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How to Design a Responsive Nonprofit Marketing Plan

12 min read
Dec 7, 2022

Nonprofit marketing is an essential component of expanding your impact. Marketing often feels like a necessary evil, but in the hands of the right people (think you!), it’s helping humane societies rescue animals or IJM end human trafficking

Marketing is good. It isn’t just a means to an end. It’s an essential component of the good work that you’re doing in the world. Communicating your values and drawing people into your vision of a better world is Good.

Because of this, nonprofits that are making the world a better place are investing more in marketing. Even Mother Theresa understood that for her to make the biggest impact, she needed to expand her community. Her definition of marketing was, “more margin, more mission.”

What’s keeping your marketing stuck on the ground?

The problem is that so many nonprofits may even know that marketing is important or good, but they haven’t invested the time and energy into designing an effective strategy. They often approach marketing as though it were magic. 

Anything goes from ad hoc, one-off campaigns to trying to run everything simultaneously. 

And then there are still far too many well-meaning organizations that think marketing is beneath them. If they do the important work, people will find them. But good work doesn’t happen by accident, and marketing isn’t the exception to the rule.

An introduction to purposeful marketing

What’s the alternative to magical marketing or wishful thinking? Purposeful marketing. That’s marketing that’s practical, responsive, human, and measurable. It’s not trying to do everything at once, and it’s constantly learning by testing and taking risks.

Instead of building a plan that’s static and includes best practices from every blog ever written, the best plan forward is to learn from what you’ve done so far and be ready to deal with change.

The only certainty going forward is uncertainty, and one thing we learned in 2020 is that building a plan that’s responsive and ready to pivot is a key to sustained success.

Take one deep breath

All this talk about planning and uncertainty may have already increased your blood pressure. So before we dive into the details, let’s take one second to take a deep breath.

You’re doing work that’s actually making the world a better place, so even if there are some small changes you want to make, you’re so far ahead of the curve because you’re headed in the direction of your north star.

One additional way to keep the stress a little lower too is to keep in mind that your plan should be written with a pencil. And there’s no harm in keeping a big, pink eraser close at hand. 

Designing a marketing plan that’s more of a process than a rigid expectation is going to serve you, your team, and your organization much better. So much of our energy goes into forming a plan, but we often forget to plan to execute that plan. And the execution is going to impact the results a whole lot more than a piece of paper with the best plan of all time. 

Let’s dive into the process for building that responsive nonprofit marketing plan!

1. Start with a retrospective

The first step of a responsive marketing plan is to go back in time and ask the right questions about where you’ve been. During this first step, the retrospective, you should be looking into five focus areas where you can draw your insights from the previous year:

1. Community

Your community is ultimately your stakeholders. Who is supporting your cause? Who is donating to your organization? Who are you trying to mobilize to accomplish your mission? Answering the who will point you toward your community. 

Paying close attention to what trends are affecting this community and how you can better serve them where they are will pay big dividends. Collect and excavate the information that your community already has so that you can better plan to serve them next year.

Taylor Shanklin, Founder and CEO of Barlele and a TEDx speaker, recently sat down with Feathr’s Noah Barnett, and said; “What hasn’t changed is trying to understand and identify your audience and answer why you matter to them, speaking to them in a way that moves the needle for them.”

She went on further to discuss how essential community is to defining channels and objectives; “A lot of times what happens in marketing is that there are so many bright, shiny objects. Some are great. Some are a flash in the pan. And you don’t always know what’s going to be what when it’s new. And I don’t have time for all this. I’ve got to keep doing the basics really well and keep doing the channels that I know are working well.”

And the thing that always works is knowing where your community is and how you can best meet their needs.

2. Business

What’s going on in your organization? Are you looking to expand your footprint or maintain your position? What are the bigger business strategies and how is the business evolving? How is staff retention? Do new initiatives require additional attention?

Your marketing strategy is only going to go so far without complete organizational buy in. Making the right plans can make a world of difference, but without buy in the best plans are simply a piece of paper. Understanding where your organization actually stands and who is going to push your cause forward is essential before building a pipe dream that gathers dust on a shelf.

3. Programs

Maybe you have an email strategy or an event program. This is everything that you do as an organization to expand your footprint. What worked and what didn’t work? 

There are three possible outcomes when you assess your previous programs. You can either stop, continue, or start.

When aiming to build benchmarks for any of your programs, the best benchmark is always your own results. Marketing is a lot like long-distance running. The point is to constantly improve your personal best. As long as your team is moving in the right direction and making the right decisions about the programs that are available and effective for you, then you’re going to continue to move toward success.

4. External

This is looking at the external factors that you and your team can’t control. Is the market down? Is there an impending war? Are costs going up for products that your organization needs? Maybe the midterm elections impacted your work. Maybe currency fluctuations are going to impact your ability to serve internationally.

You’ll notice this section is shorter than the other sections. That’s because there’s often little that you can do to change these macro events. If they will have an impact on your organization, try to plan accordingly, but oftentimes you’ll just have to be ready to adjust to these external changes when they arrive.

5. People & Ops

This one can be a little hard to approach, but how is your team operating? Are there bottlenecks or personnel issues? How is your team culture? Is there miscommunication? Is there high turnover? Are team members burning out or is not enough getting done? Or maybe your team is great, but other departments aren’t aligning with your team.

Much of the planning process on marketing teams dives deep into the programs that were flops or successes. But just as important as the programs are the people and processes. As we shift out of a static, fixed plan into a living, breathing process, we have to look carefully at the people we’re working with to push forward and the processes we use to accomplish our goals.

It may be hard to truly assess, but asking if your team is burnt out or if they’re performing at the level that you expected is essential. And whenever a bottleneck occurs, it’s important to trace it back to its source. Was there a process in place that was inefficient? Who’s responsible for each deliverable?

Programs, people, and processes are a product, so they multiply with each other. This is great news if all of these are boosting each other, but if any of these is a big fat zero, then the result of all the efforts in the other two areas is still going to produce absolutely nothing.

2. Target mapping

Now that you’ve gathered all the essential information from the past, it’s time to start looking toward the future. Now’s the time to ask the questions: What are the goals? What levers do I need to pull to get us there? What channels should I use to reach our audience?

Because your organization is looking to grow its base of supporters, who are people, the process isn’t mechanical or direct. There is definitely an analogy to fishing, but it’s also not as simple as putting a worm on a hook and waiting.

A not so brief sidenote: People are people are people

For-profit companies may be able to more overtly act transactionally, but as a nonprofit, you’re in the business of world changing. People want to be connected to your organization and the people in your organization, so your plan needs to treat people as they are: people. 

GiveButter’s community & partnerships lead, Floyd Jones, said, “Anybody can build a business, but not everybody can build a brand. Everyone can get a transaction, but not everyone can get trust. And the thing that differentiates the two is community.”

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found that nonprofits are perceived as less trustworthy than corporations by the public. Chappell, Crimmins, and Ashley, in their book The Generosity Crisis, suggest that the way out of this trend is to “radically connect” with supporters. 

They write, “For generosity to endure and nonprofits to be successful well into the 21st century, we must leave behind models of transactional connection to our communities and embrace relational Radical Connections.”

From transactional to connected

As people are drawn toward your organization, it’s important to address them at each stage along the journey. We organize these steps into awareness, engagement, and cultivation stages. 

Notice that with nonprofits we don’t think the end goal is a conversion. There’s a person behind the donation who’s transforming a community member’s life. So the goal here is to cultivate that relationship instead of thinking of them as a number.

Often recurring donors were initially one-time donors. And major donors often spend some time in a lower bracket before they choose to take that leap of faith with you. 

Brady Josephson, marketing & growth lead at charity: water attributes much of the organization’s growth to this simple approach; “One of the things that makes charity: water what it is is its care for donors of all kinds. It doesn’t matter if you give $5 a month or $100 a year or $5 million.”

We know that nonprofits also need to meet quantifiable goals to meet real needs. But even the best for-profit organizations understand that people want to belong to a community before they’re willing to give the best of their time, energy, and money. 

Connecting goals with action

Through target mapping, you’re able to connect the overall business goal with the levers that are under your control. So there no longer needs to be a disconnect between the top-down and bottom-up approaches.

After the retrospective and the target mapping, we’ve only reviewed the past and made ambitious goals for the future. But now it’s time to switch our focus to how we’re going to get there.

3. Time to stir the marketing POT

Now it’s time to start cooking, and a process that we use internally is POT, which stands for priorities, omissions, and targets.

Brian Balfour, CEO and Founder of Reforge, previously the VP of Growth at Hubspot, has this axiom at the heart of his leadership, “Focus always wins.” 

Focus is the way that velocity is gained in an organization. When everyone’s pushing in opposite directions or even if each person is only concerned with their own pet projects or departmental goals, momentum just won’t pick up.


Your priorities are the focus

The first step to applying the marketing POT is to identify your primary tasks. These are your priorities. These priorities should be connected to your overall mission and address the goals you created during the target mapping step. They’re answering the question, “how will marketing support the overall mission?”

A good place to start is three priorities. More and they begin to lose focus and less and you may not be addressing enough of the mission. But keep in mind that priorities will adjust and will be different for every person on the team.

What will you omit?

Just as important as identifying the priorities is identifying what you will just say no to. A priority isn’t a priority if every request that comes up afterward will take precedence. This is why it’s so helpful to begin by identifying what plates are going to drop to keep your priorities spinning.

This will also help you address those difficult questions. When a team member asks two weeks into the quarter, “what if we did this?” It’s better that you have already anticipated this question and don’t just roll your eyes and say, “oh, Cindy (I’m so sorry to all you wonderful Cindys out there)!” 

This is why it’s essential to have omissions as well as priorities. The priorities will never truly be priorities until you intentionally limit the scope of your work.

What are you aiming for?

The final step in the POT is the target. These targets won’t be the same as your larger team targets, but they will be the puzzle pieces that together fulfill that larger goal.

Each team member’s priorities and omissions should be leading them in the direction of their target. And when everyone on the team accomplishes the targets to their specific priorities, then your team should be well on its way to achieving its larger aims.

4. Putting the responsive in your responsive marketing plan

This is the step that makes your marketing plan a living, evolving thing instead of a piece of paper. You’ve done the hard work of looking backward, creating goals for the future, and putting into place priorities and tactics to meet those goals. But still you need to be ready to pivot and always learning from the moment.

The responsive rhythms should happen weekly, monthly, and quarterly. There should be questions that you address as a team every single week while there are others that you might save for a more formal quarterly retrospective. But the important thing is to build intentional cadences for these questions and assessments so that you aren’t just plodding along, hoping you’re still headed in the right direction.


  • Metrics: We’re going to look at our targets every week so that we keep our eyes on the prize. How are we measuring up against those targets? Are we on track?

  • Huddles: Deep dive into a priority. We know we have a lot to tackle, but this is a time to break down an individual task.

  • Wrap: This is still primarily about responding to the week and learning from it, but it also can include some gratitudes and shout outs. But make sure to ask what you learned during the week that will change how you approach the next week. 


  • Retrospective: This doesn’t need to be a super long meeting; 30 minutes will do. But bring in a few questions and unpack them together as a team so that you’re learning from your activities.

  • Priority check in: This is in many ways an enhanced metrics meeting. Ask yourself from a larger perspective if you’re still on track to meet your goals.


  • PPP review: That’s programs, people, and processes. How are our programs going? How is my team doing? What processes are smooth and which are bumping along?

  • Audience feedback: Look for ways to get external input on your team’s activities. This could be through surveys or deeper conversations with individual stakeholders.

  • POT refactor: Do we need to change any priorities, omissions, or targets? Have things changed from a business perspective that change our team’s deliverables?

Putting it all together

I’m not here to say that building a plan is easy, but the real work has really only begun once that plan has been built and your team has been brought in on it. Now you get to start doing the exciting work of making these ideas come to life.

Your plan, although it’s amazing, almost certainly isn’t perfect, so don’t get stuck on the piece of paper and always be willing to call an audible. If you need to call it quits on something, that isn’t an admission of failure, it may just be an admission of intelligence.

Make sure that you’re always competing against your benchmark and testing your campaigns so that you can grow. Remember, marketing is more like cross country than a sprint, you’ve got to follow your own benchmarks and you’ve got to shave time off your personal best.

After looking backward, aiming ahead, and then jumping into the details of making those dreams a reality, you’re going to be in a great place as we move into the next year. We hope it’s your personal best and your organization’s best as well!

Remember, everything your nonprofit does is working toward making the world a little better place. Communicating and expanding your impact is part of the good work that you do. So with the transitive property (I remember something like this from high-school math), that means Marketing is Good!

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