How to Design an Effective Marketing and Communications Budget (Case Study)

Question: What percentage of a nonprofit’s budget should be spent on marketing and communications?

–Sherri Greenbach, Executive Director
Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York

Dear Sherri,

What a great question! The answer is (as you probably expected) “it depends.”

You definitely need to have a comprehensive, realistic budget. It’s a critical component of your annual marketing and communications plan and, like the work plan, serves as a map to ensure you reach your goals. The budgeting process helps you to determine whether your plan is realistic. If not, cut the plan to focus on ultimate priorities and retool the budget.

In the for-profit world, it’s fairly standard to determine a marketing budget by allocating 10-20% of projected gross revenues to marketing and communications. However, things aren’t so black and white in the nonprofit world with our dual bottom line of people and dollars. You can take the percentage approach OR the flat dollar approach.

What’s most important is that you establish a detailed marketing and communications budget prior to the start of each fiscal year, and track costs (by strategy and program or project) and results AS YOU GO so that you can analyze cost vs. benefit. The budget should be integrated into your annual marketing and communications plan, with a dollar cost allotted to each strategy (direct mail, email, paid advertising, media relations, etc.) and program or project, each of which should be broken out by its various components (consulting, evaluation, printing, postage, etc.).

Each organization’s plan (and budget) will cover a unique set of components. Don’t forget to budget for the tasks – such as researching your audiences and evaluating outcomes – that give you the information to make your selected strategies as successful as possible.

The Percentage Approach

This approach is favored by those who believe that marketing and communications expenditures should directly reflect a nonprofit’s evolution and the size of its budget. Personally, this is the approach I prefer. The advantage of developing a budget based on your organizational finances is that it’s organic. Communications spending grows as does your organization. Of course exceptions are made for special needs such as the launch of a new program, introducing new leadership, or tackling an urgent advocacy campaign.

The average allocation is from 9-12% of your annual organizational budget (start with 10%). Advocacy organizations tend to allocate a higher percentage (12% or higher) of their organizational budgets to communications, since much of their advocacy work is communications based.

Here’s a highly-simplified example of a budget shaped by the percentage approach:

2% Purchasing all advertising and promotion media, including internet, newspaper, radio, TV, and direct mail (postage).
4% Producing (design, artwork) and printing all communications. This includes newsletters, brochures, web sites, press kits, etc.
1.5% Producing special events.
3.5% Salaries, consultants and freelancers.
11% Total percentage of the organizational budget going to marketing and communications.

The Dollar Approach

Others in the field consider a flat dollar approach to be more relevant (and safer) than the percentage approach since your total budget has to cover utilities, rent, taxes, health insurance, etc.

Defining the dollar figure is challenging the first time round but becomes much easier once you have records of several years’ marketing expenditures to work from. Start out with a quick-and-dirty calculation based on last year’s costs and revise it to reflect special campaigns, inflation, etc. Or, if this is your first year out, estimate the costs of what you think you’ll be doing based on what you know today. Contact colleagues in the field and prospective vendors to get your projections as accurate as possible. Either way, you’ll end up with a baseline budget.

Frankly, I’ve heard a lot about this method as a viable alternative to the percentage approach, but have never seen it put into practice.

What Budgeting Does for You

Whichever approach you take, you’ll find that a formal budget is a great aid in decision making. To begin with, your marketing communications budget (and plan) will help you distinguish between needs and wants. 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, media relations, and paid advertising in order to match legislative timeframes. However, you may decide to hold off on enhancing your already strong membership campaign with the launch of a members-only web site.

So, Sherri, start your budget process today, even if you’re in the middle of your fiscal year. Make sure that you track costs by category and maintain a spreadsheet of actual vs. projected expenses. By next year, you’ll have an accurate map of expenditures that will serve as a great foundation for next year’s planning process and a sure means of ensuring you make the most of your marketing and communications budget.

Do keep in mind that your budget will have to be adjusted each year to reflect increasing costs and changes in your organization. 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.