3 Nonprofit Marketing Tactics Every Business Can Learn From

It’s been one heck of a year, and we’re only halfway through. Businesses are struggling in the pandemic, and there’s no clear end in sight to this period of chaos. Companies big and small need to figure out how they’ll continue growing and generating income.

But typical approaches to marketing and advertising are just not going to work.

Why? Because people’s needs have shifted drastically, and people are used to personalized marketing. A look at actual search trends over the last few months, compared to previous years, shows that interests across the board have shifted. So even if you’re hitting up the right audience, you may not have a clear understanding of what they actually need right now.

So what can you do to market effectively with an audience that is harder to connect with now?

Draw inspiration from an unexpected source: nonprofits.

nonprofit marketing tactics intro image

I want to look at three staple nonprofit marketing channels that any business can adopt:

  1. Nonprofit storytelling methods
  2. Nonprofit email marketing
  3. Nonprofit social media marketing

But first, let’s talk more about what defines nonprofit marketing.

What makes nonprofit marketing so special?

Nonprofits marketing takes place with limited resources, small teams of individuals performing multiple roles, and lots of competition (every other nonprofit that needs donations).

In that way, nonprofits are very much like start-ups or small businesses. These organizations need to do a lot with very little.

COVID-19 ad example


On top of that, what they “sell” is immaterial: a social good. You can’t hold it, you can’t use it, and as a donor, there is usually no direct benefit to you.

So what makes nonprofits so effective at marketing? Their ability to connect on an emotional level. It’s arguably easier for nonprofits to connect with their audiences emotionally since these organizations serve a social good.

Still, every business has the ability to connect on a deeper level with their audiences, too. If that’s something your brand has struggled with before, now is definitely the time to take some notes!

Nonprofit storytelling

Storytelling is an effective way to communicate information. Data and statistics by themselves don’t evoke a lasting emotional response the way stories do. And winning people over emotionally is what makes them care about a cause. Or in the case of a business, its product or service.

Every product has a story behind it. A person who faced a problem, then discovered the product that was the perfect solution, and went on to experience oodles of success. Now, how do you tell a good story? Through visuals! I want to show you two very different examples. First, the World Bicycle Relief and its video on helping dairy farmers. Take a look.

Let’s break down the narrative to understand how World Bicycle Relief gets its message across.

A breakdown of the narrative

First, we are introduced to people who have a job to do. They face a challenge that they cannot overcome on their own. Then with the right tool—a bicycle—they succeed. With access to this bicycle, more things begin to fall in place. People can grow their cooperative, increase productivity and improve more lives. The initial benefit of the bicycle is compounded.

Why it works

Seeing real people describe this journey and their experiences moves us emotionally. We experience the feelings they do as they describe the impact a bike had on their lives. That sense of transformation and hope is something we enjoy as well, which is why the video sticks.

So how many bikes did World Bicycle Relief give out? In 2018 alone, World Bicycle Relief fund distributed 54,896 bikes around the world by raising over $15M! Not too shabby …

Videos are not the only storytelling medium out there. In some cases, they may be a little costly to produce or you just don’t have the team capable of doing it. Not a problem!

Nonprofit infographics are great examples of how data visualization can be used to narrate a story, too.

Just take a look at this infographic from The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN):

nonprofit infographic example


Personally, I love this infographic. The illustrated icons are great, the colors are warm and vibrant, the color palette itself is funky and creative. It’s a pleasure just to look at! It’s also easy to read and take in.

But it’s not just a gorgeous infographic, it’s packed with data and a clear narrative.

A breakdown of the narrative

First, you’re introduced to the amount of harm human activity is causing to oceans. The figures are just staggering. You’re sufficiently shocked and concerned.

Then, you’re presented with the value of oceans, their importance to our survival, our economy, and our way of life. These are things you may not have known before (I certainly didn’t). The ways oceans sustain us is tremendous and made undeniably relevant to anyone reading the infographic.

Then, a ray of light: The solution is presented to us. A major problem can be tackled through minor changes in habits. There is no call for donations or volunteers—just some new habits.

Why it works

The infographic takes on a problem so vast we can barely wrap our minds around it. But it frames the solution in a way that’s so simple, we can get behind it. That’s it!

How does this all relate to for-profit marketing?

Alright, so how does any of this carry over into marketing a product and generating revenue?

In the context of a business, storytelling needs to zero in on a problem pertinent to your target audience. There are problems that a majority of small-business executives face, that differ from the problems that start-up marketers face, or B2B sales executives face.

Storytelling in marketing is a three-step process:

  1. Identify the issues your target audiences deal with.
  2. Position your product as that solution.
  3. Illustrate life after discovering your product.

That’s the narrative you want to construct.

Being able to capture the experience of your target market lets you establish an emotional connection. You show that you really understand the problem your potential customer faces, and you have created a solution specifically for them.

Demonstrating that level of understanding of your audience does the two things I mentioned earlier. It acknowledges the shift in priorities that your target audience is facing now, and it continues to be personalized and relevant to just them.

2. Nonprofit email marketing

Many businesses can get complacent with their email marketing. It’s natural. There are a lot of channels that can be optimized to increase sales and revenue, but only enough resources to focus on a few. Marketing teams are often small and setting up effective email funnels or improving existing ones is difficult.

But the reward for your efforts is certainly there.

Oberlo’s email marketing stats post shares some insightful data on the topic. The global average email open rate is around 20%, which doesn’t seem too bad. However, optimized emails can get close to 50% open rates!

Open rates aren’t enough to make your business swim—you need to engage your customers and get them to take actions. Personally, I like the approach taken by St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a nonprofit that funds pediatric cancer research.

What they do really well is prime me to expect more emails from them (genius!). Their emails typically mention that I can expect another email sharing more information.

Here’s an example of the first email I got from them.

nonprofit email marketing example

Simple but effective, and here’s why.

First, it’s considerate and human. This email is like a friendly neighbor saying hello as you’re moving into a new place. There’s nothing marketing-focused or sales-y about it.

The second thing it does? It primes me to expect more emails about their organization and the work they do.

That’s important.

Priming in marketing is key. It prepares your audience to see more content from you. You’ve planted a seed. They’re expecting something, they’re curious, and so they’re more likely to be receptive to what you share.

As an organization, this gives you the freedom to break up your emails, rather than being overly general or trying to address too many specific things all at once. Instead, you have the freedom to build out a specific campaign the way you want, and your audience is okay with it.

This is an approach carried throughout St. Baldrick’s emails. The subject lines tell you what to expect (while keeping things casual).

subject line example

That one sentence gives St. Baldrick’s the flexibility to educate me in small, bite-sized, digestible emails without overwhelming me. They prime me to see more emails in my inbox and generate anticipation by not telling me everything all at once.

The email copy also primes and nudges me in small, but important ways.

nonprofit email marketing copy

Something small, like letting me know they’re breaking up their emails “over the next few days” is also thoughtful. They don’t want to overwhelm me with information. They also don’t want to ask me for anything without educating me about their organization, the work they do, and the value of that work, first.

Basically, they want to win me over and in a way that’s not aggressive. Most importantly,everything about this email feels personable, human and genuine.

As a business, you can also craft email copy that helps you establish a human connection. Constantly selling is never a good idea. Being patient, sharing information, and providing value are what really matter.

Testing is an email marketing best practice and should be ongoing. With a number of different email marketing tools like Moosend or Mailshake, you can track open rates, click-through rates, conversion rates and compare the way campaigns perform.

On that note, I want to revisit an old marketing approach popularized by the ever-awesome Gary Vaynerchuk.

Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook

As a business, you can make the mistake of constantly selling through email marketing. But with a thoughtfully constructed funnel, you’re also in a position to give.

This is an approach Gary Vaynerchuk outlines in his popular and still highly relevant book, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. It’s forever-relevant as a marketing approach.

jab, jab, jab, right hook image

By giving things for free repeatedly, you accomplish the following:

  1. Demonstrate clear value to your business and product.
  2. Establish trust and credibility.
  3. Amplify the value of paid products or services.

Oh, and increase the chance of conversions! Can’t forget that.

As people get used to your content, your insights, your products or services, you ingratiate your business into people’s lives. They start using your stuff, they rely on your emails, they discover how helpful you are, and they get used to your content.

That’s when people will pay for more.

With a considerate, human approach to copywriting, paired with a habit of giving, your email marketing game will take off!

3. Nonprofit social media marketing

Social media for businesses is a great way to craft a brand voice and brand identity. It’s a space where you can highlight the real people powering your brand, encourage conversations, and share insights.It’s a space to share achievements, show off a little bit, and demonstrate your value.

Plenty of nonprofits rock at social media marketing, while keeping things simple. Let’s go through a few great examples.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Here’s a post from the ACLU’s Instagram account.

ACLU Instagram post

There’s so much to love in this post.

In honor of Pride, the ACLU chose to highlight their LGBTQ staff members. With just a simple post, we learn so much about one of the folks working at the ACLU. Gerardo Romo is far more relatable to us, than the ACLU is as an organization.

The post also encourages people to ask him questions. It’s a great way to drive engagement.

This gives people the opportunity to learn about Gerardo, ask him life questions, tough questions, technical questions, silly questions, everything. In this instance, Gerardo represents the ACLU brand, its culture, its values and its mission in all of his responses.

In the same way, your team members can humanize your brand and make it relatable. It’s also a way to position your team members as thought leaders in the space you own. Even if you’ve ran AMA sessions on Twitter or other platforms, consider chatting about topics that don’t tie directly into your business.

Girls Inc.

Take a look at this post.

Girls Inc. Instagram post

This post from Girls Inc. is simple, mission-focused, and authentic. Delaney shares her personal experience coping with this pandemic and social distancing. She highlights Girls Inc. as an invaluable support system throughout this time.

What’s important about this post?It validates the organization’s commitment to its mission.

For a lot of businesses, the mission statement is just that—a statement, and oftentimes a vague one. But your mission statement is an objective that goes beyond revenue and sales, it is an ideal that propels a company forward, defines its culture, the people behind it and more.

Highlighting how your brand upholds its commitment to its mission can win over new customers, especially if existing customers can speak to that for you.


At some point, you have to go in with the right hook! But there are smart ways to do it. Water4Mercy’s post is simple.

Water4Mercy Instagram post

It compares our level of privilege and entitlement on this side of the world, with the hardships of those in developing nations to elicit empathy.

And then it encourages you to donate.

Why compare those two types of experiences first?Well, we can relate to our own experiences more than we can with the experiences of others.And so what the post effectively communicates is the freedom you had at seven years old, these girls don’t. You can change that. Framing the ask with that kind of comparison helps people empathize.

In the same way, when you understand what your target audience experiences on a regular basis, you can use that to create comparisons. What they deal with right now, versus what they experience with your product or service.

Sharing statistics, data, trends, or just experiences that are unique to your target audience will get their attention. Framing the solution that your product or service provides in the context of their frustrating experiences has a greater impact.

Take these cues from nonprofit marketers

If there’s one thing to take away from these nonprofit marketing approaches, is that extra step many nonprofits take to really get a point across. Sometimes it’s through a compelling narrative that draws you in, at times it’s very genuine and personable copywriting, and other times it’s different ways to highlight the brand and its values (not just the work it does).

These are just a handful of nonprofit marketing examples that stood out to me, and I encourage you to start following nonprofit organizations on social media or subscribing to their email lists. If you already have, then start taking a closer look at how they position themselves and their marketing copy.

Remember, most nonprofits aren’t doing anything costly or complex. They don’t have the resources for that. They’re also not doing anything way out there, just typical content marketing approaches with a dash of ingenuity and authenticity.

About the author

Jeilan Devanesan is a content marketer at Venngage, the online graphic-design tool. He writes on nonprofit marketing, content marketing and visual communication. He has written for CMI, Clutch, Classy, Nonprofit Hub and other publications. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.