Nonprofit Marketing Requires Telling Great Stories

Why many nonprofit organizations fade into obscurity and how to avoid the trend

Nonprofit Marketing Requires Telling Great Stories
Photo by engin akyurt / Unsplash

Nonprofit organizations are the backbone of local communities. They provide essential services and support to underserved populations, often with little recognition. Yet, many organizations push nonprofit marketing behind other goals.

Besides being a public good, nonprofit organizations are big businesses. In 2016, the 1.54 million nonprofit organizations registered with the IRS accounted for 5.6% of the US gross domestic product (GDP). Organizations classified as 501(c)(3), the most common type of nonprofit, employed 12.5 million workers earning $670 billion in wages in 2017.

A considerable portion of the U.S. economy relies on nonprofit organizations. So, why do many neglect basic marketing?

I recently attended a class for nonprofit board members. During the discussion, the teacher shared a story from a previous class. He asked people to introduce their nonprofits, to which one said they were the area’s “best-kept secret.” Another participant stood up and replied, “and you think that’s a good thing?”

Unfortunately, many nonprofit organizations operate in obscurity. While it makes for quaint slogans, remaining a secret is not the mark of a successful nonprofit organization.

With over 15 years of experience working in nonprofits, I now help startup organizations develop strategic plans. Similar to a business plan, a strategic plan provides guidance and direction for the organization’s future. When asked about marketing, almost every organization I work with lacks a strategy.

Without a marketing plan, nonprofit organizations never move from community secret to neighborhood necessity. When people aren’t aware of a nonprofit’s work, the donor pool drys up, and eventually, the organization fades away. While this impacts the staff and volunteers, it also has a tremendously negative effect on the organization’s clients.

Nonprofit Marketing Should Tell A Story

Thankfully, marketing a nonprofit is as simple as telling a good story. An organization’s mission and the clients it serves provide all the information necessary to market a nonprofit. It just takes a little time to polish the answers into an effective marketing plan.

Here are a few questions all nonprofit organizations should answer when developing their organizational marketing plan:

Why Do We Exist?

Whether it’s the board of directors or an organization’s founder, someone should have a compelling reason why the organization formed. Was it a personal experience? An unmet need? An accident?

Simon Sinek’s 2009 TED Talk, Start With Why, explains that people buy in when they know why you do what you do. What you do is easy to share, but why you do it compels people on a much deeper, much more intimate level. When people hear why you exist, they are more compelled to join the cause.

World Central Kitchen, founded by chef José Andrés, clearly states their reason for existing:

As chefs, we know that good food provides not only nourishment, but also comfort, especially in times of crisis. Because of this, we prepare meals that are fresh, never pre-packaged, made with locally sourced proteins and vegetables, and when we can find them, served with recyclable plates and cutlery.

The organization was formed to provide comfort and nourishment to people in their time of need. Their organizational story is clear, relatable, and captivating.

Sharing why your organization exists is the number one key to any nonprofit’s marketing plan. Without a clear reason for service, a nonprofit is destined for anonymity.

Who Do We Serve?

Many organizations share they serve the “homeless population” or “low-income families.” While these demographic categories are accurate, they don’t paint a clear picture for people.

Instead, capture the story of individuals you engage with. Who is one of the homeless people you serve? How did the low-income family end up in their situation? Sharing stories of actual people distill statistics into human beings. This invites the audience to connect on a personal level with your clients.

United Way understands the power of a story. Visitors to their Our Mission pageare introduced to Estafania, a student in one of United Way’s Community Schools. Instead of simply saying United Way supports schools, they show the direct impact on one child.

People relate to the stories of others. This breaks the statistics down into human beings that people can connect with. Telling Estafania’s story humanizes the massive organization and compels people to act with donations on her behalf.

Who Needs To Know About Us?

When developing a marketing plan for a nonprofit, it’s easy to desire everyone to know about the organization. After all, you don’t want to be the best-kept secret. However, nonprofit marketing is typically successful when relationships are involved.

The Benevon Model of nonprofit fundraising is built around developing individual relationships. When I tell friends about an organization I support, there is a level of built-in trust that comes with that recommendation.

Instead of targeting everyone, successful nonprofit marketing plans start with targeted audiences of people already connected to the organization. Then, once that audience is engaged, the net expands to people they know. The organization continues expanding and adjusting the plan for each new audience they develop.

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS understands its targeted audience exceptionally well. Compelling to theater-goers and Broadway fans, Broadway Cares tell engaging stories from care recipients and Broadway stars.

Sure, Broadway Cares may reach a larger audience with a less-targeted approach. However, because Broadway Cares knows their audience so well, they can develop material that significantly impacts their targeted audience instead of focusing on mass appeal.

Where Can We Share Our Story?

Most nonprofit organizations I work with rely entirely on social media for marketing. While Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are easy to use and free, they aren’t a one-stop-shop for nonprofit marketing.

The 1989 film Field of Dreams proclaims, “if you build it, they will come.” However, the reality is most new social media accounts don’t develop audiences without dedication and effort. No one shows up without knowing what to show up for.

Putting all the eggs in a social media basket is a recipe for disaster. Instead, nonprofit organizations need to create a diverse list of marketing channels to ensure the message is received.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida understands the importance of a multi-stream marketing campaign. Their name and logo are everywhere in the Orlando area: billboards, trucks delivering products, social media, news outlets, and more. Sharing their message in as many ways and places as possible drives more people to discover their mission and ultimately hear their stories.

Develop A Nonprofit Marketing Plan

The examples shared are from highly successful nonprofit organizations with large budgets. However, organizations of all sizes can learn from these examples. Marketing a nonprofit doesn’t need all the bells and whistles, just a compelling story and dedicated time to share.

With a story in hand, an organization is ready to develop a marketing plan. The key is distilling why the organization exists and who it serves into a quick and compelling story. Then, break the story into multiple versions to fit the audience.

The easiest way to develop a nonprofit marketing plan is by creating a spreadsheet. Across the top row, create the following header columns:


This will be each targeted source. For example, “Twitter” or “Direct Mailing.”


What is the marketing goal for this audience? Is it awareness? Do you want to capture donations? Volunteers? Whatever it is, list it here, so it drives the rest of the information in the spreadsheet. Stating this also helps measure the success of a marketing campaign later.


Include a one-sentence version of the organizational story to share with this audience. For example, “Habit for Humanity builds strength, stability, and self-reliance through shelter.” This provides the baseline to be built upon when developing content for the audience.


How often do you want to reach the audience? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Quarterly? Every June? Looking at the marketing plan as a whole, you should have various touchpoints throughout the year. If you see a place in the calendar missing, figure what can appropriately fill the space to keep your organization in front of potential donors and volunteers.


Armed with a well-polished story and the logistics of a detailed marketing plan, every nonprofit is capable of sharing its mission with the community. Following these steps help move organizations from obscurity to community hero.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!