure at least 3 local media placements for new program by Q2
      • KR2: Drive 25,000 web visitors to program page on website through paid advertising and organic social media by Q3
    • Objective 3: Drive program participation
      • KR1: Drive 500 inquiries from qualified targets for new program by Q3
      • KR2: Drive 50 participants to join program by Q4

After your team feels that you have a solid set of objectives and key results in place, you’ll want to make sure that everyone is accountable for carrying out the goals you have set together. Walk through each one of your pillars, objectives and key results, and assign an owner for each. In most cases, owners will be folks on your marketing and communications team. There could also be areas where you’ll assign owners on other teams, like development. 

Then, you’ll want to get into the most detailed part of the marketing planning process, which we call activity planning. Here, each pillar owner will list out the activities that need to take place over the next quarter under each pillar, objective and key result grouping. Those activities can also be assigned to individual owners. 

Then, the person in charge of developing your marketing and communications plan will also want to outline activities that correspond with those items that fell into the “keep the lights on” section of your marketing and communications plan. For example, you might have regular quarterly activities in your plan that aren’t associated with any pillars, like sending an email newsletter, or developing a social media calendar. Keep your staff bandwidth in mind as you go through the process of activity planning: how many people have ownership over elements of your plan, and how much time do they have available to execute on those elements? It’s best to under-commit your team rather than over-commit them. You can always add in “nice to have” activities if your team is finding itself with extra time.

Of course, you’ll also want to map out a budget for each of the items in your plan and make sure you are being realistic about what it will cost to execute paid elements of your plan (like buying ads or contracting with freelancers).

Then, those with ownership over pillars, objectives, key results and activities should meet regularly during the quarter to ensure these activities are being carried out and measured. We suggest developing a dashboard to track your progress. Once the end of each quarter nears, pillar owners should again come together to evaluate successes and learnings to date and map out activities for the next quarter that lies ahead. This process can repeat over and over again until you reach the end of the timeframe for your marketing and communications plan (usually 1-3 years) at which point, big picture planning can begin again.

Keys to success during the Progress phase:

  • Establish objectives and key results for each pillar
  • Create quarterly activity plans for each pillar/objective/key result, as well as for your “keep the lights on” activities that must take place, but don’t support specific pillars
  • Be realistic about your team’s bandwidth and your marketing budget
  • Meet regularly and use a dashboard to assess progress

Marketing planning is a complex process, but if managed properly, it can be a gamechanger for your nonprofit. Follow the steps outlined in this guide and you’ll be well on your way to maximizing the potential of marketing for your organization.

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