Nonprofit marketing strategy with Maria Bryan

Episode aired July 15, 2021: Marketing Strategy

When marketing and fundraising are in sync, beautiful things happen. That of course means planning out your marketing strategy. NPO marketing strategist Maria Bryan will explain just how to do that. In this episode she discusses 

  • why marketing goals aren’t just numbers
  • the importance of investing in brand awareness and authority building
  • what 3 elements your marketing strategy must include
  • how to determine what platforms to be on and
  • what’s your north star and why it’s critical to success. 

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communication. Today I’m really happy to have with us a nonprofit marketing strategist, Maria Bryan. Maria, how you doing today?

Maria: Hey, I’m doing okay. Happy to be here.

Ephraim: Good and we’re happy to have you. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Maria Bryan helps founders create thriving nonprofits by marketing on purpose. She provides practical strategies and empathetic coaching to nonprofits ready to amplify their mission and message. She has over 10 years in marketing communications in the public sector, a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Maria is a firm believer that storytellers make the world a healthier, safer, cleaner and happier place.

Marketing On Purpose

In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss marketing strategy. Let’s dive right in. Maria, how do you define ‘marketing on purpose’?

Maria: So purpose-driven marketing means two things to me. I’m attracted to those of course who are marketing things that make the world a better place. So a lot of times that ends up being in the nonprofit public sector. Sometimes it’s ethical businesses. So as a start it means to be marketing something that is ethical and is promoting some kind of positive change.

The other end of that is that those same marketers are putting some thought and research and purposefully marketing. They’re not haphazardly posting on social media. They don’t have an email list just because they think they should. They’re not hopping on platforms because they think they should. They’re not posting and publishing things the morning of, just to get something out. They are doing it on purpose. There is a goal in mind, there is an audience in mind. They are doing things to bring them forward. I think that it’s less is more in marketing and the more focused your efforts are, the more successful you’ll be in reaching those goals.

Thoughtful Marketing Goals

Ephraim: Okay, so you just mentioned goals. You believe that marketing goals shouldn’t just be numbers. Goals should be thoughtful and well researched. Could you give us a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at that process?

Maria: Absolutely. Let’s start with social media. For the longest time, people tended to be on…  everyone had their Facebook and their Facebook page and their Twitter and their LinkedIn or maybe then Instagram came in, because their Board told them to or because so and so nonprofit is doing so. And then of course like the metric that’s important to them is just following growth on those platforms. Without a little bit of trend research, you’re really going to get frustrated and feel let down with your marketing efforts.

So I think the biggest example of that right now is for lots of reasons but especially with the scandals in the past few years around specifically Facebook, around the U.S. election. People have lost trust in social media platforms and have been brought to court to defend themselves on that and as a result of that, Facebook has invested in private channels like Facebook groups.

So Facebook pages organically, I mean they’re just not getting any reach right now. It is a huge waste of effort to be posting on a Facebook page. So I say just don’t and if you feel like your audience really does hang out on Facebook, then try to cultivate a Facebook group experience or a Facebook Messenger experience. So that’s on one end, just the kind of the top things you think that you have to be on or the metrics you just have to have: A thriving email list or you need to have a thriving Facebook page. I had this one client who had phenomenal traffic to his blog from his Facebook page. I mean, just like hundreds of thousands of people going to his blog from his Facebook page. And then 10 years later it’s just trickled down to nothing. There’s been absolutely no pivot. I know that word we’re all sick of hearing in 2021 but he hasn’t really adjusted in the past 10 years and he doesn’t understand why.

So there’s one other thing that I want to talk about when it comes to setting goals that are thoughtful when you are starting out in nonprofit and you’re trying to raise money or maybe you have a business and you’re trying to make sales. The numbers that you are looking at are usually the amount donated or the amount of people donating or the amount of sales and amount of people that are buying things. These are metrics that are very important.  Return on investment, right? This is why a lot of times why businesses exist and it’s what runs a nonprofit or these fundraising metrics. So marketing and fundraising absolutely go hand in hand. That is an important metric. 

But I find and I’m learning this as a new business owner myself, you are just going to feel so deflated and so let down if you are focusing on those numbers the first one to three years of your nonprofit or business. Really what you should be focusing on is brand awareness. So everyone says the numbers don’t matter, the social media following does it matter. I actually think those first few years it does matter. You really just want to get as many eyeballs as possible. You want as many people to know who you are as possible. So investing in brand awareness and authority building, so people… why do people buy items or donate? Because they know you, they like you and they trust you and that’s not going to happen with the quick Facebook page… quick Facebook post from an organization you’ve never heard of before. So I see people throw hundreds of dollars that they barely have into Facebook ads and they get really frustrating that it leads to nothing. I guess the takeaway here is that make sure that the metrics you’re tracking are realistic, adjust your expectations and the kinds of platforms that you’re choosing, make sure that you have an understanding of what’s going on with the algorithms and what’s going on culturally that’s going to help you be successful.

Planning A Marketing Strategy

Ephraim: Excellent. Let’s move on to today’s actionable item. I’d appreciate if you could tell us three absolute, has to be  included in any nonprofit marketing strategy.

 Maria: Okay. The first one is your mission statement should be prominent on your strategy, no matter how short or long your strategy is. Your mission statement is going to be your north star, is going to ground you. If you start taking on marketing activities because again your board told you so or this nonprofit is doing this or that and it doesn’t support your mission, if it doesn’t bring your mission forward, if it doesn’t help your organization grow, it is not a worthwhile goal. So I always tell people since I started in nonprofit marketing in-house as a nonprofit communications manager, have always always had my mission statement prominently on my marketing strategies and plans. Make sure that you’re doing that. It will really ground you when you are adding too much on your plate and you need to take… you’re in a season of needing to take things off because you’re a small team or your team is maybe getting smaller. Whatever is going to bring you closest to your mission statement are the things that you want to keep. So that’s number one.

Number two is having a deep understanding of your audience. When you are thinking about your messaging and the kind of language and copy that you’re using in your marketing, understanding your audience is crucial and when you of course are choosing your platforms, it’s crucial to understand your audience and I can give a really quick anecdote on that.

I’m living in Florida now but when I lived in New York City, I volunteered at a really amazing organization called GEMS which worked with girls who were formerly in the commercial sex trade as children. So they were young, they were in their early teens and I noticed that all of the social workers would communicate with these girls through Facebook Messenger, which you’re able to make calls on. For a few reasons that was just the platform that at the time they were more likely to be on. Maybe not on a Facebook feed but Facebook Messenger is just what they used to talk to their friends. But also they didn’t have a data plan so they used Messenger through wi-fi. So that is just such a brilliant way to understand your clients, understand the people you serve and not try to call them, not try to email them, not try to reach them on LinkedIn. And it just seems so obvious but you have to reach people where they are, you have to reach them where they hang out. So it’s worth taking the time to understand where your audience hangs out for fun. Think about where they go just to let their hair down and then where they go professionally, especially if you’re looking just to network yourself. Or for donors, think about where they hang out professionally, where they might be in that kind of mindset. So that’s my second one.

The third one of course, every strategy should have metrics, right? You want to measure so you know you’re succeeding. You also want to measure so you know when you’re not succeeding, so that you can try something different. 

There’s the kinds of metrics that I have found… like I’ve dug a little deeper into the kinds of metrics that you can use and have learned recently actually about this concept of ‘lead and lag.’ A lead and lag metrics. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this concept but these are two different kinds of metrics: The lead are the actionable things that you’re doing to reach your goal, whereas the lag is the end result that you want but you don’t necessarily have control over it. People tend to use the example of wanting to lose weight. So the lag is you want to lose 10 pounds. The lead is that you are going to adjust your diet and you’re gonna exercise three times a day. So when we’re thinking about marketing, maybe you want five new people to join your amazing program. The five new people is the lag and the lead is that you are going to send out 10 emails to your email list, you’re going to promote it on Instagram three times because that’s where they hang out and you are going to launch a, let’s say like a referral program where the people who are already in the program get some kind of incentive to invite their family and friends. So you have the ultimate metric that most people already have in place. They have this end goal that they can think of but the thing is, you really truly at the end of the day don’t have control over exactly how many people are gonna donate, how many people you’re gonna reach through your ads etc. etc. But there are things you can control, especially if you’re managing a team and you’ve got a couple of people who are helping you with these goals, setting up these lead metrics are just going to keep everybody on the same page and this is what it’s going to take. This is what I expect. This is what we need to do to reach these lag goals. So that’s my three.

Ephraim: Excellent.  I like all three but that ‘lead and lag’ one I like very much.

Maria: I think so too.

What Platforms To Be Present On

Ephraim: Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram, Spaces and a thousand other platforms. How should a nonprofit go about determining which platforms they should have an active presence on?  

Maria: They should ask their board what their board thinks and whatever their board says goes. 

So this goes back to deeply understanding your audience and I just can’t reiterate this enough. With all of my clients, the very first exercise we do are audience personas, where you’re actually taking a group of people, so maybe you serve teen boys and then you actually create a person. His name is Carlos and he’s in junior high and he loves baseball. Whatever. And so then all of your marketing and communications is targeted towards Carlos. Then no matter what teen boy you are, you’re going to feel like this organization is talking directly to you and when you do that, you’re going to start using platforms that make sense.

Another way to have an understanding of which platforms your audience hangs out is just to ask them. So for me and a lot of times with nonprofits as well and you could probably relate to this is email seems to sometimes be a little bit more organic. People, they find you on social media, they find your website and they sign up for your email and it’s a much stronger engagement than maybe following you on social media. They really want to hear more from you and sometimes it’s hard to track exactly how they found you.

For me, I know that a lot of people who are subscribed to my email list have read my blog posts and so they signed up to kind of get more of that good stuff. What I’ll do annually is send a survey out to everyone on my email list, because if they’re reading my blog and they’re intrigued enough to sign up for my email these are my people. These are the kind of people that I want to be communicating with. And so I asked them what social media platforms are you hanging out on and I list them. Or how do you prefer to learn? Are you learning through podcasts or through webinars or whatever it may be. And I incentivize it. I give them… I think last time it was a 10 Starbucks gift card to fill out this survey. So I don’t rely on the kindness of their hearts to take five minutes out of their day. I encourage everyone to do the same. If you’re doing a survey, incentivize it. Either each person receives something or maybe they go into a raffle to receive something. And it enlightens so much for me and it will for you too, to just ask people. Or maybe you can get… if you have a program, an in-person program, have just a half an hour where there’s donuts and coffee and you can kind of ask them some questions about marketing, communications and where they hang out. That’s the most important thing. It’s like, where do they hang out, because that’s where you want to be.  

Ephraim: Surveys are definitely the way to go. I’m a big big fan.  

Maria: Yeah, me too.

Keeping Up With The Latest Trends

Ephraim: On your website,, you describe yourself as quote “having an obsession with the latest marketing trends” unquote. How do you keep on top of the latest and greatest and are there tools or platforms you’d recommend nonprofits use to stay on top of trends?  

Maria: That’s a really good question. This has been a part of just who I am since I’ve started. When I first landed in nonprofit communications, I had a journalism degree and zero marketing experience. I mean it’s so interesting how people who just can tell a good story think that’s all the skills they need. I didn’t know what a KPI is. I didn’t know… forget it. My first marketing plan was like 18 pages. I mean, I just didn’t know anything and so every free webinar I could get my hands on, any article I could read, I just soaked up as much information as possible and that has never stopped.

So I mean that’s what I encourage everyone to find a platform that they like to observe information. When I was kind of working in office, those were webinars. I could just take a break and watch your webinar on my lunch break. But now, because I have kids… so you can probably hear screaming in the background, I listen to podcasts. We Are For Good is a nonprofit podcast that I really love listening to. Pia Silva is not a nonprofit, she’s in business but she is just a gold mine of smart marketing advice. That’s just kind of where I am in life.  I don’t have time to really watch webinars but I can listen to a podcast as I’m filling the dishwasher. I really love sitting down with a good marketing book and I know that sounds like who does that on their free time and I don’t do it much because I don’t have that much time, but there are really great Seth Godin and… let’s see… you might have to do this  on your show notes because I don’t have it with me but there’s a really good storytelling book that I still haven’t read. It’s on my bookshelf. I promise I’ll send it to you after this.  This author who’s just not coming to mind because I don’t have enough coffee but he was… I’ve been reading his books for years and when I was younger and he wasn’t even writing about marketing and now that’s his whole shtick. It’s like 10 years later. Donald miller. It’s Donald Miller and he’s writing a lot of marketing books right now that are really phenomenal. So I would say, wherever you like to get information, maybe it’s on YouTube… I remember when I first started my business, YouTube is where I went. I thought it was just a platform that was easy for me to kind of get information. I hope that helps. Never stop learning. You’ve never reached… especially if you’re marketing, because marketing is the wild wild west. It’s just ever changing, so it’s worth continuing to learn.  

Ephraim: I hope the audience is listening. Maria just mentioned basically my favorite hashtag #AlwaysBeLearning.

Maria: Yes.

Ephraim: Always. The second favorite hashtag is #AlwaysBeTesting which you had also mentioned.  

Maria: Yes, absolutely.

Let’s Learn More About Maria

Ephraim: Alright, so let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started  on your nonprofit career path?  

Maria: Like I said, when I was an undergrad, I was studying journalism. This is before print died and went to heaven. So my plan was to be a foreign correspondent. I was really drawn…. I had studied in Uganda. I was really interested in conflict abroad and decided that to kind of get my feet wet and living abroad, I joined the Peace Corps. I served in Ghana with the Peace Corps for a couple of years and of course was very much on the ground. I was a public health volunteer. Did a lot of work in water and sanitation for HIV hygiene. Really, really amazing programs and worked with really amazing organizations and local leaders and really have this internal struggle of like do I want to tell these stories or do I want to actually be in the field and doing this work? I find this with a lot of Peace Corps volunteers or just people in their 20s, that they really struggle with how to use their skill sets and for those that do want to be in service, it’s really difficult to choose how to go about doing that. 

I came home right during the recession. I left in 2008. came back in 2010. It was very difficult getting a job. Anyway, I really wanted to get back into international development and it just wasn’t happening. It was just really really hard even to get into grad school at that time. It was a difficult time to enter back into the workforce but landed in nonprofit communications, which was the perfect reconciliation of my love for telling stories and my passion for making the world a better place, trying to have a piece in doing that. Once I realized that, that was it. It was nonprofit marketing communications, I never really looked back.

So for about 10 years I worked in-house in some of the largest nonprofit public health nonprofits in New York. I got my master’s in public administration and then after about 10 years of that, including the Peace Corps, I started my family. I had my first daughter and the thought of going back to my nine to five with a newborn… I had this aha moment but what’s the slow version of an aha moment? It was like over time I started to realize that I really loved my job but I hated the nine to five grind and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I know I’ve told you this story before, so I quit my job right after maternity leave essentially and started my consultancy where I still do nonprofit marketing but now… as a role, as a trainer and a strategist and consultant for all kinds of nonprofits. So I continue to find my niche, just like I did in nonprofit communications, was this big “oh this is where I belong” and I was a consultant. I’m like this is where I belong, this makes me happy, this makes sense to me.

Ephraim: Awesome. I love the fact that it made me chuckle when you said nine to five, because I’ve never had a nonprofit job that was nine to five.

Maria: It was like 80 hours?

Ephraim: Something like that, yeah. The usual. Given that you’ve been in the sector for over a decade, if there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit world, what would it be?  

Maria: I’m gonna give you two but they go hand in hand. One is the overhead myth and the second is that nonprofits can’t make a profit.

So money is just a huge issue in the nonprofit sector. This is starting to change slowly, slowly, slowly but so many people have this idea that when they donate to an organization, that money go needs to go directly to those they serve. They don’t want to hear that it goes towards salaries, that it goes towards a mortgage or rent of a building, computers anything. Even 10, 15 years ago, there’d be these huge exposes of nonprofits showing where their funds are going and to look at these pie charts, they’re perfectly appropriate how much money that they are using for overhead.

But people, I don’t know… it’s almost like a catch 22 because if you don’t pay people well, they’re not going to stay in nonprofit. If you want good people, you need to pay them effectively. So I’ve always struggled with that overhead concept, that you shouldn’t be paid well because you’re doing good things. I think those of us who are working to make really important changes should be compensated for that and that they should have all the resources in the world that they need to do things effectively. So we need to continue to fight the overhead concept and also that nonprofits can’t make a profit.  

That myth is so harmful because people who have nonprofits… are leadership and nonprofit, they don’t run their nonprofits like a business. They might spend all of their money on services, instead of maybe investing or saving. They might be too reliant on one income stream, whether that be grants and donations, instead of looking into maybe some income generating activities.

Listen, the Girl Scouts have been doing it for how long, right? And Goodwill is a huge retailer. So this is not something that I’m making up. There are organizations out there that sell things to raise money, not just for their services but to cover all kinds of things. So nonprofits are a business. They can and should bring in income and I think it’s time for us to think a little bit more creatively and how to bring, how to diversify revenue  streams and how to bring income in sustainably and not just be relying on the goodness of people’s hearts and grants that can be very inconsistent.

Ephraim: I will co-sign both of those. You mentioned… you talked about this for a second a bit before. Most memorable experience you had working for Peace Corps in Ghana.

Maria: Yeah, I love that you asked that. I had so many adventures and I know this is just maybe like a lame response but really when I think of it, it’s kind of just the day-to-day. There were two boys that would hang out with me quite a bit. One was the son of a community leader who just kind of helped me out. He was kind of assigned to help me get water for my water tank and things like that. But then I kind of adopted him. I feel like I adopted him. He started calling me mom and he’d come visit me on his lunch breaks and after. I mean he was just always around. His name was Musa and then Azay was. he had a physical and emotional handicap and I don’t even know what the diagnosis is but he couldn’t go to school. He had some kind of a syndrome where his hands were big and his feet were big and the community adored him but culturally, they felt that he was cursed because of the syndrome that he was born with. But he was also very very attached to me and I was very very attached to him. So just those two would come to visit me but ended up having to deal with each other and kind of drove each other crazy. So they were kind of like my two sons. So he was Azay.

And so just my memories of Musa and how we’d go on crocodile hunts together and how we’d go to the market together and they would just kind of help me shop or just sit and share a meal together. I mean, those are the times- especially now that life just gets so busy so quick -and those days just really really instilled in me a sense of slowing down and enjoying one another. So I’d say that day-to-day with Musa and Azay were my most memorable times. 

Ephraim: I love that. Now moving away from that to a little bit more of your current work. Facebook Live, love it or hate it and why?

Maria: I hate. it I hate it so much. Facebook Live never fails to fail. Instagram Live I’ve gotten used to. I have this theory that Facebook Live has some kind of a deal with StreamYard where they purposefully don’t work. So that we tried it because they’re like, well, if this doesn’t work, go ahead and get a different app. So Mary Anderson, who is my nonprofit marketing partner, I don’t want to say partner in crime but my partner in goodness and making the world of a better place, Mary is amazing and we both manage the Digital Marketing Hive on Facebook and so we want to do these sessions and it’s like we want to pull our hair out because something that worked once will never work again. We have so many tech issues. I mean it’s just… it’s been since January, so like six months now, it’s never gone smoothly. It goes better for Mary than for me. So maybe there’s a little something to say about that but I hate it very much. I hate Facebook Live very much.

Ephraim: I appreciate your candidness and honesty about that. You love stories, so this was an easy question for me to ask. Favorite all-time story?

Maria: Okay, I’ve thought long and hard about this now. My ethos is that stories change hearts and minds and that they are pivotal in change, in making the world I’d said a healthier, cleaner, safer, better place. 

With that said, my favorite genre of stories are ghost stories. Anything supernatural and specifically my favorite story to tell is that my mom bought a farmhouse in upstate New York that we very much believe is haunted and we have all had really crazy experiences up there and I won’t get into it and if you want to have another episode, I can tell you all these stories. I’ll just leave you with this: We found a newspaper clipping from the 50s after all these weird things were happening. We found this old newspaper that said that this particular house was a haunted house and told a story about a murder that took place in like the 18th century. It used to be an inn and my uncle who was helping to do a lot of renovations for this house before we could even be inhabitable, found bones in the basement and stuck these bones in the foundation. Totally desecrated, stuck these bones in the foundation of the house and like forget it. Things got so so crazy after that for a long time. So we have tons and tons of stories but I will hear… it just brings me so much joy to hear a good ghost story. It’s always been my favorite favorite genre of story. 

Ephraim: That’s an interesting one. That’s different. Lastly, we will turn the table. You get to ask me one question about anything at all. Doesn’t have to be nonprofit related. I’ve got no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.  

Maria: Alright, here it comes. Do you have a supernatural or ghost experience.

Ephraim: Wow. Me personally? No. However, in my family, yes I do. I want to say supernatural. It’s not necessarily supernatural but I can say like this: I got to go back… My great grandfather was very sick as a little boy and his mother, so my great great grandmother, was in synagogue and she went up to the ark in the middle of services- not something that people do, certainly wasn’t the norm- and she walked right up to it and she opened up the curtain of the ark and she prayed and the family tradition is she prayed. “take me and let him survive.” She died and he survived and that’s my great grandfather. He survived and then here I am today. Hi. So that’s just one of those…  

Maria: Amazing.

Ephraim: That’s one of those stories in the… there’s a family tradition that that’s what happened. But we’re like, okay. It works. Maria: Yeah, keep to it and keep that story going. Ephraim: And the other one is not necessarily supernatural, just for me has a little bit of a connection to my grandfather. My youngest son was born on a Tuesday evening. So in Jewish tradition we have the circumcision ceremony eight days later. The Sunday afterwards, so a day and a half before his circumcision, my grandfather passed away and even before he was buried, my son was named after him. I have an uncle who calls my son ‘the conduit.’ That’s what he calls him, because he said, my uncle- he was the son of my grandfather and he says because he’s that connection to my father when he looks at him. So when I think about it and I sit down for a second, I go it’s quite crazy but it works for me. One generation went but we already have another come. So not supernatural but more kind of experiences within… yeah, those are mine.

Maria: Do they have similar personalities in any way?

Ephraim: In some ways yes. In some ways yes and that’s… it’ll be interesting to see as he grows up, how he grows up and what he grows up and then I can really look at it and go… He’s a teenager. You know how teenagers are. We’ll wait till he becomes an adult and then we’ll see. But my father will certainly say because this is his father who passed away, he will see my son and my father will say that’s just like my father. My father sees it. So if my father sees, it I’m like okay, It’s there. I’m not gonna deny it.

Maria: I love it.

Ephraim: Those are my supernatural… those are my ghost stories as it were. Any other ghost stories for me are gonna have to do with Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. I used to be a big horror movie freak when I was a teenager and young adult so that’s the only other supernatural stuff I do.

Maria: It probably wouldn’t surprise you that I am too.  

Ephraim: That’s my favorite… that’s kind of where where I was on that spectrum. But I haven’t had… I haven’t had any haunted houses that I’ve lived in and I am hopeful not to. I’ll leave it at that. No thank you.

Maria: It’s an experience.

Ephraim: We will trust you on that. Not my cup of tea.  

Thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast today. I encourage everybody to connect with Maria on LinkedIn and on Twitter she’s @MariaBryanCrtv  I also would suggest, you can go to her website and learn more about her work with nonprofits at   Maria it was a pleasure learning from you today. Thank you.

Maria: Thank you so much. This has been really fun.

Ephraim: An absolute pleasure. Have a great day.

Maria: Alright, take care. Bye.