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Relevance Rules—Your Key to Nonprofit Marketing Success Now & Forever

The stresses of the times are dramatically affecting your organization’s relationships, and that’s likely to continue. But there’s some very good news.

Despite today’s challenges, there is a way for your organization to build and strengthen vital relationships with the people whose help you need as donors, advocates, volunteers and more. Here are my guidelines for implementing a doable, proven strategy—getting personal to get relevant—that is your single most important key to marketing success right now.

Here’s what you know—The economy is stalled, with no improvement in sight. Jobs are scarce and instability is rampant. Beyond that, we’ve all been let down by people, institutions and processes we thought we could rely on for the duration—politicians and other leaders falling from grace, the swallowing up of social supports, and more.

What you may not realize is exactly how these factors can weaken your organization’s relationships with your supporters and prospects. Most people (and that means your target audiences, colleagues and leadership) are feeling:

  • More anxious
  • Less optimistic
  • More skeptical of the ever-increasing barrage of content of all kinds, now delivered in more ways—online and offline.

As a result, their wants, values and preferences are changing. Your audiences are likely to be:

  • More cautious, which means they are making decisions more slowly and donating the same or less
  • Less likely to volunteer or participate in a program (or other non-essentials) due to budget and time restrictions
  • Seeking to be understood, and the resulting connection
  • Yearning for reliability and trustworthiness.


Your Solution: Get Personal to Get Relevant

Increased relevance is your absolute priority today, and going forward.

At a time of high stress and uncertainty, relevance is the only way to connect with your target audiences—marketing has to be more on target, messages resonate more intensely, and interaction has to incorporate choices and discussion (leave your megaphone at home). Since getting it right is rare, your doing so will be valued all the more.

It’s really very simple, and something you probably do on a personal level all the time: Getting to know and understand others with whom you want to build a friendship, learning what’s important to them and how their days go, then connecting with them by focusing on what’s important or interesting to both of you—via a platform (cell phone, text or visit), at a time that’s good for both of you. Once you get started, you factor in the way your relationship evolves to figure out the next step.

Similarly, your audiences have to feel you get them; that you understand their values, interests, wants and habits so that your messages and call to action are as meaningful to them as they are to you, that you note their responses (or lack thereof) to your outreach and adapt accordingly. You want them to think to themselves, “Yep, that’s exactly how I feel about fracking,” or “That donor’s quote is just like something I’d say.”


Your How-Tos

How to Get to Know Your Target Audiences
Here’s how to learn what’s important to your network.

NOTE: A vital prerequisite to effective personalization (you can’t be relevant without it) is having a system and processes firmly in place that ensure the quick, thorough and accurate tracking, logging and sharing of your audience profile or records.

1. Pinpoint three or fewer audiences
Those who can do the most to move your marketing goals forward in 2012, and who are most likely to do so.

Example—Target audiences for an animal shelter seeking to build its volunteer and donor base:

  • Friends of current volunteers who are pet lovers
  • Customers of pet-related businesses in the region
  • Clients of vets in the region.

If there are meaningful and distinct groups within each audience (individuals linked by shared wants, habits, and/or perspectives that provide a stronger avenue of connection for you), segment them out (no more than three per audience).

2. Get to know your selected audiences and segments
Research their values, habits, preferences, dislikes, behaviors—including how they interact with your organization—then analyze your findings.

  • Begin with each individual’s interactions with your organization, which you have (or will have) on hand. Capture and note elements such as:
    • Time, date and level of donations
    • Gift focus (general or program- or fund-specific)
    • Event participation
    • Volunteer participation
    • Responses to various messages, content and formats.
  • Move on to more meaty dimensions of your audiences—values, wants, priorities, preferences and interests. These insights will help you build the deep and really meaningful understanding that will enable you to connect with people at a core emotional level.

Here are six quick and inexpensive approaches to understanding your audiences’ perspective (links lead to detailed guidance):


How To Capture, Analyze and Share What You Learn (and what your colleagues learn)
What you learn about your audiences is only valuable when you log, share and analyze it across your organization, in a way that’s easy to access and search.

Create, use and update regularly your robust contact database of records of your current network and prospects, where you can note all that you know.

Ask and train your colleagues to do the same. The more robust your insight into each person you’re hoping to engage, the greater your probability of doing so—if you base the form and focus of your outreach on these insights.


How to Use the Personal to Get Relevant

1. Personalize messages and content to connect
Take the understanding you’ve gained to hone your messages or content as specifically as possible to each individual, as you would in a conversation.

  • Your insights enable you to craft emotional messages—we respond first through the heart, then through the head; the right brain decides, the left brain justifies—which works only when you really understand whom you’re speaking with
  • Focus on the sweet spot—the overlap of your audiences’ wants and values, and those of your organization—in your messaging
  • Write short. Give your network only what they need to motivate them to act, and nothing more.

2. Use the tools now inexpensively available to match each name with the right call to action
Core tools include your database, a reputable and flexible email service which enable you fine-tune your outreach:

  • Segment by interest or other dimensions of your audiences: Send email A to the group of donors new in the last 6 months who don’t do anything else with your organization, and email B to those who are also volunteers.
  • Test what messages, look and feel, and formats work best for each audience group, using A & B versions. Use results to shape future outreach
  • Analyze your website, email and social media usage stats.

3. Go where your audiences already are
As the number of channels or platforms increases, usage patterns diversify. You must track and analyze how your network is interacting with you to ensure you’re in the right place in the right way.

The core channels for every organization are your website, e-newsletter and other e-outreach, and a Facebook presence (which must be nurtured to be of any value at all). Beyond that, your channels depend on where your audiences are, online and offline.

One immediate priority is making your website and emails mobile device-friendly.

4. Stay consistent across channels
Make sure that your communications and conversations are recognizable in a flash across channels, offline and online. Consistent use of core messages and look and feel are cues to your audiences that your outreach is coming from your organization. That makes it easier for them to digest your content and act.

Inconsistency confuses, and confusion is one of the biggest barriers to attention and action.


Relevance Rules – What are Your Strategies?
I guarantee you that when you get personal to get relevant, you’ll engage more folks and strengthen existing relationships like you’ve never done before.

What are your strategies for getting to know your audiences, logging and managing those insights and putting them to work? Please share them here.

Nancy Schwartz in Relevance Rules | 7 comments

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Nancy E. Schwartz helps nonprofits succeed through effective marketing. Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to nonprofit organizations and foundations nationwide. She is the publisher of the Getting Attention e-update and blog. For more nonprofit marketing guidance like this, subscribe to her e-update at

  • Thanks so much for helping me learn how to promote my non profit website and adventure science books using social media.

  • Appreciate this article. It really helps me learn what I need to learn.

  • Thanks so much for this. It is really helpful. You are remarkable.

  • Liz

    Hi Nancy, I love your recommendations here, and I have been trying to push our Development team towards them for some time now. I get push back relating to our organization’s size and the size of our audience (currently approx. 1500 emails for e-news, 2400 addresses for print news, 400+ annual donors). Since we are a small nonprofit (8 staff total), some of our staff feel we don’t need to segment. We rely on substantial revenue from program grants, but are attempting to drastically grow our private fundraising. Our unrestricted revenue goals for 2012 are substantially greater than last year. What do you think about segmentation for an org like ours? Is this an important element of communications and fundraising strategy for all nonprofits, or just the big ones?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Hi Liz,
    Great question. No matter the size of your current lists, there are important differences among the folks on each. That’s why yes, it is important to segment.

  • Ditto to what you said. :)

  • Nancy Schwartz


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