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6 Steps to Showcasing Marketing ROI (Case Study)

Q: Help — We’re losing ground fast and we need professional marketing help. How do I get the budget and support to get it?

My organization has been in existence since the 1960s, longer than any other environmental group in the state.

But, like many other nonprofits, we have never been good at marketing ourselves, and therefore don’t have the membership base that we should. Of course, the situation is more dire than ever right now.

As a result, we’re beginning to lose our historical advantage. For example, our state Audubon Society is developing a national audience and now has the funds to market themselves even more effectively. Our state’s Heritage Trust hired a marketing group that has helped them grow exponentially over the last year. And we’re being left behind.

We clearly need professional marketing help. We have a board member with marketing expertise (but, like most board members, he can’t give 100% of his effort to our marketing agenda) and a marketing committee, comprised of directors of communications (my boss), development and membership.

I’m an implementer and do most of our print and online graphic design and Web development and outreach. But I would be even more effective working with a marketing expert who has analyzed our challenges and designed a strategy for me to implement. So we’re doing more than treading water. But, I’m just not that person.

While leadership recognizes our need for professional marketing help, they are not moving forward in that direction. My boss agrees 100% but can’t get anywhere either. In the end, while we are stalled marketing-wise, our competitors are moving forward. Help!

I’ve passed on information on nonprofit marketing specialists and asked these specialists to contact our management too. Nothing has made a difference. I want to be more effective but don’t know how to get here.

I think my creation of a marketing plan would help, but don’t know where to start. What should I do?

— Jessica, Outreach Manager
State Natural Resources Council

A: Jessica, you’re in a challenging situation, and I admire the determination you are bringing to solving it.

The situation you face is a common one. Every nonprofit organization should be proactively marketing itself to develop and strengthen relationships with members, supporters, donors, volunteers and other stakeholders. But doing it right means more than just cranking out the direct mail and updating the Facebook page.

Effective marketing comes from clearly defined goals and objectives, the audiences you need to target to reach them and then the marketing strategies and hands-on tactics that will engage that network and motivate them to act. The process necessitates ongoing conversations with your base to get to know their needs and perspectives, analyzing what competitor and colleague organizations are doing marketing wise.

My recommendations:

1. Stop asking marketing firms to call your decision makers and stop passing on firm materials as well. Just stop right now.

Jessica, your intentions are great but at this point it’s clear that this strategy isn’t going to work. As a matter of fact, it’s likely to drive the decision makers away from funding marketing work. 

2Build understanding of the value of marketing for the Council. And, flip it to showcase what the Council WILL LOSE without it.

It’s all too easy for nonprofit leadership to nix marketing expenditures when they don’t get how vital marketing is to the ongoing health of their organizations. The most common “logic” is that program comes first, then vital support functions like fundraising.

I bet that’s what’s happening at the Council. But, it’s up to you (working with your boss) to build the understanding that there are no program participants without marketing, and limited fundraising if it isn’t done right (prospective donors need to know what the Council is and the value of its work to even consider giving).

Dig out a few concrete case studies that demonstrate the power of marketing on organizational success. Begin by sharing case studies from your counterparts in other state councils, so decision makers can identify with these success stories.

Unwrap the entire marketing process in each case, beginning with the fact that marketing goals are designed to support organizational goals. Explain the drivers of each campaign as well as its execution, and highlight the expertise required to shape and implement it successfully. If possible, have hard data on hand to show return on investment.

Make sure to include case studies from a few competitors—fire up some productive fear by showing non-believers how well organizations competing for the same attention and dollars are marketing. You’ll be less likely to get the hows and whats from the marketing folks in these orgs, but effective end products are a great supplement to the in-depth case studies you’ll gather from other councils.

3.  Come to the table with a clear right-now marketing project in mind.

Work with your boss (you need to be a team on this one) to figure out what needs to be done first and what you need (money, human resources and/or training) to make it happen. Be prepared to distribute a brief written recommendation, with budget figures, a timeline and roles and responsibilities. Whatever the request is, do your homework.

I suggest that you propose something concrete and on a finite timeline (not a marketing plan as a first step). Are you launching a new program? Honoring the Council’s 20th anniversary? Or trying to engage a new group for the first time?

Make sure you and your boss have the skills (or know where to hire them) to succeed. It’s best to pick a project where you’re confident that you can generate results. You want to use this success to motivate confidence and ongoing support and budget for more strategic marketing.

4. As you implement your initial marketing project, keep management and board posted on your progress.

You want them to be comfortable (or at least accepting) with the process (so that they get the budget and timeframe) and maintain their interest in the project. It’s up to you to demonstrate how you can put marketing to work to meet the Council’s goals.

5. Serve as an ongoing marketing mentor to your management and board.

As you and your boss come across great marketing models or ideas that are relevant to Council marketing, share them out (include colleagues here too) with a cover note that frames their value and relevance.

When you participate in marketing training, summarize key content in an email and share it with these folks and/or drip it out in casual conversations. They’ll begin to see you as an expert, while you continue to build their understanding of how marketing is an essential part of doing business.

6. Once you have one or two successful marketing projects under your belt, then it’s time to develop a comprehensive marketing plan, derived from the Council’s goals.

I recommend that you ask other Council marketers to help here or bring in an expert at this point to guide you in creating the plan. This is the critical juncture when experience with multiple nonprofit organizations (or ones just like the council), facing varied marketing challenges is a huge benefit. You have one chance to convince your leadership of the value and process of real marketing. Do it right.

The plan development process itself will raise many questions and issues to be worked through with your management,board members and colleagues. Include everyone in your process to cultivate buy-in and understanding of your focus and efforts.

Tell folks what you’re doing and why right up front (including how your marketing planning work will benefit each one of them), and ask them for their insights as part of your situation analysis. Make sure to keep them posted along the way—ask for feedback as you progress—and ask them (formally) to join your all-org marketing team,  as spokespeople and insight providers.  (Later you’ll want to train them to do so and provide ongoing support.)

At this point, Jessica, you’re ready and set. Now just go!

Let’s get fearless, readers. If you were to try this approach tomorrow, which steps would you be confident in, which would you fear and how would you conquer those fears to move forward? Please share your thoughts here.


Nancy Schwartz in Message Development | 6 comments

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  • Excellent pointers Nancy (especially #2)!
    I have been revisiting and even wrestling with the purpose, or what I call the ‘Big Why’, of (nonprofit) marketing. ROI is always a sticking point for all marketers, whether it is for widgets or missions. I think one reason for that, for me at times even, is they put tactics ahead of strategy and strategy ahead of purpose. The purpose is to increase financial capacity, strategies should be driven by only that and tactics are fueled by intimate knowledge of and segmented relationships with existing brand/org fans and spectators.
    I realize that is a crude, top of mind, stream of consciousness overview.
    Thanks again for tackling the big stuff!

  • Janet McEwen

    The advice is excellent – provided the Council is providing a necessary service. If they’re losing members and there are other environmental organizations that are making inroads, perhaps a review of need and mission is in order. Perhaps the organization no longer has a viable purpose.

  • How do I calculate ROI on various marketing initiatives, especially those not linked to direct fund raising like advertising in the media, news letters etc.

  • Nancy, I always enjoy your thoughts. Jessica makes some good points about marketing. She probably feels like I do, that if all that were needed were funds and HR, then we would fund the effort ourselves and staff the project with our own labor. The problem, like Jessica says, is a BoD that doesn’t want to plan, doesn’t want to ask clients what services the clients actually want and need, doesn’t want metrics. The BoD are the original founders, nothing is breaking, so why (they ask) fix it? Transparency? Diversity? Inclusion? Better fundraising? There are many good reasons. As for bringing in experts, I’ve seen that happen. For $25k you get the “expert” advice that can be found in a $25 book. Here is my version of the “expert”: OK, BoD, let me start you with a Saturday session of SWOT analysis, then we put our ideas on SurveyMonkey to get the opinions of our clients, then we make goals and objectives with metrics, and last we perform. Is that worth a year of meetings and $25k? No. Is it great advice? Yes. So save the $25k and do the breakout sessions and SurveyMonkey for free, or for the cost of a $25 how-to book.

  • Claire Axelrad

    Once upon a time, in a similar situation, I invited the marketing director from one of the corporations in town who funded us to have lunch with me and my director. Since it was a funder my boss was willing to do this and, in fact, a bit intrigued (Note: This was someone I’d heard speak before, and I knew she was a dynamo). We talked about all the ways marketing could be helpful to our agency. Not just communications, but also market research and ‘product’ development. By the end of the lunch my boss was willing to hire this person (who happened to be going out on her own as a consultant) to come do some fact-finding, staff training and an audit with our organization. Having an outsider at this point in our evolution was critical, because there were a lot of skeptics in the room. And the fact this individual was tried-and-true in the trenches added to her credibility. At the end of that process, we actually hired our first marketing director!

  • @google-3c6d0a8d357401c7bbdc2506b76da880:disqus Thanks for sharing your story, Claire. Sometimes we have to take roundabout paths, as you outline here. Whatever it takes!

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