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Getting to Know Your NPO: 5 Tips for Better Marketing

If you’re working for or running a non-profit organization (NPO), chances are you’re too busy to catch your breath because of the gazillion number of things you need to get done. But if you can spare a moment, well, maybe just a couple, I promise it’ll be worth your while. If it’s not, beers are on me.

Before you read on, know I’ve got some street cred and working knowledge in the NPO world. I’ve spent seven years in development and student life in higher education, served on the boards of directors for a professional jazz orchestra and a philanthropic cancer research organization, and I’ve started my own organization that improves quality of life outcomes for male cancer patients and survivors.

Everyone who works for or starts a non-profit has big dreams of making the world a better place. But sooner or later, wide eyes and tender hearts come back to one central crux: how to get more dollars in the door. Someone’s got to pay for your programs, salaries and, of course, swag.

As you’re doing your best octopus interpretation—tentacles in marketing, fundraising, board development, and program implementation—NPO life can get tiring and overwhelming. Satisfying, yes, but the candle can proverbially burn at both ends pretty quickly.

When you’re building or maintaining a non-profit, keeping the long view for sustained success is important. Your day-to-day routine should bear homage to that, too. Whether you’re doing it short-staffed or all by yourself, it’s worth keeping a few basic marketing tips in mind.

1) Know your audience

Seems pretty simple, right? But think about all the material you’re churning out…and who that information is targeted to: social media content, website copy, emails, brochures and so on.

Seth Godin, a well-respected American author, entrepreneur, marketer, and public speaker, offers a fairly direct statement on knowing your audience: “If you can’t answer this specifically, do not proceed to the rest. By who, I mean, ‘give me a name.’ Or, if you can’t give me a name, then a persona, a tribe, a spot in the hierarchy, a set of people who share particular worldviews.” With my cancer non-profit, M Powerment, I always have to keep in mind who my target audience is. Am I writing to patients? Survivors? Friends of survivors? Oncologists? Foundations? Patient navigators? And so on. Having clarity about ‘your who’ is the foundation for communication success.

2) Tell a story

By their nature, non-profits are set up to do good for society. With all of this good going on, non-profits surprisingly struggle with getting the word out. And they often don’t know the best way to do it.

Rather than a dry recounting of numbers of people served, for instance, non-profits would be better served by communicating a message with a little more feeling.

Enter our hero, the Story, stage left.

Everyone from Aristotle to Alan Alda have known the power of the story to influence hearts and change minds. Says the former TV star and visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York: “People need to hear stories, and they need to have a sense of the human behind the work,” he told Newsweek in a June 1, 2017 article.

Although Alda was talking about communicating science, the overall lesson for any area is true: a good story changes a person’s brain chemistry, draws people in, and makes them more empathetic to your cause.

3) Be proactive, not reactive

This is a broad-brushed mentality for the way to approach NPO work, but under the lens of marketing, it’s strategic to be a step ahead and not a step behind.

For instance, NPOs are good at reporting when funding comes in, but how about before that time?

Are you putting stories out of the work you’re doing? Sharing the latest media articles that relate to your work? Profiling a member of your organization?

A proactive marketing strategy means you’re thoughtful about the work you’re doing and likely keeping a calendar of when you’re communicating to your audience. When you’re being reactive, it’s likely you haven’t given enough thought to how, why, and when you’re reaching out.

Most of us would naturally opt for being proactive—it just takes more planning and thoughtfulness in order to train that muscle to operate most effectively.

4) Be regular

Proactivity and regularity go hand-in-hand, like keeping a jar of Metamucil around the house…just in case.

Say you’re a larger, more established NPO, such as a major hospital system or a university. You may have enough content to communicate with your audience a couple of times per week.

But if you’re smaller and may not have as much content as you’d ideally like, setting up a regular schedule is still a really good plan, whether it’s bi-weekly or once per month, for example. Choose the interval of time that works best with the stage of your non-profit’s development, what content you have to offer, and the bandwidth you have to get the word out.

Think of it like this: if you only talk to your kid about her grades when she brings her report card home, you’re being reactive. If you’re talking with her as she’s doing her assignments each night, you’re being proactive by having regular conversations with her.

5) Pics and Vids

You may have thought, “Well, duh!” after seeing this final tip, but it’s a good one to bear in mind as you’re developing content.

When you’re a consumer of information, think about what you gravitate toward when you’re browsing online. Chances are there’s a short video or a fetching photo that draws you in. By and large, we’re visual creatures and whatever catches our eye will get a second look.

Flip the script and now you’re wearing your content creation hat for your NPO. How much time do you think about the image you’re choosing for your blog post or web article? Or how much time, money and energy do you put in creating videos that serve your audience?

A 2016 social media marketing report published by Social Media Examiner relayed this delightful fact: A significant 60% of marketers use video in their marketing and 73% plan on increasing their use of video.

Pictures and videos are ever-present and companies rely more on them in their marketing than ever before. “Of course!” you probably say, but a good point to reinforce when you’re driving that content creation on a day-to-day basis.

Dan Dean is a freelance writer who enjoys storytelling in all of its forms, as well as creating blogs that create and promote community. He is also the founder of M Powerment, a national non-profit designed to help men thrive after cancer.

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