Tell me about nonprofit marketing
December 17, 2013 7:18 AM   Subscribe

Do any Mefites work in nonprofit marketing? Can you tell me a little about what it's like and how to get started in it?

In my last question I was chastised a bit for failing to take social media seriously. It makes me wonder what else I'm missing.

About me: I'm an older career-changer. I have an English degree and have interned for months at a time at small nonprofits, writing their newsletters. I still seem to be unable to snag an interview for what appear to be entry-level marketing jobs, however, and am wondering what I can do to make myself more appealing for these sorts of jobs.

Some of my general questions, which you can pick or choose from--I don't expect to have them all answered:

Is there any trick for breaking into this field? Do older workers or career changers have a difficult go of it?

Is it a good field to work in? Are the jobs relatively plentiful? As I'm unable to find work in my current field this is of particular concern for me.

Does it have much in common with marketing for businesses? I specifically want to focus on nonprofits because, in my limited experience, they seem to be more "my people," though perhaps that is bigoted of me. And there is the knowledge that my job would be helping others, which I like.

I have read that sometimes you can start out as a nonprofit admin assistant and work your way up, but I believe I would look overqualified for that sort of job, along with having no experience in admin assisting. So any way I could spin myself in that direction would also be helpful.

Any other suggestions for getting my foot in the door?
posted by silly me to Work & Money (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
(YMMV, since I work in NYC-based international nonprofits which are sort of unique:) It depends on what you want to do. I don't think anyone at either of my jobs has had the label "marketing"- it's been "development" and "communications." Development is recruiting people and organizations to donate to you, through writing grants, sending out year-end appeals and annual reports, sometimes holding events. At the mid and high levels it involves a lot of one-on-one communication with influential donors. There is also a lot of work for database experts in the development field. Communications is concerned with the image of the company- managing all media put out by the organization, branding, etc., in some cases creating videos and podcasts, and PR stuff like getting stories about the organization into newspapers. Smaller places will sometimes not have a comms department at all- my last workplace was unusually competent, communications-wise. Currently, I'm at a smaller place where I am in charge of both grant writing and communications, but hopefully at some point we will increase our capacity.

So, you need to think about where your skills lie. Is long-form, detail-oriented writing, like in a grant report, appealing to you? Is managing donor relationships? How about PR? Brand management? Copywriting? Web design? Database management?
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:40 AM on December 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

My wife works in nonprofit marketing (and I started in nonprofit marketing / PR, back in the day). While it's not 100% social these days, that is undeniably key. While she does do some OOH and some print (little broadcast), social and interactive are just where it's at. I think you need that front and center in your resume to be taken seriously, unless you're not really talking about a marketing role (i.e., communications or PR). Also, no one is going to take you seriously for a marketing gig unless you can show them marketing plans you've worked on.

Is it a good field to work in? Are the jobs relatively plentiful?
I wouldn't say overly plentiful, no. Marketing as a standalone position (rather than some communications/pr appendage) primarily exists at larger institutions (universities, museums, etc.) and there's only so many of those in a given area (I don't know where you are). Since there are only so many potential employers for that particular role, you will likely find a good deal of competition (so get that social element to be in the running). And non-profits have been facing budget constraints for years/forever, with no real end in sight until the economy improves demonstrably. There is a hiring freeze where my wife works, for instance. You may do better as a communications generalist for a smaller institution--PR, copywriting, marketing, the whole nine yards.

I have read that sometimes you can start out as a nonprofit admin assistant and work your way up
This is true in my experience, and was the case with some of my wife's colleagues. You might also try to find (or found) a consulting business/agency for non-profit marketing for small groups that can't afford an employee.

If you want to move forward, find a non-profit (any non-profit) with no money and start doing the work. Make a great marketing / PR plan. Track your analytics and show how much return your work yielded. Tweak the plan. Do it all again. Talk the talk. Walk the walk.

Marketing may not be rocket science, and there's a great deal one can learn on the clock. But it is an honest to god job with unique tools and required skillsets. Your resume has to establish not only that you have those tools and skillsets, but that you've deployed them successfully. Writing newsletters has about zero relevance to marketing, and you don't sound like you'd enjoy PR, based on your other questions--though could make you suited to internal copywriting jobs.

Good luck.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:10 AM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've worked in this area in the past. I agree that it will vary a lot depending on the nonprofit's size and your location. Overall, I think marketing/communications is moving in a direction that is much more quantitative than it has been in the past. So, unless the organization you're working with is very small and unsophisticated, you'll want to understand things like Google Analytics. It likely won't be solely a writing gig, but again, it depends on how the particular nonprofit is structured and how many hats you're wearing.

I think new grads have an advantage for entry-level jobs both because social media is important to most nonprofits now, and because they can more easily learn how to use other online marketing tools. That said, you definitely can as well if you want to...go to the library and read up on the latest marketing books. There's a lot out there.
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:11 AM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Tying back to your earlier question, your lack of social media experience may be a piece of what's holding you back. I chair a local non-profit that recently hired a Communications/Development Manager (who will have some responsibility for marketing), and we would not have considered anyone who didn't demonstrate competency with social media.

Two positives in your favor: Non-profits often view skills-based volunteer work as a legitimate alternative or complement to paid professional experience, and non-profits often rely on skills-based volunteers to supplement their efforts in marketing, communications and fundraising. In some cases, a volunteer would be higher up on the food chain than an intern.

So, one way to build your resume is to check with a few non-profits to see if they have any volunteer opportunities where you could start to build your skill set in social media. At our organization, we promote most of our events through social media and email marketing in addition to (sometimes instead of) traditional PR and newsletters.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:16 AM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I spent a few years in the marketing department for a large nonprofit performing arts organization. My job involved doing lots of writing (for brochures, newsletters, the company website and blog), social media, website maintenance, and running around doing miscellaneous tasks at events. I didn't have any prior marketing experience or even a related degree, so I had to rely a lot on "intangibles" to get the job. Later on, I was involved in the hiring process for that same org. Here's what I observed (YMMV of course, this is based on my own experience and that of my friends):

1. At my org, a very high premium was placed on whether people "got" what they did and demonstrated a real passion for it. They wanted to know whether I could talk intelligently about their work, both to people who had an high level of knowledge and to people who were newcomers. If you're looking for jobs with a large art gallery, for instance, it will help you tremendously to know the history, the lingo, who the major players in your city are, and why you think their gallery in particular is great.

I had a major advantage because I had started a blog and a social media presence a while earlier that related directly to what the company did. Through the blog, I'd been meeting people in the "scene," and I could emphasize my connection to the community and my skill in writing about it. My pitch was basically "I'm already doing a bunch of the things you want me to do on the job." It was very effective, and my blog was evidence of my writing abilities.

2. My org was dealing with an aging audience, declining ticket sales, and the looming threat of irrelevance. A lot of nonprofits will be dealing with some equivalent of that problem. At the same time, many of them (especially the big ones) have a deeply conservative and bureaucratic working culture that makes them skittish about trying new things. So, you have a balancing act to perform, which is convincing them that you can help turn things around, but in a way that doesn't scare them or make them wonder how they're going to explain it to the board.

So, be prepared to talk about what you think you can do to help fix their problem -- whether that means different methods of outreach (this is why you need to take social media very seriously), a change in messaging, whatever. Make sure you know what they're already doing. If all your brilliant suggestions are things they've tried or been doing for years, you'll be met with eye-rolls. At my workplace, every new person, either at the interview or within weeks of starting, would say "have you ever thought about organizing a flash mob?" which was inevitably met with groans. It got to the point where I'd warn people in advance not to suggest it.

3. Being an excellent writer is essential, but it looks like you already have that covered. Other skills that will make you more attractive in a marketing/communications department are a basic familiarity with HTML (so you can help update the website), photography and Photoshop (to illustrate those newsletters and blog posts), familiarity with social media, design skills, and knowing basic email marketing stuff like how to segment a list.

4. My experience had very high points and very low points. You mentioned that the people at nonprofits were "your kind of people," and that was my experience as well. I've been gone from that job for a while now, and the people I met there form the bulk of my closest friends. On the other hand, there were lots of downsides. The politics were intense and often difficult to navigate. I was subject to the random whims not only of my bosses, but major donors and board members who had little connection to the day-to-day of my work but felt entitled to offer opinions or make demands. Plenty of menial tasks and evening and weekend work, on top of my 9-5, was expected as a matter of course. The pay, as expected, was low but what was more difficult was feeling like a second class citizen at my company. Donors always come first and it was difficult seeing them endlessly thanked, celebrated, and given all kinds of interesting perks and concessions (oh so many champagne toasts!) while I felt like I'd given so much more to the company and didn't get so much as a comp ticket. Perhaps that meant I was entitled, but I got much better treatment when I left for a higher-paying job and started donating more.

5. Opportunities in the development (fundraising) department came up much more frequently than in marketing/communications. You might want to investigate if that's a better fit for you.

6. Find a way to be part of the "scene," whatever it is in your area of interest. My city had lots of meetups for nonprofit communications professionals. I met people originally through my blog. Knowing people matters.

7. At my org, lots of people started out in box office and worked their way up. They were extremely good talkers and savvy at explaining to my bosses how their face-to-face contact with patrons made them ideal for communicating with them on a higher level.

tl;dr get a blog and a social media presence and start learning & talking about what nonprofits are doing to combat declining revenues/donations/funding/whatever. Meet as many people related to what you want to do as possible. Pick up a few tech/design skills if you can. Be prepared to get way too invested and feel like your heart's getting broken by the thing you love. YMMV, of course.
posted by beatrice rex at 8:35 AM on December 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've worked at several large non-profits. The kinds that send out millions of pieces of mail each year. When you get to that level of direct marketing style fundraising, things get a little more granular. For instance where I work now, the marketing department (which is a separate entity from communications) is 7 people. Only one of those is directly doing social media stuff. The rest are managing creative processes, mail schedules, and juggling a dozen vendors. In our Comms department, which about 10 people, only two are doing social media.

The rest of development (foundations, corporations, major donors, and planned giving) relies even less on social media. I can think of one small Facebook project being managed by any of those groups.

With large non-profits, they keep a fairly tight reign on who is managing social media (or at least they should be). And there are lots of writing, donor relations, data management, research, and general administrative positions that don't have anything to do with social media.
posted by kimdog at 10:18 AM on December 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I work in marketing for a non-profit, but mine is a bit different. Our organization licenses professionals and membership is mandatory. So we're not trying to get a return on investment, and we're not trying to influence purchasing, we're more about communicating effectively.

I got a job managing the mail room here, which didn't pay very good, but let me get my foot in the door. I became friendly with the employees and when a marketing position opened up, I applied.

Good luck!
posted by tacodave at 3:44 PM on December 17, 2013

Start a blog about a cause you're passionate about and regularly update it. You can showcase your talents there. They're going to google you, so make the most of that. If I googled an applicant who had a blog about the importance of preserving folk song or disability access in her local community, and had plenty of interesting links and articles about it (like once a week posting, not daily), they would move to the top of the pile, even though those aren't related to my specific area because it shows they can deliver, they're motivated and gives me an example of their work.

Actually, I did hire one guy in part based on a personal blog he had about education in Cambodia. It was a factor in saying let's interview him first, and then he was overall a great hire.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:51 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I appreciate everyone who responded. It is yet another large dose of reality for me, but also a lot of great, practical suggestions.
posted by silly me at 7:25 AM on December 18, 2013

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