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Nonprofits, Here’s How to Persuade Two Audiences—Donors and Program Participants—with One Website

We have yet to meet a nonprofit that doesn’t struggle with its marketing and messaging.


Nonprofit leaders are great at identifying social needs, forging solutions, and making the world a better place. But they’re often confused and frustrated when asked to appeal to two distinct audiences—donors and program participants—with their branding and messaging.


For commercial enterprises, things are pretty straightforward: The audience is customers and potential customers. The imperative is to increase the sales funnel. It’s a purely transactional relationship.


However, the task is more complicated for nonprofit organizations. A nonprofit leader must find a way to resonate with the beneficiaries of its mission and the donors who make the mission possible. 


The good news is that it’s quite possible to resonate with two audiences as long as you don’t blur the two messages. Our agency regularly helps nonprofits with this task; this article outlines how we do it. We begin by recommending Storybrand as the most effective marketing paradigm for nonprofits, then address dual-audience applications to website messaging, email campaigns, social media, and donor events.


Storybrand: A Proven Marketing Framework


While you’ve been busy making the world a better place, the good folks at Storybrand have been busy creating a proven marketing framework that works as well for nonprofits as it does for commercial enterprises.


The Supremacy of Story for Message Clarity


Storybrand’s paradigm is premised on the fact that most marketing collateral doesn’t work, either because the messaging is too complicated or it focuses on the wrong felt needs. If the message is too complex, and the donor or participant has to burn too many calories to understand the offer, they give up. If the message focuses on the wrong felt needs, they tune out.


This is where “story” comes to the rescue. At birth, the human brain is hardwired for stories—there’s a reason why we tell our children stories when we want to keep their attention. In adulthood, stories still hold sway. Think about J.K. Rowling’s success in the book market or Steven Speilberg’s at the box office. Nobody can look away from a good story. Narrative organizes information efficiently and makes it memorable while striking at gut, instinct, and emotion.  


For that reason, Storybrand’s marketing framework utilizes storytelling's powerful elements to clarify a brand’s message. Story provides the clearest message; in marketing, the clearest message always wins.


Brand Storytelling with Donors and Program Participants as the Heroes


For nonprofits, we recommend creating two separate stories. The first is mission-based, speaking effectively to program participants. The second is donor-based, resonating with current and prospective donors. Each story fosters its own marketing framework, and the two frameworks can be employed in tandem on the website, in email campaigns, through social media, and at donor events.


For each marketing framework, the target audience—rather than your organization—is the “hero” (main character) of the story. Each framework walks its target audience through the basic building blocks of any great Hollywood movie or bestselling fiction book: the main character, the problem he faces, the guide he meets along the way, the plan the guide provides to solve his problem, the call to action, and the ultimate success or failure of the character to overcome the problem.


By positioning the nonprofit organization as the “guide” instead of the “hero” of the story, you resonate at the level of gut, instinct, and emotion and thus have their attention. Through the mission-based framework, the beneficiaries of your program realize you understand them and can help them overcome their challenges to achieve their aspirational identity. Through the donor-based framework, current and prospective donors know you understand them, have enabled them to clarify why they should give to your organization rather than a thousand others, and can help fulfill their desire to be generous and participate in a mission bigger than themselves.


*The Ashford Agency is available to lead you and other stakeholders through a two-day workshop to create the basic storylines for each marketing framework.


Anchoring Your Overall Brand in the Participant’s Journey


When shaping your nonprofit brand, focus on the beneficiaries of your mission. In other words, start with the program participant’s journey, placing them at the heart of the narrative. Here’s how to organize it:


  • Hero: Your brand’s narrative for the world revolves around the program participant, the main character. The story focuses on helping them achieve their aspirational identity. What is the profile of the ideal program participant, and how can you effectively summarize their aspirational identity?

  • Guide: Your brand is a “guide” who leads the participants on their journey. How can you prove your empathy for their situation and credibility in resolving their problems?

  • Problem: Your brand helps the hero resolve their problems. What, specifically, are the participants’ external challenges (e.g., the need for clean water), internal pain points (e.g., desperation), and injustices (e.g., no person should be denied something as essential as clean drinking water)?

  • Plan: If your brand is the guide, you must have a plan. How do you help the program participant overcome their challenges, and how can you best summarize your plan in 3-4 steps?

  • Call to action: Your brand calls the hero to action. What do you want the prospective participant to do next (e.g., fill out an application)?

  • Failure: Your brand might want to lightly address what is at stake for the hero. What happens if a prospective program participant rejects the call to action?

  • Success: Your brand offers to help the hero overcome the challenges of their journey. How is your nonprofit transforming the program participant’s life, and how do they feel as a result?


After anchoring your brand in the participant’s journey, the next step is to layer the donor’s story into your overall brand. Identify any shared values between donors and participants. Foreground the way donor support directly enables participant success. Resonate with donors at the level of gut, instinct, and emotion by showing how their support for your mission will transform them by fulfilling their desire to be generous and their need to be part of a mission greater than themselves.


Application to Websites, Email Campaigns, Social Media, Donor Events


The Website: Your Biggest Dual-Audience Challenge


Twenty-five years ago, an organization’s website functioned as one communication vehicle and not an especially important one. Today, however, the website functions more like the hub to which all other communication vehicles are connected.


Unlike your nonprofit brick-and-mortar space, the website operates around the clock. While you’re on a lunch break or have closed for the day, the website is busy showcasing the vital significance of your mission and inviting prospective participants and donors to take a closer look. So, it’s essential to get this one right.


Here are a few tips for building a dual-audience nonprofit website:


  • Homepage: On the homepage, shape your messaging around the participant’s journey. Place call-to-action buttons (e.g., “Get Help”) above the fold and on each relevant panel.

  • Donate: On a separate page (e.g., “Donate”), tailor the message to your donor’s journey. Consider making this page almost as extensive as the homepage because it functions as the “homepage” for prospective and current donors.

  • Throughout the site, feature testimonials from both donors and participants. Participant testimonials will inspire donors, and participants will be inspired by the right type of donor testimonial.


Creating clear messaging for each stakeholder—donor and participant—will reap prodigious results.


Social Media: Speaking to Two Audiences


Americans spend more than 2 hours per day on social media. Thus, when you employ social media effectively, you tap into a valuable medium for participant and donor recruitment.


Here are a few tips for building a dual-audience social media strategy:


  • Spotlight inspiring participant stories that will resonate with donors and donor stories that participants will find meaningful.

  • For donors, limit direct fundraising appeals on social media. Focus instead on storytelling and then link to donation pages. Thank and recognize donors for their support, and tag them when you do it.

  • For participants, find ways to let them know you can help them meet their challenges and achieve their aspirational identity. Point them to helpful resources. Respond when they engage with our content.


As you follow these best practices over time, you will learn which types of content resonate with each audience.


Email Campaigns: The Easiest Medium for Dual Audiences


A nonprofit’s email database is its treasure chest, a golden trove of “hot leads” with whom you can communicate in an effective and targeted manner. Once you’ve used your CRM to segment the email subscription database by dividing contacts between donors and participants, you can tailor communications to each audience.


Here are a few tips for building a dual-audience email campaign strategy:


  • Personalize each group's subject lines, written content, images, and calls to action.

  • For the participant version, highlight upcoming events, program announcements, and other participants' success stories. Couch these things within the “participant’s story” framework you’ve created, finding ways to allude to the participant’s problem, your organization’s solution, and the participant’s aspirational identity.

  • For the donor version, provide success stories of participants, “thanks” for their support, and well-crafted, specific appeals for support. Couch these things within the “donor’s story” framework you’ve created.


You’ll never regret the time you put into creating dual versions of your email campaigns. The email database is your treasure chest, so open the lid and take advantage of the treasure.


Donor Events: Speaking to One Audience by Drawing Upon Two


Nonprofit donor events are a crucial way to build relationships with new and existing supporters and to keep them actively engaged with your organization. Sadly, however, many nonprofits create their annual donor events without the donor’s journey in mind. With a roomful of prospective and current donors, they focus exclusively on the participant’s journey, knowing that these testimonials will inspire donors to give. But never once do they highlight the donor’s journey by spotlighting a donor testimonial that resonates with peers.


Here are a few tips for creating an effective dual-story donor event:


  • Frame the event with the donor’s journey in mind, resonating at the level of gut, instinct, and emotion by lightly foregrounding the donor’s “problem” (desire to be generous, yearning to be part of a mission bigger than himself), the reason your nonprofit is the perfect “solution,” and so forth.

  • Allow the participant’s journey to play a significant role by highlighting participant testimonials.

  • Remember to accentuate the donor’s journey by highlighting at least one well-crafted donor testimonial.


With dual-audience email campaigns already in place, your nonprofit is perfectly positioned to follow up with each person at the event.


Closing Thoughts


You're not alone if you’re a nonprofit leader whose organization struggles with marketing and messaging. You face a challenge that corporate enterprises don’t face—the need to communicate with dual audiences of equal value—without the financial resources that corporations have.


But the good news is this: your vital nonprofit mission can be communicated to both audiences. Creating a story-based framework for each audience and differentiating between the two journeys as you communicate through various channels allows you to resonate with each audience and reap prodigious results.


P.S. If you’re ready to get started, the Ashford Agency is here to help. We follow the Storybrand model for messaging, which is research-proven to boost nonprofit key performance indicators. Schedule a free consultation to discuss how we can partner to create a website messaging strategy that reaches out, grabs the audience by the hand, and pulls them into your mission.


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