Foregoing the fundraising: How can charities harness the power of marketing to increase their unrestricted revenue?

As funding is squeezed ever tighter and charitable giving is under increasing pressure, Marketing Consultant, Ned Wells, examines how and why trading charities should build a solid marketing strategy to increase their revenue and unleash their potential to do good. This article first appeared on Charity Intelligence

It’s not a great time to be a charity.

There it is. Not an easy thing to hear, but it’s probably not news to you either.

The truth is that charities are living through an unprecedented fundraising crisis. More and more charities (roughly 600 year-on-year) are competing for a finite – and often diminishing – pool of funding. Add into the mix the financial pressure on public generosity as a result of the cost of living crisis and what’s left is a seismic shift in the way in which not-for-profits are to secure their revenue. The very revenue they need to keep them doing the good work they set out to do in the first place.

But thankfully, the story doesn’t end there.

The good news is that charities like yours have already come to terms with income diversity as a necessity, not an option. You’re offering a service your customers love, and you’ve proven it’s commercially viable.

The problem is that your sales are unpredictable, even though you’ve ramped up your social media output and you’ve launched your new website.

If this sounds like you, then you’re probably wondering where to turn. How do you transform your rather lumpy sales pipeline into a steady stream of revenue?

As a marketing old-hat, I’ve been around the block a bit, helping a fair number of charities to navigate an unfamiliar commercial landscape. And as it turns out, I’ve learned a few valuable insights along the way.

So let’s get started. Let’s look at how to unleash your charity from the shackles of endless funding rounds, consolidate your marketing plan and find the unrestricted revenue you need.

First thing first: Your marketing strategy

If you’ve found yourself with a service your customers are willing to pay for (but aren’t), and you’re doing lots of marketing work (but it’s not driving results), it’s probably because you don’t have a strategy in place.

In fact, nothing good happens without a solid strategy. It may take a lot of work up front, sure. But the hard yards are worth every effort in the longer term. To make it more manageable, I like to slice it into four distinct phases.

Phase 1: Evaluating your current situation

It’s only after a hard look at your organisation, warts and all, that you can even begin to uncover the path to successful income diversity.

The first step is a discovery session. That means drilling down into the detail of your charity. How long you’ve been operating, the impact you’ve made, the beneficiaries you serve, your staff team, volunteers and partner organisations.

Then we’ll look at the services and specialisms your charity provides, drilling down again into the detail of your digital presence, charging model, challenges and opportunities therein.

Phase 2: Pinning down your objectives

The second phase of the strategy focuses on marketing objectives. It’s an obvious one, granted, but one that’s also missed by organisations keen to rush down a path before identifying where it is they’re going.

I like to look at a 5-year vision, encouraging you to paint a picture of your ideal future, imagining you’re meeting yourself in 5 years. What do you want your marketing to have achieved for you by then? What does it look like?

Finally, we’ll SMARTen up those objectives, making them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound for a 12-month, 1-year, and 5-year time period.

Phase 3: Understanding your target market

I love this part. This is where you really get to know who it is you’re selling to, and you get to have fun while you’re doing it.

When I run my ‘buyer persona’ workshops, I like to encourage charities to conjure up a 3D vision of their ideal customer, what makes them tick, and what are their “pain points” that their charity can solve.

Why do we do this? By truly knowing your customer, you can make sure that all your marketing activities – your channels, communications, and customer touchpoints, are all speaking to their needs and concerns, at the right time, and in the right way

Phase 4: Implementation (getting stuff done)

This is where the fun begins.

Now that you’re crystal clear about your organisation’s background and vision, your target audience and how your service can help them, you can now start developing your tactics, set up your metrics, and plan your budgets and timeframes.

At this stage, I normally recommend a marketing approach where you develop content (which could take the form of words, images, webinars, podcasts, who knows?) that:

  • Demonstrates that you can solve your target customer’s “pain points”
  • Positions you as the desirable expert to transform your customer’s experience from “pain” to resolution
  • Keeps you top of mind until your customer is ready to take action

Next comes the building of your toolkit – everything you need to make your marketing happen: from your content calendar, social platforms, and email marketing software, to your human resources (who’s responsible for what), there will be some things to put in place before you get started.

This is also the time to set up the metrics to measure your success. If it’s income you want to measure, then how many sales do you need, at what value and in what timeframe?

You can also identify the risks and challenges you might come across. How will you avoid those obstacles, or minimise their impact?

Finally, you can get down to the nitty-gritty of planning out how your campaign will work. You’ll look at:

Gaining buy-in: who you need on-side for the campaign to succeed

  • Planning what content needs to go where: do you need a new website or update your existing one?
  • Identifying your promotional channels and the content you’ll use to reach your target audience
  • Project management: who’s in charge and how will progress be reported?

And at that, your marketing strategy is complete. Keep your strategy safe, shareable and open to review as and when needed.

Running a successful campaign

In my experience with charities that trade, running a successful marketing campaign requires a three-phased approach once your strategy is firmly in place:

1. The set-up: Building your tool-kit, achieving buy-in, planning budgets and tactics.

2. Pilot and testing: running an affordable, targeted, campaign to allow you to develop your model, test it, identify mistakes, and rectify them.

3. Rolling out the plan: once you and your team are happy with the campaign, you can start to roll it out to your broader audience.

Which leads me to an example of how this works in practice.

When it works, it really works

I believe in income diversity for charities. It’s smart, savvy and sustainable. It future-proofs you from the inevitable uncertainties in market forces and public spending habits that are way out of your control.

And I’ve seen it succeed many times over.

My recent client, Groundwork, is a case in point.

A federation of trusts, Groundwork operates across the UK to mobilise community action on poverty and the environment.

When they came to me, they asked me to devise a national marketing strategy for Green Doctor, their service that provides energy-saving advice and practical support for Housing Associations and Local Authorities up and down the country. And although Groundwork’s Green Doctor service was well-established in some areas, its national footprint was still rather patchy.

Thus began my three-phased approach: developing a strategy, setting up the toolkit, and running a pilot.

My toolkit in this case meant building a national micro-site under Groundwork’s main website, along with the systems to grow and nurture the Green Doctor email database.

This phase was swiftly followed by the development and delivery of a 9-month content marketing pilot which revolved around free lunchtime webinars delivered by Green Doctor experts and promoted by email.

The results speak for themselves. The pilot project enabled Green Doctor to grow its contact database and delivered a steady stream of new business enquiries, 25 of which have been high-quality leads over the 9-month period.

In summary

You already know that income diversity is an imperative for your charity, and you’ve already proven that you offer a service that customers will buy. A great start.

But to elevate your commercial revenue from being “just about enough” to a roaring success requires strategic marketing planning upfront as well as the expert guidance of tasks and tactics on an ongoing basis.

With a sound marketing strategy in place, I’ve seen trading charities flourish. And there’s nothing more exciting than to see a charity unleash its potential and establish the self-sufficiency to allow them to do the good work they set out to do in the first place.

This September, I’m running a series of five free webinars on how to develop your marketing strategy. Check out the link below for more information and to register your place on the series.

Learn how to build your marketing strategy and plan