Here is a challenging, but all too common, situation that many nonprofit marketers experience when trying to develop a budget for their marketing plan:

“My organization has been in existence since the 1960s, longer than any other environmental group in the state. But, like many other nonprofits, we have never been good at marketing ourselves, and therefore don’t have the membership base that we should.

As a result, we’re beginning to lose our historical advantage. For example, our state Audubon Society is developing a national audience and now has the funds to market themselves even more effectively. Our state’s Heritage Trust hired a marketing group that has helped them grow exponentially over the last year.

We clearly need professional marketing help. We have a board member with marketing expertise (but, like most board members, he can’t give 100% of his effort to our marketing agenda) and a marketing committee, composed of directors in communications (my boss), development and membership. I do most of our print and online graphic design and web development and outreach, but could be even more effective working with a marketing expert.

While leadership recognizes our need for professional marketing help, they are not moving forward in that direction. My boss agrees 100% but can’t get anywhere either. In the end, while we are stalled marketing-wise, our competitors are moving forward. Help!

I’ve passed on information on nonprofit marketing specialists and asked these specialists to contact our management too. Nothing has made a difference. I want to be more effective but don’t know how to get there. I think my creation of a marketing plan would help, but don’t know where to start. What should I do?”

Here is my advice:

The situation you face is a common one. Every nonprofit organization should be proactively marketing itself to develop and strengthen relationships with members, supporters, donors, volunteers and other stakeholders. Doing so (and I know you know this already) is more than just traditional communications (read that “information dissemination”) and outreach.

True marketing means clearly defining your goals and objectives, the audiences you need to target to reach them, and then the marketing strategies and hands-on tactics that will get your audiences’ attention. The process necessitates talking to your audiences to get to know their perspectives, analyzing what competitor and colleague organizations are doing marketing wise, and more.

Here’s what I’d advise:

o Stop asking marketing firms to call your leadership, and stop passing on firm materials as well. Your intentions are great but at this point it’s clear that this strategy isn’t going to work. As a matter of fact, it’s likely that the leadership is annoyed.

o Build understanding of what marketing is and the value that it will bring to the Council. It’s all too easy for nonprofit managers and board members to nix marketing expenditures when they don’t really understand how vital marketing is to the ongoing health of their organizations. Their reasoning is frequently that program comes first, then vital support functions like fundraising. And I think that’s what’s happening at the Council. It’s up to you (working with your boss) to build the understanding that there is no program without marketing. 

Begin by crafting some concrete case studies that demonstrate the power of marketing on organizational success. Best, if possible, to focus on organizations that your management know (in your geographic or issue area) so that they will identify even more strongly with the stories. 

Review the entire marketing process, beginning with the fact that marketing goals are designed to support organizational goals. Explain what particular training and expertise is required to design the right marketing plan and to implement it successfully.

o Come to the table with a proposal. Work with your boss (you need to be a team on this one) to figure out what needs to be done first and what you need (money, human resources and/or training) to make it happen. Be prepared to distribute a written proposal, with budget figures and a timeline. Whatever the request is, do your homework. 

I suggest that you propose something more tangible than a marketing plan as a first step. Is there a campaign that needs to be launched to a new audience segment? Do you and your boss have the skills (or know where to hire them) to do so? Best to pick a project where you’re confident that you can generate results. After all, you want to use this success to motivate ongoing support and budget for marketing work.

o As you implement your initial marketing project, keep management and board posted on progress. You want them to understand the process (so that they understand the budget and timeframe) and maintain their interest in the project. Remember, it’s up to you (alas) to demonstrate how you can put marketing to work to meet the Council’s goals.

o Serve as an ongoing marketing mentor to the management and board group. 

As you and your boss come across great marketing models or marketing ideas that might be effective for your organization, pass them on with a cover note. When you attend a conference in the field, summarize key content in an email and share it with these folks. They’ll begin to see you as an expert, while you continue to build their understanding of how marketing can make a difference.