In my nonprofit communications and marketing coaching work with nonprofits large and small, I’m often asked this question: What should be in our nonprofit’s marketing strategy?
My response is always, “Do you have a meaningful and current strategic plan for the entire organization?” You can guess the most frequent answer: No, not really, it’s old, we plan to update it soon, etc.
So then the question becomes, “Can you create a marketing plan without a strategic plan?”
And like many answers in nonprofit marketing and communications, I say Yes and No.
Yes, You Can Create a Marketing Plan without a Strategic Plan
In the absence of an organizational strategic plan with clear goals and objectives, I encourage nonprofit communications directors to focus first on the current mission/programmatic work of the organization and to see where marketing support is most needed to reach those goals.
This often results in a series of campaign-level plans that essentially become the marketing plan with some additions, depending on the organization, such as
- Creative support for the fundraising/development team
- General brand, reputation, and style management, including website management and maintaining and implementing brand/style consistency across the organization
- List building across the primary communications channels (e.g. email sign-ups, social media followers, website search engine optimization)
- Internal communications (in some cases — I am generally very wary of making this more than 5-10% of a communications director job, if at all).
This scenario, with tweaks here and there based on the communications team structure, is what I believe happens at the majority of nonprofits. However, when a communications director pushes hard for the answers needed to be truly strategic, they often come against the need for a real organizational strategic plan, leading to the No.
No, You Cannot Create a Marketing Plan without a Strategic Plan
Strategy is about making the hard choices and saying Yes to some things — and focusing on those — and saying No to everything else. That’s admittedly hard to do in the nonprofit sector where funding and staffing levels and personalities often determine the actual work of the organization rather than what would be truly strategic.
But ultimately, to create a genuine marketing strategy that discusses target audiences or communities, messaging strategy and delivery, and — most importantly — which programs, priorities and/or objectives should get the most attention from communications staff, you need a strategic plan.
We often “fly the plane while building it” in the nonprofit sector, and the same goes in this case too. You can simultaneously create a marketing plan and a strategic plan and have those dual conversations feed off of each other, producing a better outcome.
But you have to start somewhere. If you have to create your marketing strategy in the absence of an organizational strategic plan, you can do it.