Building a strategy and gauging return on investment (ROI): two huge roadblocks for nonprofits

In 2018, Bashpole Software, secured a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the marketing challenges and strategies of nonprofit organizations. We’ve sat down with over 300 nonprofit executives and are continuing to do so. As our study continues, we’re looking for deeper answers. As a service to our participants, we would offer a preliminary audit of your analytics and content by our specialists to provide direction and feedback. Email Ben Ashpole if you’re interested.

“We need to build a strategy, but we don’t know where to start.”

“How do we know if what we do is working?”

In the last year-and-a-half, more than 300 nonprofit executives and marketers sat down with us in one-on-one interviews and shared their marketing approaches and obstacles.

Their biggest pain points? How to reach people on the internet and how to know if they’re actually succeeding at it.

The dream is to grow. The question is, how?

When we believe in what we are doing, we definitely want to do as much as we can. Our respondents want to do good in this world and want to increase awareness of their causes.

  • 72% want to grow their organizations (growth goal)
  • 94% who prioritize growth believe digital advertising is critical to achieving the goal.
  • The full potential of using email newsletters, online ads, and social media is often beyond available resources and staff time — or it feels like it due to lack of knowledge or training.

What does a good strategy look like?

Blogs, social media, email lists, paid digital advertising, your website. They all have different purposes. How do you know which is the one to really go for? You want them to believe in your cause and trust you.

Every method you choose should work to get you to that goal. For most organizations, the end goal is to get people to subscribe to your email list. Every piece of your strategy should lead them to that point, whether it’s a Facebook Live, a Google Ad, a blog post, and especially your website.

Make your website work hard for you

In our research, we saw websites that worked hard to educate and build trust. We also saw websites that functioned as little more than a “Yellow Page Ad” for their organization. It proved that the organization existed, but didn’t do much else.
Your website can lead people on a journey and present your story. It also can add to that story through changing content like blogs, videos, or case studies that share your passion and showcase your work.

By the way, this also helps your Google rankings. Google doesn’t like websites that just sit there. Active sites rank higher on Google searches over time.

Get their email address

You might not get someone to volunteer or donate on their first online encounter with you. But they are aware of you. Now that you have their attention, you want to keep it.
They may have been introduced to you through an ad or a search, but you don’t want to trust Google or Facebook algorithms to maintain that connection. You don’t even want to trust them to remember to come back to your website.

If you have their email, you can reach out to them directly and tell them more about what your organization does. You can build trust. Occasionally, you can ask for what you need: a donation or volunteers. But the more your readers trust you, the more likely they are to partner with you.

What’s the work involved?

  1. If you want to increase awareness, go where they are using various methods such as ads, podcasts, guest blog posts.
  2. Ask for their email. Have your content drive them to your website and put forms on your website that encourages more contact.
  3. Once you have that precious email address, regularly send them information about what you’re doing. Keep them informed and excited.

When they agree to be on your email list, they care at least a little. You can use the email list to build that relationship and encourage them to care more.

Return on investment: how do we know it’s worth it?

“It is difficult to get meaningful metrics … for example, how do we measure the impact from each platform we use to decide where to focus?” — respondent

“Why didn’t [we] do more with Facebook? Lack of trust in the ROI, because we didn’t understand the measurement tool.” — respondent

Return on investment is a business term that is becoming prominent in nonprofit circles, too. It means, “What did we get out of this effort compared to what we put in?”

There’s a formula for computing it: ROI=(net profit/cost of investment) x 100.

So if you spent $1,000 on a Facebook ad campaign and received $1,500 in donations, your net profit is $500. ($500/$1,000) x 100= 50%

ROI can’t formulate the intangibles

Sitting down with nonprofit C-level executives, we not only heard the answers they gave, but we could hear the tone in their voices and see the expressions on their faces. They looked puzzled when they talked about online marketing — even troubled. They knew that it was important, but they had no idea how to know if it was working and if they were doing it right.

When they described getting out there and talking with people at speaking events, their eyes shone. They knew immediately when that worked. Just like we could see our respondents’ faces, they could read the responses in the faces of others. They could shake their hands. They could hear them give their support.

Metrics make the intangible tangible

The hard part about doing things online is you don’t get those responses. What we have are metrics. We can know, “Does a person click on our ad?” and with pixels (small bits of code that are added to the website) we can follow exactly what they do after that:

  • What pages do they read?
  • Do they give us their email address?
  • How long do they stay?
  • Do they donate?

Metrics take the unknown and make them known. All of a sudden, you know what pages they read, you know how long they stay, you know if they take a look at your donation page, or if they walk in the door and walk right out.

What questions do you have about what they do? You can set up metrics to tell you.

How much is it worth to know?

Over and over again, our respondents told us that they didn’t know key pieces of information because they didn’t have the metrics set up. They don’t have the time to learn Google Analytics. They did Facebook boosts instead of full ad campaigns that provide a pixel. They only have a small glimmer of the full information they need.

Our respondents expressed, “We want to build a strategy, but we need to know if it works.” They also said they don’t have the manpower or the training to do it.

The fact is, the term “ROI” means Return of INVESTMENT, and without investment, there is no return.

For nonprofits, ROI isn’t always about money

The people we talked to said their top priority was building awareness. They know donations don’t come right away, but they want people to know about their cause. Without setting up analytics, you’re in the dark. That’s not an easy place to be for you or your team.

Whatever strategy you decide on, and there are many things you can do inexpensively, if you don’t have the analytics set up to measure it, you don’t know. You’re too committed to following it through to the end without tweaking, or you may not be committed enough even to start. You can’t compare whether a YouTube video works better than a blog post for leading someone to your website.

Setting up your analytics is the key to everything

If you’re a typical nonprofit, everyone on your team is doing multiple jobs to keep on top of the daily work. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Money is tight. The board doesn’t see why it’s important.

But whether it’s bringing on an intern, hiring an agency, or having one or more of your staff take an NTEN course or Udemy, getting your analytics worked out is the first step in developing a strategy for reaching Millennials, GenZ, and even good ole GenX.

Metrics shine the light on your potential partners

Knowing your metrics is like being able to look someone in the eye, shake their hand, and telling from their smile that they are on board or to gauge what may be holding them up. It makes the people who are online as real as the people who are in the room.

Metrics open up a whole world for you and your organization

Metrics let you know what’s working and what’s not before you’re at the point of no return. It not only turning the lights on for your potential partners, but it also turns the light on for you. You don’t have to be “all in or not at all” with a marketing campaign. You can test, monitor, and adjust, and even abandon if something isn’t working.
Metrics minimize your risk because they minimize your guesswork.

Before you move forward with anything else, invest in your analytics

We may be preaching to the choir here on NTEN, but in our research study, our respondents overwhelmingly expressed concern over how to create a solid strategy and how to know whether their efforts were effective. Every other business that is competing for the same space is already doing this. To be heard in this ever-increasing world of online advertising, our organizations must know whether their efforts are effective. It’s crucial.

There are big differences between nonprofit and for-profit perspectives

It was clear from our interviews that there are key differences between the nonprofit marketing sphere and the for-profit marketing sphere. You use a different vocabulary and have different goals.

Nonprofit goals: build awareness, recruit volunteers, and encourage donations.

And you need to know whether your efforts are going to reach these goals successfully. The widely-available marketing resources aren’t focused on those goals, so what do you do?

With these tips in mind, we’re extending an invitation for nonprofit professionals to participate in the ongoing research. Based upon the preview of the types of tips above, we would appreciate hearing from the NTEN readership what you would find to be most useful for the upcoming articles. Would you like to participate in an interview or learn more about the research project? Do you have any areas of interest you want us to focus on that you feel would most benefit the nonprofit sector? Vote on the upcoming topics!

Benjamin Ashpole
CEO
CEO of Bashpole Software, Inc., Ben has led the company's Google Ad Grants service (idGrants.com) for five years and further expanded the ways he can help nonprofits better accomplish their mission to change the world. With a background in software engineering in the area of machine learning, Ben is applying his expertise and experience towards market research that aims to help non-profits make the best use of the tools available to them. With a grant from the NSF's Innovation Corps to get to the root of the obstacles facing the non-profit sector, he's interviewed 300 nonprofit leaders and counting. Ben believes strongly in the power of technology to make the world a better place, and knows that the right strategy and right research can make all the difference.
Lora Horn
Content Strategist

Lora Horn is a content strategist and copywriter specializing in nonprofit online communication. She’s worked as a case manager and counselor with community-based nonprofit organizations for most of her career. Nonprofits have unique concerns and strengths because of their focus on service. Lora focuses on making sure an organization’s online voice is consistent and strong so that the website, email, and all other online content work together to build trust and strengthen relationships so that the organization can thrive.

Carrie Fuller
Part of the research team for Bashpole Software, Inc., Carrie has a background in academic research in the fields of sociology, philosophy, and communication. Turning her passion for causes that ensure equal rights and fair treatment for society's most vulnerable populations into a career, she's eager to share insights with the nonprofit sector and learn from their leaders. Carrie is part of research involving nonprofit professionals internationally and is looking forward to being part of a future that benefits from technological advancements that can help to make the world a more cohesive and kind place.