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When your nonprofit is just doing the motions of marketing, and how to fix it

We’re working with a number of groups and organizations right now in their infancy online. I like to call it the “Doing just because” phase.

If you’ve heard these things around your office, inbox, or meeting table, I’m talking about you:

“It’s so hard to keep up with stuff online.”

“People are stuck in their comfort zones. We’ll do the same thing this year that we did last year, because that’s what we did last year.”

“There’s something between us and marketing. We want to do it, but we don’t want to pay for it.”

“All of our communications go through so-and-so and it’s stifling everything to the point we don’t bother much anymore.”

In this phase, a nonprofit organization is just throwing everything against the wall. The general public can see this, too. That should be terrifying to you.

Sensing Fear

They can see it because your posts come across as a half dozen tweets per day, all at one time. Or a bunch of lackluster events you don’t really care about laced with four exclamation points. In a lot of cases organizations will just interact with other service groups, associations, and partner organizations who are all also in the same phase.

If this were an in-person conversation at a coffee shop, it would sound like this:

“I’m going to the outreach fair today.”

“Come join Justin at the outreach fair today!”

“Did you hear Justin is going to the outreach fair? You can be, too!!”

That would be almost criminal if three people sat a table together and had a conversation like that. So don’t do it online, either.

Further, this sense of throwing stuff against the wall can come across in the newsletter, too. This is where people inside an organization wring their hands wondering what to put in it. And what finally does end up in the newsletter is a laundry list of events and things you’ve done, but all that to-do list management has no benefit to anyone you’re sending it to.

This is akin to the idle chit chat you might have with someone in an elevator.

“How are you today?”

“Pretty good. Working on a new grant, spent the morning conducting some fundraising calls.”

“That’s nice.” *Elevator dings*

Again, you wouldn’t do that in person and expect some great conversation to build up around it. Don’t do it online, either.

If I asked you who you’re targeting in your newsletter or your online posts, and you said, “The general public”, this is also early, ankle-deep thinking that does nothing but harm.

When the quality and effectiveness of your communications are measured in quantity, that’s a problem. When your view of communications are to be of benefit to the internal structure of the organization, that’s a problem. If you’re thinking of saving time or money by cutting back on your external communications, that’s a problem and a vicious cycle to break from.

It’s not much defense to say, “Our board loves the newsletter!” either. Your board is not your audience, or if it is, it’s a very small and unusual group. This is like saying, “But CBS loves the show!”, even if the show has the lowest Nielsen ratings of any other show in the network’s lineup.

How to be better at conversing

Don’t think of your online chatter as “communicating”, “promoting”, or “discussing”, even though that’s what it is. People don’t want to be “promoted at”. They want to have a nice conversation and hear about things they like.

First, someone has to establish a voice for your organization. This doesn’t have to be the Director or President, but can be. This is just a way of asking yourself, “How will you talk to people?” As in, there’s a way you talk to your kids and a way you talk to your spouse. Your tone is different, your language is different, and that’s the sort of voice you need to find for your organization’s posts. Be consistent, have an opinion, and stand behind it.

Some examples might include:

  • Quirky, with a sense of whimsy
  • Professional, but laced with a sense of dry humor
  • Fast casual, using all manner of contractions, abbreviations (“ur” instead of “your), and hashtags
  • Flowery and elegant
  • Simple and approachable

Second, you have to develop a strategy. I’m not talking about some sort of goal or checklist. I’m talking about an actual strategy built around events, topics, and issues as they come up and are known to come up. That’s more than we can get in here, so expect more on strategy in a later post.

But generally, “Get 500 email subscribers” is a goal, not a strategy. The strategy might be, “Write a short story about our work, sent in small chunks across our existing blog and social media accounts. Invite members of the local press to hear about us through mail and phone calls, and identify and call these specific people to share this story with their followers with each page they land on asking them up-front to join our newsletter.”

Third, the number one rule I tell clients: “If you don’t have anything worth saying, then don’t say anything.” It does more harm to be passionless, half-hearted, and reaching for ways to mimic other organizations or re-share other groups’ news.

Fourth, segment and understand who you need to be talking to. Is it older people? Do you need younger volunteers? Do you need to recruit board members from the business community? Do you know where they live, what they do, and how old they are? Don’t get online at 9 am and expect to get feedback from 9-to-5 professionals.

Fifth, start small by cutting back on all the various channels you manage and pick one or two that you can do well. If you can’t find material for the newsletter every month, drop it and focus on Facebook instead. Or, forget about your half-done idea for Instagram right now and make sure your email campaigns are beautiful, well-designed, appropriate, and compelling.

But what kind of “content” are you talking about?

I don’t like the word “content” because it sounds so unapproachable, but I can’t think of a better word or phrase than the clumsy, “Stuff you write and talk about online”.

No organization should struggle to find things to talk about. It varies with industry and concentration, but absolutely everyone has an origin story, or why they got into the work they’re doing, or a crazy story that happened the other day where your organization really did some great work.

For example, if you’re a cat rescue, you could say, “We had 9 cats come into the shelter the other day. Come adopt one today!” But that’s lame and you know it.

Instead, share the story. “Joe Hoosier rescued 9 kittens the other day after a storm caused them to seek shelter in a drainage pipe. They came in wet, hungry, and scared. But they’re doing better now and are ready for adoption.”

“But Justin, that doesn’t fit in a tweet.” No, but this does: “9 kittens were rescued after Tuesday’s storm. Read about their survival story on our site *link*.”

Absolutely no nonprofit, group, association, government, or organization has nothing to say. Everyone has something to say and can be helped finding ways to say it.

And again, if you don’t have anything worth saying, don’t say anything until you do.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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