For our December Signature Speaker Series panel discussion, AMA Madison brought in several experts from the local nonprofit community to share their marketing insights and challenges. While primarily mission-based, nonprofit organizations still need to employ strong marketing strategies—especially in Dane County, which boasts more than 5,000 nonprofits competing for our attention and donations. These marketing pros offered ideas to help build and promote brands, many of which apply whether you’re in the nonprofit or for-profit world.


Our panel included:


The Emotional Hook

As you know, storytelling is huge these days, and nonprofits have a lot of important stories to tell. According to our experts, the key to effective storytelling is making an emotional connection. By sharing stories that personally resonate with their audiences, nonprofits engage interest and spur donations. Our panel shared a few examples of stories they tell to help make their missions personal.

  • Easter Seals Wisconsin: One of their main programs focuses on farmers with disabilities, so sharing the story of a local farmer able to stay on his farm because of assistance from Easter Seals is a great way to help people personally connect to their mission and its impact.
  • United Way of Dane County: A key focus for United Way is increasing economic stability. Jocelyn shared the statistic that 1 in 6 Dane County children lives in poverty. By pointing out the flip side of the statistic—that 5 out of 6 kids in Dane County attend school with children living in poverty—she makes it personal for local residents who may feel they’re not directly affected.
  • Red Cross: Justin told us about sharing the stories of Sun Prairie residents staying in Red Cross shelters after being displaced by the downtown explosion, and how that brought home the mission of the American Red Cross and its impact in the local community.

In the same way that testimonials are an effective way to build trust in a for-profit brand, personal stories from nonprofits show donors and volunteers the difference an organization is making in the community. But, don’t forget to ask permission first before sharing a personal story!

These personal stories can tie in with a video marketing strategy as well. Once recorded, video stories can be used in multiple platforms—both online and at events—to grab people’s attention for a few minutes and give them access to people and situations they may not normally see.

Building Long-Term Relationships

In for-profit businesses, acquiring new customers is far more difficult and expensive than retaining existing ones. The same holds true for nonprofits and their supporters, so marketing efforts need to keep current volunteers and donors engaged—not just once a year (say, for Giving Tuesday), but all year-round. A lot of this engagement is driven through events, social media, and emails.


With the crowded nonprofit scene in Dane County, potential donors can be overwhelmed by fundraisers. It is therefore vital to define a purpose for any event you have, according to Jocelyn Harmon. Why are you holding this event? Do you have a defined target and messaging? Is there a way to include a corporate partner? All of these questions can (and should) be asked of events held in the for-profit sector as well.

Justin Kern suggests asking corporate partners for specific event suggestions and contributions. Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee hosted and sponsored an American Red Cross event focused on distribution and installation of smoke alarms because it was a cause that was important to that company.

Once defined and scheduled, events offer a great opportunity to engage donors by introducing them directly to the people they’re helping. Stacey Murnighan talked about the annual Easter Seals Wisconsin celebrity golf outing in the Wisconsin Dells that allows attendees to visit nearby Camp Wawbeek and meet the campers who benefit from their donations.


Reaching out to potential donors online and via their inboxes are other important ways to stay in front of them all year. A regular email newsletter (again, regular meaning more than once a year) is an effective tool to share recent updates, stories, and videos. And social media is great for communicating news as it happens, and engaging people with events. Tagging sponsors, volunteers, and event attendees encourages them to share posts, which helps build online reach.

“Profitable” Food for Thought

Although the missions of nonprofit and for-profit organizations differ, their marketing strategies are arguably similar: Both strive to make their brands resonate with their audiences. Our panel of nonprofit marketing experts offered some great insights into how we can all learn from and adapt branding lessons from the nonprofit world.

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