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Nonprofit keywords: Find the search terms for your audience

5 min read
Sep 21, 2023

It’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy about search engines.

While an everyday part of most of our lives, most of us have a transactional relationship with them. We put in our queries, we get the information, we go on with the day.

No longer do we have to try to remember the name of the actor from that show we watched in the third grade, or which countries border the Mediterranean, or what time the gym closes.

Search engines take care of all that.

But for nonprofits and associations, search engines can be more than a question and answer machine. When you optimize the way you use search to find your audience, it becomes a tool for connection and a starting point for relationships with new supporters.

Search engines are just another way for interested people to find you. To help them do that, you’ll need to find the right nonprofit keywords to reach your audience. 

The basics

Before we go any farther, let’s quickly review some terms. 

What is a search engine? According to Wikipedia, “A search engine is a software system that finds web pages that match a web search. They search the World Wide Web in a systematic way for particular information specified in a textual web search query.” 

A query is the information you enter into the search engine, the thing you’re searching for. Things like, “good chocolate cake recipe,” or “how many kinds of dogs are there?” or “weird rash on elbow.”

A keyword is a term or phrase that occurs within the query that informs what kind of results the search engine will provide.

A search engine results page (SERP) is the collection of answers the search engine provides for the query.

Search engine marketing (SEM) is anything you do to market via search engines. This can include display ads, Google Ads, or search engine optimization (SEO).

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of making your content more appealing to search engines. 

What does a keyword do?

A keyword is the means by which a query connects with a result. Whether you’re trying to make the most of the Google Ad Grant or working on content for your website, choosing the right keywords will help you make the best connections via search engine.

When you think about the search engine as a connector, choosing keywords becomes about one important thing: giving your audience what they want.

Google and other search engines want to provide people with the most useful and relevant information possible. That makes sense. If they brought up a bunch of irrelevant results, people would get frustrated and stop using them. 

Your SEM efforts will make the most impact if you align yourself with this relevancy goal. Instead of trying to get as many people to your website as possible, try to appeal to as many interested people as possible instead.

Relevancy is way better than reach. That's because a million clicks don’t mean much if those people have no interest in your organization. 

You want your content and ads to answer the questions that your audience is asking, and to show up when they use the relevant keywords.

This is a win for everybody — your audience gets the kind of information they want, and you get to connect with people who were ultimately looking for you. 

Put yourself in an audience mindset

If you’re going to choose the right keywords to connect with your audience, you need to know who that audience is and what they’re looking for. As you consider who you want to connect with, you might find that you have a few donor personas or segments that you’d like to target. 

For example, imagine you’re running a nonprofit that helps people learn English. You may find you want to connect with potential ESL tutors and volunteers, social workers who could refer clients to you, and donors.

What might each of these audiences be looking for? What kind of words might they use?

The lowest-tech and least precise (but still valuable) way to dig into this question and start finding some keywords is just to think about it. Put yourself in the shoes of someone in your audience and consider what they might search for that would lead them to you.

Then start entering those terms into a search engine. What kind of results do you get? Is it organizations like yours? Something totally different? 

Once you’ve done a Google search that does get you relevant results, take a look at the “People Also Ask” feature. That will give you additional queries that point to different relevant keywords. 

Since we’re not trying to reach as many people as possible, but as many interested people, you can narrow down to keywords that are not as popular (side bonus — this often makes their cost-per-click lower).

While “English class” might get me a lot of irrelevant and wide-ranging results, “free ESL class Detroit” or “adult english night classes” can get me more of what I’m looking for. 

Tools for keyword research

Luckily, you don’t have to guess what your audience is thinking about. Keyword generator tools can supply you with lots of data like top keywords on a subject, how much a keyword is used, and how hard it is to rank for that keyword in the first page of Google results. 

You can use these tools to help determine the best keywords to try to show up for. Thinking back to our imaginary ESL classes, in my research I might find one of the related keywords is “how to teach ESL to adults.” That sounds like something my prospective volunteer audience might search for, doesn’t it?

Knowing that, I could create ads that highlight volunteer opportunities and training to teach ESL to adults. I could also create a series of blog posts, or a guide, or a podcast about teaching ESL to adult learners.

Again, everybody wins. I find the people who are interested in volunteering, and they get information and opportunities that align with their intent and interests. 

Here are some good free tools to get you started:

Ahrefs Keyword Generator Tool


Google Keyword Planner

If you have additional budget and time to learn, Ahrefs (paid), Moz, and Semrush are usually considered the top three.

It’s about connection

Amid all the keyword ranking, metrics, and research, don’t lose sight of the fact that all of your SEM is ultimately about connecting with your audience and pursuing your mission.

The people who see your ads or find your website are starting a journey, one that might turn out to be very meaningful in their lives. Their search engine query might be the beginning of becoming a monthly donor to a cause they care about, a volunteer who has life-changing experiences in your community, or a stalwart supporter of your organization.

Kind of makes you feel warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it?


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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