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Merging Development and Marketing

​Over the past few months, one of the recurring topics of discussion when I meet with leaders of small and medium-size nonprofits is the combined development and marketing function, which offers both opportunities and challenges for organizations.

A growing number of nonprofits are recognizing the value of marketing/communications as a staff function within the organization, but limited resources make it difficult to create a separate department or even a dedicated full-time position… at least in the short term. A compromise that isn’t new but has become increasingly popular in recent years is to add the responsibility for marketing/communications to the existing development department (without necessarily adding headcount) or hire one (or max two) staff to handle marketing/communications and embed them in the development department.

I have experience leading a combined development/marketing department (both with dedicated marketing staff and without), so I’ve seen the benefits of this arrangement, as well as some of the pitfalls.

The “pros” of combining development and marketing include:

  • Giving marketing a “seat at the table” in planning and decision-making
  • Cohesive messaging across fundraising and general communications
  • A more sophisticated approach to donor and prospect communications
  • Cost savings by not establishing a standalone department (or hiring 100% dedicated staff, in some cases)

However, the “cons” of the scenario include:

  • Challenge of identifying candidates with both development and marketing expertise
  • When fundraising stakes are high (e.g. end-of-year drives, before major special events, etc.), marketing can be de-prioritized
  • Risk of staff burnout if functional responsibilities are added without adequate resources (headcount, budget)
  • Unrealistic expectations of outcomes if executive director and/or Board of Directors doesn’t understand nuances of marketing

Here are some tips for maximizing the odds of success with a combined development and marketing function:

  1. Design a roadmap for the marketing/communications function within your organization. What are staffing plans for next 3-5 years? What is aspirational marketing budget for next 3-5 years? Will you separate development and marketing at some point? (If so, when?) It’s wise to gradually scale up the function as resources allow, but having a plan ensures that everyone is on the same page with where you’re headed.
  2. Create a combined development/marketing annual plan with realistic and measurable goals, clear tactics and detailed roles and deadlines. Marketing/communications should be woven into development activities and also have discrete projects that connect back to overall organizational goals.
  3. Ensure your organization and the development/marketing team have a strong foundation with marketing and communications resources before diving into additional tactics. For example: core branding assets, messaging platform, media database, content (e.g. photos, videos, success stories, etc.) and materials (e.g. brochure, web site, etc.). If these pieces aren’t in place, make them the first priority.
  4. Recruit and engage a marketing/communications committee comprised of select Board of Directors members and other volunteers with key functional expertise and led by development/marketing staff leader(s). With limited resources, the marketing/communications function needs to be supported by highly skilled and motivated volunteers who can provide strategic guidance and access to pro bono resources.
  5. Incorporate marketing/communications updates into Board of Directors meetings on a regular basis. The function needs to stay “top of mind” for the Board so it doesn’t get lost in the never-ending stream of fundraising pressures. Also, the Board should regularly track progress on the marketing/communications front, just as they monitor programs and development.
  6. Invest in staff training in specific marketing/communications areas where you have knowledge gaps. “Marketing” is a huge umbrella, so it’s important to have general familiarity with the major tactical buckets, e.g. branding, advertising, public relations, social media, etc. Development/marketing staff don’t need to be experts in all of these areas, but they must be able to make decisions about how to allocate resources, when/how to engage volunteers, etc.
  7. Educate the rest of your staff about marketing/communications, so they understand why it’s important, what it includes (and doesn’t include), how new marketing/communications resources can support other departments, etc. There is often confusion about how this function operates, so lay the groundwork from the beginning.

The combined development/marketing function can be a worthwhile approach for many organizations- if appropriate planning is done at the beginning, and thoughtful monitoring continues on an ongoing basis to avoid pitfalls and keep this valuable function working well for your organization.