Articles | Planning and Budgets | Balancing Quality and Cost-Efficiency in Your Nonprofit Marketing Materials (Case Study)

Balancing Quality and Cost-Efficiency in Your Nonprofit Marketing Materials (Case Study)


I work for the foundation of a non-profit health care organization. I recently read your article on effective communication budgets for non-profits and found it very insightful.

However, what you did not address was “appropriate” production values and expenditures. In other words, not what we can afford, but what we can do to make our annual report, e-newsletter or membership website look fantastic, be effective but not appear over-the-top? We don’t want our donors to question how their money is spent.

How do we effectively balance cost-efficiency with quality? Specifically, we’re looking at revamping our e-newsletter and print brochures at this time.

Thank you for any help you can provide.

– Angie Zmarzly
Grant Developer
The Madonna Foundation, Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital
Lincoln, NE

Dear Angie,

You’ve asked a great question. As a matter of fact, it’s one I hear frequently from marketing staff members at nonprofits around the country.

As marketers, and as consumers, we know that quality matters. It’s a fact that print readers enjoy color printing, striking graphics and photographs, and nice paper stock (let’s call these components “production values”). Similarly, online audiences appreciate websites, online tools and e-newsletters that are designed in a truly-interactive way that adds value to their experience, as well in a unique, color-rich style.

However, your communications quest isn’t to generate your audiences’ enjoyment or appreciation. It’s to motivate your audiences to act – to give, to join or to register. And Angie, it’s likely that each campaign or even marketing piece will require you to hone a different production value.

I advise you to look beyond design and print production values to your core marketing goals. Ask yourself the following questions to help you make decisions on production values:

  • Do you aim for audiences to keep a printed piece (as you might with an Annual Report) or read it and toss it?
    • A “keeper” should be produced with higher production values than a throwaway flyer.
  • What do your audiences respond to most? For a nonprofit focused on teens and 20-somethings, sharp mobile design and innovative text campaigns (which are inexpensive to produce but the creative may well be quite pricy, as will any qualified list of cell numbers. web design and lots of (useful) interactivity is a must. For others—and most definitely your senior donors—print materials are equally, if not more, important.
    • Talk to your audiences to find out what really matters to them. Spend your budget in those places. Your allocation will also depend on the medium. For websites, usability (ease of use) is much more important than slick design, although an outdated look can discourage potential donors or volunteers.
  • How can you produce quality online and print marketing products, at a somewhat lower cost?
    • It’s not all about money. What I think is most important is that a nonprofit marketing piece or site is professionally done. For example, a clear, recognizable design is more important than four-color printing or a glossy paper stock. You can save more by having a professional graphic designer design one or more templates for your brochures and flyers. Then you and your colleagues can plug in content as needed for a series of flyers or brochures.
    • Same goes for your special pages online – a consistent, usable look and feel will have more impact than a new and flashy one, every time.

  • Will your print or online piece stand alone or be reviewed as one of several communications from various nonprofits and other entities?
    • If you are advertising in a local newspaper or taking a page in a community guide, it is critical that your ad is designed to look at least as (if not more) professional than the other ads in the publication. Otherwise, readers are likely to overlook your promotion. Even worse, an unprofessional look and feel can convey that your nonprofit itself is unprofessional.

Angie, use these guidelines to start your own planning checklist. Add other parameters that are critical to your organization. I think you’ll find that you’ll develop a checklist that enables you to make the right decision on production values every time.

Don’t forget to design some strategies to manage issues as they evolve.

For example, if a board member has criticized a recent video-format annual report for looking “too glossy,” ask that board member for suggestions on how to create professional, quality communications, sans gloss. Request that he or she pass on to you good models.

What are your strategies for balancing quality and cost-efficiency in your nonprofit marketing products? Please share them here.

Nancy Schwartz in Planning and Budgets | 8 comments

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  • Carol Winer

    During these tough times, we need to be tougher in our approaches to marketing, branding and design. Unfortunately clients get frightened and water things down instead of being more innovative. These are creative opportunities. But you cannot get around having intelligent and experienced professional guidance to achieve results at any cost. I have always told clients, “The concept is everything. With a small budget we can use a rubber stamp. With a large budget we can blind emboss. We’ll decide that later.” Of course this is a little “flip” but you get the idea. New media, digital printing for 4-color pieces [depending on quantities] are available. The thinking is priceless. It is the JOB of the Creative Director or person in similar role to meet your needs, meet your goals and stay within budget. Great thinking will always move your project ahead.

  • We put quite a bit of our resources into our summer camp books as they are “keepers.” They are nicely designed, colorful and with lots of pictures of kids having fun. They go to parents who then give them to their kids or look over them with their kids so they can choose what camp units or experiences they want. The books must appeal to both parents and kids. Through parent surveys we are finding that our website doesn’t get much use but we will be going to online registration soon (something parents have asked for) and that will drive traffic to our web pages. This will mean more resources going to the web pages to make them lively and easy and quick to read.

  • Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Loved your final comment, towards critizism for looking “too glossy”. This is something we – at BrandOutLoud, – have heard before, and unfortunately often. In my column in leading journal of development aid I talk about this issue more.

    Fear for a good image – to recruit volunteers and donors in the Netherlands it is essential to invest in the image of your organisation. Local aid organisations in Southeast Asia often think quite differently, worried about portraying themselves as “too well off”. A missed opportunity…


  • Nancy Schwartz

    Judith, thanks for sharing this very powerful case study. Case well made!

  • This is a good question and we are forced to make choices all the time. We make sure that all our materials and our image are consistent and representative of our brand. We have made some finanical investment in our marketing efforts but we have founded a signficant number of professionals who have provided us with high quality probono services. The investment that we have made has had a signficant payoff. We are serving an ever increasing number of individuals and families and have been successful at maintaining the level of philanthropy under difficult economic circumstances.

  • Hello,
    I have a graphic design practice that includes non-profit clients. I respectfully disagree with your suggestion to use templates for client-generated print ads. Yesterday I showed by book to another Creative Director. She paused to read an ad I wrote and designed for a hospice organization. Yes, the ad is simple, but the concept is not. Some things need to be done by professionals.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, William.

  • Laura Jansen

    I have always found that strong, dynamic photos overcome limited budgets. Even in a two-color design on less-than-fancy paper, if the photos are great, the audience will notice.

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