Nonprofits are continually discovering the importance of marketing and communications as it relates to their success. A Guardian article from 2014 looking at marcom 10 years into the future highlights, “The most successful charities already understand that communications is anything but peripheral… More and more charities will come to understand that when communications is made central to what an organization is and does, they – and their mission – thrive.”

The Guardian piece does identify a challenge. With marketing and communications still a “relatively new function in the charity mix”, it can still be seen as a nice to have megaphone at the end of a process instead of a strategic partner and driver.

Before going further, we need to understand what marketing is before we can evolve its role in a nonprofit. For many, marketing is often thought of advertising, selling or communications. However, these public-facing elements are the tools and the means used to reach a goal set forth by a marketing strategist. In his book, Marketing: A Roadmap to Success, Dr. Ajay Sirisi defines marketing as, “a disciplined process used by organizations to solve business problems.” In the context of a nonprofit, “business problems” can be how a nonprofit differentiates itself from other organizations, how it can increase funding from donors, how it builds strategic partnerships with other organizations and how to motivate volunteers, 

In 2015, I attended a session part of the marketing communications leadership program through the Schulich School of Business that was led byrofessor Dr. Ajay Sirsi. He led us through a discussion about the role of marketing in our organizations that resonated with all participants.

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The roles of Marketing 

Dr. Sirsi highlighted three specific roles that marketing can play:

  1. It is seen as a support function to sales or, in the case of the nonprofit sector, fundraising. The disseminators of information. This is marketing at its most basic level.
  2. It is seen as a function that acts as an internal consultant providing advice. The organization is free to accept or reject.
  3. It has a ‘seat at the table’ and is responsible for creating or co-creating various initiatives. Integrated at the strategic level of the organization. This is the ideal to achieve.

In a follow up conversation with Dr. Ajay Sirsi, I asked if the roles were fine in of themselves, depending on type or size of organization, or if each role was to be seen as step to the next. “Regardless of the size of an organization, it’s important to move as an evolution from one to two to ultimately level three.” Sirsi additionally offers, “If you don’t, you are not harnessing the power of this competence, this powerful discipline called marketing. You’re just not going to be as successful as you could be. That’s why it has to be an evolution.”

Why is clarity about the role of marketing important?

Since marketing can be viewed differently by other functions within the organization, marketing might play any one of the above roles – or even a mix. Ajay Sirsi notes, “It is critical that you internally define what the role of marketing is at an organization. If you don’t, it causes problems with one group thinking you should be more strategic and other groups thinking that you’re more of a support function.”

 Why evolve the role of marketing?

The environment in which nonprofits operate is changing, like it is for any sector. There is increased competition with other causes and there are more players in the “social good” space such as social enterprises and corporations with their own social purpose initiatives. Organizations that can take advantage of the competencies within the marketing skill set are better situated to succeed in this ever-changing environment.

How to evolve the role of marketing  at your organization

Now that we’ve identified the roles, the need for clarity and why to evolve… how does one go about this evolution? Dr. Sirsi offers the following advice, “To begin, you need to understand how the marketing function is viewed in an organization. To do that, always start with measuring!”

  1. Ask colleagues what value do we add? In marketing speak, this is your brand image.
  2. Go back to the table with your marketing team and ask:
    • How do we want to be viewed?
    • What do you think we can aspire to realistically given our talent pool and their traits? Given the resources we have?
    • Do we stay at level one? Can we get to level two? Can we get to level three eventually?

“It needs to be a very honest look in the mirror. You need to be aspirational but also grounded in reality,” says Sirsi. “If you are at level one it’s going to be very difficult to get to level three. Therefore, two is much more realistic.”

  1. Ask what are some basic issues this organization is grappling with? Is it that our image in the market place is not as good as it could be? Our donor base is declining? We have a hard time attracting volunteers? And, so on.
  2. Then, take on these particular projects and demonstrate to the organization how marketing can add value. That is key to the evolution.

It’s about earning the right to sit at the table. Demonstrating value and building upon each success to better educate other functions, colleagues and senior management. This is how to convey what the true potential could be if an organization elevated the role of marketing. Sirsi says, “This doesn’t happen overnight but it is possible with very careful planning.”

 What to keep in mind during the marketing evolution

The mindset of senior executives can help or hinder the evolution.. Sirsi reinforces, “If the CEO understands what marketing is they are going to help develop the capability. Otherwise, we are at a tactical and not strategic level.”

Resistance can be an indicator of lack of trust in the marketing function and misconceptions about the discipline including not knowing the difference between marketing functions (communications, advertising, public relations, etc.) and marketing competencies. “It’s important to educate everyone what marketing means. Otherwise, you are missing what this discipline can do for you, which is strategy,” highlights Sirsi.

Successful marketing role evolution is a win-win-win

As marketing evolves in your organization there will be a number of wins realized:

  • Organization wins: better results as successful organizations develop and implement strong marketing strategies.
  • Individual wins: The capacity of marketing professionals increase and the work becomes more interesting and Sirsi offers, “It’s more challenging and more fun. When things are clear, you can focus on what matters.”
  • Function wins: marketing  becomes a creator or co-creator of organization strategy and direction instead of a mere support function.

It can be a lot to contemplate as one begins to even approach a marketing role shift in an organization and it might seem daunting. It is worth it as the rewards are considerable for both nonprofits and marketing professionals. As you get ready to take on this challenge, keep in mind these final words of advice from Dr. Ajay Sirsi, “Start small, but start now!”

Editor’s note: This article was updated in December 2019 to clarify the difference between marketing and marketing communications (marcom) – and to reflect Ajay Sirsi’s more recent commentary on the subject.
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Marnie Grona
Marnie Grona is a marketing communications professional with a broad range of expertise in business-to-business and consumer-facing initiatives. She recently founded Social Good Marcom to help charities, nonprofits and other social good entities to shine a light on their cause. Her career has been in support of the broader charitable sector, having worked at Imagine Canada, and the business of the arts with her work for institutions such as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Marnie Grona