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Section 5. Marketing the Initiative to Secure Financial Support

Learn how marketing can be a powerful tool to help your organization succeed in its quest for financial sustainability.


  • What is marketing?

  • Why should you market your initiative for financial support?

  • How do you market your initiative?

Marketing is not a word that comes easily to the lips of community health and development professionals. When we do think about it, we tend to do so in a negative way. The expression "smoke and mirrors" comes to mind; we think of corporations spending huge amounts of money to convince people to buy something that they don't really need.

What is marketing?

Although it's true that marketing can be done for items and ideas of questionable worth, it is not in and of itself a bad thing. In fact, marketing can be a powerful tool to help your organization succeed in its quest for financial sustainability. This section will tell you how.

But what exactly is marketing? One of the best definitions of marketing for nonprofit organizations that we have seen comes from the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. In their words:

"Marketing is a process that helps you exchange something of value for something you need."

In any community, these exchanges occur all the time. For example, an adult literacy program offers education and skills training, which will lead to a more capable work force for employers in the community. In return, the organization that runs the program needs clients, referrals, and resources to allow the program to continue.

Or, take the example of a neighborhood revitalization coalition. Members might want businesses to move to the area to provide jobs and improve the economy of the area. In exchange, they might offer a semi-skilled work force and tax breaks.

Marketing can be done in many ways, and it includes different things. That's because the idea of marketing asks you to look at everything you do, and to do some of it differently. When the receptionist at your office picks up the phone, you probably don't think of that as part of marketing, but it really is. How he greets the caller says a lot about your organization: what you do, how professional or casual you are, and so on. And that's true of the follow-up to that phone call--who the caller talks to next, or the information he receives in the mail, or the visit he makes to the agency. Image may not be everything, but it probably counts for more than we would like to admit.

When you think about marketing, then you're really thinking about all of the following:

  • Image-building
  • Friend-raising
  • Membership development
  • Community relations
  • Political activities
  • Citizen education

--You're not just asking for money.

In this section, we will assume that the bottom line for your marketing plan is obtaining resources: either money or in-kind support. And because of that, we will discuss how to market your organization, not the problem or issue your organization is working to change. That is, if your group is working for honesty in government, we will discuss how to convince people that your group should take on the issue. We will only discuss the importance of honesty in government to the extent that people must believe it is important if they are going to support your organization.

Changing people's ideas and behavior about issues, such as honesty in government, or drunk driving, or maintaining a healthy lifestyle, are known as social marketing.

Does all of this make sense to you? Then let's move on.

Why should you market your initiative for financial support?

As we suggested above, you do some marketing anyway in the way your organization presents itself every day. By focusing your energies and making a concerted effort to do it better, you can:

  • Obtain more resources to survive and thrive. If your organization is known as an effective group that works hard and gets important things done, people will want to jump on the bandwagon. Marketing lets the right people know about your successes, and also how and why they can add to them.
  • Gain valuable insights on your community. As part of a marketing plan, you will be asking people what they think. This will give you a better understanding of why some people don't give to your organization at all, why others do support your group, and how you can convince both groups to donate more.
  • Better focus your current resources. With the knowledge you gain through marketing, you will have an improved understanding of the best ways to use resources your organization already has to reach your goals.

How do you market your initiative?

In its simplest form, marketing your initiative for financial support means doing three things:

  • Letting everyone in your community know your group exists and what it does.
  • Making everyone in the community like your group.
  • Convincing people to support your group.

Doing those three things, however, can get a bit tricky. To meet the challenges of marketing your organization, you should develop and follow a marketing plan.

Below, we outline twelve points that are important parts of marketing your organization. In brief, they are:

  • Decide who will be primarily involved in the development of your marketing plan.
  • Involve everyone in your plans.
  • Define, revise, or affirm the organization's role.
  • Set goals for your marketing plan.
  • Determine how far you are from your goals.
  • Brainstorm possible sources of support.
  • Consider the donors' points of view.
  • Decide which possibilities to focus on.
  • Develop contacts.
  • Develop a plan.
  • Pretest and implement your plan.
  • Evaluate and revise what you are doing.

Let's look at these one by one.

  • Decide who will be primarily involved in the development of your marketing plan.This should be a core group who has the time and energy to work on the plan. In some cases, it might be your financial sustainability committee in others, it might be a combination of staff, board members, and volunteers. If there are members of your organization who work in the fields of advertising or marketing, be sure to take advantage of their expertise!
  • Involve everyone in your plans. This doesn't mean that everyone should be helping draft the marketing plan, but everyone in the organization should know what you are doing and why. People can't support what they don't understand.
  • Define, revise, or affirm the organization's role. Before you can market your group, you need to decide exactly what you are going to market. That is, members of your organization should answer the questions:
    • How do you want people in the community to perceive the organization?
    • When people hear your name, how should they finish the phrase "Oh, that's the group that..."

Your organization's role should be clearly understood and agreed upon by all of the members of the group, including your board of directors. If members of the organization define it differently, the community at large will end up with a view of your organization that is confused at best. Almost certainly, they won't see your organization the way you might wish.

One way to help do this is to develop a paragraph that explains your organization and what you do. It should include your mission statement and one or two other points you want people to remember about your group.

For example: Founded in 1991 and the recipient of numerous awards, the Rockville Melting Pot was born on the belief that conversation over good food can greatly assist in enhancing understanding and tolerance among Rockville's many ethnic groups. The group meets monthly for potluck dinners, to which people bring traditional dishes. Each dinner features a speaker discussing topics of cultural and community interest. Additionally, the group offers newly arrived immigrants support and aid in obtaining necessary resources.

Simply writing a paragraph like the one above, however, is not enough. Your organization has to make sure it is read by community members.

You might use it:

  • On the back of your organization's brochures
  • In your organization's newsletter (for example, along with the credits)
  • As part of a media packet to send with press releases

Deciding who you aren't

An important part of defining an organization's role is deciding what you don't want. Opportunities may arise that would mean a change in the focus of what you do. What do you do about them?

For example, perhaps your organization is dedicated to reducing child abuse and neglect, and a large grant for improving the nutrition of young children becomes available. Neglected children are often malnourished, so there is some overlap, but the terms of the grant would require you to go farther afield, and broaden your scope significantly. Is the money you would bring in worth the time that would be taken away from your primary mission?

Like many choices your group probably makes, there's no easy answer for the above dilemma. While each case will be determined individually, you should think about this idea generally from the start, and it should be clear in the paragraph you have developed. For example, if you want to be open to that grant or similar opportunities, you might prefer to market yourself as a children's advocacy group, instead of as a group only interested in child abuse and neglect. (You could still note in the explanatory paragraph, though, that you work extensively in those areas.)

If you make these general decisions early, friends and colleagues will have a better idea when to suggest new opportunities. Who you are will be clear in their minds

Set goals for your marketing plan.

What, exactly, do you want to accomplish with your marketing? What is the ideal situation for your organization? Dream big.

Think about two different kinds of goals: general marketing goals and specific monetary goals.

General marketing goals discuss how you want people to see your organization. For example:

  • The Difranco Literacy Project is committed to being known as the most comprehensive adult education center in the region.
  • Teen House offers a safe place for all area youth to come for help with all kinds of troubles.

Here are some examples of financial goals:

  • An operating budget of $500,000 a year.
  • An endowment that covers 8% of your operating costs.
  • Certain programs are paid for or run in perpetuity by local organizations.

When developing your marketing plan, you should keep in mind both types of goals. A natural tendency is to want to focus on the money--after all, that's why you are developing this plan. Remember, though: it's much easier to sell something when its worth is obvious. There's a tendency to say, "We're trying to do good. You should help us!" But donors want to know that their donation is being used well, and that the money or services they have given is really having an impact. If you effectively market your organization, potential donors are likely to have heard things they like and to open their checkbook.

As we said above, it's important to dream big when you develop your goals. However, those dreams can be a little daunting for a group just starting out. For example, if your long-term goal is "An operating budget of $500,000 a year" and you don't have a dime in your pocket, it's hard to see how you'll get there from here.

That's where shorter-term goals come in. These help you achieve your larger goals by breaking them down into doable pieces. They also allow you to gain the experience and confidence to accomplish your objectives.

Here are two examples of short-term financial goals:

  • A 10% increase in donations by the end of the year.
  • Two of your programs being picked up by local agencies on a trial basis

And examples of short term general marketing goals:

  • Students in all of the area high schools will know what Teen House is and where we are located by the end of this school year.
  • Spring enrollment at the Difranco Literacy Project will be twice what it was last year.

In both cases, your goals should:

  • Be formed around an understanding of who you are as an organization.
  • Be very clear about what you want to accomplish.
  • Take into account what you think your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats will be in the next few years.

Determine how far you are from your goals. This is sometimes known as doing a "marketing audit." Simply put, before you go after your goals, it's important to know how much work you have to do. If, as in the example above, you want to be known as the most comprehensive adult education center in the region, how many people in the area already see you as such? How many people in the area haven't even heard of your organization?

Brainstorm possible sources of support. Your general marketing plan may target the entire community, but you probably don't expect to receive support from everyone. Some people (or groups of people) are much more likely to support your effort than others. So your next step is to sit down and write a list of potential markets, or types of donors, and ways to gather support.

Some of the most common categories include:

  • Government agencies
  • Members (through fees and dues)
  • United Ways
  • Foundations
  • Individuals
  • Corporations and businesses
  • Users--for example, these people may pay a fee for a class
  • Are there others you can think of?

Consider the donor's point of view. The next step is to write down what you think members of each group want from you in return for their donation. In his book Mission-Based Marketing, author Peter Brinckerhoff offers some suggestions of what these markets generally want from an organization in return for their donation. The best way to find out what people want, however, is to ask them. Every organization, like every individual, will have desires and dislikes of their own. And, since what people want will change, you should ask often (or at least occasionally!) to make sure they still want the same things. If you have the opportunity, you should learn what these potential markets want by asking them formally.

Some of the questions you might ask include:

  • What do you want from our organization?
  • What is your opinion of our group? How do you perceive us?
  • Why do you donate to our organization/use our services? Or:
  • Why don't you donate to our organization/use our services?
  • What groups do you give to? Why do you donate to them?
  • What would convince you to donate (or to give more) to our organization?

How do you ask these questions? Some of the most typical ways to find out what people want, include:

The first three of these might be best when dealing with individuals, such as members or users (it's unlikely that you will be able to get representatives of 20 foundations together for a focus group), but every situation is unique. Be creative, and find the options that will work best for your organization and in your community.

Decide which possibilities to focus on. It's unlikely that you will be able to target all of the different funding sources in your community, or at least to do it well. After careful deliberation of your own desires and capabilities as well as those of potential funders, decide which ones you want to spend the lion's share of your energy on.

Develop and nourish contacts with potential funding sources. Knowing people inside of funding sources is very important when dealing with organizations such as foundations and government agencies. Community activist Ray Shonholtz says, "[F]oundations fund people first and ideas second. The foundation wants to know that the person they're funding isn't a kook. Regardless of what the idea is, they want to know that the person has a reasonable chance of delivering it, or at least making a reasonable effort to attempt to deliver it, especially if it's a very risky idea. So credibility becomes the first and primary issue for most sophisticated foundations."

Develop a plan. Your marketing plan should be complete with a timeline for activities, who will do what, a budget, and baseline markers, so you will be better able to evaluate what you have done. 

Along with all of the basic elements of planning (such as including the "who will do what by when") your plan should also incorporate each of the"4Ps" of marketing: product, price, place, and promotion.

Product--The product is what you are marketing.

Here, you are marketing your organization (or one or more of its programs) and its ability to give potential donors or client what they want. This could be a healthier community, a thriving arts program, or after school programs for kids. An important first part of your marketing plan, then, is to make sure your program is in top shape for when people come to check it out. In other words, continue doing what you do, and look for ways to do it better. When people do find their way to your door (and we'll talk about how they can do that in a few moments) they need to find something worth support waiting for them.

There are many ways to do this, of course--the Tool Box contains many different ways to make your organization more effective. One thing worth noting here, however, is the importance of making a good first impression. Staff and volunteer training is an important part of this.

Remember, the first people that clients or donors meet are often the people who are paid the least, or who feel the least "ownership" for the organization. How can you make sure they give the impression of your agency that you would like to project?

Exercise: Think for a moment about the following questions:

  • If a millionaire walked through your front door right now because he was thinking about making a large donation to your group, what would he see? What would be his first impression?
  • Look at your organization with fresh eyes. Would you give a donation to such a place? Why or why not?
  • Think about places or organizations to which you have given money. Why do you donate money to those groups, and not organizations working for other causes you believe in? What makes you give away money?
  • What really bothers you when other organizations try to raise money?

Price--The price is how much it will cost a person to stop (or take on) a certain behavior. An important step in marketing is trying to reduce that price. But wait, you say, you're trying to earn money, not reduce the cost to donors. Very true. But by price, here, we're talking about three things monetary value, nonmaterial costs, and perceived value.

First, of course, is monetary value. But for some people, donations are more expensive than for others. A large foundation may be able to give a $100,000 grant without blinking--but the cost of doing so would certainly be too high for most people in your community. An important point, then, is finding the easiest way for people to make donations that aren't too expensive for them personally.

For example, a local executive may allow you to use an empty office suite for free or at a reduced cost, and a housewares store might donate paint and fixtures to renovate that office. But if you had asked either donor for the amount of money it would have cost to rent the space or have it decorated, the price in dollars might have been too expensive for them. Likewise, you might just get that high-dollar foundation grant, but could find the program officers unwilling to offer their services as volunteers.

The lesson here? Find out what people have and what they can give you without much sacrifice. Then, make it easy for them to do so. Always send out donor cards with self addressed, stamped envelopes and feasible amounts written as suggestions. Offer to pick up the paint yourself, instead of asking the store manager to drop it by. Finally, do not overlook the highly profitable area of in-kind support.

Second, when we talk about price, we are also talking about non material costs-- the emotional, political, and moral gains and losses of supporting your organization.

For example, if your organization is trying to reduce teen pregnancy, one of the activities might be to distribute free condoms to teenagers. For community members who are against the use of condoms, the price of donating to your organization might be very high in a moral sense. It might be politically costly if your donor is a corporation or a well-known figure that has constituents who are against the use of condoms. This isn't to say your organization should change its ways, or not do something it believes important. However, always be aware of the consequences.

Also, look for alternatives that are less expensive for donors. For example, you might suggest donors contribute exclusively to an abstinence-based program run by your organization.

Third, we are talking about the perceived value of supporting your organization. This ties in with the first two ideas. Potential donors become real donors when they feel they will get more than they will give out of the arrangement.

For-profit companies understand the concept of perceived value very well. Consumers might spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of tennis shoes because they are seen as being "cool." Nonprofit organizations need to learn from this example. The perceived value of supporting your organization will include the good the donation can do, how it will make donors feel, the recognition they will get in the community, and so on.

Place--The place, in terms of marketing for financial sustainability, discusses how accessible, or easy, it is for people or groups to support your organization. For members and users, this can be a physical place: where and when do classes /activities take place? Are they a few blocks away, or across town? Are they easy to get to, or do they require a long subway trip?

However, place also includes the ease of donating to your organization. Do people know how to donate to your organization? Is it easy for them to do so? Are their donations tax-exempt?

For example: A small public radio station recently held its annual fundraising drive. People were encouraged to contribute whatever they could, no matter how small. The donations could be called in for any amount, and that amount could be paid in up to 12 installments over the period of one year. Corporations called in and agreed to put up matching funds for all donations called in during a certain time period, thus increasing the perceived (and real!) value of people's donations. The result? The radio station made the goal they had set for themselves in record time.

Place also includes things like how the issue affects potential donors. For everyone from whom you ask for a donation, you should be able to answer the question, "How does your issue affect me, personally?" or, "How will your group's work make my life better?" For example, if you are trying to reduce youth violence, how is it important to them? Is their neighborhood violent? Are their children's schools safe? Does the problem affect the entire community? Why is it important to them?

Promotion--Promotion is the last of the "4 Ps," and the one most easily associated with marketing. If people haven't heard of you, they can't support your work. So the last part of your marketing plan should be to advertise, advertise, advertise! This advertising can be almost anything: television commercials, chatting with community leaders at meetings, developing brochures, letters soliciting donations, or red ribbons tied to car antennas.

Whatever you decide, however, your promotional planning should occur in two phases. First, advertise to promote interest in your organization. Then, develop promotional items such as letters, brochures and ads specifically to ask for money. You need to do the first to do the second effectively. You don't want the first time people hear of you to be the day you are knocking on the door asking for help.

General promotion

General promotion of your organization should occur on an ongoing basis. Here are some common ways to promote your organization:

  • Make speeches to civic clubs and leave brochures on the tables.
  • Develop a newsletter.
  • Hold "open house" days.
  • Give tours of your organization.
  • Offer incentives. For example, you might offer classes at a 'two for one' price to help bring in new members.
  • Design posters.
  • Develop brochures.
  • Keep the press informed about your organization, an event you hold, or ask a sympathetic member of the press to do a feature about one of your members.
  • Hold a booth at public events (local fairs, craft shows, etc.)
  • Hold community forums that give people a chance to voice their opinions on the topic that concerns you.
  • Sponsor a well-known speaker on the subject.
  • Network--the more people you know, the more possibilities will open up before you.

Promoting to win support

The second type of promotions are those asking for support. While these are very important, they are done less often than general promotion, which should occur all the time.

Some of the ways of obtaining support include:

  •  Direct mailings
  • Telemarketing
  • Fundraising events
  • Direct solicitation of corporations known to be friendly to your cause
  • Applying for grant money
  • Soliciting individual donations

These different methods of getting support each have advantages and disadvantages. 

Pre-test and implement your plan. After you have developed your detailed marketing plan, try it out on a small scale basis, to work the bugs out. Then, modify your plan based on what you've learned.

Evaluate and revise. After your plan has been in effect for a certain amount of time, stand back and take a look at how it's working. What should you keep? What can be done better? Part J of the Tool Box, Evaluating the Initiative, has a lot of good information that can help you when you get to this point.

In Summary

Despite all of its negative connotations, marketing doesn't have to be a dirty word. In fact, it can be used honestly and well as a very powerful tool to help your organization or group succeed. The successful use of marketing can help your organization live a long, successful life in the community. After all, you have built something to be proud of with your group or coalition--don't you want to let others be a part of it?

Print Resources

Brinckerhoff, P. (1997).: Mission-based marketing. Dillon, CO: Alpine Guild, Inc.

Herron, D. (1997). Marketing nonprofit programs and services. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

OutGiving OutLines is a compilation of educational reference materials from the 20th Annual National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference and the 16th National AIDS /HIV Forum held in July, 1998, in San Francisco, CA. Contact the Gill Foundation at (202) 898-6340 to get a copy of this guide.

The Resource Alliance. This resource provides information on how to use an NGO image to identify corporate alliances.

Stern, G. (1990). Marketing workbook for nonprofit organizations. St. Paul, MN: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.