What Effective Nonprofit Marketing & Communications Looks Like – The Nonprofit Marketing Mastery Model

8 min read

You know effective nonprofit marketing when you see it, but can you actually define what separates an organization that is extraordinary at marketing from one that is just average? It’s more than a sizeable budget, a killer social media strategy or some “secret sauce” that you can’t quite put your finger on. It turns out, there are six common ingredients among every nonprofit that develops true marketing mastery. We’ve seen what happens when these ingredients come together at an organization (and when they don’t) over the years as we’ve consulted with hundreds of nonprofits, and now, we’ve built that knowledge into a model we call The Nonprofit Marketing Mastery Curve. You can use the model to better understand what an effective nonprofit marketing and communications function should look like. Then, you can map your organization to it to see where you’re close to mastery and where you need to focus on making improvements. Let’s dive in.

The Nonprofit Marketing Mastery Curve: An Introduction

Most organizations fall somewhere across the spectrum of marketing mastery: novice, beginner, average, expert, or master. Marketing is inextricably tied to your nonprofit’s ability to advance its mission, so if your organization is at the novice level, there is a good chance you’re struggling in other areas as well. But as you move up the spectrum toward marketing mastery, your ability to make meaningful strides toward your mission and drive social change will continue to grow.

The six key areas where successful nonprofits develop marketing mastery include:

  • Application of Marketing to Strategic Plan Goals
  • Brand
  • Marketing Plan
  • Marketing Management
  • Marketing Budget
  • Marketing Measurement

Let’s break each of these six areas down and discuss what mastery really looks like in each one.

Marketing Mastery Area 1: Application of Marketing to the Goals in your Strategic Plan

Marketing exists to drive your organization’s mission and cause forward. There’s no other reason to pursue it. But that can’t happen if you aren’t focusing your marketing efforts acutely on advancing the big picture, organization-wide goals set in your nonprofit’s strategic plan. Organizations that fall toward the left side of the spectrum in this respect don’t apply marketing directly to advancing any of their organization’s overall goals. A marketing or communications function in an organization at the novice level might operate as an in-house creative department or event planning department, but their work is more about “getting things done” than it is about advancing any overarching goal that the organization has set. Organizations that fall toward the middle (average) part of this spectrum are applying marketing to some of their organization’s overall goals. This is where organizations that put marketing under the umbrella of fundraising often fall. While marketing can certainly help fundraising achieve its goals, fundraising is only one of the many areas where marketing can contribute. And finally, organizations that fall toward the right side of the spectrum – toward mastery – are those that have found ways to leverage marketing for every aim they’re working to achieve. Marketing might (and probably should) still contribute to fundraising initiatives in these organizations, but it’s also contributing to things like recruiting talent, driving membership, attracting new clients, recruiting volunteers, and raising awareness around the broader cause the organization exists to pursue.

Marketing Mastery Area 2: Brand

Does your nonprofit’s brand exhibit integrity, meaning that what you stand for internally is consistent with how you represent yourself externally? If so, you’re probably somewhere around the beginner level when it comes to this aspect of the Nonprofit Marketing Mastery Curve.

Does it also exhibit democracy, meaning that your stakeholders feel empowered to personalize the way they talk about and use your brand? If so, you’re probably somewhere around the average level.

What about affinity? Does your nonprofit’s brand inspire your stakeholders to want to form lasting relationships with your organization?

If you’ve achieved all three when it comes to your brand (integrity, democracy and affinity) then congratulations, you’re close to mastery in this area.

Marketing Mastery Area 3: Marketing Plan

As you’ve heard me say before, a thorough marketing plan is essential if you truly want to make marketing a tool for mission impact.

Organizations that have no marketing plan at all are novices in this respect, and fall toward the left of the Marketing Plan spectrum on the Nonprofit Marketing Mastery Curve. Organizations that use a list of tasks or a marketing calendar are in the “average” range. A list of tasks or a marketing calendar is better than nothing, but it’s not enough to set your organization up for true marketing effectiveness. Organizations that have a full marketing plan (like this one) and align that marketing plans with their strategic plan fall into the “expert” range in the marketing plan spectrum, and if your organization fits that description, you should be proud. The true marketing masters are those that develop their marketing plans not in response to, but rather in tandem with their strategic plans, and recognize just how integral marketing is to driving all their organization’s goals forward.

Marketing Mastery Area 4: Marketing Management

The way your nonprofit marketing/communications team is structured is an excellent predictor of success.

Novice organizations typically have someone at the junior level managing marketing with no team behind them (or no marketing staff at all). At the beginner and average level, you might have someone at a senior level managing marketing with a limited team, but that person might wear several other hats or operate under another department like fundraising, which limits their ability to apply marketing to a broader range of organization-wide goals. Organizations that have achieved “expert” level in this respect typically have someone in their C-suite/on their leadership team who oversees marketing, often with an adequate team below them. True masters have C-suite marketing leadership as well, but they also build a culture within their organizations where everyone – no matter their function, level or department – understands they play a role in marketing and communications.

Marketing Mastery Area 5: Marketing Budget

In the introduction to this post, I mentioned that budget isn’t the sole predictor of a nonprofit’s marketing success. But budget does matter. There’s only so much you can do with organic efforts. At some point, if your nonprofit is going to succeed, you’re going to need to make a true investment in marketing and communications. Organizations that are novices in this respect typically have no marketing budget whatsoever. They might not spend on marketing at all, or they might be expected to request budget from programs, fundraising, or other departments. As an organization moves toward the beginner level in this respect, it’s budget typically evolves into what we call a task-based budget. That means that the marketing budget is set in response to specific tasks you need to complete (“advertise this event,” “print these materials”) rather than in response to a guiding strategy or financial benchmarks. Organizations that we consider average to expert in this respect are those that set a marketing budget as a percentage of their total revenue – typically between 5 and 10 percent. And finally, organizations that achieve true mastery in this area are those that set an adaptive, results oriented budget. That means they’re adjusting their budget in real time based on detailed information about the results of their efforts and the return on their marketing investments.

Marketing Mastery Area 6: Marketing Measurement

The sixth and final ingredient required for nonprofit marketing success is measurement. By that I mean measuring the results of your marketing efforts to determine what’s working. Novice organizations typically do no marketing measurement at all. They don’t have the time, capacity or technology for it, or they simply aren’t aware of how important it is. Beginner level organizations measure tactics – things like engagement on social media or impressions from a media hit. These are often vanity metrics that don’t actually communicate whether a marketing campaign or tactic is advancing a goal, but having this data is better than having nothing. Average to expert organizations measure marketing against defined goals. They set overarching targets they want to achieve in their marketing plans, and then figure out what the proper indicators are to measure whether they’re succeeding. Organizations that achieve true mastery in this respect are those that unlock the complex puzzle of tying marketing to mission and measuring the impact marketing has on advancing mission-oriented goals, which we’ll discuss in a webinar with our friends from Mission Measurement later this year.

So where do you fall in these six areas? Are you trending toward the novice end of most of the spectrums, toward the master end, or somewhere in between? Where can you focus on improving so you can make a greater mission impact?

If you’re ready to assess your nonprofit’s marketing effectiveness, take the Nonprofit Marketing Diagnostic Assessment. When you do, you’ll receive a heatmap that shows you exactly where your organization sits on the Nonprofit Marketing Mastery Curve.

Leave a Comment