Marketing Budget How-tos — Answers to Calm Your Fears and Power Up Your Budgeting Mojo

The hands-down, most hated and most frequently-avoided marketing task is budgeting. I hear that from you and your peers time and time again.

But I urge you to get past this bias by taking 10 minutes to absorb today’s budgeting guidelines. You’ll learn the value a budget brings to your work as it translates the actions outlined in your marketing plan into expense. The result is a completely different way of looking at your marketing work, serving as both a clear framework for your decision-making on wants vs. “nice-to-haves” and a powerful tool for getting the marketing dollars you need to meet agreed-upon goals.

You’ll see clearly how much you have to spend to reach your goals and, via tracking results, will gain a sense of what strategies work best to achieve which goals. For example, based on your budget framework, you may decide to promote your advocacy campaigns via direct mail and email, text and paid advertising in order to match legislative timeframes. At the same time, your budget might indicate that it makes sense to hold off on enhancing your already-strong membership program with the launch of a members-only community.

Start building your budgeting skills and confidence right now with my responses to the your most frequently-asked questions:

1. A to-do list is not a marketing plan.

I have a to-do list a mile long. That’s my marketing plan and what I use to create my budget. Or do I need something else, too?

No, that to-do list is not your marketing plan! It’s a marketing checklist that you hope will move your organization forward. And I guarantee that even if you complete every single one of those tasks, you won’t be contributing as much as you could to meeting your organizational goals.

Your current marketing approach is all action, and no traction. You’re generating a stream of one-off marketing outputs that don’t achieve much and may even be confusing to and/or alienating the individuals you need to engage to move your mission forward.

I urge you to scrap the laundry list and take a one-day marketing planning sabbatical (here’s a marketing plan template to work from). In just a single day, you’ll finish with a much clearer path in front of you to:

  • Direct and prioritize your focus, and ensure you make the most of your budget
  • Know what you are working towards and make the best decisions on how to get there (critical for leadership buy in and ongoing support)
  • Craft an accurate, realistic budget built on logic and strategy, one that will greatly increase your success rate in getting the budget you need
  • Track progress (against concrete, measurable benchmarks)
  • Confidently draft a realistic daily work plan.

When you’re making marketing decisions throughout the year, use the plan as your framework. It will enable you to distinguish “needs” from “wants,” to craft a budget around what really matters.

2. Connect the dots between your marketing goals and what it will take to get there.

How do you propose we ramp up our marketing dollars from zero to what we really need?

Start with reviewing your marketing goals (or articulating them, if you haven’t already) to ensure they represent the best way you can put marketing to work to advance your organizational goals. Once you review those goals with leadership, and get approval, then clearly connect the dots between your proposed budget and what you want to accomplish in a way that’s easily accessible.

In most cases, achieving marketing goals requires financial outlay in addition to human resource (time, effort and skills; in-house or outsourced). There’s no way out of it: You have to pay for services such as reliable web hosting, flexible email marketing tools and postage. And if you want to design a high-impact website, analyze targeted email marketing or implement successful fundraising campaigns, there’s a price tag associated with doing that well.

All too frequently the barrier to a sufficient budget is that your colleagues (staff and leadership) don’t understand what communications really is, what it can accomplish and what it takes to do it really well. I recommend you guide them to that understanding by sharing your marketing plan (talking through it is far more effective than simply circulating the document) and making that clear connection between goals and budget.

3. Your budget projections are a key factor in your marketing decision making, and a concrete baseline to work from.

How important is it that my actual expenses match my projection? I feel like my budget is just made up.

Projections are the best way to assess how your investment in each campaign or project relates to its relative importance in your marketing plan. That’s a crucial ingredient in your marketing decision making, so there’s no avoiding projecting what your expenses will be.

Secondly, tracking expenses versus projections during the course of your budget year is the only way to keep on track with your marketing budget; the equivalent of benchmarking for your marketing dollars. Without projections, you have no guidance on whether you’re spending too much, or too little.

Keep in mind that a first-time budget is always fiction, as is any plan or projection (and a budget is a quantitative plan) before you implement.

To minimize the gap between fantasy and reality, craft a first-time budget based on your marketing expenditures of the prior year. Extrapolate from those what the costs of new campaigns and projects will be and modify your allocation depending on the relative importance of the featured program, campaign or service. That’s the kernel of ROI—return on investment. In addition, consider tracking how staff marketing time is focused by program, campaign or service as well.

Use that first year to scrupulously track your expenses—by program, campaign or service; and by expense type (e.g. online tools or graphic design services). Assess quarterly, to make sure you’re expenses aren’t exceeding your budget, and again at year end. Doing so will help you:

  • Understand what you’re really spending to market your organization, and each program, campaign or service
  • Compare your marketing investment for each program, campaign and service with its relative importance in achieving your current marketing goals, and with the specific benchmarks you set up to measure your progress in meeting those goals (see this marketing plan template)
  • Whether you track marketing results qualitatively, quantitatively (easy to do for a fundraising campaign or a campaign launching a new program, but challenging in many cases) or using a bit of both methods, compare those results to expenditures, to understand the ROI of each initiative.

You’ll finish with an accurate map of expenditures and a sense of ROI that together will guide fact-based decision making as you shape the follow year’s marketing plan and budget.

Do keep in mind that your budget will have to be adjusted each year to reflect increasing costs and changes in your organization such as new programs, cut programs and changes in geographic area served. For example, launching a new program requires an increased marketing budget for the first year or two so you’ll need more dollars or do less on other fronts.

4. Advocate for the budget you need to achieve your marketing goals.

I’m told how much money I get for marketing each year regardless of what I think I need. Is that normal?

There’s no standard but unfortunately, being delivered a marketing budget is a very common practice, one that is seldom grounded in data or a clear understanding of what it takes to achieve your marketing goals!

I urge you not to sit back and accept it. Instead, move into action to educate your colleagues and leadership so they understand the power of marketing, and what it takes! Advocate for what you really need to move your mission forward.

In many cases, a misunderstanding on what kind of budget is required is actually the fault of us marketers. Time and time again, I see nonprofit marketers fail to share their strategies and goals with leadership and peers. As a result, you’re sabotaging far more than your budget. You’re also sabotaging the potential of this vital strategy for nonprofit success.

Once you develop your plan, it will very clearly enable you to outline out a comprehensive budget. Share the budget with your marketing plan—both are effective ways of conveying that you have a clear plan for moving forward, shaped on concrete data and strategies. It will be comforting for your leadership to have these plans in hand, and greatly increase the probability of getting more marketing dollars.

If you can’t get the budget you need, take this opportunity to reset expectations on what can be delivered for less than that.