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Marketing Strategy: Planning for Membership Organizations and Non-Profits

Today, I’m going to give a brief “how-to”/education on building a strategic communication and marketing plan for a membership organization and nonprofits.

Since I can’t possibly cover every single scenario in a single post, I’m going to address the parts of the plan that are typically the most important for membership organizations and non-profits.

But first, a very brief primer on strategy…or jump to the cheatsheet.

Let’s Talk About Strategy

Strategy is one of the three meta-components of business along with culture and execution.

Culture is everything that involves your people from leadership to communication styles to compensation packages. Culture contains every answer to the question: what’s it like to work here?

Execution are the day-to-day operations of a business from sending invoices to managing projects to designing logos. Execution contains every answer to the question: what do we do here?

Strategy is the map taking the business from where it is today, to where it wants to go in the future. It must consider the culture and the organization’s ability to execute. It is a plan, subject to the specific and unique conditions of the organization.

It’s important for you to understand the intersection between these three areas because Strategy without Cultural support and Execution, is functionally worthless.

Building Strategy

Strategy, at a minimum, must consider the following 4 factors:

  • Goals
  • Timelines
  • Resources
  • People

In short, you have to know where you’re going (goals), how long you have to get there (timeline), what assets you have to assist you including capital and labor (resources), and the individuals and groups that must be considered including shareholders, board members, employees, customers, and more (people).

Once you have all of that, you can begin to devise a plan incorporating those elements.

Marketing Strategy for Membership Organizations and Non-Profits

For the sake of this post, I’m going to take what I know about these two types of organizations and show you how to build a strategy to get what you want.

Let’s start with goals…

Goals for Non-Profits

Non-profits, like every organization, can only continue to operate if there’s money in the bank. What separates a non-profit from a for-profit entity is where those funds come from. Non-Profits generally rely on donations of varying types (foundations, board giving, individual donors, etc). Therefore, I would assign increasing donations as the primary goal of every non-profit as it is the critical activity that ensure the continued existence of the organization.

Some non-profits, such as Council For Relationships in Philadelphia, also generate funds from providing services to reduce their reliance on fundraising alone. In cases like that, I would assign increasing sales–of whatever the organization sells–as a primary goal.

Disclosure: I’m a board member for Council for Relationships, and I hope you’ll join me in making mental health services more widely available to anyone who needs it regardless of their ability to pay.

Beyond income from donors or selling services, some non-profits may also heavily rely on volunteers. As a result, I would assign attracting new volunteers as the secondary goal of the non-profit.

Everything else, whether it be increasing awareness about the cause, increasing your following, or generating more social media engagement are all, ultimately, in service of one of these two goals.

Goals for Membership Organizations

Membership organizations may be for-profit or non-profit, but all operate by collecting membership or subscription fees in exchange for something of value. This can include facilitating connections with other professionals in the same industry, access to educational resources, or participation and solidarity in a shared purpose or cause.

Membership organizations have two primary goals:

  1. attract new members
  2. retain existing members

The entire organization is reliant upon the success of these two endeavors. Everything else must in some way support one of these two objectives.

Timelines, Resources, and People

Now that we’ve established the goals for non-profits (1. attracting donors, and 2. Attracting volunteers), and goals for membership organizations (1. attracting, and 2. retaining members) we need to look at the other factors before we can start piecing together a plan.

1. Be specific about the goals

Before we move on from the goals, we should go deeper. You need to be extremely clear about the goal simply so you can determine if/when you’ve reached it. So, set specific amounts.

  • If it’s about donations, how much money are you trying to raise?
  • If it’s about volunteers, how many volunteers do you need? Dig into the details.
  • Do the donors need to be whales or are you looking for broader support at smaller amounts?
  • Do the volunteers need to be CPR trained?
  • Do they need to be able to carry furniture up a flight of stairs?
  • How many new memberships do you need?
  • How much do you aim to decrease member turnover?

Frame your goals with the necessary details.

Be specific. The answer to these questions will change how you think about your strategy.

2. Timeline

How long do you have to accomplish this goal?

  • Do you need to raise $1m by the end of next month or do you need to raise an additional $10,000 by the end of the year?
  • Do you need to find 200 volunteers by 5pm tonight or do you need to find 5 volunteers to work 4 weekends per year by July?
  • Do you need 10 new members per month or do you need 100,000 new members by the end of the year?

Be specific. The answer to these questions will change how you think about your strategy.

3. Resources

If you’re trying to handle all of your marketing for little to no cost, it’s a much different strategy than if you have significant budget available. Likewise, having an in-house video team, two copywriters, and a social media manager gives you a lot more options than being a one-person marketing department.

  • What kind of budget do you have available?
  • Who do you have on your team that can be useful in this endeavor?

Be specific. The answer to these questions will change how you think about your strategy.

4. People

Finally, but just as importantly, you need to consider the audience you’re trying to reach, the employees you need to engage, and the stakeholders who need to be consulted. Strategy is a tight rope act where competing interests sometimes need to be managed.

  • Who am I marketing to?
  • Who is handling this internally?
  • Do we have any conflicts of interest to think about?
  • Are there any people or groups that I need to consult with before launching?

Be specific. The answer to these questions will change how you think about your strategy.

Tie It Together

top view of motorcycle with lots of packages on top

Once you have all of these questions answered, certain options will open and others will close. Your resources, particularly budget will open or close many of your options. Consider the budgetary requirements of a Superbowl television commercial versus posting a tweet, versus running a Google Adwords campaign.

Likewise, your timeline will determine whether or not you can do certain things based on the time of year, how long a particular idea may take to execute, and how predictably you’d be able to reach your target audience.

The audience you’re trying to reach will also help to guide where you should allocate your time, energy and budget, as a 55-75 year old woman in the midwest is likely going to have very different media usage and consumption habits than a 19-year old male living in a major east coast city.

Bringing all of this information together and then determining what to do is the essence of strategy…and unfortunately, I can’t do that part for you in this post. You’ll have to do that part on your own. However, I will give you a few starting points.


person writing bucket list on book

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that for every one person that wants to learn how something is done, there are five to ten that just want to be told exactly what to do. So, for those who just want me to jump to the answers, here’s some strategies and tactics you can use immediately in a non-profit or membership organization.

The following strategies are a few of the ones that I most frequently recommend to non-profits and membership organizations based on the primary goals of these two types of organizations. These are strategies that can be executed at a variety of different budgets and with limited resources.

Strategy #1 (for Non-Profits): Like Moths to a Flame

There are two types of donors: those who want the recognition and those who do not.

Both can be motivated to give with this strategy.

The strategy is to spotlight and amplify existing donors in order to attract more donations. By showcasing donors and presenting them as helpful, good samaritans, we acknowledge them and offer public recognition and praise. This leads to existing donors feeling closer to the organizations they are involved with. It also signals to potential donors, that their contribution has the additional benefit of social proof. For the anonymous donor, they can continue to remain anonymous, feeling even more proud of their anonymous good deed in the face of an organization that goes out of its way to provide public recognition.

Suggested Tactics

  • Record a video interview with the donor, Talk to them about their past, what they do for a living, why the organization is important to them.
  • Transcribe the video to create a blog post to go with the video.
  • Send the blog and video as an email newsletter, first to existing donors, then to the entire list.
  • Publish the blog and video on the non-profit website. Publish the video on Youtube, Facebook, etc.
  • Put a small budget behind the videos to amplify it with social media ads to an audience of potential donors.

Another option is to record a podcast where in each episode, you interview one of your donors. You can then use that podcast to create other assets to be shared on social media or in email marketing campaigns.

NOTE: At the end of any interview, be sure to ask them if any of their friends are passionate about this cause.

Strategy #2 (for Non-Profits): More Moths

You can use Strategy #1 (for Non-Profits) to get more volunteers as well.

Strategy #3 (for Membership Orgs): Funnel, Drip, Repeat

Use this strategy to bring in leads, nurture the leads, and convert the leads.

If you’re not familiar with funnels yet, here’s an introductory post I wrote.

The strategy is this: use valuable information to entice prospects to share their contact information, then build a relationship with them by continuing to increase your value to them until the time is right to make a sales offer. This is the standard lead generation path for a reason.

Suggested Tactics

  • Create a landing page
  • Create a lead magnet (cheatsheet, checklist, webinar, etc)
  • Write a 3-5 email sequence to be sent to those who download the lead magnet. Ensure there are calls to action and ways that people can sign up for a membership.
  • Drive leads to your landing page using social media ads, email marketing, and anything else that works.
  • Personally, and manually, initiate contact with those who appear interested by opening and clicking on emails.

Strategy #4 (for Membership Orgs): Member Moths

You can use Strategy #1 (for Non-Profits) to retain your existing members.

Strategy #5 (for both): Good Stories and Stories for Good

We’re all drawn in by a good story. Talking to people about what your non profit does, or why your membership organization is valuable, are only as good as your ability to get your target to see themselves in the story. You need them to see themselves as the hero in that story.

Your strategy as a non-profit is to help your audience see themselves as a protagonist in the organization’s mission. Show them the value of the work and the impact that involvement in your organization provides. Then, metaphorically, let them know that starring roles are open and auditions are going on now.

As a membership organization, show how other members have achieved the exact same goal that your target has. Show that they came from the same starting point. Tell the story of dreams within reach.

In either case, the strategy is simple: invite people into your story and give them the starring role.

Suggested Tactics

  • Write a kick ass video script.
  • Record the video.
  • Create a landing page with a call-to-action (donate, get involved, etc).
  • Amplify and promote the video using social ads and in emails as a tool to drive traffic and conversions to the landing page.

Strategies and tactics to avoid

After more than a decade in social media, I have a finely tuned Spidey-Sense that goes nuts when someone tells me that they want to increase their social media following, generate awareness, or increase engagement.

Your goal, as ANY sort of organization, cannot be to waste time in conversations that go nowhere, or trying to crack an algorithmic code so that you can entertain people who are just trying to pass the time. Engagement and awareness are not business goals. A big following is highly unlikely to help you cover your lease or payroll. At best, these are all leading indicators. At worst, they are a complete waste of time.

Non-Profits do not have time to waste trying to grow their following or generate conversations. Membership organizations do not grow when they focus on awareness. Awareness must continue down the funnel to drive revenue.

Next Steps…

There are so many more strategies to grow your donor base, or find new volunteers. Membership organizations have ample opportunities to reduce churn or drive new sign-ups. There’s no way to cover it all here, but the tools that have been provided in this post will help. And if you need more help, click the schedule a call button at the top of this page.

Now, go forth and build your strategy.

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