The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

3 Ways to Give Your Nonprofit Some Character

Let me tell you three quick stories:

  1. Once upon a time in 19th-century England, after being rejected by church leaders for his unconventional methods, a man named William Booth embarked on a traveling evangelist journey to reach the people in a more personal way, gathering a following of “soldiers” for his aptly named Salvation Army.
  2. In 1970’s Boston, Hartford N. Gunn, Jr., amid financial trouble and political resistance, sought to enlighten the world with educational programming that spanned from cooking to orchestral music, eventually paving the way for the PBS station that we all know today.
  3. Rochester, Minnesota–settler W. W. Mayo and his sons joined forces with the best medical research minds of the day to provide patients with innovative medical resources. Their tradition is still alive and well today, as the Mayo Clinic is the country’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to medical research.

Three very different causes, three iconic organizations, each with their own story steeped in the history of the nonprofit world. Each man a character in his own right, each an underdog who overcame the odds. Put any name to them, take your pick; Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Inigo Montoya, the list goes on.

With over 1 million nonprofit organizations registered in the United States, that makes 1 million stories and means that 1 million Frodo’s, Harry’s, and Inigo’s are at work right now with eyes on dreams that might one day happen.

But, like their literary equivalents, organizations cannot make their dreams happen without a little help; that donor looking for the right cause, that volunteer ready to work for what she believes in. They’re all out there, waiting. Now the question begs itself, in your organization’s quest to make its dreams happen, how does your story not get lost in the millions of others?

1. Show who you are

The first step in sharing your nonprofit story with the world is developing an honest and genuine marketing face. Connection is the name of the game.

  • Ask yourself how your audience is going to feel connected to what your business is and what it’s doing. Separate yourself from the pack with a flash of uniqueness but ground yourself in familiarity.
  • What’s your work atmosphere like? Is it serious, creative, funny? Are there anecdotes that brought about the inception of your organization? Let your marketing reflect who you are.
  • We’ve seen the kid on the road to avenge his parents as a literary device for years, but over the course of seven books, Harry Potter becomes more than a trope; he’s a human with traits and a personality all his own. We know Harry. Let your audience get to know your organization.
  • Take a look at StoryCorps, a nonprofit that allows audiences to familiarize themselves with the diversity and originality of their organization by literally displaying the faces and stories of their users. One look through their site and an immediate, personal connection is made between the audience and their nonprofit. Perfection.

2. Give your audience something to invest in

Just like when you pick up a book or watch a movie, your organization needs to offer something an audience can care enough about to see unfold, or rather, care enough about to want to be a part of. This is where a clear, specific, and organized mission statement or history profile comes in handy.

  • Before your audience has the chance to get to know your organization, they’re going to want to see what it’s about and why they should invest in your cause. Give your audience something they can get excited about.
  • Before we really get to meet The Princess Bride‘s Inigo Montoya he’s just Vizzini’s Spanish minion. But, once we’re alone with him for a little while, we learn of his father’s tragic death and his lifelong quest to avenge him. Now, for the rest of the story, he has us; we want to root for him and more than anything, we want to see what happens to him. Inject a little Inigo into your organization. What’s the big issue you’re trying to solve? How are you different than other organizations? What are you doing that is unique or innovative?
  • Ushahidi is nonprofit tech company that handles data collection and digital mapping. They use their site’s history profile to explain the origins of the organization’s Swahili name as well as the prevalence of African violence that inspired their cause. It’s clear, brief, and easy and an excellent example of how to get a target audience engaged.

3. Don’t be afraid to share your obstacles

Frodo has to contend with Gollum, Inigo is severely wounded by the Six Fingered Man, and Harry tries and fails to vanquish Voldemort for six whole books before he succeeds. Obstacles are part of the journey; show yours.

  • As is seen in the nonprofit stories of the three organizations above, failure and resistance are part of the nonprofit journey, an ever-present reminder that the world is not perfect and we are all human. Use your organization’s perseverance through tough times to inspire and empower your prospective members and donors.
  • Canadian nonprofit Engineers Without Borders makes a point of outlining the bumps in their organization’s road by sharing annual Failure Reports on their site. Failures, maybe. But also, as they put it, learning experiences and evidence of their passion to continue taking risks.


Aaron Winkelmann is a writer at Prose Media, a writing service that creates high-quality content for brands. Solutions include blog posts, social media updates, website copy, newsletters, white papers, and emails. Prose Media (@prose) supplies custom content by top professional writers, with expertise in a variety of industries. 

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Carrie Saracini
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