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What’s the difference between fundraising and marketing?

6 min read
Aug 22, 2023

Fundraisers and marketers do a lot of similar things. 

(And let’s be honest: at many organizations they are the same person.)

But “similar” doesn’t mean “exactly the same.” Fundraising and nonprofit marketing are related, but different.

It’s not unusual for marketers to become fundraisers, or for fundraisers to be called upon to do marketing for an organization. Consequently, it’s also not unusual to be intimidated by whichever function is newer for you.

Fundraisers become convinced that marketing is full of mysterious secret knowledge, and marketers aren’t sure how to approach raising money rather than awareness.

Even if your organization has distinct roles or departments, where everyone is operating in their areas of expertise, the other discipline may seem a little mysterious.

When you’re clear on the similarities, differences, and overlap between the two functions, you’ll be able to improve at both of them. Even more importantly, you’ll be able to collaborate effectively, creating cohesive and meaningful journeys for your supporters that build long-lasting relationships.

The similarities

First off, let’s consider what fundraising and marketing have in common. 

Fundraising and marketing both involve:

  • Storytelling.
  • Communicating with people outside of the organization.
  • Promoting the mission of the organization.
  • Engaging people with the organization.

Fundraisers and marketers both create campaigns, send purposeful emails and communications, and connect people to the cause. 

They also rely on many of the same skills:

  • Compelling writing.
  • Building relationships.
  • Analytical and critical thinking.
  • Problem solving.
  • Data analysis.

The differences

The biggest differences between fundraising and marketing are their goals and scope.

Fundraising has a primary goal: to raise funds. Fundraisers engage individuals, foundations, corporations, and more in contributing funds to the organization. Fundraisers are focused on building relationships and inspiring people to give. They usually have clear financial targets they’re trying to hit. 

Marketing has a bigger scope: engaging people with the organization. This could include recruiting volunteers, raising awareness about the mission, public service campaigns, connecting people in need with your services, and more.

Nonprofit marketing goals aren’t always directly tied to dollars, but are often more focused on the number of people who take action in response to marketing initiatives, click on emails or ads, attend events, or sign up to volunteer. 

To simplify further, I like to think about a hypothetical scout troop. Scouts selling cookies are fundraising. Scouts giving a presentation about scouting at a school assembly are marketing. All of the scouts are engaging people with the organization and promoting their cause. 

The overlap

So, if fundraising equals raising money and marketing equals raising awareness, why do we even ask the question, “What’s the difference between fundraising and nonprofit marketing?” In that context, the answer seems pretty obvious. 

The thing is, in the nonprofit sector, fundraising and marketing activities often overlap, up to and including being the job duties of the same department, or even the same person. 

It makes sense that this overlap could lead to some confusion. Is your email newsletter marketing or fundraising? What if there’s a “Donate” button in it somewhere? Who decides what’s in a text-to-give ad campaign?

If all your marketing and fundraising fall under one development department, or one job description, it’s still helpful to define if what you’re doing is a fundraising activity or a marketing activity, so you can set appropriate goals.

If something falls under the marketing umbrella, but you’re only setting fundraising goals, you risk tossing out a successful marketing activity when it doesn’t bring in donations… a thing it wasn’t designed to do. 

Ideally, the two functions work together to promote the organization and engage people with the mission. Marketing spreads the word and raises awareness, fundraising helps turn that awareness into philanthropy. 

Very often, this means the question of “Is this marketing or fundraising?” gets “Both!” as an answer. Think about an annual report: It is a donor cultivation tool, which falls under fundraising. But it’s also a marketing tool that promotes the organization and its mission. The project has to be viewed through both lenses. 

As you look through the fundraising lens, you’ll want to ask:

  • Does this report acknowledge and appreciate our supporters?
  • How can it demonstrate the impact of their contributions?
  • Does it invite our supporters closer to our organization?

Through the marketing lens, you’ll ask:

  • Is this report visually appealing? Does it conform to our brand guidelines?
  • If a stranger picked this up, what would they know about our organization?
  • Are we telling stories that inspire, educate, or engage?
  • Are the messages of this report consistent with the messages we’re using across the organization? 

Both are necessary for an annual report to be truly successful. 

Collaboration over competition

If you’ve worked in a nonprofit for more than ten minutes, you’ve probably heard that operating silos can be a big problem. Different departments work independently, getting their wires crossed and missing opportunities, causing strife, and in general, reducing both efficiency and general morale. 

Can we get very real for a minute? If you’re used to operating in silos, it’s easy to get territorial, subconsciously or explicitly. You may even find yourself fighting over ultimately trivial things, like who will design a landing page or send an email.

If you’ve found yourself saying something like, “Fine, but it’s coming out of Marketing’s budget!” or “That’s OUR email,” or generally behaving in a way that can only be described as “huffy,”  I recommend you take a moment.

When fundraising and marketing don’t work together, everyone loses — and your supporters most of all. You risk creating competing calls to action, making each of your efforts less successful. You can confuse your shared audiences, work against each other, or accidentally send way too many emails. 

When marketing and fundraising work together, supporters have a smooth, simple, and engaging experience across the organization. 

Ultimately, you’re on the same team. You’re serving the same mission, and you want a lot of the same things. It only makes sense to:

  • Share your data.
  • Consult on segmentation (maybe major donors need to be excluded from general emails, maybe there’s a new audience you should both consider).
  • Collaborate on themes and messages to create consistent communications.
  • Create one shared communications calendar, so everyone knows what’s scheduled.
  • Design campaigns together when appropriate.

The journey of a supporter

Your supporters likely don’t differentiate between your organization’s fundraising and marketing messages. They just know the messages are from you. Marketing and fundraising have to work together to create cohesive and intentional supporter journeys.

There are many models of donor and supporter journeys, from a traditional sales funnel to a  donor mountain, but all agree that your supporters are moving through stages of awareness and interest in your mission. Somehow, you have to make a path for people to go from just finding out about you to taking some kind of action. 

Marketing and fundraising both have roles to play in creating these journeys. 

Marketing can create the first stage of awareness, bringing in new audiences. It can continue to engage supporters with storytelling, helping them to understand more about the organization and cause. 

Fundraising continues to draw supporters in, helping them to take action to support a cause they care about. Fundraisers also tell stories and invite engagement, helping supporters to figure out if and how they want to contribute. 

For example, imagine your organization, an agency supporting people struggling with food insecurity, wants to attract new donors and volunteers. Both marketing and fundraising have a stake in the project. You might decide to:

  • Design an ad strategy for bus stops in your town, sharing facts about food insecurity and inviting people to help (marketing leads).
  • Create a digital ads strategy with search ads (marketing leads), retargeting ads (fundraising and marketing collaborate on content and retargeting segments), and dedicated landing pages, one with an embedded donation form (marketing and fundraising collaborate on content) and the other with a volunteer sign up (marketing leads).
  • Build an automatic thank you email (fundraising leads) for those who give on the landing page.
  • Build a welcome series for new volunteers (marketing leads).
  • Build an automated new donor welcome series for new givers (fundraising leads).

While marketing and fundraising will each take the lead in their areas of expertise, they should work together to decide on themes, stories, and messages for the overall campaign. 

Inviting engagement

Nonprofit marketing and fundraising may have different tasks and different responsibilities, but their overarching goal is the same: engage more people with the organization in a meaningful way.

Both activities provide opportunities for supporters to get more involved with a cause they care about. In the best cases, they work together in harmony to champion the cause, move the organization forward, and pursue the organization’s mission. 


About the author:

Megan Donahue is a communications consultant, writer, and nonprofit nerd. She's the host of Love & Robots and fascinated by the intersection of nonprofits and technology.

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