Overlooked Fundamentals That Are Eating Your Budget

3 Digital Marketing Fundamentals That Will Save You Budget & Time

We limit our growth potential when we deprive ourselves of the fundamental tools that make marketing work. 

More importantly, it is a disservice to our organization and the people we seek to help, when we do not adhere to the principles of responsible marketing.

In the next 10 minutes you’ll learn the methodology effective nonprofit marketers use to make disciplined decisions that provide compound interest for growth over time. 

I’ll also share examples from the framework I use to help nonprofits change the trajectory of their organization. 

What are the fundamental tools of nonprofit marketing? 

Even the most experienced woodworker is handicapped without proper tools.

Yet, with the right set of tools, a craftsman can create beautiful and functional art from something as simple as a block of wood.


It seems like magic. But to the craftsman, it’s a matter of vision, process, and having the right tools.

Craftsmen can do it time and time again. And so can you.

As marketers who seek to have an impact, we are also responsible for generating outstanding results while working with limited resources.

We accept responsibility for keeping our organization afloat by:

  • Raising awareness for our cause
  • Growing donations

Yet, we are usually deprived of sufficient resources. We often have to work with:

  • Limited support staff
  • Tight operational budgets
  • High expectations

How can we create a seemingly magical outcome with limited resources?

The Toolset That Unlocks The Black Box

We must have the right:

  1. Tools – foundational assets that allow us to do great work
  2. Knowledge – the know-how to use our tools
  3. Vision – a clear path for the future and belief that we can get there

Assuming you have a vision for where you want to take your nonprofit, a base-level of marketing knowledge (and the will to learn as you go), all that’s left is the right tool set.

The 3 Fundamental Tools All Successful Marketers Have

The woodworker’s foundational toolset includes forms of:

  • Pencil and Measuring Tape – for planning and adjusting
  • Saw and Chisel – for broad strokes and quick changes
  • Planer and Sanding – for refining and finishing touches

Marketers who are able to create lasting change in their organization have a similar toolset.

The marketer’s toolset:

  • Goal Setting Rubric and Data Sources – for planning, evaluating, and adjusting
  • Core Communications Materials – for converting potential supporters into advocates
  • Reliable Marketing Channels – for experimenting and refining the most effective way to reach the right people

Here’s how these tools work and what you need to know about leveraging them the right way for success…

Fundamental 1: Goal Setting Rubrics and Data Sources

Your proven methodology for setting goals and using real data to make better decisions

Goal Setting Rubrics That Work

Like the craftsman, if we don’t have a clear vision for where we want to go, we can’t get there.

Effective rubrics provide you with a scorecard that empowers you to:

  • Focus – make sure you stay focused on the desired outcome
  • Plan – break big goals into small milestones so you can utilize your resources effectively
  • Measure –  evaluate performance against a consistent benchmark (moving targets are dangerous)
  • Adjust –  correct course when needed to make sure you are still on the best path to reaching your goals
  • Communicate – set expectations with team members and key stakeholders, then show you’ve accomplished what you said you would

Amatuer marketers have a tendency to include too much data in their rubrics. More is better right? 

When it comes to scoring rubrics, too much data makes it difficult to focus on the important things and hard to communicate results. 

Simple is better and often more effective.

 The best goal setting rubrics are: 

  • Simple – intuitive and easy to evaluate in a matter of seconds
  • Reliable – based on accurate data sources (more on this in the next section…)
  • Easy to Communicate – allow you to set expectations and report results clearly with your team and key stakeholders like your board of directors

Two Examples of Rubrics That Work

These rubrics have been build to meet the specific needs of nonprofit marketers. Yours will not look the same, because you have unique needs. But, yours should embody the same characteristics and be backed by reliable data.  

Example 1: A Simple Spreadsheet

This spreadsheet example covers most of our needs, allowing us to compare various channels / campaigns by cost per lead. Can you identify what is missing?

This rubric would be stronger if it also included targets for:

  • Acceptable Cost Per Lead
  • Total Number of Leads
  • Total Budget

Automation Note: This type of report can be automated using Google Spreadsheets and multiple data sources such as Google Analytics and donor management platforms.

You can manually update it the first few times, until you know you’ve got it right. Then automate it so you’re one click away from measuring the pulse of your marketing campaigns.

Example 2: Google Data Studio Report

Here are two examples from Google Data Studio reports:

Source Performance – This simple dashboard makes visual interpretation easier than the previous spreadsheet example. 

Funnel Visualization – A layout like this helps you see your funnel and conversion rates by channel. The white drop-down bar “Source / Medium” allows you to breakdown performance by each channel (organic search, paid search, etc.).

The “Peace of Mind” Rubric

Reliable scoring rubrics give me peace of mind.  

I know if we are on track to meet our goals or if we are falling behind.

I can see if something is broken and needs my attention.

Most importantly, I can set expectations with important stakeholders, which relieves stress for them and time-after-time shows that I meet the growth goals I set.

BUT, the scoring rubric only works when it’s backed by reliable data…

Data Sources

Effective scoring rubrics have high-level goals, quantified by specific metrics.

High-Level TargetsSpecific Metrics Tracked
Raise online donations by 10% in 6 monthsDonations raised through website
Increase support base by 20% in 6 months# of email subscribers
Increase awareness# of website visitors

If you don’t have specific metrics, you can’t quantify your growth.

If you can’t quantify your growth, how do you know your marketing efforts are working?

How will your Executive Director or Board of Directors know that your work is contributing to growth?

Cut Out The Guesswork

Get the best data possible to allow you to measure growth over time.

Getting accurate data is no longer our biggest challenge.

Today our challenge is: 

  1. Focusing on what’s important 
  2. Knowing how to evaluate the data we do have
  3. Being able to communicate our data insights in a meaningful way

These 3 questions are your framework for designing a rubric and the data needed to make it work:

  1. Start with the end in mind. What do I really want to measure?
  2. Identify the metrics to support your questions. If I had the best possible metrics to measure my most important goals… what would they be?
  3. Set up the data streams that allow you to track specific metrics. What data do I need and how can I get it? 

Have a question about your rubric? Submit it here.

Two high level metrics I monitor are:

  1. Donations by Channel – Showing actual donation amounts by marketing channel.
  2. Website Sessions – Showing the distribution of where website visitors come from.

I also like to have a clear visual for performance over time, like this graph, showing overall website performance in visits (sessions) and donations (donation amount):

Having a clear scoring rubric and reliable data is like turning the lights on when you’ve been working in the dark. It isn’t going to solve all your problems, but it helps illuminate your path and uncover blind spots that can be disastrous.

Once your rubric is working, you can objectively compare marketing channels and campaigns.

You are very likely to find that a few marketing channels drive 80% or more of your desired results…

Fundamental 2: Core Communications Materials

Finding comfort and unlocking growth by covering the basics

If you do not have a solid foundation, everything you build on top of that will be unstable and unpredictable.

Most chairs have four legs, a seat, and a back.

Some chairs also have arm rests, cushions, and fancy accoutrements. 

BUT, when you remove the legs from even the most elaborate chair… it quickly loses its value.

As marketers, we need to be clear about WHAT the legs of our strategy are and HOW to strengthen them. Here are the basics…

The Basics: Get Documented & Stay Organized

Most of us know who we are trying to reach. Few of us have actually documented it. Even fewer use this documentation properly, even though deep in our hearts we know it will save us time and get us a better result.

The challenges that slowly wear us down are often rooted in:

  • Consistency – How do we keep our messaging consistent across various mediums?
  • Coordination – How do we coordinate between full-time, part-time, and freelancer team members… all working remotely? 
  • Time – How can I possibly manage so many different moving pieces?

Covid-19 has exasperated many of these challenges. It’s time to take back control.

What can we expect when we take the time to get organized?

  • Clarity – a central brief helps you (and everyone you work with) simplify and clarify what’s important. If you ever forget, just go back to the brief!
  • Getting Stronger with Time – documentation allows you to make small updates over time as you learn, so you’re continually getting stronger. 
  • Saving Time – a set of reference documents brings anyone new up to speed and keeps everyone else on track with little to no intervention from you.

The purpose of your marketing foundation is to make everything else you do easier and more effective. It might feel simple and unimportant. 

It might seem obvious… and it should. 

Develop your legs by starting with the big 3 foundational pieces:

  1. Target Audience – define your most important target audiences as clearly as you can.
  2. Projects – outline the core goals, metrics, and responsible stakeholders for your most important marketing projects.
  3. Branding – clarify what makes your brand unique; color-scheme, fonts, terminology, etc.

Organize these into a central folder that you can control access to. Any time a new member starts a project, send them these 3 and within 30 minutes they should be up-to-speed and ready to produce quality work.

Example: A Simple Target Audience Brief 

Download This Template

These do not need to be complicated to be effective. In fact, simpler is often better.

Let’s look at one example of how foundational briefs can significantly strengthen your most important communication assets…

Digital Asset #1: A Clear and Effective Website

Your website is a pivotal touch-point in the Supporter’s Journey.

Almost every other marketing channel will lead back to your website at some point.

A bad website is continually letting you down by…

  • Inadequately representing your organization
  • Failing to convey the importance and value of your cause
  • Making it too hard for visitors to know how to support you
  • And much more…

Whether your website communicates clearly or is generally ineffective… the resulting positive or negative impact will compound over time.

Which direction are you headed?

Example Website 1 – Website with Poor Communication

Example Website 2 – Website with Very Good Communication

Whether you are fixing your website yourself or bringing in outside help, you need foundational documents to help you stay on course. In the various questions you face when updating copy, design, user flow, etc., you can lean on your big 3 foundational briefs for support:

  • What colors should we use here? (Branding Brief)
  • How should we word this copy? (Target Audience Brief)
  • What do we need to add to our site to support our marketing projects and goals (Project Briefs)

Your foundation is like a launch pad… time for takeoff! 

Fundamental 3: Testing and Leveraging Marketing Channels

A framework for reducing stress and maximizing outcomes

When you have a weak foundation, experimenting with various marketing channels feels risky and is stressful.

When you have a strong foundation, things start to get fun and exciting.

After you take care of the fundamentals you can start looking for ways to 3-5x your growth and continually lower your cost per new donor acquisition. 

The Marketing Landscape – chaos if you don’t have a methodology and discipline.

I like to think about marketing channels in three different categories.

  1. Tried and True
  2. Automated Revenue Generators
  3. Experimental

Here’s how they work:

Tried and True

You might already know what your “best” channels are…

A good scoring rubric will either reveal or verify this for you (and you’ll have the data to prove it to your ED or Board). 

Remember: the most effective marketers reduce assumptions by verifying their gut feeling with real data. Then they make informed decisions in the best interest of their organization.

Identify Your Most Important Channels The Right Way

Let the data show you where you are getting the majority of your supporters. 

Be careful not to take the easy route and chase the latest Social Media hype, or just assume your gut feeling about starting a podcast is right.

Following hype or your gut is most often a disservice to your nonprofit and the people you have the responsibility to help.

Manage Your Donation-Drivers Carefully

Keep your tried-and-true channels healthy. This is the lifeblood of your growth; it sustains your organization.

Reduce your risks by setting up monitoring as we covered earlier in your scoring rubric. You should have your finger on the pulse of your most important channels so you know if something goes awry.

Hedge your bets by diversifying your sources of growth amongst several channels / campaigns. 

As we saw with the covid-19 pandemic, things can change fast and there is no guarantee we can count on things staying the same for long.

If you raised a significant portion of your annual donations from physical events before 2020… you’ve already experienced this.

EXAMPLE: Organic Search

An example of a tried-and-true channel for most environmental nonprofits is organic search.

Typical Distribution of Website Visits – Most visitors come from searches on Google and other search engines.

It should be easy for someone who has heard of your organization in passing, to: 

  • Google your name or something highly related to what you do 
  • find your website 
  • learn about your organization more, and… 
  • take an action on your site to become a supporter (donate, join mailing list, sign a petition, etc.) 

If you do not have this flow properly set up, you are missing out on people actively searching for your organization and you’re leaving money on the table.

Automated Revenue Generators

Automated Revenue Generators (ARG) are channels that need little to no attention but bring in consistent donation revenue.

These take some time to set up properly and gain traction, so factor in the startup cost.

Experimenting and Evaluating ARGs

It may feel risky to branch into new fundraising areas you haven’t tried before. Keeping your tried and true channels strong will help reduce this “risky” feeling (but won’t eliminate it). 

Effective marketers significantly diminish risk and increase the upside by evaluating opportunities properly:

  1. Always evaluate your return on investment before starting (ROI)
  2. Use the best possible data to reduce assumptions in your evaluation process 

Hiring someone to help? Any trustworthy expert will give you an ROI analysis on their work and give you the opportunity to make sure you fully understand the risks and rewards BEFORE you start working with them. 

The hard work for you, as the leader and manager, is to:

  1. Seek out ARG opportunities
  2. Take the time to evaluate opportunities on an ROI basis
  3. Make sure you set up any new endeavor with tangible metrics that allow you to measure progress 

Setting “go or no-go” milestones is a great way to reduce your risk when experimenting with new marketing campaigns or channels.

The Math & Timing Behind ARG Management

Generally, the quicker you identify and set up your ARGs the better.

The Problem: If you miss out on revenue today, you miss out on the opportunity to re-investment that revenue tomorrow… 

A good re-investment today may mean 3-5x growth in 6 months…

Which can translate to a 10-20x increase when properly re-invested.

The difference is: compound interest vs flat, or even negative, growth.

Note: There is nothing wrong with taking your ARG revenue and using it to fund your environmental work immediately. Just note the tradeoff between impact today vs impact in the future based on your growth potential of re-investment opportunities.

Once you set up an ARG they require little attention and will bring in revenue for your organization steadily over time.

If you have an expert managing the ARG for you, or if you have it fully automated, you can move your attention to the next project and continue leveling up!

EXAMPLE: Automated Revenue Generator 

One common example of an Automated Revenue Generator, is the Google Ad Grant.  

You’ve already heard of it, I’m sure. 

The Ad Grant is $10k per month in ad spend every month through Google Ads.

40 days in, we are getting 200 new website visitors per day and have generated over $500 in donations. Within 6 months this campaign will have paid for itself and every month after that will be generating an estimated $2k per month in automated revenue. 

It takes a considerable amount of effort to set up properly and most nonprofits give up when they don’t immediately get the home run.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, it’s not your fault. The Ad Grant is often pitched as a quick-and-easy solution, when in fact, 95% of the time it takes a big push of effort and expertise to get it working for you.

In the example above, you can see the slow but steady growth (not a quick explosion). We made incremental improvements almost daily, to keep getting better.

40 days in, we are at this stage of the growth and effort curve.

When set up properly by an expert, this channel can bring in more than enough revenue to offset the management cost. A reputable expert will be able to estimate your monthly ROI, including their management fee. 

Good News: Your job is not to understand the ins-and-outs of Google Ads (that’s a full time job).

Your job is to evaluate the expert’s analysis and see if this is a good bet for your organization and the mission you seek to fulfill.

Experimental Growth Channels

Experimental growth channels are just that. 

The fact is, until you try you do not know what will work for your organization. 

As marketers we are tasked with taking in the best information available, making a reasonable judgment about what may work, then testing it and evaluating it fairly with the best possible data.

Good marketers optimize existing channels for incremental growth.

Great marketers take care of the basics AND experiment with low-risk and high-potential channels to find big growth opportunities.

What hidden growth opportunities are hiding in the dark for your organization? 

EXAMPLE: Retargeting As An Experimental Channel 

With $500-1,000 you can test a new channel like retargeting to see if you can re-engage people who visited your site but didn’t donate or join your email list for more info. If it results in a handful of new monthly donors or 1-2 large donors, the experiment has already paid for itself. It’s a small price to pay to uncover one potential growth avenue for your organization. 

Your experiment flow should look something like this.

Your Framework for Managing Marketing Channels

Eliminate the guessing. The important thing is that you define what success will look like (having a positive ROI)  and before you start any efforts, you outline a plan to measure your efforts so there will be no doubt in your mind whether or not it worked. 

Early-stage marketers tend to work on experiments without a clear framework and without taking care of the fundamentals. Then when it doesn’t work they are frustrated and find they have to go back to the drawing board. Don’t subject your organization to this type of doom loop.

Instead, take the time to get organized and adopt a proven methodology.

Implementing a framework for decision making and following it with discipline is how we do great work and responsibly serve the causes we seek to move forward.

Summary – The Fundamentals That Can Change Your Trajectory

Fundamental 1: Goal Setting Rubrics and Data Sources 

Make better decisions by properly leveraging reliable data. Take the guesswork out of your decision making, increase your chances for reaching your goals, and communicate your results effectively with key stakeholders.

Fundamental 2 – Leverage Core Communications Materials 

Save time, reduce stress, and increase effectiveness by documenting your core three briefs:

  1. Target Audience
  2. Projects
  3. Branding

Fundamental 3 – Test and Leverage Marketing Channels Cleverly 

Reduce risk while maximizing growth potential by grouping your channels into 3 categories and approaching them accordingly:

  1. Tried and True
  2. Automated Revenue Generators
  3. Experimental 

Need help? Let me know where you’re stuck and I’ll see what I can do:

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David E
David E

My SEO Journey: mentee >> freelancer >> top rated on Upwork >> agency owner... I've come a long way over the last 10 years. This blog covers everything I wish I knew when I was younger. Enjoy!

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