nonprofit marketing strategy funnel

Identity Heft: How to steal your nonprofit’s marketing strategy

This is part two in my four-part Identity Heft series.


For-profits have all the fun. Money, resources, investors, money, occasional lack of scruples, money, permissive legal structures, and money, to name a few.

Many nonprofit consultants treat for-profits and nonprofits as entirely different beasts, but I think the two actually have a lot in common. Both business types – and yes, nonprofits are businesses – compete for the same attention from the same people, sometimes on the same issues.

It stands to reason, then, that we check out what the for-profit competition is up to and see what marketing strategy might carry over to nonprofit work.

What nonprofit marketing strategy can learn from the for-profit realm

Psst – Are you on Pinterest? You know what to do!


The heart of for-profit marketing strategy is shaped like a funnel

You will be astounded, I’m sure, to learn that businesses market so you will buy their stuff.

Sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, the strategy behind the marketing can be surprisingly complex. But since it’s always driving toward a single action – the sale – it’s a great example of focused communications that I think nonprofits can learn a lot from.

I’ll outline the basics of the sales funnel below, then show you how they can be adapted for your nonprofit.


nonprofit marketing strategy funnel

The top: Getting attention

The top of the funnel lures you in using eye-catching graphics, catchy jingles, and snappy taglines. They are visual, auditory, and emotional introductions to the company and its product.

Companies know they have a limited time to convince you to hear more, so their overtures are quick and effective.

The audience, in response, self-selects. If I’m not interested in what they’re selling, I move on. Those who remain have the greatest chance of taking action farther down the road – those are the people the company wants to focus on.


nonprofit marketing strategy funnel

The middle: Building trust

If their initial messaging intrigued you, you might be willing to hear a little more. The company now has the opportunity to go into detail and give you the whole story.

More importantly, they have the chance to build a relationship with you. Loyal return customers are far more profitable than a series of quick sells, so it’s time to lay the groundwork for a long-term engagement. If the business is lucky, enthusiastic customers may rave about a product to their friends: free advertising that’s more effective than any billboard, because it carries an element of social proof.

You may also notice a bit of repetition in the marketing strategy – the same visuals, the same jingles, the same taglines. That’s not just them being lazy. Repetition works. Marketing strategy gurus claim it takes seven exposures to a brand for someone to finally take action and buy. Seven.

By using the same messaging everywhere, businesses cement a clear, cohesive identity in your mind and make you more and more confident in the value of their product.

To pull this off, these businesses have a staff whose sole purpose is to ensure that all outgoing communications match the company’s brand standards to maintain the same look, feel, and messaging.

nonprofit marketing strategy funnel

The bottom: The sell

Finally we arrive at the literal point of the funnel: making the sale.

If the previous groundwork has been laid correctly, this is actually the simplest part of the whole process. At this point, the customer should know and love the company and its product and be seriously thinking about buying. All they need is a convincing little push.

A well-timed, compelling call to action – “buy now!” – “on sale!” – “limited time only!” – should be all it takes to seal the deal. It doesn’t always work, of course, but the purchase rate is far higher than if the customer had never heard of the business.



It’s time for the moment of truth: how pointy is your nonprofit’s funnel?

Nonprofit communications isn’t an “if you build it, they will come” situation – simply telling people about your work isn’t going to get dreamy results.

Think about your audience’s path. Ideally, they’re supposed to:

  • Hear about your work
  • Be intrigued
  • Start to follow you
  • Build loyalty through a long-term relationship
  • Eventually be motivated to support you when you ask

How far do your audiences get?

If it isn’t far, don’t worry – you’re not alone. A lot of smaller nonprofits’ funnels are really more bowl-shaped: a lot of awareness and intrigue without much follow-up.

But there’s good news: a little strategic rearrangement can make a world of difference.

Since this is a goal-oriented endeavor, let’s start at the end.


Eventually be motivated to support you when you ask

What do you want your audience to do? “Donate” is probably at the top of the list, but if you’re running a petition campaign, that might not be the case. Each campaign should have one ultimate action – the thing everything has been building towards.

What’s yours?


Build loyalty through a long-term relationship

How can you establish yourself as an organization worth supporting? Perhaps you want to build credibility, show that you’re an influencer in the field, or show that you get results. Whatever it is, make sure your ongoing relationship-building always points back toward that one ultimate action.

Here are a few ways you can support different types of actions:

  • Become a volunteer: Profile past events, profile volunteers, show the number of visitors to past event tables, show the impact that volunteering has on the community
  • Make a donation: How donation money is spent, the impact of a certain donation amount, profile on a program beneficiary, the impact and outcomes of your work
  • Sign a petition: The problem at hand, your proposed solution, the impacts of not addressing the problem, the effects of your solution, profiles of people directly affected by the problem, profiles of people working to promote the solution

Here’s the tricky part of the long-term relationship, though: in the spirit of this article’s theme, you need to play the long con.

Constant begging is a bit of a turn-off. Instead of asking for money at every turn, you can include a subtle mini-ask in your regular communications (“click here to learn more about supporting us”), but save the big ask until they’re ready to hear it. That could be a specific date (your year-end campaign) or after a certain amount of time has passed (they’ve been a follower for 4 months).


Start to follow you

Do you make it easy for people to follow you? Do you have a newsletter? Social media? How do people find you? What steps do they need to take to sign up?

Give it a shot right now – go to your website and try to sign up for your newsletter or social media. Is it obvious and easy, or is there some sleuthing involved? How many clicks are there between points A and B?

If your Twitter link and email sign-up form are stashed away in the vault that is your website, visitors may not know how to get in touch with you. In fact, it may not even occur to them to do so. Help them take action and make it an easy step.


Be intrigued

Okay, be honest. Is the stuff you share actually interesting? I know you probably find it riveting, but does your audience? Are you answering questions that they ask? Are you telling them stories they want to hear? Are you engaging with them in a meaningful way?


Hear about your work

Do you regularly reach out? Do people even have the opportunity to hear about you, or do you remain a best-kept secret? Are you active in the places your followers are active, or are you like ships passing in the night?

If constant communications sound impossible, consider automating some of the process – I use auto-Tweeters like Hootsuite and RecurPost so I don’t have to babysit Twitter.

You can also do work in batches. I write most of these articles in the first week of each quarter so I don’t have to worry about them for another 3 months.


Make the most of your ill-gotten gains

What’s one thing you can do today to make your communications more funnel-shaped? Where do your organization’s potential followers get stuck, and how can you get them un-stuck?


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1 Comment


  1. I agree with your emphasis on understanding the sales funnel, Andrea. I like posts that talk about the sales funnel because it’s so important to understand in marketing. I recently read a post by Avinash Kaushik on the same topic which stated that one key to increasing conversion rates is to have proper messaging for audiences at each point of the funnel. We’ve been experimenting with this paradigm in our own quest to help the nonprofits we serve.