Follow These 7 Steps to Create a Nonprofit Marketing Plan

Marketing September 02, 2020

Terry Ibele

By Terry Ibele

This is a guest blog post by Julia Campbell, a nonprofit digital marketing and online fundraising strategist.

Having worked with hundreds of nonprofits over the years, I can tell you that nonprofits who develop and follow a well-thought-out marketing plan grow faster and make a bigger impact than those who don’t.

The success of Sarah Rintamaki, the founder of a small nonprofit called Connecting for Kids, is a great example. She attributes her 300% growth in three years to the marketing plan she followed.

In this article, I’ll cover the seven steps it takes to create an effective nonprofit marketing plan. 

Whether you apply these steps to a single campaign or use them to inform your organization’s marketing strategy for the entire year, you can be sure they’ll help your team increase donations, grow members, deepen engagement, and raise awareness.


What is a Nonprofit Marketing Plan?

A nonprofit marketing plan is simply a document that outlines the activities needed to execute any type of campaign. 

This document should be made available to everyone in the organization, so they can refer to the main goals of the campaign in case they need to adjust activities.

Most nonprofits begin outlining their marketing plans and assigning roles with their Board (if Board involvement is needed or required) at the beginning of the new fiscal year, but they can also be developed on a project-by-project basis throughout the year. 


The 7 Steps to Create a Nonprofit Marketing Plan:

  1. Figure Out What’s Working – And What’s Not

  2. Pick the Best Goal for Your Organization

  3. SMART Objectives: The Best Way to Achieve Amazing Results

  4. Stay Relevant

  5. Find the Right People to Support You

  6. Craft a Compelling Message

  7. Choose the Best Platform to Share Your Message

Be sure to also download our Nonprofit Marketing Plan Template and fill it out as you go!

1. Figure Out What’s Working – And What’s Not 

Before developing your new marketing plan, it’s always a good idea to take a look back at what’s worked, or not worked, for your organization in the past. 

Take some time to review your past marketing activities and campaigns, whether or not they were guided by a formal plan. Ask yourself questions like: 

  • What were we hoping to achieve with this strategy or campaign? 

  • Did we achieve our goals and objectives? 

  • What was most successful about this strategy or campaign? 

  • What didn’t work as well as we’d hoped or expected? 

  • What can we learn from the outcomes of this strategy or campaign? 

  • What should we do differently next time or what can we test to see if a different approach would be more effective?

  • Can any of the assets (photography, written content, video content) be reused for future strategies or campaigns? 

Once you have a clear sense of where you’ve gone right or wrong, you’ll be able to use that knowledge to inform your next strategy. 

But that’s not the only knowledge you’ll need! Keep reading… 


2. Pick the Best Goal for Your Organization

One small foundation I worked with was marketing their organization everywhere (Facebook, email, events, etc.), but getting little return for their efforts.

As I quickly discovered, the problem was that they were trying to accomplish multiple goals — increase donations, boost community engagement, raise awareness, etc. — all at once.

With such a small team, they were spreading themselves thin and bombarding their target audience with every type of ask.

From my experience, the nonprofit teams that focus on one primary goal at a time see the most success. As soon as I helped the foundation focus on one goal with their marketing campaigns (increasing donations), they started seeing better results.

If you need help deciding on a primary goal, here are the four most common nonprofit marketing goals I’ve seen:

  • Acquire new donors or members

  • Deepen community engagement 

  • Raise awareness

  • Become a thought leader and go-to resource on an issue

Make sure your nonprofit marketing goal is tied directly to your organizational growth objectives. We all want to raise awareness of our organization and the work that we do, but what will this “raised awareness” get our organization at the end of the day? What do we hope to accomplish? 

Small nonprofits typically see the best results when they select one priority goal per quarter. Larger organizations with a marketing department of more than one person may be able to focus on two goals. 

Since nonprofit organizational priorities are always changing and shifting, I recommend reviewing your nonprofit marketing plan every quarter (three months). This may not mean creating a new one from scratch, but rather examining the plan to see where it can be tweaked and analyzing your progress.   


3. SMART Objectives: The Best Way to Achieve Amazing Results 

Two years ago a friend of mine decided to participate in a charity run.

She showed up in a jogging outfit and dragged her way to the finish line. She came in dead last.

Last year she signed up again, but this time she was determined to come in first place. She began practicing four months before the event. She tracked her times, began eating better, and even hired a trainer. 

On the day of the race, she pushed herself harder than before and finished in the top 10% of all runners — something she never thought she could do.

The only thing that drove my friend to reach such an amazing result was refining her objective: simply participating in the race vs. aspiring to come in first.

In the same way, nonprofits who refine their marketing plan objectives are able to accomplish their goals to a greater degree. 

The best way I’ve seen nonprofits refine their objectives is by using something called the SMART objective framework. SMART stands for:

  • Specific: Choose an objective with one key result.

  • Measurable: Ensure you have the tools available to measure your progress along the way.

  • Achievable (but Ambitious): Given your current reality (time, money, expertise, help, etc.), choose something you know you can set out to do, but will also push you to learn more.

  • Relevant: Good objectives increase the success of the organization. Increasing donations may be more tied to your organization’s overall objectives, while simply increasing Twitter followers may not.

  • Time-based: Create a realistic deadline you want to achieve this by.

For example, if your primary marketing goal is “raising awareness,” then some sample SMART objectives could be:

  • 50% increase in blog traffic by March.

  • 25% increase in social media shares by July.  

  • 10% increase in Facebook post reach by October. 

  • 3,000 video views on YouTube by January. 

Once you’ve refined your SMART objectives, they will drive you to do the activities that will lead to their success.

All nonprofits are different and will have different SMART objectives to match their primary goals. To find the numbers that are right for your nonprofit, you will need to look at the marketing benchmarks that already exist, or estimate to the best of your ability. 


4. Stay Relevant 

There’s a lot going on in today’s world. With so much on our minds, limited attention spans and the rise of information fatigue, nonprofits need to work harder than ever to cut through the noise and stay relevant to their audiences. 

And what better way to beat the news cycle than by embracing it? 

Before designing or launching a marketing plan, always ask yourself whether there are any current trends or news items you should incorporate into your strategy. 

Known as “newsjacking,” this tactic can work wonders for your brand awareness efforts by leveraging common keyword searches and letting your audience know you’re current and engaged.  

Classic newsjacking is most effective on social media, where a growing number of people are turning first for news and information, but you can also leverage news and trends through your blog, email marketing and even your website. 

The most obvious news item right now is COVID-19. With the pandemic impacting all of our lives in one way or another, many people are watching to see how their favorite nonprofits are reacting or responding to the current environment. 

Here’s an example of a Facebook post from SickKids Foundation linking two newsworthy topics in one campaign: Mother’s Day and COVID-19. 


Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada has also been letting its followers know how the pandemic has been impacting the young people they serve and what community members can do to help: 

Big Brothers Big Sisters 

But staying relevant isn’t only about keeping up with the news. It’s also important to keep a close eye on holidays, awareness days and other observances and consider which of these dates align with your mission – and then plan your marketing strategy accordingly. 

Here’s an example from Nature Conservancy of Canada, which paid special tribute to Indigenous Peoples on Indigenous Peoples Day: 


So, before you start putting your marketing plan together, think about specific dates or news items you could leverage to stay relevant, capture your audience’s attention, and deepen engagement with your cause.


5. Find the Right People to Support You

Look at the number of likes and shares on this Facebook post from Girls Who Code, an organization with a mission of closing the gender gap in tech, one girl at a time.

 Girls Who Code 

If you go to Girls Who Code’s Facebook Page, you’ll find nearly all their posts have similar likes and shares.

And while the stories they share are quite powerful, their success comes from something else entirely.

Girls Who Code was able to find and target a specific audience that responds to their mission. By marketing to that specific audience over time, they learned how to better connect with them — by sharing powerful stories of girls making a difference through their program. 

They don’t worry about people who don’t understand or support what they do — they focus on their most passionate online community members, and that leads to their success. 

And that’s the key. Successful marketing campaigns are targeted towards very specific audiences — and this is what the concept of personas is all about. 

Personas are simply fictional characters that help marketers envision someone who might respond to their marketing messages.

For instance, a few personas for Girls Who Code might be:

  • A middle-aged woman in the tech industry who wants to support the next generation of women in coding.

  • The parent of a teenage daughter who has an interest in coding.

  • A young woman in a university coding program.

Once your persona is created, you can start crafting a message that will connect with that persona. Personas help humanize your marketing message, as you can better imagine you are speaking to or writing for one person vs. the entire online world. 

You’ll also want to be more specific than just age and gender when creating your personas. As Jason Grunberg from the Sailthru marketing agency says, “Ozzy Osbourne and Prince Charles are both British men in their late 60s, but they aren’t necessarily interested in the same things.” As you can imagine, Ozzy Osbourne and Prince Charles would respond to different marketing messages.


6. Craft a Compelling Message

This is the hardest part of any marketing campaign — getting your audience to pay attention long enough to take your desired action.

This is also where most nonprofit marketers have the most fun, because creativity comes into play, in a big way. 

Here’s an example.

WaterAid wanted to get the word out among young people about their work to provide clean water and toilets to the world’s poorest communities. To do this, they took an approach many older donors might grimace at, but younger people embraced.

They created a Poopmoji campaign, where supporters could create personalized poop emojis and share their creations with friends. 


This campaign was wildly successful and resulted in a huge uptick in social shares, website traffic, and email sign ups.  

But if you’re hard-pressed to come up with something as creative as WaterAid, there’s another fail-proof way to create a compelling message that works for any nonprofit.

And that is through the power of storytelling. 

In fact, 56% of those who support nonprofits through social media confirm that compelling storytelling motivates them to make a donation.

Take this example.

Small nonprofit Rosie’s Place, a women’s shelter in Boston, wanted to raise funds for its programs. They knew about SMART objectives, so they created an ambitious one: receive 500 gifts (of any size) in seven days from their online community (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube). 

They also knew the power of storytelling, so they filmed a series of heart-warming (and often heart-wrenching) stories of women whom the shelter had helped.

Every day during the campaign, they shared one of the videos with their online community along with their goal of 500 gifts in seven days. Here’s an example:

 Rosie's PlaceRosie's Place 2 

At the end of the week, they had received a total of 150 gifts — short of their 500 goal, but still incredible. Plus, they touched the hearts of hundreds of people online, compelling many to become regular donors to the shelter.

If you’re thinking of using storytelling to make your messages more powerful, I suggest taking the approach of Rosie’s Place and searching for stories among the people your organization supports.

And once you’ve found a compelling story, the next step is to find the right platform to share it on.


7. Choose the Best Platform to Share Your Message

Nonprofits tend to dive into platforms headfirst — let’s get on Instagram, let’s start tweeting! 

However, each marketing platform has a different strength and if you choose a blanket approach for every platform, your message may end up falling flat. 

If you want to maximize your impact, it’s important to tailor your message based on each platform’s strengths.

Here are the strengths of the six most popular online platforms I see nonprofits using.

  • Facebook: Facebook is great for showcasing impact, expanding reach, and engaging debate or conversation among different supporters.

  • Twitter: Twitter is useful for sharing news around an issue or tagging specific people in your updates. One great example: The Scratch Foundation used Twitter to share their campaign videos, generating much more engagement than simple text posts.

  • Email: Email is an intimate platform to speak with those who know you and trust you on a personal level. That’s why it’s great for large asks (ex. “Would you donate $300?”), or specific asks (Ex. “Come to our event on Tuesday.”).

  • Website: Your website is your most important piece of marketing collateral, because it is your face to the world and the place where you make that vital first impression. This is where people will go to find out further details about your campaign, and also dig around to discover your organization’s mission and vision.

  • Blog: Maintaining a regular blog on your nonprofit’s website is a worthy investment. Blogs drive more traffic to your website, provide shareable content, build community interest in your mission and position your organization as a thought leader. The best part? Content of any kind can live on a blog. From short updates to long-read pieces, video content to photo galleries, a blog is a wonderful place to showcase impact and share your message. 

  • Google ads: The Google Ad Grants program provides up to $10,000 a month in free advertising space for eligible nonprofits, enabling nonprofits of all sizes to tap into the power of online advertising to reach new and bigger audiences. Learn more about the Google Ad Grants program on our blog.  

If you’re a very small nonprofit with limited staff and staff capacity, I’ve found your efforts are best spent if you focus on three areas:

  1. Optimizing your website by featuring your compelling message on your homepage;

  2. Communicating your ask in an email campaign to your supporters; and

  3. Consistently sharing your campaign on the one social network (Ex. Facebook) where your supporters are most engaged.

The David Suzuki Foundation provides a great example of how a campaign can be powerfully executed across these key platforms. 

First, they made sure their homepage was set up to clearly showcase their campaign message:

David Suzuki Foundation 

Then they sent out an email to their list, asking community members to get involved: 

David Suzuki Foundation Email 

And finally, they backed up their message with compelling posts on their social media channels: 

David Suzuki Foundation Facebook Post 

To learn more about executing an integrated marketing campaign like this one, check out this article from Charity Village

And if you want a PDF to help you put together your own nonprofit marketing plan, download our free template.

One Final Word...

The nonprofits who take the time to create a strategic, thoughtful, and purposeful nonprofit marketing plan see the biggest impact in growing their organization. Plus there’s the added bonus of avoiding overwhelm as you go.

If you’d like any help creating your marketing plan, feel free to get in touch with me. All the best with your nonprofit marketing plans!


Additional Resources


Julia C. CampbellJulia Campbell is one of the most well-known nonprofit digital marketing and online fundraising strategists. She offers a number of free nonprofit webinars and courses on her website and she is the author of Storytelling in the Digital Age: A Guide for Nonprofits.

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Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.


  • Mike Brown:
    Thanks Terry, very helpful


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