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Marketing Considerations for New Non-Profit Organizations

Updated on August 15, 2020
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A former university communications professor, Sallie, an independent publisher, also writes romantic fiction novels and short stories.

Starting a Non-Profit Organization? Need to Learn More About Marketing?

If you recently started, or are thinking of starting a non-profit organization, a good question for you to have in mind right now is, “What, and how much, does a nonprofit organization need to know about marketing?” While you are probably up to your neck in day-to-day concerns, if you want to survive in the short and long-run as an organization, you will have to spend some time planning and considering the big picture, and how your organization wants to fit into it. So, with a bigger picture in mind than just your day-to-day responsibilities, I’m going to ask you the same question I posed earlier. What, and how much, does your nonprofit organization need to know about marketing?

What is Marketing?

When defining the word “marketing,” I prefer to use simple definitions, such as the one presented by marketing guru Philip Kotler in his book Principles of Marketing. This authordefines marketing, simply, as “managing profitable customer relationships.” In addition, Kotler says, “the aim of marketing is to create value for customers and to capture value in return.” His definition and description, while meant primarily to illuminate the term for those who work in the “for-profit” world of business, also works well to describe marketing as it used in the non-profit sector.

Who has time to stop and look at the “big picture?”

For many years, I worked as a marketing professional in the fast-paced world of nonprofits, so I know that when staffs are small, it can be difficult to find time to step back from your daily tasks in order to examine the overall needs of your organization. Still, you must find a way to make the time. Because the truth is, since nonprofit organizations exist, like “for-profit” ones, to fulfill a goal or an objective, they will always be faced with the need to gain financial support. That might be either first-time funding or additional funding, and these efforts must be undertaken while you are working to provide services.

There will be a constant need for maintaining required levels of financial support so that you can continue operating. In this regard, nonprofits are more like than unlike for-profit companies. Like non-profits, for-profit companies are always faced with the need to gain and keep funding (that is, to sell more product, or sell products to more people) while maintaining current levels of financial support (current sales levels).

The non-profit sector of America’s economy is a vital and significant part of the national economy; therefore the financial health of these organizations is a critical part of local communities. However, many nonprofit managers are mired in problems and crises that make it difficult to find the time they need to understand and to set up the programs or plans for marketing that is needed for their organization and its services. Rarely is there a chance to come up for air and think about something like developing marketing strategies, and then planning and incorporating them as part of the organization’s overall business strategies and objectives.

What types of organizations really need marketing?

The simple answer to this question is “Every type.” For-profits and nonprofits alike all really need marketing. But sometimes it’s hard for organizations—both nonprofit and for-profit—to realize what kind of role marketing needs to play in the organization. From the most basic marketing needs, such as developing/designing a logo, stationery, or a website, to more sophisticated needs for brand development, lead generation and customer retention—non-profit and for-profit organizations all need marketing to help make these things happen, and to make them keep happening.

Isn’t marketing just a fancy name for advertising?

Marketing is not just advertising. Advertising is a part of marketing, but marketing is much more than just advertising. And marketing is not just public relations. Although the practice of public relations is an important component of marketing, marketing involves much more than simply PR. In addition, marketing is not just packaging, product placement, or publicity/promotions. Marketing isn't a single one of these – but it is about all of these things and more. Marketing is a blend of art, science, business, and some might add, luck.

Marketing must take into consideration things such as product or service offering, perceived customer value and/or satisfaction, customer or client needs, wants, and demands, business and customer relationships and networks, consumer and business target markets and how to segment them, what will be used as marketing channels, what will be viewed as competition in the marketing environment, and much, much more.New or recently established non-profit leaders need to consider the “Marketing Mix” (also known as “The 4P’s”), something that applies to non-profits just as it does to for-profit companies and organizations. Included in this mix are considerations about product, price, place, and promotion.

Product—this is represented by the services your offer. Price—relates to whether or not there is a real or a perceived cost, from the customer’s point of view, for your services. For example, while what you offer may be free, if there is a lot of time, paperwork, or multiple qualifications that must be met in order to take advantage of a service, then the amount of time it will takes to get or to remain involved will be perceived as a cost on the part of potential clients/customers. Place—refers to ways in which potential customers/clients will access your service(s). And, promotion—involves methods you will use to attract and maintain the attention of prospects for your services.

Why do non-profits need to know about any of this?

Nonprofit organizations must continually seek “donors” or financial supporters who must learn about and buy into their programs and successes as they reach milestones, and as they achieve goals and objectives. For this reason, there is a need to apply both traditional and non-traditional marketing methods to reach, for the first time, and then to build/maintain relationships with potential donors. With this in mind, a carefully structured marketing and communications program can help any nonprofit organization.

There are also many other reasons, other than purely financial considerations, for companies in both for-profit and non-profit sectors to use marketing. Some of these considerations are external, and others are internal. For example, shaping the organizational/company image, or public profile, relates to things that are external to your organization.

Do all businesses, including non-profits, need marketing?

All types of businesses, including non-profit ones, must be concerned about the external image conveyed to those outside the organization. For this reason, all need to utilize some form of marketing. Implementing a marketing program can help in building and in shaping both external and internal awareness efforts. Marketing can help provide answers to questions about who you are, what you’re all about as a company or organization, what’s new or what’s going on inside and/or outside of your company that affects your customers/users, employees, donors, and the community that supports your organization.

In addition to utilizing marketing to develop strategic plans for the future of your organization, among many other possible internal and external considerations, there is also an important need to use marketing to help make sure things are going well inside your organization. For example, helping to build or strengthen internal relationships should be one of the primary considerations of any business entity. Marketing efforts can be undertaken to ensure that building and maintaining strong business relationships with employees are considered and maintained.

Just as it does when involved with external considerations, marketing communications can help in building and shaping internal awareness for any non-profit. How? Well, it can help by providing answers for employees about who you are as an organization, about your expectations of them as employees, and about what’s new or what’s going on with your company that they need to be aware of. Employees also need to know about new policies, upcoming events, and any information that will affect them and the way they perform their work, among many other possible internal considerations.

When employees are at work, they are your "internal" audience, but as soon as they leave work and go home, in a way, they become part of your "external" public. Having well-informed employees who understand and are "on board" with your messaging strategies is a good way to extend the reach of your philanthropic messaging strategies and your nonprofit's mission beyond the confines of your organization's headquarters.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD


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