Five Signs Your Nonprofit is Ready to Reach a Bigger Community

Does your nonprofit consistently reach the same group? It may be time to consider expanding your marketing efforts to reach a wider audience.

Five Signs Your Nonprofit is Ready to Reach a Bigger Community
19 mins read

Your nonprofit has grown and fine-tuned its mission. What’s the next step?

For a young person, aging out of your teenage years is a major milestone: you’ve usually developed autonomy, explored deeper social connections, and defined (and redefined) identity along the way. As you approach your second decade, you likely have a clearer picture of who you are and what you are about. In some ways, nonprofit maturation follows a similar path. While the timeline varies from organization to organization, a nonprofit usually reaches a point when it is consistently meeting its mission and grows confident in the impact of its approach. If this is the case, it might be time for your nonprofit to consider growing your marketing plan as well.

At our youth-serving mentoring program, this timing has fittingly aligned with our nonprofit approaching its 20-year anniversary. Since our founding in 2004, we’ve grown organically from initially serving 50 youth to more than 1,500 youth annually. Throughout this time, our program has also refined its purpose and produced consistent results. At this point in our development, we know who we are and what we are about, and we are ready to intentionally present our work to a wider audience in the hopes of creating more change in the world.

In the past year, conversations among our board, staff, and stakeholders led us to focus on marketing as part of the organization’s strategic development. Through our program, hundreds of youth and volunteer mentors come together annually to train for and complete a long-distance race, starting with a 5K run and working their way to a double-digit milestone: a 10-mile, 13.1-mile, or 26.2-mile race. This incredible accomplishment takes determination, drive, and resilience. But after nine months of training, these skills become routine and ready to be applied to goals beyond running. Our mentors and students are the definition of unsung heroes, and we know that with the potential to grow our program comes the opportunity to share their stories with a wider audience.

Basically, we felt like our mentors and students were doing something really cool, and we wanted more people to know about it. Our thinking process was similar to the trajectory of a team in spring training: we know we have what it takes to get bigger, to push ourselves harder, to expand and grow, but we didn’t necessarily have all the tools to do this at our disposal. Like most small nonprofits, we don’t have full-time marketing staff. We don’t have anyone on staff whose sole job description is dedicated to promoting our services, and we aren’t marketing experts by trade.

But again, like many nonprofits, we knew we wanted a trajectory of growth; after all, our program—and the community we serve—is important enough to warrant it. And as we approach the next stage of organizational maturity, we recognized there were five checkpoints that helped us determine why we needed a marketing boost. And the more we thought about these checkpoints, the more we realized that they also helped us develop a marketing plan as well. Basically, they gave us a roadmap for how to implement our marketing strategies.

We hope that by sharing these five signs, other nonprofits can decide not only whether growing your marketing plan is the right path but also brainstorm where that path might begin. After all, if you don’t start training now, you’ll never get to the photo finish!

The Five Signs

Sign 1: Your stories are inspirational.

As most of us in the nonprofit world are probably aware, inspiration connects people to a cause and motivates them to take action. Inspirational stories reinforce the narrative that your nonprofit is achieving its mission.

When we share that our students are running marathons as teenagers, our audience is typically intrigued enough to learn more. The true inspiration in these stories, however, is not about a photo finish, but the nine months of training, mentoring, and commitment to our community that makes that moment possible. When we talk with our students about how to reflect on their journey in our program, we want them to think of a moment their mindset changed—possibly a phrase their mentor said that stuck. In this way, we know they’ve been inspired beyond the physical act of running to translate their experience into other areas of their lives. We want to share those moments that are relatable and meaningful as a way to inspire others, to demonstrate that the skills (like goal-setting) our program teaches reach so much farther than physical exercise.

But it’s not just our students who we find inspirational. After all, we’re volunteer-powered by design: our small (but mighty) staff supports more than 300 volunteers to provide direct service to more than 1,000 youth each year. And each of our volunteers dedicates hundreds of hours of their time to this program. Frankly, the sheer amount of human labor involved is unbelievable. We know we need to share their stories not just to demonstrate our appreciation but also to identify that our students’ achievements do not occur in a vacuum. With support, we can all do so much more.

But why is this sign important? Or really, what does it do for our marketing plan? Well, we know that inspiration inspires action, so like many smaller nonprofits, we’re hoping to increase our number of volunteers (to mentor more students) as well as our donors—every nonprofit’s concerned about fundraising, right?

But we also think this marketing boost will help expand our program so that we might partner with other schools or even other nonprofits. We think this might even help this concept itself grow, spreading similar programs across the United States. After all, if we can train in the congested (and often ice-covered) streets of Philly, why can’t this program succeed elsewhere, too? This sign helped us realize that inspiration is not necessarily about the actors themselves but also about the change these stories effect in the world.

Sign 2: You’ve already built some capacity.

To be clear, this idea didn’t come out of thin air. Like training for a marathon, it’s been a work in progress. Several years ago, we partnered with a local pro bono consulting group—we highly recommend finding one in your area[1]—to conduct a thorough marketing analysis, which helped identify our marketing and branding strengths and opportunities.

With those findings in mind, we hosted an AmeriCorps VISTA member who focused on marketing, which allowed us to test out ideas in developing content, further define our key audiences, and build out our social media channels via a clear schedule and plan. This schedule and plan allowed us to include analytics and actually measure our social media reach and impact, creating a system to gather this data. We plan to use this insight to inform our next steps, which has allowed us to invest in more specialized marketing resources.

For your nonprofit, consider whether you already have some infrastructure in the works that would be easy to expand. Or, put another way: what can you build out in your marketing practice from the extant structures you have in place? Just like with training, start small, then work to flex and grow those muscles.

Sign 3: You’re increasingly attracting attention (or not at all).

Granted, these two ideas might seem contradictory: you’re either garnering attention or you’re totally flailing just trying to get someone to notice you. But they might actually suggest you flex the same muscles: working on expanding your marketing impact. After all, you want to continue to grow what you’ve been working on, and if you’ve noticed a weakness (i.e. you have zero attention), that might mean it’s time to work on defining that musculature.

For our nonprofit, we were recently approached by a media outlet to feature our program on a national TV segment for the first time.[2] We wanted to think strategically about how to maximize our national television coverage, so we polled our network for help. Within a week, we had two more requests for interviews. We learned more about what parts of our organizational story and details are helpful to highlight,  our youth and volunteers for interviews on short notice, and how to build out a communications plan for before, during, and after the air date.[3]

If your program is gaining momentum around its success, building out a game plan so you’re ready when the call comes can help to ensure your message gets the most exposure in a way that best supports your mission. Creating templates for email blasts,[4] social media announcements,[5] and Google[6] (or social media) advertisements can be part of your media strategy that you prepare ahead of time so you can focus on content (instead of format) on a tighter timeline.

On the flip side, if external folks aren’t taking notice, it may be worth exploring what’s not sticking in your story and refining your talking points. At our organization, we’ve learned that stories depicting a singular student-mentor pair training have been fairly successful, although they also need a unique aspect to make them stand out—you don’t want the stories all sounding the same. People seem to want this individuality, a kind of face to the organization: our collective story alone just does not seem to connect as strongly. For your nonprofit, consider where you can focus on the individual, perhaps instead of sharing facts and figures (no matter how impressive) about your org.

Sign 4: It’s in your strategic plan.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but strategic planning is where the highest priorities rise to the top. This means taking stock of the capacity-building work and laying out opportunities for exposure. Other key items that your strategic plan should consider are staff capacity, financial resources, and board commitment and expertise. In the larger picture of the organization, marketing is an area for growth but only with a defined purpose and goal. The strategic plan should lay out this marketing trajectory with a clear end goal in mind.

In our most recent strategic planning research and workshops, our board, staff, and stakeholders realized that there was a disconnect between what people outside of our organization were hearing (we serve so many people) and the internal intent of our messaging (look at what these awesome individuals can accomplish through support). Despite having more than a decade of consistent programmatic impact, we were also still missing key audiences, especially individual and corporate donors.

But the motivation wasn’t just funding: without someone dedicated to sourcing powerful individual examples of our program impact, the nuance of our impact beyond running has the potential to be lost. We wanted to move beyond being known as a youth running program. We wanted to showcase for potential partners (as well as funders, donors, and supporters) how the depth of mentoring relationships through running can support youth and community needs, truly meeting folks where they are.

Consider the aspects of your own strategic plan that might align with (or even benefit from) a marketing boost. Most nonprofits (or, at the very least, their boards) want to increase funding, which is definitely a spend-money/time-to-make-money situation. Where can you expend a little more staff labor to increase your marketing impact?

Sign 5: You know how it would benefit your community.

After noticing the aforementioned gap between internal messaging intent and external reception, we worked with a digital production company last year to produce a seven-minute film dedicated to telling one specific mentor-mentee story to capture the depth and detail of our program. After viewing the film, one supporter said, “I felt like I knew what you all did before, but now I really understand it.”

With that in mind, we are focused on developing a marketing strategy that targets specific audiences and goals that align with our mission on every level. We haven’t fine-tuned it yet, but stay tuned for more to come!

Chances are that increased marketing efforts will help your program reach more people and hopefully even change the systems that influence your work. And this means you are furthering your mission by better serving your communities.

Make Your Marketing Worth It

So if you’re seeing the above signs surfacing at your organization, it may be time to take some next steps. Here’s a pathway that’s worked for us:

  1. Reach out to your network for support. Our board has been immensely helpful throughout this process, as have our volunteers who have backgrounds in marketing.
  2. Identify what’s working and where to go. Consider what aspects of your marketing are producing successful results and how you might expand them. For those not producing positive results, consider whether they need time and effort to grow or whether it’s time to rest this particular muscle.
  3. Define your target audience. Think through who are you trying to reach and through what channels. Why do you want to reach these particular people or organizations? Create a profile of your ideal “customer” and strategize on how best to reach them.
  4. Set goals, budgets, and a timeline. These should include benchmarks for implementation to help keep the plans on track and focused. You might also want to identify if additional resources are needed to achieve the set goals.

Maturation comes in many different forms.

Like people, many nonprofits evolve in a non-linear way. No matter how many of these milestones your organization has met, you can always revisit your plans as the organization experiences change. In particular, marketing can seem overwhelming, as it can include an endless list of ideas alongside unattainable resources needed to pursue them.

But deciding what balance of effort and reward makes the most sense for your goals is a valuable step in focusing your efforts and resources to most benefit your program. A thoughtful and intentional strategy can help determine what actions to take (and when) while also helping you to prepare for when a can’t-miss opportunity arises.

When you see the signs, the path becomes clear. We start a marathon the same way we train: with one foot in front of the other.

Sample Form

Interview Communications Plan Checklist

Who are the audiences you want to target for this interview?
  • How will you best reach them?
    • Email blast
    • Social media
    • Ads that run a week or two prior
    • Updated website/banner
What points do we showcase for our messaging?
  • Are there insights you want to offer?
  • Is there specific language you want to be used (or not)?
  • Have you prepped interview subjects for these conversations?
    • Do you have a pipeline of stories/interview subjects to draw from if someone is unavailable?
Who is your designated point of contact?
  • Do staff know who to identify as contact when someone calls and wants a story?
Are there internal processes for who we put in front of the camera?
  • Are there specific criteria we want to meet?
    • Diversity
    • Cultural sensitivity
    • Knowledge of program
    • Ability to highlight main points
    • Time to prepare
What is the environmental context for this interview?
  • Length of time

You can also download a PDF of this Interview Communications Plan Checklist.


[1] For more on how to find pro bono support, check out the National Council of Nonprofits (if you haven’t already). You might even consider using skills-based volunteering to find local marketing experts!

[2] Considering a media appearance? Check out this article on How to Access Community Television for Your Nonprofit!

[3] But wait! Communications plans aren’t just for positive exposure. Check out this article on Creating a Crisis Communications Plan!

[4] Check out this article on creating email blasts.

[5] Canva can be a really great resource for this—and registered nonprofits are able to use it free!

[6] We all might have feelings about paying Google for advertisements, but the corporation does offer ad grants as well as a variety of other services to nonprofits.

About the Author

Lauren Kobylarz is the Executive Director of Students Run Philly Style, a nonprofit mentoring program empowering youth through distance running in Philadelphia, PA, where she leads the development of mission-driven partnerships, strategy for organizational growth and financial stability. Lauren holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, and has more than a decade of nonprofit experience in community-focused program design, evaluation, volunteer management and communications. As a former mentor and coach, Lauren is passionate about introducing new runners to the possibilities of what you can accomplish one step at a time.

Danny Burke is the Senior Director of Development at Students Run Philly Style, continuing his decade-long career in the non-profit sector, including roles at The Humane Society of the United States and Experimental Station in Chicago. At Students Run Philly Style, Danny directs fundraising efforts by cultivating individual donors, engaging the board of directors on development initiatives, stewarding corporate sponsors, and creating fundraising events. When he’s not at work you can find him tending to his plants, watching Chicago sports, or whipping up a batch of Sigel Sauce- a community centered sauce operation using hot peppers grown on his roof.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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