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The Nonprofit Marketing Cycle

Updated: Dec 1, 2019

We like to think of the nonprofit marketing plan as a five-step cycle where you Plan for the audiences you want to engage, Build content for them, Deliver the content via relevant channels, Analyze what's working, and Refine what's not. We'll go into each step in detail, below.


The cycle looks like this:




Your first audience as a nonprofit is your internal audience -- everyone from leadership to staff down to volunteers. You must have a motivating and coherent internal message before you can have an external message that resonates with your audiences. Does everyone in your organization know why you exist and what you do everyday? Do they know what their goals are?


Once you've taken the first step toward crafting your organization's marketing plan of refining and communicating your organization's Vision, Mission, and Goals, you're ready to focus on your marketing plan in earnest. This is the strategy for how you'll communicate with your external audiences.


We like thinking of communication with audiences in terms of a five-step cycle. Beginning at 12 o'clock, is the Plan phase of the cycle.



Here is where you determine who are your audiences? Specificity is your friend. You have to go deeper than "our donors" or "our volunteers" when you identify your audiences. You want to connect with people. Groups of people are all full of individuals that share something in common. Put a face on an individual donor who represents the archetype of the type of donor you want to attract. Give a name to the volunteer that you want to clone. Developing an archetype of the individuals that represents your ideal audiences is vital to getting your content to connect with people. More on that below.


When you undertake the next steps in the cycle, you will develop content for "Donna Donor" or "Valerie Volunteer," NOT "our donors" or our volunteers.


Guidestar.org offers the following things to keep in mind when defining your audience for your content engagement strategy:

  1. Who’s with us? First of all, ask yourself who currently makes up your supporters, donors, your email lists, etc. These are model folks at the core of your content base.

  2. What hard data do you know about your folks? What information do you have in your database about their likes, interests, and behavior? Use this to think about what is likely to resonate with them or people like them.

  3. What soft or qualitative information do you have? What do you and other staffers know about folks in your core buckets like supporters, donors, people on your lists, or however you define your core groups. Are there characteristics that folks in those groups are likely to have? This is core to creating audience archetypes.

  4. What do you know about new audiences? If you need to reach a new audience, what do you know about them? Are there sources you can look to for inspiration? New audiences are often trickier and can take more testing as you see if your assumptions resonate over time.

  5. You’re an outlier. ... That’s not a question, it’s likely a fact. You are probably informed and bought in on such an extreme level you took the job. Don’t design content for you. Yet, this might be true for some of your most ardent supporters too.

Now that you have a plan for who you are going to talk to, it's time to go to the next step of the nonprofit marketing cycle where you Build your content for your audiences.



During this phase you will generate content and map out where you will deliver your content. Keeping in mind the audiences you are writing for, you need to answer two critical questions.

  • What needs does your content meet?

  • What is your desired outcome in providing content?

In the Plan phase you identified individuals that represent your audiences. Individuals have needs. Your content will solve a need that individuals in your audience have. The need that you're trying to solve doesn't have to be existential. For example, if you're a dog adoption nonprofit in Kansas City, your volunteer audience may want to know how your charity engages with animal shelters in the metro area. A simple content stream that you could produce would be a profile on the dog shelters that you work with and why you work with them (rather than other shelters). Your content should keep your audience engaged and returning to your site. Depth and value of content will help you long term.


HubSpot has a great guide for your content marketing plan.


Now that you've identified your audience(s) and you have a strategy for delivering content for those audiences the next phase is to Deliver that content.




During this phase you will distribute your content through the channels that your audience(s) use. Let's go back to our archetypal donor, "Donna Donor," that we identified during the plan phase. How does Donna consume media? Maybe she subscribes to magazines that she reads on the weekends, checks her Instagram in the morning while having coffee before she gets her kids ready for school, and then listens to a mixture of podcasts and broadcast radio on her 20 minute drive to work where she uses a desktop computer (for work, obviously, but also to read the news when things get slow). You get the picture.


You're not going to reach Donna with snappy tweets and short blog posts. That's a problem, because Donna Donor is your ideal donor. You need to get your content in the delivery channels Donna uses to consume her media -- magazines, Instagram, podcasts, broadcast radio, and news articles. It doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't use tweets or short blog posts to spread your message. It just means that if Twitter or short blog posts are your primary means of communication with your ideal audience (Donna), you're probably not going to connect as well as you would like.


Which brings us to the Analyze phase of the nonprofit marketing cycle.




Ideally, you have set SMART goals for your marketing plan. During this phase, you need to measure and understand what is working within your plan and what is not working. After that, you can begin to figure out why. At a minimum, you should have Google Analytics set up on your nonprofit's website and you should be using MailChimp, Constant Contact, or another CRM platform to see if your direct marketing efforts are having an effect. How do you know if your message is resonating? You'll likely see your content being shared more, you'll have more traffic on your website, and if donations or volunteer sign ups are your goal, ideally you'll have more of those.


But what if you're in the middle of your content marketing plan and you're not seeing any results? Nothing is moving the needle.


Well, that takes us to the Refine phase of the nonprofit marketing cycle.



Now's the time to change your plan, and your content, based on what you learned during the Analyze phase. Back to our example, Donna is not sharing your snappy tweets (probably because Donna doesn't use Twitter much)...is there a way you can take the content you've already generated and repurpose or repackage it to get it in front of Donna? During the Analyze phase, did you discover a new audience via Twitter that looks different than Donna but is more engaged with your content and is donating more?


This may sound blasphemous, but your content is not the unerring, eternal word of God. You can change it. More importantly, you should change it if it fails to resonate. Your nonprofit mission depends on you being willing to jettison what isn't working.


If you don't believe me, check out Joshua Hardwick's post on how deleting 1/3 of his blog content made his Google search rankings go up. More isn't better. Better is better.


And now that you've bravely refined your content or changed your audience, you're ready to start the nonprofit marketing cycle over again.




By identifying representatives for your audience (Plan), you'll have a much better idea on how to generate content (Build) for your audiences and how get that content in front of your audiences (Deliver). Nothing ever goes exactly according to plan but the exercise of planning is invaluable. If you know who you want to connect with you'll be able to measure how well you're doing (Analyze) and adjust your messaging, and maybe even your audience, if your messaging falls flat (Refine).



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