Is it Time to Call a Nonprofit Marketing Agency?

6 min read

“Maybe we need some professional help.”

Have you ever heard your colleagues (or yourself) say these words? Perhaps you’ve uttered them during the height of your busy fundraising season, or maybe they came out while you were banging your head against a wall trying to solve a seemingly unsolvable messaging problem that just keeps coming up.

During times like these, you might have wondered whether a nonprofit marketing agency could be your silver bullet. You might even be wondering that now. And maybe it could. But before you begin your search for an agency partner and issue an RFP (or not) it’s important to get clear about what an agency can and cannot do for your organization. Only then can you consider whether you’re ready for a partnership.

What a Nonprofit Marketing Agency CAN Do

Every nonprofit marketing agency is different, so I’ll make some generalizations here through the lens of my own marketing agency and others I know. Here’s a long list of things many nonprofit marketing agencies can do:

    • Conduct marketing research to inform your strategy
    • Audit your existing marketing and communications efforts and make recommendations for improvements
    • Work hand-in-hand with an internal marketing/communications leader or team to build a marketing plan or campaign strategy
    • Identify, profile and assist with the acquisition of new target audiences (donors, volunteers, etc.)
    • Facilitate marketing/communications/messaging strategy sessions with your team
    • Build or refresh your organization’s brand (name, visual identity, tagline, messaging)
    • Provide creative direction and develop creative campaign concepts
    • Fill capacity or skill gaps on your team by executing on tactics in your marketing plan
      • This varies greatly by agency, but some of the tactics you might be able to find agency support for include copywriting, email marketing, direct mail, social media, web development, impact reporting, media relations/PR, digital advertising, web development, collateral design and event planning.
    • Help you strengthen your internal marketing function and processes
    • Help you attract new donors, volunteers, talent, etc.
    • Help you align marketing/communications and fundraising/development teams
    • Provide media/spokesperson training/coaching for your leadership
    • Train your team on messaging and marketing
    • Help you navigate through a communications crisis
    • Measure the impact of marketing and suggest optimizations you can make based on results

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea of the wide range of needs a marketing agency may be able to meet for your nonprofit.

What a Nonprofit Marketing Agency CANNOT Do

Unless your agency is not strictly a marketing agency, don’t expect them to do these things for your organization:

  • Define your organization’s mission and strategic plan. A marketing agency may be able to help finesse the way you message your mission, but unless the firm also specializes in strategic planning, don’t rely on them to set your organization’s overall goals or define its overarching focus. Your strategic direction should be clear long before you hire a marketing agency, and your marketing strategy should then be developed in response to your organization’s goals.
  • Manage your entire marketing and communications function. A good agency will function as a strategic thought partner, not just an extra set of hands. While some nonprofits believe they can outsource their entire marketing function, I’ve rarely seen this approach succeed. To work successfully with an agency, you should have someone on staff who is responsible for marketing and communications inside the organization and serves as a primary point of contact for the agency. Ideally, this person shouldn’t be a “part-time” marketing person who also wears several other hats, but rather a full-time, dedicated marketing leader. An agency can then partner with this person (and their team, if they have one) to build a sound strategy and fill skill and capacity gaps to execute it.
  • Guarantee results. Some marketing agencies claim to guarantee results. This is especially common in media relations and digital advertising, and it makes me sick. Why? Because in marketing, and in an agency-client relationship, there are no sure bets. There are just too many factors that cannot be controlled, from newly emerging technologies to the way a client responds to agency recommendations. If an agency promises you results, and especially if those results seem too good to be true, run. Instead, look for an agency that takes the time to develop a deep understanding of your challenges, issue area, and organizational dynamics, and then makes highly educated recommendations for strategies you can test and learn from.

With that foundational understanding of what an agency can and cannot do in mind, fill out this checklist to see if it really is time to call a nonprofit marketing agency. If you can check off more than 50 percent of these boxes, it might be time to pick up the phone.

You may be ready to call a nonprofit marketing agency if you can check these boxes:

    • Key decisionmakers at our organization believe marketing and communications are critical to growing our impact and/or achieving our mission
    • We have someone on staff who is responsible for marketing and communications and they have bandwidth working with a firm
    • We have a clearly defined mission, strategic plan and organization-wide goals
    • We need strategic counsel to strengthen our approach to marketing
    • We understand the importance of strategy to any initiative that we might hire a marketing firm to handle and don’t expect any firm to jump directly into tactical execution
    • We have skill and/or capacity gaps that we believe an agency could fill, and we’re clear about what those gaps are
    • We have at least some idea of the budget we have available to hire a marketing agency
    • We have talked with those who have the authority to hire an agency about our desire to start a search and they are on board
    • We have at least some idea of when we’d like to start working with a firm, and it’s not sooner than a few weeks away, but it’s also not further than six months away
    • We have had internal discussions about our needs and can clearly articulate them to potential agency partners
    • We are open to sharing our existing marketing materials, analytics and other information that might be helpful to the agency we select
    • We’re open to change
    • We are interested in a collaborative partnership rather than a vendor relationship

Download the checklist here.

What’s next?

If you’re still interested in exploring a partnership with a marketing firm after reading this article and filling out the checklist above, we’d love to talk. An agency partnership isn’t right for everyone, and we’d be happy to help you consider the pros, cons and possible benefits of working with a firm like ours. Feel free to reach out to me directly at or contact us here.

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