Dowser is welcoming new writers/contributors; please send us a note at with a writing sample.

Social Media is Not the Answer: How to Market Your Non-Profit Effectively

Jul 5th, 2013Finance, Opinion


This is a guest post by Alexa Loken, founder of Loken Creative: an Austin-based marketing agency for cause-based organizations.

Managing a cause-based organization is similar to trying to juggle flaming batons while riding a unicycle on a tightrope. Constraints on funding, staff, time, and other resources compete while these organizations work around the clock to make a positive impact on the world.

Amidst all these priorities, tasks that seem less important, like effective messaging, frequently fall by the wayside. But ironically, without a marketing strategy and a compelling story, cause-based organizations cannot maximize the benefit they want to make on the world.

Marketing strategies are extremely important, and in reality, easy to implement. To effectively tell their story, organizations need to allocate more time and money to marketing, build marketing skill sets, identify target markets, and expand beyond social media.

Cause-based organizations often spend the bare minimum of their budget and staff on marketing.

A study from Iowa State University found that nonprofits typically spent only two to three percent of their operating budget on marketing, and only about a quarter of nonprofits even had a written marketing plan.

The squeeze on resources often causes marketing functions to be delegated to volunteers or administrative staff to fill downtime, if there ever is any. However, paradoxically, one of the best ways to increase the pool of available resources long term is to spend more money and staff to help promote the organization.

Cause-based organizations fall prey to the short-term method of conserving resources by dismissing marketing as a non-essential service when they should invest in their organization with a strong marketing plan with the appropriate amount of staff time and budget.

Once the proper resources are dedicated to marketing, cause-based organizations must then work on building the proper marketing skill sets. An efficient marketing approach requires extensive strategy, implementation, and training in both traditional and online marketing mediums, and most organizations do not have staff that is sufficiently trained.

The Food is Free Project, a sustainable agricultural nonprofit, lacked staff with a marketing background. The organization has a great mission and strong brand with thousands of social media followers but had trouble identifying and implementing additional marketing efforts.

They looked to an external marketing consultancy to assist in creating an effective strategy in online and traditional marketing areas that would help not only implement, but also train their staff for long-term sustainability.

Another potential resource for marketing knowledge is board members – adding a new board member with marketing background can help identify areas that would be most beneficial for the organization. Outside consultancies can also help with the strategy and implementation, while a few may even offer training for the marketing services for long-term sustainability.

In an attempt to promote their message, many organizations focus on the low-hanging fruit of social media. Having a comprehensive marketing plan will help cause-based organizations avoid this pitfall. Social media is free, requires little to no training, and is perceived as the sole solution to an organization’s marketing.

Not only do organizations often use social media ineffectively (due to constrained resources and lack of knowledge), but without complimentary marketing services, social media is not very effective. For example, a social media campaign without a donor campaign would not translate to more donations.

Without an interactive website and well-organized newsletter, even the best social media campaign won’t generate more volunteers or customers. Social media has to be a component of an overall marketing strategy, not the “be all, end all” of an organization’s marketing.

The Amala Foundation, a youth humanitarian organization, had a strong social media presence, but lacked a sustaining donor base. They relied heavily on social media to attract followers, but failed to use any other outlets or marketing to attract donors. The solution? A monthly donor campaign and leveraging Amala Foundation’s existing social media presence to get followers to commit to monthly donations.

Cause-based organizations have three potential target markets: clients, volunteers, and donors. Because the methods of engagement between the three markets are different, the marketing message must be differentiated as well.

However, organizations often go with a single message for all markets, creating a lack of relevance for many potential stakeholders. Furthermore, marketing messages often focus on the “what” rather than the “why.” Staff members’ intense passion for their work causes them to focus on their accomplishments rather than speak to why the prospective client/volunteer/donor should care about the organization.

In an era of limited time and instant gratification, a marketing message has to be extremely relevant to each target market. Organizations can’t afford to send stale messaging to their diverse audiences and expect them to take action.

Understanding what the stakeholders are looking for and aligning missions and goals to theirs through effective marketing will allow organizations to communicate with a wider audience.

Photo Courtesy of Open Source (Flickr).

To learn more about Loken Creative view this animated video.

3 Responses

  1. [...] Social Media is Not the Answer: How to Market Your Non-Profit Effectively [Dowser] [...]

  2. SEO says:

    I think other web-site proprietors should take this site as an model, very clean and fantastic user genial style and design, let alone the content. You are an expert in this topic!

  3. Kelly says:

    I work for a not-for-profit organisation and i am developing a presentation on the weaknesses in the marketing department. This read absolutely highlights every single downfall and has assisted me hugely on my analysis. A very good read.