15 Marketing Challenges Nonprofits Face & How to Fix Them

You should include marketing into every step of your nonprofit’s process. Everything you do is representing your brand, your mission statement, and your business – (if you’re not thinking of your nonprofit as a business, I encourage you to rethink that). Learning how to market your nonprofit can be simple as cake, but only if you’re ready to put yourself on the path to success.

The 15 marketing challenges that nonprofits face commonly will include the following with later in-depth explanations on how to fix each:

  1. Not knowing where to start in marketing
  2. Branding your nonprofit effectively
  3. Being noticed
  4. Keeping the message compelling to stay noticed
  5. Keeping the message distinct in a crowd of nonprofits
  6. Depending on social media too heavily for marketing
  7. Feeling as if you have no community to market to
  8. Not asking for the donation
  9. Solely asking for the donation
  10. Getting donors
  11. Keeping donors
  12. The marketing message not being completely clear
  13. Knowing how much money to invest in marketing
  14. Not measuring results for your donors
  15. Not evolving in an ever-changing field

Marketing will be your entire world in the nonprofit business, so you’ll need to understand how each of these challenges and mistakes people commonly make – all relate to how you’re publicizing your message. You may be intimidated by all there is to learn, but luckily there are simple solutions for each that I will walk you through. Are you ready to learn from other nonprofits’ mistakes so that you can succeed from the start?

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15 Marketing Challenges Nonprofits Face & How to Fix It

There are so many day-to-day marketing challenges you will face running your own nonprofit. You don’t usually have donors lining around the corner, so understanding how to obtain donors and keep them – is your most important priority.

Some things that you may not think of as marketing but are marketing include:

  • Your brand name
  • Each post you make
  • Everything on your website
  • Every time you communicate your message to prospects
  • Every time you like other posts/opinions
  • Alerting donors of events you’re hosting
  • Anytime you reach someone

These are all forms of branding and Communication for your nonprofit. There will be challenges at every step, but nothing that should intimidate you or frighten you. But if you want to be behind the scenes for a cause that you believe in, you may have to be in front of the scenes too. It will certainly push you out of your comfort zone at times, but what I want you to always keep in mind is your nonprofit’s mission – the thing that drove you to want to start this foundation in the first place.

Always hold onto that inspiration, and it will keep the message authentic and resonant for you.

1. Not Knowing Where to Start

Take a deep breath, and let’s begin! So starting in Marketing will be about knowing what you want to accomplish. Set specific and measurable goals for yourself so that you know what direction to move forward in.

The creative ways I would recommend you start include:

  • Research how similar nonprofits to yours are marketing to prospects. Learn their methods and take the useful tidbits. Now connect those to your original message for a unique tone and style. The point – do what works!
  • Read a ton of blogs. Especially at the beginning, you need to be in sheer research mode and understanding what it is you want to accomplish. Dive in headfirst if you like, but also consider stepping in gradually like a baking quiche in the oven. Rise slowly. This will make your development more meticulous and more intentional.  Blogs I recommend to help with that include ClassyWild Apricot, and Charity Navigator.
  • Differentiate yourself. This will take reflection and marinating like a stew on all of your brilliant new marketing ideas.

2. Branding Your Nonprofit Effectively

It may take some time before you know if you’ve appropriately branded to your message. It may take some trial and error and seeing what works. If you’re getting no donations, something isn’t working.

Here are some resources to get you started on branding your nonprofit:

Creative ways to get your nonprofit branded effectively include:

  • Know your audience and appeal to them directly. Make it conversation and authentic, not like a money hounding slimy marketer that we’re all taught to tune out.
  • Have an amazing logo. Remember that your logo will show up on your website, business cards, and blog. The logo may inspire the entire design and aesthetic of your nonprofit’s brand.
  • The more you talk about it, the clearer your brand will become. Participate in live chats, retweets, webinars, and other ways to be directly communicating your brand and message to your audience.

3. Being Noticed

This is a very tricky challenge. With thousands of reputable nonprofits that are more established than yours, it can seem impossible to get your cause noticed. There is much work that needs to be done in the world, and your cause is no less small than any other.

Being noticed is about creating compelling digital marketing that doesn’t blend in with everyone else’s posts. You need to stand out and make their thumbs stop scrolling for about 2 seconds.

The ways to do this will be through:

  • Intentional color selection and studying color psychology
  • Keeping your copy short and concise
  • Making sure your message is direct and to-the-point
  • Tell a story (people love stories!)
  • Make them feel something
  • Don’t take any opportunity lightly

Even make your weekly newsletter a big bang that isn’t a wasted opportunity. Take advantage of each way and time you can get in front of them and share your message.

Don’t pester, but remember that people need to see things on average 7 times before they buy or donate.

Therefore, persistence is key.

Another huge issue I see is that you create a social media page but don’t go back and communicate with those that are liking your posts or commenting. If I look at your last nine posts, will you have responded to every person that commented?

If you haven’t, that’s the homework you need to be focusing on now.

Creative ways to get your nonprofit noticed:

  • Post consistently and make your posts engaging. Whether this means fun, heartbreaking, passionate, full of questions, or contests, make sure your content is marketing to people and including them. If it feels too one-sided, you’re eliminating the potential to build a real community.
  • Remember the rule of 7. Don’t give up too quickly.
  • Engage with your community. Community building means connecting to real humans. Comment back to everyone that commented you, like their posts, share in the message that they are sharing. If you are helping each other and building relationships, they are more likely to help.
  • Sponsor some posts and invest upfront. I realize this is the dreaded “I” word of investment, which no broke nonprofit wants to hear. But you don’t have to sacrifice a ton to sponsor some of your best work on social media. Consider investing around $5 a day and see where that gets you to start.
  • Target intentionally. Doing so means you need to target your ads to people that are more likely to donate to your cause. An example would be if you work with children, you’ll target to women ages 25-65 that like pages for social activism, are interested in volunteering, and work actively in the school system. This is targeting thoughtfully and reaching people that are more likely to care.

4. Keeping the Message Compelling to Stay Noticed

Now you’re in the door, and you’ve got their attention. What you need to do to maintain that focus and keep your content fresh.

Creative Ways to keep your nonprofit noticed:

  • Your newsletter. I think this is a great way to email your donors directly and make them feel included. They want to feel a part of the progress and as if their donation is doing good.
  • Post fresh content. This means that your marketing cannot get stale.
  • ALWAYS put a checkbox under the donation giving scale that says, “Make this a recurring monthly donation?” And don’t say anything else! Keep it short and sweet so that you don’t scare them off.
  • If you can get them to select that box, you could have them donating continuously, which is so much more valuable than working to get everyone to give one time. Aim for that repeat contribution, which will result in a community.
  • Say thank you multiple times. If you don’t say thank you as they donate, after, and in email follow-up, you’re missing opportunities to make those connections with your donors.
  • Always have emails that update to each person’s name. That is to say, don’t let it read, “Dear donor.” Have an automated email system that inputs their name, so it says right at the top of their inbox, “Dear Karen, thank you so much for what you’re doing to help Jimmy, the orangutan.” It will feel like a personal love letter of thanks, and that is how you keep a donor.

5. Keeping the Message Distinct

What I see too much is plagiarism and copying. This section is simple – keep your message original, so you don’t blend in with the crowds.

Creative Ways to keep your message distinct from other nonprofits is to:

  • Get your hands dirty. Get in on the exact situation you’re helping and post those pictures. If you want to help the rainforest, go down to the Amazon and start planting trees. Invite people to do it with you.
  • Reflect on new ways to be original. Gather inspiration from other ideas, not gathering them to steal.
  • Research your topic thoroughly so you are an expert. If you know it through-and-through, it’s distinctive quality will be apparent.

6. Depending on Social Media Too Heavily for Marketing

This is a challenge that is all too easy to fall into in this modern age. You may be too reliant on social media for your advertising.

Yes, it is free and fabulous. But what if your account gets flagged and shut down tomorrow? Do you have any other way to connect to your donors?

This is why diversification is so important. Diversify your platforms like your stocks and keep growing each platform without becoming dependent on one avenue.

Creative Ways to not become dependent on social media marketing are:

  • Get their email immediately. Your email marketing is just as effective as social media marketing, if not more. Keep your emails personal and intimate, or it will feel like spam.  Keep it short and clear (and add a touch of humor if it’s appropriate)–“Welcome to our site. Add your email to stay up to date on our events and progress being done to help kids afford education. (We promise not to annoy you with emails and be a ray of sunshine in your inbox once in a while!)”
  • Perhaps add a smiley face too for extra sweetness and to let them know you won’t be blowing up their inbox. I’d also recommend having a box for them to type in their email and then a box under that to select if they don’t want to put their email in – that says something like, “I don’t like rays of sunshine in my inbox.” Something funny, so they will want the emails and feel silly saying no to good things!
  • Snail mail to their home. People love getting mail that isn’t a bill. It can feel like a letter from a friend or delivered gift. Consider this to get off the computer.
  • Connect in person. Don’t be afraid to host events and get away from the screen!
  • If you’re going to use social media predominantly, have platforms spread out on all of these networks and develop them all equally to avoid one app’s shutdown killing your business. So, use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tiktok.

7. Feeling as If You Have No Community To Market To

This can happen early in the stages, or even after you’ve had a big surge of donations. You may feel like you’ve tapped your resources and are at a standstill.

Here are two ways I recommend overcoming a funk and finding that community you want to market to:

  •  Invest more in posts – you may need to get more new eyes on your content. Companies usually spend 40-50% on marketing so don’t be afraid to use some of that to grow awareness. Don’t use too much, or you may have upset donors knocking at your door wondering about your allocation methods.

Invest more in posts – you may need to get more new eyes on your content. Companies usually spend 40-50% on marketing so don’t be afraid to use some of that to grow awareness. Don’t use too much, or you may have upset donors knocking at your door wondering about your allocation methods.

Join new communities – this is the best way to find new people when you’re feeling out of sources. The ones I recommend you try are:

  • LinkedIn Nonprofit Program – a great way to make mutually beneficial work relationships
  • Google Ad’s Nonprofit Program – Offering $10,000 a month to advertise your charity
  • Nonprofit forums and blogs
  • Facebook nonprofit groups and communities
  • Meetup – the app for finding new people with similar interests
  • YouTube comments and channel subscriptions – a great place to find like-minds
  • Even communities that volunteer near you.

Start making connections and see if you can’t help others in their mission. It could lead to them helping your purpose and the two of you working together as a partnership.

8. Not Asking for the Donation

This step is so underestimated, yet I see it all the time in businesses and marketing.

You can market all you want, but what I see commonly is that many people never ask for the give.

In sales, you can be talking about selling them the dream vacation, living on the ocean, and drinking Mai Tai’s on the beach, and they will love it! But if you never ask them, “Would you like to book that?” They never have the chance to accept or deny the sale.

This sales approach works the same in fundraising. If you never ask for the donation, you’ll never get it.

This is a mistake that is too commonly made by nonprofit owners. I see people that even communicate so clearly about their mission and the work they’re doing, but never actually ask for the donation. It’s a real opportunity missed because many people would probably say yes if you asked.

Never forget the power in a few simple words and then a ‘Donate Now,’ button.

Creative ways to ask for the donation:

  • Apply for a “Donate Now” button on Facebook. Give them the actual button and call-to-action. Apply for one through your Facebook page.
  • Never forget a call-to-action in your posts/ digital marketing
  • Never forget the call-to-action on your website – Frontpage!
  • Get comfortable being in that vulnerable of a position; it’s your job now.

9. Solely Asking for The Donation

Now, on the other hand, if you only ask for the donation but aren’t giving them anything to work with, then you’re not giving a return of value, are you?

The thing to avoid is making your donors feel used.

The ways to avoid that and ask for more than just the donation include:

  • Send them emails of what their money is doing. This is value in the form of emotional reward and them getting to feel good for making a difference.
  • When appropriate, make your posts lighthearted or inspiring.  If your page is easy to follow, tells the story of the good work you are doing—great!  If it offers hope—even better.
  • Consider adding a free gift. You can offer to send your donors something with your logo like a backpack or mug so that they have an object to use every day. If they see the brand logo each day, they can feel good about their donation. This will make them donate more or commit to recurring donations.

10. Getting Donors

Getting donors is about holding their attention and connecting to the emotional strings that will strike that chord in them. You can’t just be flashy or get noticed. It would help if you enticed them to click that donate now button and make real results happen.

I will admit that I’ve been on the verge of donating to foundations, and then something gives me a slight bit of doubt, perhaps distracts me, throws me off, feels off – and my money goes elsewhere.

You don’t want to give them that quick feeling of second-guessing themselves which means the process of getting their attention needs to be fluid and intentional.

Creative ways of getting donors:

  • Show them the right balance of, “that’s so terrible, and I cannot allow that to happen in this world,” without crossing over into, “I need to keep scrolling, that was uncomfortable to look at.” Pull at what is human to them and give them no reason not to want to help.
  • Get them to donate more by adding a giving scale. This is when you show them different amounts to give instead of leaving it blank. If you leave it up to them, there’s a good chance the number they come up with will be less than if you planted the seed of “$10, $20, $50, $100, $500, $1000.”  It would help if you always had an “Other amount” section so they don’t feel forced. But the social pressure of a visible giving scale will increase their donation.

11. Keeping Donors

Keeping donors is an entirely separate thing from obtaining donors. If you want to earn their long-time trust, it will take consistency and follow-up. You will need to prove yourself as trustworthy and doing what you say you will with their donation money.

If the money is helping what it says it will, people will want to continue to donate and help. If they don’t see results or work being done on your part, what gives you any right to their hard-earned cash?

Creative ways to keep donors:

  • Encourage them to communicate with you. If they feel connected to your page and also feel heard – nothing is stopping them from sticking around for the long-haul. This up-close-and-personal quality will also show them you have nothing to hide.
  • Thank them often and promptly after a donation, so they feel seen. Appreciation goes a long way.
  • Always keep them in the loop of what you’re doing and where their money is being allocated
  • Be honest and come from a human perspective. They don’t want your jargon; they want facts about how their money is helping. They want to feel a part of something bigger. They want to be in a community that is helping the world. Make them feel that way.

12. The Marketing Message is Still Not Clear

If at this point, you still are having trouble obtaining donors or seeing prospects transition, it may be because your message is not working.

If it were working, you would see results right now. So you need to examine your entire approach and figure out what is halting the progress.

Sometimes it’s a case of too much going on (clutter in your communication/digital platforms) or not enough going on (confusion about what your nonprofit’s about). If they don’t understand the point of what you’re doing, they certainly won’t be donating.

Creative ways to check your marketing message is clear:

  • Ask. You may need to talk to some friends, family, other nonprofit owners or experts and see what their opinion is on it. Since this is such a case-by-case basis, I can’t tell you what is lacking in your message, and you might be to up-close to see it yourself. Get an unbiased opinion from someone you respect for this topic.
  • See what successful nonprofits are doing and how your work matches up. If your nonprofit isn’t doing anything they are doing, you may want to rethink your marketing approach. It doesn’t mean to copy their message; it means to adapt their techniques to your specific mission and take notice of what works.
  • Test out simpler copy. Test out more emotional copy. Test out simple images in red. Test out complex images in blue. See what gets people to respond.

13. Knowing How Much to Invest in Marketing

I think this will be different for every nonprofit and depend on how profitable you are.

Here are some references and excellent resources to determine how much you should be investing in your marketing:

Creative ways to stretch your dollars in nonprofits include:

  • Offer the gift but also ask if they want to opt-out for the gift so their entire donation goes towards helping the cause.
  • Get out and mingle to avoid having to invest in your posts. Talking is free, so you may need to get out there more.
  • Use this link of many resources that are free to save you money in marketing and database organization –  23 Ways to Stretch your Nonprofits Dollar.

14. Not Measuring Results for Your Donors

This is a big challenge, and some people don’t remember to post updates on all the excellent work they’re doing. Sometimes it is overwhelming to track to progress scientifically or statistically.

Creative ways to measure your results so your donors receive that gratification from their donation are:

15. Not Evolving in An Ever-Changing Field

Our final nonprofit marketing challenge is one that happens to many entrepreneurial spirits. They have the passion but don’t continue to educate themselves or keep up with the ever-changing marketing scope.

If you want to succeed in almost anything, you’ll need to be adaptable.

This will mean:

  • Reading up on modern literature, magazines, blog posts on the subject
  • Continually learning about new software developments
  • Understanding trends and what audiences’ behaviors are like (always changing)
  • Keeping up with your target audience and what they respond to
  • Not looking ancient in your nonprofit marketing practices (most certain way to become forgotten)

Creative ways to stay relevant, current, and on top of your business will include:

  • Always be reading. Keep up with blogs and forums regarding people in your nonprofits’ sphere of interest.
  • Teach yourself one new thing a week. Old dogs still learn new tricks, and you have no other choice than to keep up in this rapidly changing technology world, or you risk being left behind.
  • Watch YouTube videos and self-teach.
  • Don’t rely on anyone to do it for you. Be self-motivating and disciplined for the sake of your mission.

Can You Face These Challenges and Succeed?

That part will be up to you. These are the common challenges that nonprofits face on a day to day, and no single issue will disappear forever.

You will need to stay on your toes to keep up with shifting grounds and a dynamic digital marketing world.

If you started a nonprofit and have the passion, I believe you do. Then nothing can stop you from making the world a better place. Hold onto that confidence and don’t let anything get in your way.

Dan Sanchez, MBA

Dan Sanchez is a marketing director, co-host of the B2B Growth show, and blogger. He holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and BS in Marketing Management from Western Governors University. Learn more about Dan »

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