Three Stages of Nonprofit Marketing Maturity

Growing in Stages

We all grow and change as people and as professionals, and so do our organizations. As I’ve been writing my new book on content marketing for nonprofits, I’ve tried to keep in mind the different stages that nonprofits go through as their communications and marketing programs mature.

This is my attempt at describing these phases.

Stage I: Doing

Nonprofits in the “Just Doing It” stage are focused on almost exclusively on the tactics, like getting out the newsletter and updating the website or Facebook.

Communications work is often parceled out among program staff and the executive director. But at some point, those staff tire of doing what feels like extra work and the nonprofit will hire a communications coordinator or director. All of the communications to-dos are dumped on to the new person, who is quickly buried in tactical implementation.

You’ll find both communications and program staff in Stage I nonprofits constantly brainstorming and hand-wringing about what they will put in the next edition of the newsletter — or being flippant about it because they don’t think it really matters. These conversations feel random and disconnected from month to month because there is no real strategic focus or messaging.

When asked to identify their target audience, they’ll usually respond with “the general public” or “everyone.” The goal is to “get the word out” which to them means getting updates about their work out of the door.  The use of various communications channels is one-size-fits-all, with text frequently copied and pasted between channels with few changes. (We also call this “spray and pray” marketing – and this isn’t the good kind of prayer.)

The success of the communications program is based on the quantity of the communications, talking about what’s most important from the staff’s perspective, and how insiders perceive the communications (“Our board loves our newsletter!”). Decisions to make changes to the current approach are often just mimicking what other nonprofits are doing, without much strategic rhyme or reason.

This lopsided view of the role of communications in the organization places more emphasis on the internal needs of the nonprofit than on the needs of participants or supporters. Therefore, should the organization fall into a financial crisis, communications is the first to be cut. The communications person was really there to make life easier for the program staff, so in tough times, what’s seen as a luxury is cut back and the workload is shifted back on to the program staff or the executive director.

Stage II: Questioning

In the second stage, which I call “Questioning,” nonprofits discover that good marketing is about much more than just pushing out content through various communications channels. Instead, it’s about understanding the people you want to reach so that you can discuss your work in ways that are relevant and valuable to them.

Nonprofits in Stage II begin to realize that they need to ask and answer important questions about who they are communicating with (i.e., the target audience) and what they should say to those people (i.e., the messaging about the value that the organization can provide to those target audiences) before jumping into tactical decisions about which communications channels to use. They acknowledge that the “spray and pray” mentality doesn’t work and they start to think about how to segment the “general public” into more specific target audiences.

Discussing these questions about audience and message often leads to more communications planning, which can range from simple editorial calendars to full strategic marketing plans. As these nonprofits discuss what it will take to get the right message to the right people, they start to explore the budget implications of these decisions and begin writing communications into proposals for programmatic funding. Program staff and communications staff consult more often with each other, but often work in silos without much real collaboration.

The communications materials themselves will start to look more professional or sophisticated, at least on the surface. The staff’s approaches to their work will also become more efficient, by thinking further ahead, repurposing content, and coaching program staff about better ways to communicate about their work.

While these nonprofits are asking more of the right questions, they still aren’t ready to be fully responsive to their target audiences. While they will get in theory how important it is to really understand who these people on the mailing list are and what motivates them to care about the cause, the nonprofit won’t invest much effort in researching those answers. Communications is more valued, but it’s not fully integrated into either strategic planning for the organization or day to day executive decision making. Success is still measured mostly by keeping track of the quantity of communications rather than attempting to measure the impact of those communications.

Stage III: Integrating

In the third, most mature stage of nonprofit marketing, the organization has more fully integrated its approach to marketing and communications in numerous ways.

First and foremost, its marketing is very supporter- and/or participant-centered, where knowledge of what these people outside the organization think, want, and need is constantly brought back inside, and folded into programmatic, marketing, and fundraising decisions. The communications staff are tasked with listening and understanding this community as much as they are with communicating out to them. They become not just the mouth of the organization, but the eyes and ears too.

Communications is seen as an essential part of program or fundraising success, and is relatively well staffed and resourced. Communications, program and fundraising staff collaborate on projects or campaigns where they each bring skills and expertise, but see themselves as jointly responsible for the outcomes. Communications work is judged, at least in part, on the extent to which it helps meet short-term programmatic or fundraising goals. Communications is also recognized and valued for its contribution to the long-term success of the organization, for example, by building brand recognition and increasing the size of mailings lists and engaged communities online that could be asked to more directly support the organization at a later time.

At the tactical level, messaging becomes much more relevant and targeted, as contact lists are segmented and communications are customized by channel. While different people may be responsible for different communications channels, they regularly consult with each other to ensure that the overall messaging coming out the organization is consistent, regardless of where a participant or supporter may see it. While staff do plan their work by mapping out editorial calendars, they remain nimble so that they can quickly merge in breaking news and last-minute programmatic changes. The organization’s management recognizes that communications practices are changing faster than at any other time in history, and staff are given permission to experiment and to fail as they try new ways to connect with supporters and participants.

What do you think?

Do these descriptions feel right to you? Where do you see your organization in them? I’d love your feedback in the comments.

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  • Katie Bryan

    Wow, spot on. I feel like we should be able to say that we’re in Stage II, but a more honest assessment is that we likely have one foot in Stage I and one foot in Stage II. But our eyes are on Stage III!

  • Anna

    This is great! This really feels true to me. And it’s a great tool for building a vision of the future, and to see where we fit in against the marketing stages of other non-profits. At our organization we’ve finally got one foot in Stage 2, but we’ve still got one lingering back in Stage 1. We’re moving forward, but we’ve still got a long way to go!

  • Kivi Leroux Miller

    Thanks Katie!

  • Kivi Leroux Miller

    I bet most of the people who read this blog would say they are in the exact same place. Thanks for the feedback!

  • Marion Conway

    Thanks so much for this analysis. i do nonprofit lifecycle analysis with nonprofits and it is very helpful for them to see the things they need to work on to “be in sync” with where they are overall. We forget that poeple and organizations have to go through steps to get to a higher level and are sometimes frustrated by not being at a higher level already.
    This article is a keeper. Rather than being frustrated, it can keep an organization on the right path for what they should be focused on next

  • Katrina Olson

    Kivi, thank you for the incredibly accurate and very insightful analysis! I am currently teaching a senior capstone class for the University of Illinois’ College of Media. Our clients are non-profit organizations. This will be very helpful for both my students and our clients. I will definitely share this with them!

  • Completely KIDS

    Kivi, what a fantastic article. This gives tangible goals to work toward and helps our nonprofit do a quick communications analysis. Thanks for sharing this article with us.

  • graphicsmith

    Good job succinctly listing the stages; it’s going to be a very helpful way to measure progress. Like the other commenters, our organization has a foot in both stages 1 and 2, though we do have fingers in stage 3. There is a lot of internal marketing that has to be done to move the organization to a more committed 2nd and 3rd stages, The Nonprofit Market Guide has been an invaluable resource in helping us get as far as we have. Thanks!

  • Susan M Steele

    Absolutely accurate! I’m working with a client right now, and they are somewhere between 1 and 2. They have a loooong way to go to get to stage 3!

  • KTMB

    Excellent sum-up, and exactly what our organization has been trying to articulate to each other (in the seconds we discuss before the next event). Since we’re so small, it seems like we’ll never get out of Stage 1, but this is definitely a trail in the trees!

  • Kivi Leroux Miller

    Thanks everyone for the positive feedback on this. This was one of those things where it made sense to me, but I didn’t want to base a big section of the book on it unless it made sense to other people too!

  • Barb Cooke

    Ha! What comes before Stage I? Thinking about the process in stages does ease a little of my frustration–I should stop trying to operate in Stage 3 when the organization isn’t even in stage 1.

  • Guest

    Does your upcoming book explain how to get to to the next stage? What questions to ask an audience? How to reach them? How to convince others to allocate resources for better communications?

  • Rob Hess

    Great article. One suggestion: It seems like you’ve mixed two stages into Stage I. The first two paragraphs deal with an organization with no communications director (and bringing on a new director), and the latter paragraphs deal with an organization that has more communications staff. Is that intentional? Are these really both “Stage I” organizations?

  • Kivi Leroux Miller

    some of that will be in there, yes

  • Kivi Leroux Miller

    Hi Rob, Yeah, probably am combining too much into stage one, but I’m not sure that orgs that create the communications position for the first time really think of it any differently than just having another person to help with the work. So I guess that’s why I combined it. I know that’s not the case with everyone, but I do see that quite a bit.