The #1 Skill Nonprofit Professionals Should Focus on in 2021

2021's most crucial skill for nonprofits: marketing. Learn why it's essential for success. #nonprofitmarketing

April 19, 2021

After the drama and trauma of 2020, those nonprofits that survived have a lot in front of them. Tight budgets are just the start. Some organizations are facing unprecedented demand as they deal with the lingering effects of the recession while attempting a return to normalcy. Others are looking at no demand at all, and with it, no revenue, because their mission involved gathering large groups of people in places like theaters, galleries, and museums.

So, you would think that the most pressing skill to build is in revenue generation, like fundraising, government grants, or fee-for-service programs. No doubt that’s high on the list, but something comes first—marketing.

Yes, the number one skill that nonprofit professionals need to focus on in 2021 is marketing. Let’s answer some frequently asked questions about nonprofit marketing and what you should know.

Why is nonprofit marketing so important?

This year more than ever, nonprofits will struggle to secure funding, and for many, even clients. Unless the right people know about, learn about, or feel good about your work, you won’t have the people to work with or the funding to serve them. When you do have this solid foundation of support, you ensure that your organization is a sustainable one.

Does this mean you need slick advertising campaigns, cool logos, and a catchy jingle? Perhaps, but probably not. (Although a jingle might be fun.)

In 2021 the single most cost-effective marketing skill a nonprofit can invest in is the development of “marketing eyes.”

What is considered nonprofit marketing?

“Marketing eyes” refers to your ability to see your nonprofit from an outsider’s point of view. How staff members answer the phone, whether the walls look bright, if your waiting room is inviting—these aren’t trivial. They’re key components of marketing, and they make a difference in the overall success of your organization.

Marketing is also how your staff and volunteers feel and talk about your nonprofit in their everyday lives. While it may not be important for a factory worker to see the purpose of a machine that connects two wires together, it’s essential that nonprofit workers at every level embrace their role in your mission.

Imagine you run a performing arts organization dedicated to saving theater programs in your local public school system. To build your brand, education on your discipline (theater), your mission (bringing theater to schools), your history (launched X years ago when theater classes were being cut from your city’s school budgets), and storytelling (giving your staff and volunteers the language to discuss your work), are all important marketing objectives to consider.

How does marketing impact your reputation?

Marketing serves another important purpose: it makes revenue generation easier. If anyone has ever told you that your reputation precedes you, it’s true. People and money are attracted to good reputations. Why? Let’s roll out another cliché: everyone loves a winner.

When a person or organization seems to be doing well, constituents are eager to get on the bandwagon. They count on their own reputation going along with yours. When you have a good name in your community or discipline, the risk of a client, funder, or volunteer associating themselves with you goes down. It’s the same reason that businesses are so protective of their brands. They know that if they put their name on a poorly made product, it reflects on their good name—and degrades their ability to make money.

Let’s take another example: you want to start an initiative to ask people of means to support your mission with charitable donations—in other words, launch a major gifts program.

The first skill to develop in seeking major gifts is prospect research. You need to find out who has the capacity to give at the amount you define as “major,” whether they have an interest in your mission, and if you can get access to them. In short, you need to define their CIA: capacity, interest, and access.

For any gift, whether that from direct mail or a foundation proposal, you need all three. In major gift work, it’s really the person’s interest that counts the most. Simply put: if they care, they’ll give.

Now that you identified someone who cares about your mission and has the capacity to help in a big way, you’ll want to connect with them. It may not be as hard as it sounds. If you did your marketing well, there’s a good chance that your major gift prospect already knows your name. Yes, your reputation preceded you!

The same goes for identifying foundations, companies, or government entities to fund you. They’ll judge you first by what they’ve heard about you and decide if you even merit their association. And this all comes from your reputation or your marketing.

Oh, and don’t fall into the trap of “if they don’t know us, all the better. We start with a clean slate.” While that may be slightly better than having a bad reputation, being unknown sends a message that you’re not good enough to care about—even if you’re the greatest nonprofit in your field! It subtly tells others that you don’t care enough to let the people who count in your community or discipline that you do a great job.

So yes, for 2021, whether you’re looking for clients to consume your offerings or donors to help fund them, effective marketing is the key.

A lot of your colleagues will look at you like you’re crazy. You’re not. You’re being practical at a time when practicality counts. Your mission is why your nonprofit exists. Marketing is what tells people that your mission is as important as you think and show them it is. So, put on those “marketing eyes” and get the training you need to succeed today!

About the Author

Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses, an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members and volunteers, with thousands of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.

He’s the author of The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting, and Philanders Family Values, Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff and Volunteers, and a contributing author to The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management.

Over his 30-year career, Hugg has held positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College, and the University of the Arts. In these positions, Matt raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and government entities, and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities.

Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy, and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College and Thomas Edison State University via the web, and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe, and is a popular conference speaker. He has a BS from Juniata College and an MA in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Mr. Hugg has served on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Nonprofit Career Network of Philadelphia and several nonprofits.


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