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Marketing: Cutting through the clutter to achieve not-for-profit marketing goals

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When it comes to marketing communications, not-for-profit organizations face some unique challenges. They are often both time- and budget-constrained and, in the Chippewa Valley, are often competing for the attention of the same audiences.

In addition, because of their missions to support the needs of others — often through the generosity of donors — they are under close scrutiny in terms of how they spend the funds they are stewards of. Their for-profit business colleagues may be able to invest in high-impact advertising to reach their target audiences, but they must often exercise caution to ensure that their use of these funds for administrative purposes — including advertising — is not considered excessive.

Still, they must somehow break through all of the communication clutter coming from all sides to effectively get their messages to their audiences in compelling ways.

That’s no easy task. But not-for-profit leaders in the Chippewa Valley have found ways to connect with their audiences using both traditional and new media channels.

Good, old-fashioned connections with people

Ann Kaiser, a certified fundraising executive, is director of development for Sacred Heart Hospital and has had experience with other not-for-profit organizations as well, including the Altoona School District and the Family Resource Center. Through her experiences she has learned that, in her efforts to reach target markets, it’s really not about driving messages home through high-end advertising campaigns. It is, she says, more critical to develop strong relationships through face-to-face communications.

“You learn about your audiences by talking, and listening as much as you can,” she says. In addition to using these insights to help develop key messages that will resonate with target groups, these interpersonal interactions can also “create advocates to help spread the word.” In her current role, she says, her efforts are very focused on creating informed advocates, and that requires face-to-face communication.

Christina Thrun, development and marketing director with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Wisconsin, agrees that personal connections are important.

“A lot of what we need to do is boots on the ground — being out in the community talking to people and sharing the stories,” Thrun said. For Big Brothers Big Sisters that is especially important, she notes, because they don’t have a physical facility that people can come to learn about them. That can make raising awareness more challenging, she says.

Awareness drives results

Awareness is the first step in generating any marketing result and that holds true for non-profits as well. Awareness is important, though, not only to raise funds, but also to sustain a solid volunteer base, says Jan Porath, executive director for United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley.

Having a strong foundation of current and prospective volunteers is critically important for most non-profits. Awareness definitely aids in ensuring that the pipeline for new volunteer talent is always available, she says, noting that “we do tend to be a first go-to point for either an individual volunteer or a group of volunteers.”

A number of years ago the United Way leveraged that role and created a volunteer guide that has been a highly-referenced resource for organizations and individuals in the area. “It’s one of, if not the, most comprehensive printed sources of reference for available volunteer opportunities,” says Porath. Increased opportunities for participation in a variety of volunteer affairs have allowed greater distribution of the guide, she notes.

Non-profits are hampered, of course, in generating awareness because of their limited budgets, as well as concern about how their limited funds are being used. That’s where ongoing support from the Chippewa Valley media comes in.

Leveraging media support

While most not-for-profits don’t have budgets large enough to support traditional media advertising efforts, many in the area point to the strong support of local media outlets to help them get their messages out broadly.

“We don’t have a budget, like a large organization, where we can just blast everything out there. So we rely a lot on our media partners to help get the word out from a mass media perspective,” says Thrun. “A strong relationship with the local media is the most important thing for us in terms of generating awareness. We really have a good partnership with the media.”

Porath agrees. “It’s pretty rare for a non-profit to have a line item in their budgets for traditional marketing activities. That’s where we really, really rely on the generosity of the media outlets to provide that coverage for us. It’s very much appreciated.”

Social media also represents an opportunity to generate awareness cost-effectively.

Connecting through social media

Social media can also be used to generate awareness, Kaiser notes. “How many of us have learned about a particular cause because a friend has posted it on Facebook?” she asks. The challenge, of course, is creating a presence that resonates, one that many struggle with.

Porath points to the viral ALS “bucket challenge” campaign as the best recent example of how social media can be used to spread a message broadly — and generate results. That is not such an easy task, however. Still, some are experimenting and learning how social media can generate results.

Thrun has embraced the use of social media to spread Big Brother Big Sister messages and talked about a campaign that will be in the Chippewa Valley this fall which uses a combination of both traditional print media (table tents and posters) with video, social media and QR codes in an effort to generate awareness, interest and — hopefully — action!

These efforts are often tied to the bread and butter for most non-profits: events.

Events build relationships

Not-for-profit organizations often rely on events to raise both awareness and funding. Events provide both the opportunity to connect with members of the community and raise awareness, and to generate funding. Both are important, but James Peters, director of marketing for United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley, notes that any event needs to generate desired results to be sustained.

The United Way considers three things when deciding whether to continue an event: does it increase awareness of issues in the community or the United Way; is it providing a clear benefit to the community by providing important information on services; or is it generating good funding?

A recent example that did all three was the United way’s block party. “In my mind that was one of the best events we’ve had in a very, very long time,” says Porath. While it wasn’t a fundraiser, it provided an opportunity to get the word out “not just about the United Way, but about a lot of services that exist in our community — everything from the public health department to the 211 referral line.”

For non-profits, as for any organization, relationships matter. Even very large for-profit organizations could learn something from the personal, grassroots efforts that not-for-profit organizations use to drive success for their organizations and the people they serve.

Marketing is, after all, about building relationships.

Linda Pophal is a marketing communication consultant, business journalist and the owner of Strategic Communications, LLC, in Chippewa Falls. She is the author of the recently released “The Everything Guide to Customer Engagement.” Contact her at 715-723-2395 or at

“A lot of what we need to do is boots on the ground — being out in the community talking to people and sharing the stories."

— Christina Thrun

Development and marketing director

Big Brothers Big Sisters

Christina Thrun quote

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