Five Marketing Mistakes Nonprofits Need to Avoid

Sean Horrigan is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub, and a marketing/PR consultant with a track record of helping clients grow and prosper through consistent media coverage, strategic social media campaigns, killer copy and better branding.

Nonprofits are starting to embrace inbound marketing methods as a way to attract and retain donors.

Greater emphasis is being placed on creating content, building brand equity and generating positive press. In fact, a recent study by the Content Marketing Institute shows that 61% of nonprofits are consistently creating and sharing content via social media. And that’s good news, because 65% of millennials (ages 20-35) prefer to learn about your nonprofit online*.

Here are five traps to avoid as you plan your inbound marketing campaign and chart your course to success.

You Use Social Media to Solely Promote your Organization

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your organization is much more interesting to you than it is to everyone else. So stop using social media as a bullhorn to promote it. Think about it, what would happen if you always talked about yourself to your friends? You’d lose those friends pretty fast. Same rules apply when it comes to social media. Social media is the art of being social. It’s a two-way conversation you have between you and your donors. Be social and engage in two-way conversations!

That’s not to say that you can’t promote your organization via social media—you just need to stick to the rule of thirds:

  • ⅓ of your social content promotes your organization, converts readers and generates donations

  • ⅓ of your social content should share ideas and stories from thought leaders in your industry or like-minded organizations

  • ⅓ of your social content should be based on fluff/fun to show that there are human beings behind your social media marketing

Once you begin to curate and share content that engages, educates and entertains your followers using thought leaders from inside/outside your organization, your donors/followers will begin to see you as a resource rather than a marketing machine.

You Don’t Have a Brand Positioning Statement

A nonprofit’s brand is its most important asset. Yet, many nonprofits have never taken the time to create a brand positioning statement. They may have a mission/vision statement but not a positioning statement.

A positioning statement is a one or two sentence statement that articulates your organization’s value. It conveys who you are, what you do and why anyone should care.

It helps donors and prospects understand where to categorize and classify your organization in their minds.

Your positioning statement should possess three key qualities:

  • It must be unique. It must not already be owned by another organization. No hijacking here

  • It should be narrow. If your positioning is too broad, no one will remember it. If you’re everything to everyone, then you’re nothing to anyone. Find what makes you unique and own it!

  • It must be simple (concise), clear and consistent

A strong brand positioning statement will drive all creative decisions and serve as the foundation for your marketing and fundraising success.

You Don’t Invest in Good Design

First impressions are everything. And good design ensures that your organization will always make strong first impressions in the minds of donors, prospects and volunteers.

Smart and strategic design commands attention, elicits reactions, tells a story and persuades your audience to take an action. It’s a crucial component to every annual appeal letter, newsletter, banner ad, blog, website and billboard.

Unfortunately, too many nonprofits neither invest the time nor the resources in good design—and it shows. They look unprofessional, small and ill equipped to change the world. Donors want to support a winner. Good design makes you look like a winner.

You Dismiss the Power of PR

Powerful PR is vital component to any successful fundraising campaign. It generates brand awareness, builds buzz and increases credibility. If a donor or potential corporate sponsor is reading about you in the press, hearing your story on the radio and seeing your name appear in blogs—they’re going to take notice. And if your story resonates with them, they’re going to get involved

Unfortunately, many nonprofit leaders are quick to dismiss PR. They think it’s too expensive and difficult to measure. I’m here to tell you that you can’t afford not to do PR.

PR generates donations, attracts board members and builds government support like no other marketing tool. Just look at the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. PR placed ALS in the national spotlight almost overnight. ALS raised $100 million dollars in 2014 vs. $2.7 million during the same time period in 2013.

You’re Not Tapping the Power of Video

Did you know that video has a 400% higher engagement rate than static content? And the average website visitor spends 88 % more time on sites that feature video?

So what’s stopping you from making video an integral part of your marketing/fundraising arsenal? And don’t tell me it’s a budget issue. Today’s smartphones come with high quality built-in cameras that offer an array of editing and color correcting tools.

If you want to kick things up a notch—invest $400 in a decent camera. It won’t be state-of-the-art, but it will do the job. And that’s what’s amazing about video. It doesn’t always need to be Steven Spielberg quality to make an impact. It just needs to educate, entertain and engage.

So what say you? What marketing mistakes have you witnessed at nonprofits? I’d love to hear if you care to share.

*HubSpot: Engaging Younger Donors Online with Inbound Marketing


Be sure to check out Sean’s website for more tips and insight.

  • Rafael Cosio

    I fully agree with these mistakes to avoid. For me, the positioning statement is key, as it can in fact guide much of your nonprofits branding and messaging. TAKE THE TIME TO BRAINSTORM ONE! I’ve worked in a number of nonprofits where these things are not valued, and where it is believed that the feel good work we engage in, and the lives we transform should be sufficient to generate support. It does take an entire machine that complements itself to gain donor and consumer confidence, brand awareness and visibility that can make you the “go-to” charity of choice when thinking about a particular cause, or leave you in the “WHO are they?” stack that no one has ever heard of and therefore might be less inclined to contribute to.

    One might argue that these things you mention are a necessary evil. I say they are essential ingredients. Many have kicked and screamed at adopting some “corporate” infrastructure elements that are often feared, as some believe that they eliminate the grass roots SPIRIT that many in the nonprofit field like to hold on to. Truthfully, those that have adopted some “corporate” operational methods, are some of the ones who survived the last few years and are still standing….so I encourage everyone to do the math. So as far as the value of good design, PR and the power of video, I say BRAVA!

    Being from Los Angeles in particular, there is an expectation of quality and polish that SOME people might expect in video vignettes in particular, but it still feels like the most impactful videos that provide heart and move people to want to contribute, aren’t always the super-polished studio-quality video productions with all the fancy editing. Plus with iPads and all the apps at ones fingertips (literally), there’s alot of polish that one can do now, without having to purchase final cut pro or engage a professional video producer and editor.

    This is just MY experience and wonder if you have any further thoughts on the video matter? I appreciate you mentioning that our modern smart phones can sufficiently capture video segments that can be easily edited in your garden variety MacBook that contains iMovie, that can deliver with some bells and whistles the messages and imagery that can be just as effective as a video that would cost upwards of $10,000 to produce and edit.

    Just my 50 cents.


  • I do take exception to the lack of correlation between the ‘Design’ and ‘Video’ sections of this article. Yes, good design is vital. The points made are spot on. Problem is, in the video section you drop the ball. The points made about design are as equally important and applicable to video. It’s the same with video as PR. You cannot afford “not to do” quality video. And yes, this is a subject about which I am a passionate advocate.

    As a for-profit and ‘in-house’ non-profit media producer whose experience spans two centuries, I can categorically say poorly done video is even more damaging to your non profit’s public image than bad design. This is not an issue of ‘doing it yourself,’ this is an issue of doing it well. And the advice given in the video section is the road to perdition. The quality of your video is just as important, if not more so, than the content despite the, frankly ignorant, advice given on the internet.

    You can create top-shelf video for your organization using your smart phone and/or a “$400 camera.” The problem is that the skills and expertise to best accomplish this task are not held by the vast majority of non profit employees/volunteers. Good, even great, video at the very least requires developed skills in; script writing, lighting, audio (most important element), filming and post-production.

    If you value the public image of your organization, don’t accept the premise that the skills needed to produce both a quality and engaging promotional video library are ones that can be “learned on the job.” (The same applies to design and PR). Or worse, believe that the public doesn’t really care about quality, only content. If you accept these misguided beliefs, your promotional video program will fail.

    “Why is that?” I hear you asking. Because of television and films. Really. The quality of production in both genres is now on an equal footing, It has been for ten years now. This parity has raised the inherent expectations of those who will view your videos. They expect your video to be ‘just as good’ as what they see on television and films. Might not be fair, especially for those organizations with small budgets, but it is true.

    So, what to do? Hire a professional (read on before making any conclusions). There’s three essential things professional media producers can provide your organization. Experience, Knowledge and Expertise. Not to mention, they come with all the proper kit needed to create quality promotional films. With those tools they can either create the video for you or function as a consultant to train your staff or volunteers in creating videos that will show your best face to your supporters. Invest your funds in this way rather than in a “$400 camera.”

    And before you start making excuses about how much that would cost (remember, this post advises you to spend $400 for a camera), understand, media producers are people too. We just might find your cause one to which we would be willing to donate our time and expertise. And frankly, it’s good PR for their business. Talk to the media producers in your area, offer to hire them as a consultant for even an hour. Offer a letter of donation in lieu of payment. I know you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the resources available to you if you would just ask.

    Video is the best and most powerful way to tell your story and broadcast your message. Don’t compromise the effectiveness of your message with poor quality. The value your organization provides to the community/world is too important to allow inferior production to stand in the way of reaching those who would support you.

  • PR Guy

    Hey Ken,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    I agree with you and respectfully disagree with you.

    I think that nonprofits should hire professional videographers to shoot institutional videos that have a long shelf-life. However, I think if you shoot each week ( and you should be) you can keep the smaller projects in house.

    Save your $ for the big and meaningful projects. Pro bono relationships are great but they always take a back seat (as they should) to paying clients. From my experience, you can’t completely depend on them.


    Sean Horrigan

  • Real treat to read a genuinely good article. you have covered almost all the points with deep research of SEO mistakes. what you wrote makes sense. But most internet marketers and unprofessional web programmers make same mistake. love to read it and definitely will share it in my developers team.

    priyanka jain –

  • Hi

    Thanks for sharing these vital marketing Mistakes.

    Well, after working in this field for about 1 year, The biggest mistakes for me personally, which I am already working on

    to improve, are :

    #1 – Analysis Paralysis : I must admit that I fall victim to this sometimes too! 🙁

    #2 – Not tracking analytics properly – it’s true that it is SO VITAL to do this, but most people don’t do this.

    #3 – Selling Without solving – this is also vital, cause when you focus yourself on solving other people’s problems,

    you’ll sell automatically later in the process in a lot of cases.

    These mistakes are very costly, and can have huge impact. I regret I did these marketing mistakes, But Now, I am on my way

    up and I hope sharing this will help many more.

  • James Bond

    I read your article. You have covered almost all points.