What a 2019 non-profit marketing skills student learns.

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I regularly meet with people looking to make a career change or with students who are eager to chart a career path in the charitable sector. It’s not surprising as with over 170,000 non-profits in Canada, employing over 2 million people (not including volunteers) the sector is a vibrant, innovative and often rewarding place to work. But what are the essential Marketing skills in 2019 needed in order to succeed in what is a very cluttered and competitive marketplace?  Here’s what this year’s graduates will be learning.

  1. Strategic Thinking: How to be a co-creator of organization strategy and future direction instead of thinking of Marketing as a mere support function.  Today students must know how to develop a strategic marketing communications business plan that will impress even the most seasoned Board of Directors.


  1. Brand Development: Nonprofit organizations recognize the strategic implications of a strong brand.  As outlined in a recent SSIR article on “The role of brand in the non-profit sector” more non-profits are realizing the importance of brand not just as a fundraising tool, but as a way of creating greater social impact.  The environment in which charities operate is constantly changing and there are more players in the social impact space as large corporations launch their own social purpose initiatives or look to partner with charitable organizations on cause marketing initiatives.  Look at the success of Bell Let’s Talk, Tim Hortons Camp Day, Canadian Tire JumpStart, or Cheerios Bring Back the Bees campaigns just to name a few. Those NFPs that can take advantage of the competencies within the marketing communications skill sets are better situated to succeed in this increasingly competitive environment and to build strong brands that attract and retain donors, volunteers, employees, partners and funders.


  1. In-depth Research, Analysis, Innovation and Creative Problem Solving: Marketing is often called upon to be a futurologist, researching future trends, competitive positioning, new markets, changing consumer behaviours, etc. in order to flag potential impacts on the organization.  Teams also need to be able to measure robust communication efforts as well as complex and potentially conflicting program / service impact measures – which means marketing leaders today must be able to mine a wealth of data and synthesize all the inputs we have in order to recognize patterns and uncover new and meaningful insights. Marketing promotes a culture of inquiry and curiosity.  We search for the lessons in both our successful and disappointing outcomes, studying any failures in an open and constructive way to find new teachings.  Interpreting data, observing and inviting perspectives from diverse stakeholders and at times making decisions with incomplete information means todays savvy marketers follow disciplined processes to optimize data insights.


  1. Segmentation, Targeting & Positioning Expertise: Today, nonprofits of all sorts and sizes must identify, target and actively engage ALL their audiences, ensuring they seamlessly distribute their messages across multiple channels.  From outreach to vulnerable or at-risk audiences through to sophisticated major donor stewardship reports, nonprofits must consistency communicate a simple brand proposition to complex segments (e.g. donors, members, alumni, activists, advocates, volunteers, corporate partners, government funders, journalists/media, employees, etc.).  Data is often fragmented across multiple systems and structures, but is immensely valuable for the information and insights it can provide.  Students today learn to be proficient in mainstream data science and analytics in order to ensure they tailor the messaging in order to connect and engage their audiences.  Most organizations no longer blast their database with a newsletter or generic email, but are now segmenting their database and sending customized emails.  This trend will accelerate as it dramatically improves conversion rates and supports front line mission work with digital impact.  As companies leverage new CRM technology to connect the front end to the back end of their marketing processes they will apply learnings to their websites, social media sites, blogs, etc. to fine tune messaging.


  1. Interpersonal Communications, Relationship Building, Public Speaking and Exceptional Writing Skills: As teams are now managing a diversified portfolio that includes fundraising development, production, special events, branding, promotions, signage, social media, digital, public relations, sponsorship, market research and more, the lines between fundraising, marketing, and public relations are blurring across small teams.  Today’s graduates are all building the communication skills critical to leadership and for public facing roles.  They can easily adapt their styles to work with stakeholders at all levels, multi-task across the number of functional skills required and manage the complexity.  I often hear them discuss Marketing Communications requires you are both analytical and methodical in your thinking as well as creative or artistic, so a unique opportunity to flex both sides of your brain.


As someone who has spent decades in Marketing Communications it is exciting to work with this new generation of specialists and know they see themselves as fully prepared to build a career that could take them to the CEO / ED position.  They have both the business acumen and passion to lead the sector into the next decade and care immensely about their ability to help make a difference.


Laura Graham-Prentice is a MAS Volunteer and a  PT professor at George Brown College.

GBC offers continuing education non-profit management certificates and Laura often teaches another full-time post-graduate Non-Profit and Cause Related Marketing course in which includes students complete a comprehensive Non-Profit Marketing audit project.  MAS offers a  self-diagnostic marketing audit toolkit for mid-sized charities and you can find out more information by visiting https://masadvise.org/services/marketing-midsized-charities/.  If you are interested in participating in a student led marketing audit, please email laura.graham-prentice@georgebrown.ca.



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