What to Expect from Your Nonprofit Marketing Agency’s Research Phase

6 min read


“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.”

– Albert Sent-Gyorgyi, Nobel Prize Winning Biochemist


At Prosper Strategies, we rely on research to drive our strategic recommendations for every nonprofit we partner with.

Typically, we spend the first 4-12 weeks with a new client moving through what we refer to as the “Discover” phase of our 4-D Approach. In this phase, we learn about the ins and outs of your organization, your stakeholders and the ecosystem you operate within. This research is critical to our work together. The insights we uncover in the Discover phase inform all of our strategic recommendations moving forward, whether we’re working with you on a messaging project, a rebrand, a marketing planning engagement, or something else entirely.

The research process results in a unique set of insights for each organization we work with, but the steps we take to uncover those insights are nearly the same every time. We always conduct three key assessments: an Organization Assessment, an Ecosystem Assessment and a Stakeholder Assessment. Let’s dive into each and discuss how we approach this research and what we aim to uncover in each type of assessment.

Organization Assessment

Our research process always begins with an Organization Assessment. Here, we aim to understand your organization’s strategy and current approach to branding, marketing, communications, fundraising and any other aspects of your organization’s work that we’ll have an impact on. This is our opportunity to get fully ingrained in your organization and ensure we understand your mission, approach and organizational dynamics.

To kick off the Organization Assessment, we host a two-hour Discover Kickoff Meeting with your Communications Committee, which is a group of your internal and external stakeholders we’ll ask you to establish who will be engaged in and provide feedback on our work together. This committee is typically made up of one or several members of the marketing and communications team, an executive director/president/C-suite leader, a few staff members from other departments at a variety of levels, at least one board member, and ideally, a handful of volunteers, clients, or other individuals your organization aims to serve. During the Discovery Kickoff Meeting, we take the Committee through a series of questions that range from very general to very specific. These questions are intended to help us get up to speed quickly and get a variety of perspectives on the challenges you’ve partnered with us to address. Surrounding the Discovery Kickoff Session, we also conduct a deep review of materials like your strategic plan, mission, vision, website, analytics, social media channels, email communications, marketing collateral and more to understand how you’re currently approaching marketing, communications, fundraising and more.

Ecosystem Assessment

Next, we conduct an Ecosystem Assessment where we aim to understand how your organization exists relative to others in your space. This includes organizations that you collaborate with, compete with for donor dollars and those you might get confused with. We identify these organizations together in the Discover Kickoff Meeting.

You may feel that you already understand who your competitors or comparators are, but the things you think you know about them may not sync up with how they are positioning and marketing themselves, or with how they are seen by others. We need to dig into what they are saying and doing from a marketing, messaging and media perspective to understand how your organization can differentiate from them and stand out in the minds of your stakeholders. That is what makes the Ecosystem Assessment so critical.

During the Ecosystem Assessment, we assess the messaging of your competitors and/or comparators across their website, resources, social media channels, media coverage, and more. What key messages do they emphasize? Do they have a unique point of view? Do they use or avoid specific types of language? Next, we look at what they are doing from a tactical marketing perspective. Are they investing in Google Ads? Do they have a blog? How are they using social media? Finally, we look at how your competitors and/or comparators are covered in the news to uncover themes in media coverage across your ecosystem. We may also conduct a topical media audit where we look more broadly at topics of interest to your ecosystem outside of the coverage of your competitors and comparators.

Ultimately, the Ecosystem Assessment uncovers how your organization is similar to and different from others in your ecosystem, which sets us up to define your unique positioning, messaging and point of view, and allows us to build a strategy that will help your organization stand out.

Stakeholder Assessment

The third and final part of the Discover process is the Stakeholder Assessment. Here, we aim to better understand the stakeholders your organization hopes to influence, both demographically and psychographically, so we can propose a strategy that will effectively reach and engage them.

We use a few different tools to conduct Stakeholder Assessments, and the ones we select for your organization will be based on your goals and challenges, the questions we need to answer to address them, and the type of data you need to move your work forward.

When your challenges require qualitative data, we typically focus our Stakeholder Assessment around stakeholder interviews. These are a series of phone calls or in-person interviews that we use to connect one-on-one with your most important stakeholders (such as individuals you serve, staff, board members, donors, and volunteers) to better understand their perspectives on your organization, messaging, marketing and more. If there is a need to gather qualitative data from a group of stakeholders, we may also conduct focus groups. Focus groups are particularly useful when we want to assess how your stakeholders influence one another when reacting to your existing messaging or marketing campaigns.

When your challenges require quantitative data, we typically focus our Stakeholder Assessment around surveys and questionnaires. These tools allow us to get hard quantitative data on how your stakeholders respond to your existing messaging and marketing. They also make it possible to assess the needs, preferences and opinions of new stakeholder groups you hope to reach.

Often, we use qualitative and quantitative approaches in tandem during the Stakeholder Assessment.

The Discover Process

From start to finish, the Discover process takes anywhere from 4-12 weeks depending on the depth of research your organization needs and the availability of your team. This can feel like a long time at the onset of a new engagement, especially when you’re excited to start seeing the results of our work together, but it’s critical to take the time to go deep. The Discover process informs all of the work we will do together and greatly improves the outcomes of the strategies, recommendations and campaigns that will follow.

We’ll work collaboratively with you and your Communications Committee throughout the Discover process, so you’ll benefit from learning about our research insights as they’re developing. At the end of the Discover phase, we will produce a Discover Report summarizing the key insights from our research that will inform the rest of our work together and review these insights with your team, Communications Committee, and in some cases, larger groups like your board of directors.

Want to learn more about how our Discover process works? View our case studies to learn how we have applied this process to dozens of nonprofits and foundations.

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