Nonprofit marketing 101: How to build a next-level strategy

February 5, 2024
min read
Nonprofit marketing 101: How to build a next-level strategy

How does your nonprofit approach marketing? Do you have an overarching marketing strategy that lays out a complete plan for the coming year? Or do you take a more one-off approach and start from scratch with each new fundraising campaign?

Many nonprofits fall into the latter category due to tight budgets and even tighter schedules. 

Marketing strategies can easily fall by the wayside, meaning organizations have to reinvent the wheel to promote a new campaign and miss out on tons of donor engagement opportunities along the way. 

But by turning a scattershot approach into a coherent nonprofit marketing strategy, you’ll greatly simplify the task of promoting your work to donors and secure more support.

In this crash course, we’ll equip you with everything you need to lay out a winning marketing strategy for your organization. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Frequently asked questions
  • The types of nonprofit marketing channels
  • Understanding the marketing funnel
  • How to build a marketing strategy: 12 steps
  • Sample nonprofit marketing plan
  • Curating a stellar donor experience with marketing
Already comfortable with the basics and want to jump ahead?  Check out our guide to nonprofit marketing plans to see a sample strategy and grab your free template!
FreeWill's Smart Giving Suite can help your marketing efforts drive increased conversions.

Get your bearings: Nonprofit marketing FAQs

Let’s start with some quick frequently asked questions:

What is nonprofit marketing?

Nonprofit marketing consists of all the strategies and channels that nonprofit organizations use to promote their work to audiences of constituents, donors, and other community members. The specific goals of marketing could include:

  • Promoting programming to constituents
  • Securing donations and event registrations
  • Raising general cause awareness
  • Publicizing new projects and partnerships
  • Engaging and retaining current donors
  • Reaching and acquiring new donors

A nonprofit marketing campaign is built around a specific objective like those listed above, and the channels, messages, and strategies it uses are tailored to a distinct audience. 

A marketing campaign’s goal is usually built around securing conversions, achieved when a reader or web visitor takes a specific target action (like clicking through to a web page, making a donation, or sharing a social media post).

An overarching nonprofit marketing strategy consists of multiple campaigns over time, each pursuing separate goals that support an overall priority for the organization. 

For example, an organizational priority might be to boost giving from previous donors through improved retention and engagement with new programs. Campaigns could be developed for the different prongs of the overall marketing strategy, with campaigns focused on re-engaging lapsed donors, promoting a new program, and increasing engagement from previous donors.

We’ll take a closer look and visualize this marketing structure in the “example marketing plan” section below.

Why is marketing important for nonprofits?

At a fundamental level, marketing is important for nonprofit organizations because it connects them with the audiences they need to engage in order to pursue their missions. 

While word of mouth and on-the-ground awareness can definitely elevate an organization’s profile, it’s difficult to reach many constituents and donors without taking a more strategic approach. Modern marketing strategies amplify a nonprofit’s voice across multiple channels, encouraging the interactions that keep the organization running and driving impact.

On a more tactical level, marketing gets results and supports organizational priorities. Marketing campaigns help to raise donation revenue, awareness of programs, and more, which are quantifiable measures of a nonprofit’s success. 

What does a nonprofit need for a successful marketing strategy?

Nonprofits need a few important tools and resources to implement successful marketing strategies. These include:

The tools and resources needed for a nonprofit marketing strategy, detailed in the text below.
  • Objectives, goals, and budgets. These guidelines will shape your entire strategy, so it’s important to identify them early. That said, your objectives and goals can (and will) change over time as you execute your marketing strategy and measure your performance. We’ll cover how to define your objectives and goals below.
  • Data. Your existing data about constituents and donors will be important for informing your marketing strategy. Use insights about their interests, engagement histories, and average donation amounts to sort them into discrete groups called segments. Contact information should also be securely stored and kept up-to-date in your database to ensure all your marketing messages are deliverable.
  • Marketing software. You can find a tool or platform for just about any marketing need, from designing automated email campaigns to sending text messages. Your website plays a central role, as well, so ensure your current content management system (CMS) includes effective page-building features and works well with any plugins you use for donation and sign-up forms.
  • Visibility and metrics. Bridging data and software, you need to ensure visibility into your marketing performance. Software integrations between your marketing tools and central database will be the most effective, but when integrations are not available, have concrete plans for how you’ll quantify and extract performance data. For every new campaign and project, determine the specific metrics you’ll use to define success.
  • A set of core messages. The content of your marketing messages should be tailored to your audience and their interests, but they should echo core mission-wide messages, similar to a case for support that you might develop for a fundraising campaign. Your core messages should revolve around the “why” of the target actions you’re asking of supporters—why should they take that step, and what impact will it have?
  • Marketing collateral. You’ll need a variety of brand assets, templates, and style guides to consistently produce marketing materials that reinforce your core brand and convey reliability to audiences. Store these in a central, easily accessible digital location and keep them up-to-date over time.

While these are all essential categories to cover in your marketing strategy and tech stack, don’t worry if you don’t yet have all of these resources available. 

Marketing strategies can (and should) evolve organically as you test new tactics and learn about your audience—just be sure to keep track of your performance as best as you’re able and make new marketing investments as needs and opportunities arise.

FreeWill's Smart Giving Suite can help your marketing efforts drive increased conversions.

The types of nonprofit marketing channels

A marketing campaign’s goals will inform the specific approach and channels that will work best. These approaches can be broadly separated into two categories—inbound and outbound marketing.

Let’s take a closer look at these two approaches and the marketing channels that are often used for them:

The differences between the channels used for inbound and outbound nonprofit marketing, explained below.

Inbound marketing channels for nonprofits

Inbound marketing involves inviting new supporters and constituents to join you. With this kind of marketing strategy, you position your organization as an active, reputable part of the community, building its visibility and creating enticing opportunities for engagement.

Nonprofits use inbound marketing to help establish and reinforce their brands and build organic audiences of constituents and donors within their communities, both on- and offline. A nonprofit might use these inbound marketing channels:

  • Its website - Direct audiences to this central communication hub to take action and convert.
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) - Create and maintain high-quality web content that will appear highly in relevant search engine results.
  • Social media - Generate organic engagement by priming your social networks with interesting content and interactivity.
  • Webinars and other free resources - Create free “value add” opportunities to attract those who are already inclined to be interested in your work.
  • Community events - Partner with other organizations and communities to cohost non-fundraising events and programs, increasing your visibility.
  • Community partnerships - Host programs and awareness campaigns with other nonprofits to further boost your profile in the community.
  • Infographics - Create informative, easily shareable resources that can be reposted online and across social media. 

Outbound marketing channels for nonprofits

Outbound marketing is all about going directly to a target audience to ask for their support or engagement. It’s more akin to what we think of as traditional advertising.

Nonprofit outbound marketing should be focused to ensure effectiveness, honing in on a very specific audience with tailored messages. Common channels for this kind of marketing include:

  • Advertisements - Display print or digital ads for your programs or fundraising campaigns in highly relevant places.
  • Google ads - A free program from Google that provides eligible nonprofits with ad space at the top of search results pages for target keywords.
  • Email campaigns - Send series of emails over time that encourage audience segments to take specific actions.
  • Phone and text campaigns - Reach out very directly and ask for engagement by getting in touch over the phone or via text message.
  • Direct mail - Send printed mailers, brochures, and postcards to targeted lists of constituents and donors.
  • Sponsorships - Secure corporate sponsors for your programs and campaigns to get the attention of their audiences as well as your own.
  • Targeted events - Host special events for very specific audiences, like a gala for major donors, to craft more targeted experiences and appeals.

Note that the distinctions between the categories of inbound and outbound nonprofit marketing can be a little blurry, especially in today’s digital age. 

For instance, various types of partnerships and events can serve multiple marketing purposes at once. You might run a broad email campaign to generate general awareness and engagement while also sending more tailored appeals to small segments of your audience.

Understanding the inbound/outbound distinction is helpful because it can give you a rough framework for your marketing campaigns. 

If you know your goals and your audience, you can determine whether an organic inbound strategy or a targeted outbound strategy of direct outreach will be most appropriate. From there, you can narrow down your list of potential channels and strategies to those that will best support your goals.

Understanding the marketing funnel

The marketing funnel is an important conceptual framework to keep in mind when planning marketing strategies for your nonprofit. It helps you to better target your tactics and messages to the audiences most likely to take action.

Simply put, the marketing funnel consists of the top-, middle-, and bottom-funnel phases, with each decreasing in size and correlating to a specific audience goal. 

A diagram of the nonprofit marketing funnel, detailed in the text below.

This framework helps us to keep an audience’s level of familiarity in mind and decide what kinds of asks will be most appropriate to push them further down the funnel. 

Think of the phases this way:

  • Top-funnel audiences have limited awareness or are just learning about your organization/program/campaign for the first time. You should ask them to take actions that will increase their awareness and generate interest in your ultimate target action.
Example: You want to secure more planned gifts. Your broadest, top-funnel audience isn’t familiar with this form of giving. Start by sending them general educational messages about planned giving as a mutually beneficial way to give and ask them to visit your planned giving website to learn more.
  • Mid-funnel audiences have a moderate level of familiarity with your core message but need to learn more before they take a final target action. Ask them to learn more about the details, how the process works, why others have chosen to do it, and other deeper topics that will instill trust and convey value.
Example: Your mid-funnel audience understands what planned giving is and positively interacted with your last broad outreach. Invite them to get more engaged by requesting information or contacting your organization to discuss planned giving with your team. 
  • Bottom-funnel audiences are familiar with your core message and have indicated interest by engaging with your messages and outreach up to this point. Here, you’ll make your case for support and ask them to convert by taking a specific target action.
Example: When mid-funnel supporters visit your planned giving website or reach out with questions, that indicates interest and triggers your team to contact them. Over email or the phone, your development team reaches out directly to provide information, answer questions, and lay out your full case for support to set up a bequest gift, leading to a formal solicitation.

Not all marketing situations will fit into a clear-cut top/middle/bottom-funnel position, but understanding that audiences with different levels of familiarity need to be approached with different kinds of asks is incredibly helpful. You wouldn’t ask a brand new donor to give a major gift—it takes years of research, cultivation, and relationship-building to reach this point with select donors.

How to build a nonprofit marketing strategy: 12 steps

Once you understand the marketing funnel and the different types and channels available, you can begin to put together an actionable nonprofit marketing strategy.

We break the process down into 12 key steps, and we’ll use them to create an example nonprofit marketing plan below. Follow along and imagine the specific goals and tactics that you might want to implement for your own organization:

The steps for creating a nonprofit marketing strategy, detailed in the text below
  1. Consider your organization’s priorities. What are the big-picture accomplishments that your nonprofit wants to achieve? If you have an overarching strategic plan, reference it or have a discussion with organizational leaders to find the most important priorities that marketing should help support in the coming year.
  2. Determine your marketing objectives. With your broad priorities in hand, consider exactly how marketing can help drive them forward. For example, if you want to strengthen your planned giving pipeline, specific marketing objectives might include raising general awareness of your program and engaging more qualified prospects in one-on-one discussions with gift officers.
  3. Set SMART goals for your marketing objectives. Using the tried-and-true SMART framework (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound), set concrete goals for your marketing objectives. Identify the target end action that will represent a conversion for this goal, such as donating, registering, or visiting a specific web page.
  4. Audit your past marketing efforts. Take a close look at the marketing strategies and tools your nonprofit has used in the past. Which campaigns were the most and least successful? What were their goals, and which audiences did they target? Do you need new or updated technology for your marketing tech stack?
  5. Determine audiences for your goals. Who should you target with messaging in order to achieve these goals? Broad, top-funnel audiences? More specific segments? A combination of the two? Take a look at your CRM to learn more about your base of support and create potential audience segments.
  6. Determine ideal marketing channels for your audiences. Using insights from your data, think about the best ways to contact these audience segments. Are there clear preferred channels? Are there common age or location trends that could help shape your outreach? For example, older donors may respond more favorably to direct mail, and local donors would be ideal for invitations to small in-person events.
  7. Identify what you need to achieve your goals. Think back to Step 4—do you need new tools, resources, or design collateral for the strategy that’s taking shape? Do you have systems in place for capturing data once your marketing campaigns are underway?
  8. Write a case for support. Draft a core message in support of your goal, being sure to tailor it to your audience. Why should they care and take the action you want them to take? You’ll later distill this into different formats and versions, but for now focus on teasing out the clearest, most concise appeal you can.
  9. Lay out specific marketing campaigns. Using everything you’ve learned and gathered so far, lay out an actionable plan. What are the exact outreach campaigns and series of messages you’ll use to reach your goal within the timeframe? Will you target different subaudiences with different forms of outreach? What will constitute a conversion for each campaign, and how will you measure it? 
  10. Develop the materials for your marketing campaigns. Now, put pen to paper to draft the email series, social media posts, printed mailers, phone scripts, and more that you’ll need for the campaigns you’ve laid out. Gather necessary collateral like logos, photos, and graphics. Use your case for support to guide the drafting process and ensure every message clearly ties into its central appeal, topped off with compelling calls to action.
  11. Double-check your data collection process. Take the time to make sure you’re prepared to capture all the important performance data that you’ll need to measure your progress and translate marketing successes into real outcomes for the organization. Are you gathering the right metrics that you identified back in Step 3?
  12. Launch your campaigns and track your performance. Let your marketing strategy loose to start engaging your audience! Actively monitor its performance, track progress towards your goals, and make course corrections as needed. Be prepared to analyze your results later to pinpoint successes, shortcomings, and lessons to keep in mind next time.

To build a comprehensive marketing strategy, repeat this core process for your organization’s various big-picture priorities. Just be mindful not to take on too much too quickly. Especially if you’re just getting started with intentional marketing strategies, building momentum with a few high-priority wins can be much more valuable in the long run than spreading your resources too thinly right off the bat.

Consider your organization’s other, ongoing priorities and fundraising campaigns, as well. Even if your annual campaign isn’t part of a shiny new organizational priority, it still needs to be promoted to drive impact. Identify these types of ongoing necessities and follow Steps 3-12 to create sturdy marketing plans for them, too.

See It in Action: Sample Marketing Plan and Template

Want to walk through a sample marketing plan (and check out a free blank template to fill in on your own)? Explore our guide to nonprofit marketing plans for a closer look at how we'd develop a strategy for promoting a planned giving program.

FreeWill's Smart Giving Suite can help your marketing efforts drive increased conversions.

Curating a stellar donor experience with marketing

Don’t forget that your thorough marketing strategy needs to be matched by a stellar online experience. Asking donors to visit a defunct or hard-to-use web page isn’t a good look and can seriously hinder your marketing results. And if they can’t take your target action, they can’t convert!

Key takeaway: To maximize marketing conversions, make sure that it’s easy for your audience to take the next step.

Whether you’re promoting planned giving, asking for newsletter sign-ups, recruiting volunteers, or conducting an annual campaign, taking your target action should be quick, easy, and intuitive.

This is where modern fundraising platforms come in—pay close attention to the quality of the experiences offered by the fundraising, registration, and other tools that your supporters will directly interact with on your website.

Want to see modern fundraising tools in action? Our solutions are designed to help you raise more and improve crucial points in the marketing journeys you build for high-impact types of gifts.

FreeWill offers an industry-leading set of planned giving tools for nonprofits, and our Smart Giving Suite takes all the guesswork out of offering a frictionless experience for your non-cash donors. Explore our complete suite of tools to learn more about how we can support your nonprofit’s giving programs. 

FreeWill's set of non-cash and planned giving products for nonprofits.

And be sure to keep learning about nonprofit marketing and fundraising best practices with these recommended resources:

Learn how FreeWill's Smart Giving Suite supports your nonprofit's marketing efforts and drives more conversions.