Getting started as a new organization means making a lot of decisions and trying to set up your nonprofit for success long into the future. But there are common marketing mistakes and missteps we see regularly that cause headaches as you grow.
You don’t have to (and probably won’t) get everything right from the very start. In fact, you’re going to learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t in the months and years to come! We hope that you can use this post to create a solid foundation for marketing your nonprofit without the annoying pieces that are all too easy to overlook when you’re in the start-up phase.
How to Market a New Nonprofit: The Basics
It can feel both exhilarating and overwhelming to have a blank slate for marketing your new nonprofit. There are fun decisions to make about naming and branding, and then the not-so-fun details about how to push your organization out into the world to get some traction and awareness.
Marketing your new nonprofit should follow a series of strategic steps that allow you to grow—like setting your goals, audiences and communication tools—over time. Generally speaking, it will look a lot like this:
- Set marketing goals that relate back to your big-picture organizational goals.
- Create an annual marketing strategy based on your goals, budget, and staff or volunteer capacity.
- Start to establish your initial marketing channels that tie into your strategy, like a website, social media channels, and email.
- Work on building virtual and in-person relationships with funders, partners, other organizations working on similar issues, and the community you serve.
- Measure what’s working in your marketing strategy and adjust your plans accordingly.
- Bring on new tools for marketing, fundraising, and management as needed to help your organization continue to grow.
But even if you have the best intentions to follow this path, there are decisions along the way that can hinder your progress and give your future-self some annoying headaches.
Common Nonprofit Marketing Mistakes
Keep your new organization on the path to success by avoiding these common marketing mistakes. And don’t beat yourself up if you’ve already made some errors! Nonprofit marketing is all about continual improvement.
Create a strategy without knowing your target audience
“Build it and they will come” is not a strategy, especially when it comes to launching a website and your social media presence. Who are the people that will be most interested in your work and where can you reach them? What will your proactive outreach look like?
Spend time upfront developing a few target audience personas that you can use to shape your marketing goals and the communication tactics included in your plan.
Design a nonprofit logo without essential variations
As you build your organization’s brand, a high-quality logo is a must-have. You’re going to use it everywhere online and in print, which also means that it’s important to have it in a variety of different file types (including ones that are editable), sizes, color variations (think black and white) and layouts (such as horizontal, square or just a wordmark). Is it already time for a logo redesign?
Purchase a short-sighted website domain name
Online donors are looking for a website domain with .org instead of a .com as one of many ways to verify your nonprofit status. Purchase both versions if available, but the .org should be the primary. (We typically recommend NameCheap as the place to go.)
Plus, if you can avoid it, keep your website URL simple instead of exactly matching the official name of your nonprofit. There’s typically no need to include something like “LLC” in your web domain, and you might even consider setting up a Doing Business As (DBA) name to keep your organization name simple and memorable.
Use Facebook as a website substitute
This is a little less common than it used to be, but it’s worth reiterating: a Facebook page is not a substitute for having a nonprofit website. Sure, there are some great features that make it a helpful tool, but it’s not something you truly own or have control over as you do with a website.
And while we’re on the subject, be sure to set up your nonprofit with a Facebook page and not a profile, which is intended for individuals. You’ll risk losing your account and you won’t have access to key features and content options for nonprofits, like fundraising tools.
Rely on too many third-party services for online actions
From collecting donations and event RSVPs, to managing events and online forms, there are a lot of third-party tools out there intended to make your life easier as a nonprofit. But taking a piecemeal approach to all of these pieces of your strategy has some downsides.
Consider how much access you have to each tool’s data (like the ability to export contact information for your supporters), if pricing will increase as your nonprofit scales up, and whether the tools work with each other and critical systems like your donor management software. Consolidating services by choosing more robust tools or a more powerful website comes with time-saving benefits and reduces errors in keeping track of people, even if it means moving away from free options.
Don’t set up analytics or tracking on your website
When your nonprofit is just a baby organization, it’s helpful to be able to keep track of key milestones and measures of growth. For your website, this means ensuring that you have a way of tracking its performance in terms of visitors, the content it offers and what actions people take.
A tool like Google Analytics can offer insights into the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns and help you prepare reports for your board or boss on how things are going in the marketing world. Having tracking in place from the very start ensures that you can show progress and have benchmarks to work with over time.
Use personal email for bulk messages and newsletters
Just don’t. In addition to looking unprofessional, it can be an unpleasant experience for recipients, artificially limit your email strategy, reduce the options you have to build your email list, and cause a lot of trouble when managing addresses over time. Shop around for an email marketing service that meets your needs. Lots of nonprofits start with the free version of Mailchimp, which we also recommend.
Once you’re up and running on an email marketing platform, you can also get started with an organized and thoughtful list structure. It’s much easier to create segmented lists or groups when you do it from the beginning! And that would be nearly impossible to manage if you’re trying to use personal email.
Not setting up organizational email addresses
Since you now know how great it is to have a nice domain name, get set up to use it for your emails, too. Setting up a Google for Nonprofits account is a free and easy way to use Gmail for your organization’s email addresses with your domain name tacked on the end.
This is also a great opportunity to set up a generic email address or two for your organization, like email@example.com. While you still might like to have emails that are specific to staff members, you’ll want at least one generic address to use when setting up technical accounts. Trust us when we say it’s a huge pain to try to access online services when you can’t remember the email address you used to sign up or realize it belonged to a staff member that’s no longer at your nonprofit.
Forget to keep your technical accounts in order
We’ve mentioned a lot of different accounts and services that you’re going to be setting up as your nonprofit marketing efforts expand. In addition to using a generic email address (see above), you’ll need a secure way of storing login information for your accounts if you want to keep your sanity. Use a password management system (we like LastPass and KeePass) to organize your marketing tools and graduate from using scribbled details on sticky notes. You’ll thank us when you go to upgrade your technology, bring on a new staff member, or launch a new website.
Apply for a Google Ad Grant before you’re ready
We see a lot of newer organizations jump right into a Google Ad Grant as a way to spread the word about their mission. What’s not to love about the idea of free advertising? However, ad management takes an ongoing time investment each month to ensure that your account stays active and complies with all of the many rules and policies for grant recipients.
On top of that, making good use of your $10,000/month budget strongly correlates with having a content-rich and search-optimized website that you can use to direct relevant search traffic. Until you’re at that point and have a solid strategy in place, hold off on applying for the grant. It’s much more difficult to get it back once you’ve lost it.
Talk and write about your nonprofit like a brochure
When your nonprofit is new, it’s understandable that you feel like you don’t have a lot of content or information to share. You might be mostly about the vision instead of your impact. That’s okay!
What’s not okay is limiting your marketing efforts with stuffy language about who you are, what you do, and why it matters. There are very few people who will tolerate a website or social media post that reads like a brochure or mini white paper when they are trying to get to know you. Instead, focus on the types of stories you can tell even as a newer organization, and work on creating content about your programs or services that makes your mission come to life.
Every nonprofit is bound to make some marketing mistakes along the way, and they definitely aren’t the end of the world. The earlier that you catch them, the better it will be as you work to build a strong foundation for your brand and reputation.
Did you make any marketing mistakes when your nonprofit was starting up? What advice do you have for new nonprofits looking to get established and start off on the right foot? Share your tips and wisdom in the comments. I’ll see you there!