October 18, 2021

Industry Marketing Analysis: Non-Profits

This pandemic has been challenging for everyone. Adapting to disruption and change became the make-or-break factor for many non-profit organizations across Canada and around the world, involving hard and honest looks at operations and searching for ways to do more with less. While most non-profits have been able to adapt and innovate with their services and programs since the arrival of COVID-19, the situation remains challenging, and now – a year and a half since the pandemic began – it continues to have a significant impact on demand, capacity, and revenue.  

While it may be difficult at the moment, with issues that may go on for a while yet, formulating a cohesive, aligned, and strategic marketing plan will lead to an organization that’s better prepared for the future. A post-pandemic future is on the horizon, so the question is: how can non-profits turn these challenges into opportunities for strength and resilience?  How will non-profits evolve, and how will they adapt to the economic conditions that are likely to remain after the pandemic recedes? 


“During the current pandemic, as in past crises, non-profits feel the pinch: They have more people to help but fewer resources with which to carry out their work. 

Reimagine Your Nonprofit to Survive the Crisis, by Steve Zimmerman, June 01, 2020  


Current State of the Industry & Challenges 

The Canadian charity and non-profit sectors are an important part of the Canadian economy and have a huge impact on the lives of Canadians. They serve incredibly diverse needs and are critical to Canada’s social fabric. Non-profits in Canada alone account for 8.5% of the country’s economy, an estimated $169 billion, and employ 1.5 million Canadians full-time – fully 10% of the Canadian workforce.  

The pandemic hit vulnerable and marginalized communities especially hard. The non-profit organizations that serve these communities were forced to quickly shift their operations; Canadian non-profits reported a 30.6% decline in revenue since the onset of COVID-19, with financial losses between $4.2 billion and $6.3 billion.  

COVID-19 has impacted charities across the country as they try to pursue their missions amidst dueling health and economic crises. Research shows that 42% of charities have created new programs and 54% have transitioned in-person programs online since the beginning of the pandemic. In other cases, organizations have been forced to suspend or cease programs all together. 

While the demand for non-profit services has increased across Canada and worldwide, the multiple crises and flux in the worldwide economy since the start of the pandemic have posed new problems for the sector. Despite the obstacles and uncertainty of the past year and a half, it’s inspiring to see how the non-profit community seized the urgency of the moment and pivoted toward a new normal. With that said, though, non-profits of today face a challenging future. 

Even as non-profits inspired transformation within the communities they serve, many realized that in order to maintain and grow their impact in a world after COVID, they needed to transform themselves. For the majority of organizations, the constraints, and uncertainty of the pandemic, paired with social distancing mandates, are driving significant shifts in organizational priorities.   


Quick Facts: 

  • There are over 170,000 charitable and nonprofit organizations in Canada. 
  • 86,000 of these are registered charities (recognized by the Canada Revenue Agency). 
  • The charitable and nonprofit sector contributes an average of 8.1% of the total Canadian GDP, more than the retail trade industry and close to the value of the mining, oil and gas extraction industry 
  • Two million Canadians are employed in the charitable and nonprofit sector 
  • Over 13 million people volunteer for charities and nonprofits. 


Why Non-Profits Need Marketing

Non-profits showed their resilience and innovation over the last 18 months, and their ability to pivot, reset, and continue to think outside the box has been inspiring. It is exciting to see non-profits moving up again as we move forward.  

Marketing your non-profit in this new reality doesn't have to be complicated. Consistent marketing is as essential for growing and maintaining a non-profit as it is for any business, and before COVID-19 hit, most non-profit marketing consisted of periodically updating a website and holding an annual fundraiser or benefit gala. Today, it has become more important than ever to focus marketing efforts on reaching those target audiences, educating the public, and increasing support for your organization’s mission.  

Even the most benevolent organization can't do much good unless people know about it. Non-profits need those strong relationships with donors, volunteers, the media, and even government organizations to pursue their mission effectively. 


How Marketing Boosts a Non-profit: 

  • Spreads your message and mission statement
  • Brings in new donors and revenue
  • Showcasessuccessand satisfies donors 
  • Creates strong relationships with stakeholders 
  • Increasesexposurewith media 
  • Keeps a connection with the audience through sustained engagement 
  • Reaches more people about the work you do 



Top Non-Profit Trends for 2021 

The Way People Give is Changing 

  • While we hope to see forward progress throughout 2021 and beyond, the unfortunate reality is that demand for support is likely to increase in the months and years ahead.  
  • Services that provide support and connection are vital to the recovery of our communities. As social distancing restrictions are relaxed, non-profits will need to continue to find ways to realign services, increase staff capacity to expand support, and use data to understand and respond to the changing needs of the communities they serve. 
  • The pandemic upended every aspect of our lives, philanthropy included. Research reports indicate that there is a new kind of generosity as people give back to their communities in more imaginative ways, despite facing tremendous challenges. 
  • To tap into this generosity, non-profits are looking for more creative and innovative ways to support the organization’s mission, including:
      • Connecting with people digitally;
      • Non-cash charitable giving (i.e. supporting local restaurants by ordering takeout and continuing to pay businesses for services they could not use);
      • Valuable indirect and in-kind gifts.  


It’s Gen Z’s Time to Shine!  

Gen Z’s oldest members turn 25 in 2021, a prime age to cultivate to become charitable donors. This will be the largest consumer generation over the next five years, reaching $82 billion in spending; non-profits would do well to invest in reaching this newest generation of supporters.  

  • For a generation that grew up in the digital world, if the pandemic didn’t push organizations to go fully digital, it’s a ‘must do’ in 2021 to reach these digital dwellers.  
  • Gen Zers value inclusivity. Non-profits need to make sure they dig deep to ensure any sort of communication is diverse and inclusive.   
  • They thrive on being an integral part of their community. According to a recent Facebook report, though Gen Zers value their individuality, they also crave the connections that communities create. Organizations need to create space for the community both online and offline to best engage this potent demographic.  
  • Gen Z are truthseekers and they will see right through an inauthentic brand. It’s vital for a non-profit brand itself as both transparent and genuine. 

“People want access, authenticity, and transparency. Use video to lift the veil on your work. ”

- Julia Campbell, Nonprofit Digital Marketing Consultant 


It’s All About Video      

People want access, authenticity, and transparency. Video lifts the veil on your work and your organization’s mission. If you aren’t using video in your marketing, you’re missing a crucial opportunity. In 2021, creating video content and live streaming should be a key part of any organization’s marketing strategy.  

A recent Google survey revealed video trends for non-profits in 2021 you can’t ignore: 

  • YouTube is the top video platform. 
  • 79% of donors reported that online video ads were the most useful online media marketing they saw.  
  • Video ads tied with email ads garnered the highest and fastest levels of engagement.  
  • 39% of people who watch a video look up the organization within a day of viewing it. 
  • 57% of people who watch a video for a non-profit donate. 


Tell a Story 

Storytelling is a powerful tool when it comes to non-profit marketing. Brand storytelling shows a non-profit’s personality, mission, and values. It says who you really are and what is most important to your organization. It shows your organization's human side, allowing your supporters and audiences to feel connected to your mission and work. In today’s online world, a brand’s personality is almost as important as their actual purpose. Compelling storytelling is a must-have marketing outlet to let this personality shine through and engage consumers on a unique level, encouraging them to seek more information and get involved. 

  • Share your ‘WHY’ - stories should be as authentic as possible and have an impact.   
  • Storytelling connects you to your audience – it establishes emotional relationships and brings in a group that is interested in your cause. It shows the organization as a relational, transformative, trustworthy entity—something they can believe in.  
  • Storytelling sets you apart – a non-profit’s brand is unique, and telling your story is a great way to set the brand apart from other similar organizations. Tell what makes you important, valuable, and unique compared to others in your field.  
  • Storytelling drives action - when audiences see the organization’s personality, they feel a kinship with it and understand what makes it different. This makes them feel more inclined to do something. 


All for One and One for All 

In 2021 we are starting to see the lines blur between the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Consumers as well as employees are demanding that businesses add more purpose to their profit-centric model, conversely, we see some non-profits adopting heavily from successful for-profit organizations in search of a more nimble and sustainable growth model. There is a rise in cross-sector partnerships with several social justice movements in 2020 taking center stage. Consumers (and donors) expect organizations to be more value-driven and take an ethical stand. This is good news for the non-profit sector, as more and more Canadian businesses will be seeking meaningful collaborations and relationships with non-profits.  

Marketing a non-profit isn't a solo activity. Strategic partnerships can expand the reach of marketing efforts by finding ways to partner with the people or organizations who are in sync with your non-profit’s mission and can help advance your cause.  


The Future for Canadian Non-Profits 

While everyone is excited about getting back to normal, the reality is that normal has decisively changed. Our world looks completely different than it did before, so in order to adapt and thrive, the non-profit sector needs to be prepared for what that will look like. Though there will never be a true replacement for the personal touch of a phone call or the fun of a fundraiser or gala, organizations will need to augment and scale their marketing strategies to stay relevant, reach new supporters and support the changing needs of their communities. Today every non-profit is challenged to do more with less — resources are tight and teams are small. These organizations might not operate for profit, but they can still reap value from the traffic, funds, and awareness that good marketing can bring them.