Nonprofits: Does marketing fit in the budget?

During budgeting season, what do you do about marketing?

As we approach the end of the year, many of you in the nonprofit space have a big project on your shoulders, in addition to the mission you focus on all year - developing your budget for the new year.

It’s a bigger lift than most people realize if they haven’t been on the team tasked with the financials. You spend weeks, sometimes months preparing every cost center, revenue source and you document it in detail. It runs through committees, and finally before the whole board, for approval.

If everything goes well, the board oversight results in an approved budget. If not, perhaps you spend a whole board meeting talking about a spending category less than 5% of the budget. Sometimes well-meaning board members challenge budget items that seem optional. Maybe it’s employee bonuses, and it takes everything in you not to bury your face in your palms right there in the board meeting.

It’s not uncommon, one of the more scrutinized budgets is marketing. It’s the expense that often has to come out of the scarcity of undesignated funds. And that’s not an unreasonable concern from your governance board. It can be hard to demonstrate a direct tie from marketing dollars to achieving your mission. As a result, most nonprofits underinvest in marketing, and the result is a poor return on the dollars that are invested.

In this blog, I’d like to help you with some tips on how to plan for marketing in your budgeting process and how to make sure you get a demonstrable return.

Start with the free stuff.

You’re already creating content. Adapt and use that content you’re creating for emails to donors, stories about successes, and use it to communicate proactively, or as we say “content marketing”. This includes blogging, email marketing, social media activity, and other forms of telling the story of your work. You can always build on this when the budget allows. This will benefit you in a number of ways from online search results, to sharable content, to engaging supporters, or donors considering a partnership.

Invest in what you do best.

Don’t expect marketing to be a standalone function of your business. Consider for a moment the areas where you are already succeeding, and use marketing dollars to support that. Are you best at traditional fundraising? Develop brand assets and sales tools that help your fundraising team deliver a clearer message. This could be email marketing to nurture your donors or branded storytelling content that is included in grant applications. Are you better at direct services that get supporters talking? Invest in PR and event branding with an infectious message. These create more instances for supporters to be engaged and share information with others.

Seek corporate partnerships.

If you plan on creating a marketing campaign to drive awareness or some kind of action, consider ways that you can bring in corporate sponsors who will contribute co-op dollars in exchange for connecting their brand to a good cause’s marketing campaign. Don’t just add another logo. Get creative and consider ways that the supporting brand can be introduced as an advocate for your message and your organization, perhaps engaging their employees in the campaign as well. This means your dollars can go further and your partner can earn some goodwill as well.

Awareness is good, but measure it.

Some marketing visibility simply creates brand recognition for your organization. This is good, because it changes the conversation from “who we are” to “why you should engage with us.”, but awareness can seem costly if you don’t know how it is serving your organization. Start first with awareness you can measure. Sometimes this means starting small if you haven’t done much marketing yet. That may be developing a database of email subscribers before you invest in outdoor advertising such as buses or billboards.

If outdoor or similar tactics are included in your marketing mix, make sure you are directing people to a landing page that gives you an indication of the performance of your campaign. That way you can report the campaign’s performance.

There are countless things to consider when it comes to marketing campaigns, and you want to be sure you are using your funds wisely. Get a hold of someone on our team if you need help developing an annual marketing strategy.

Regardless of what your budget allows for marketing, PR, and other brand investments, make sure you're basing them on a comprehensive strategy. That way, when it comes to that board meeting where the budget is ready to receive approval, your plan will garner support and you can be optimistic about the new year.