mythbustersIn a time when many non-profit organizations are examining their budgets closely and looking anywhere to cut expenses, it is not uncommon that allocations for advertising and marketing are slashed. This may cause some to worry that existing customers will fall out of touch and potential new ones will never hear of you in the first place. This will lead to a dramatic loss of income and could cripple the organization.

However, in my experience working for non-profits, I have come to believe the opposite. I argue that marketing and advertising budgets should get cut in tough times. Of course, if your revenue stream is strong, by all means, use it for promotion. However, if your organization is like many others, you have no choice but to get creative in your strategies.

There are a number of strategies available that you can use to save money in marketing, yet still get your message out. With this article, I will focus specifically on some of the tools available on the Internet to accomplish this goal for you.

Web Sites

A custom-built website from a professional designer can be very expensive. For all of the bells and whistles, you’re looking at several thousand dollars, depending on the company. Fortunately, there are a number of options that will allow you to establish a professional web presence either for free or for much less than you’d get on the open market.

My favorite is WordPress. WordPress is what this blog you’re currently reading is built in. Its sole purpose is to present Blogs (Web Logs). However, the application is very flexible and you can add many terrific components that will provide your site with interactivity, clean organization, SPAM filtering, a shopping cart, comment editing, calendar items, and much more. With WordPress you are able to update the site anytime you wish and it easily holds digital pictures, streaming video, and MP3 music files.

Additionally, there are many sites on the Internet that offer free templates for your use. These templates can be very attractive and will give your site a modern feel.

The best part about WordPress is that it is free. There are two versions of it. The first is hosted on dedicated WordPress servers. There is no charge for this, but you are not able to place advertising on these pages, such as Google AdWords. The second option is to download the WordPress software and pay for it to be hosted on any server set up to interface with WordPress. (Call your local providers to see if they offer this service.). Again, there is no charge for the software, but the server will most likely charge you a monthly rate for hosting.

The only word of caution is that it may take a little while for you to feel comfortable navigating inside your new WordPress environment. There are FAQs and tutorials available to help you, and after some trial and error, you should be on your way.

Overall, there is very little a WordPress site can not do. For many organizations, this is a great solution.

There are other free blogging sites, like Google’s Blogger and LiveJournal. While many of these sites are fine and professional, I do not believe that they offer the extensive flexibility and adaptability that WordPress does.

Email Communications

Email has become, in recent years, a very effective and reliable means of communicating. However, when your email database grows very large, cutting and pasting a list of addresses into the BCC field gets to be cumbersome.

Fortunately, there are a number of pay services available that will allow you to organize your database, design visually attractive messages, and track the delivery route of each individual email after it is sent.

For a couple of years, I have been using Constant Contact and it costs approximately $20 per month. For this low price, I get an amazingly flexible service that I can use as often as I need. I am not a sophisticated web designer; in fact, I have two left thumbs when it comes to the keyboard and mouse. However, Constant Contact provides dozens of free templates that allow me to just plug in the text and images I need, and it does all the hard work for me.

It is simple to import my existing email database and then add or remove names afterwards, if necessary. Once the message is created and sent, customized reports tell me which messages made it to their assigned destinations and which ones bounced back. Furthermore, it will give me information about the failed ones. Perhaps the recipient’s email inbox was full or there was a typo in the address. I found that to be very helpful.

I have used Constant Contact for three different non-profits, and each time I have received great praise from my community. They loved getting important and topical information right in their email inbox and found the format very easy and enjoyable to read.

Merchandise, Apparel, and Online Shopping Cart

Only a few short years ago, a common problem for many non-profits who sold merchandise and apparel with their organization’s logo on them was the requirement to place a minimum order. This meant that non-profits with thin budgets had to make a gamble that they could actually sell the items and not get stuck sitting on inventory.

Now, there is a better option available. Although I have not personally used them myself, I have heard and read many positive reviews of Café Press. Here is one for you to judge for yourself. This service allows you to set up a web-based store and offer a wide range of items with your logo on them. Your customers buy the items online, and Café Press takes care of the shipping. The great part about this is that Café Press makes up the items only after an order is placed. Therefore, you will never over-order.

The prices at Café Press are a little on the high side, but remember, they are taking care of all the administration and saving you from carrying overhead. In the long run, you are probably coming out well ahead!

There are other options available such as contacting your local shops and comparing prices. CustomInk is another great choice that allows you to upload your logos and create artwork online. They will then ship the entire order to you to distribute or sell the items individually to your supporters.


One of the most common tools in marketing is the good old flier. Fairly easy to make, the flier is a staple of getting the word out in the local market. And even though the Internet has become the premier means of marketing a product, there is still a value in creating printed material.

However, paper prices have risen dramatically, and the cost of a substantial printing run can be prohibitive. Up until recently, organizations had to rely on just a handful of local printers to shop for a good quote. Now however, numerous websites have spring up that will allow you to submit the details of your printing job to a open bulletin board and printers from all over North America can bid on the project, both for cost and for delivery time.

For example, there is Print Industry and Print Local. I have used such a site before and have saved significantly by using printers half-way around the country. The bids are accompanied by a contact name and phone number. You have the ability to interview (over the phone) any of the bidders to get more details. Once you have made your selection, you can communicate with the printer, just as you could have if they were located right around the block. The finished product is shipped directly to your door.

If your print job is time sensitive, make sure to give yourself enough time to submit the details and interview printers. Also allow for shipping time. Remember to account for the shipping costs within the bid.

For specific printing recommendations, I have had excellent service with Overnight Prints. Another online service that offers a variety of printable items is Vista Print.

Get Some Free/Cheap Publicity

While any media outlet would love to sell you premium advertising space, the truth is that most of the time, even the non-profit rates they offer are expensive. I would urge you to purchase advertising space as a last resort, only if you have the money to do it. Don’t cut into the “flesh” of your budget just to run some ads.

The Press Release & Public Service Announcement
First of all, become an expert on writing a press release. You should be drafting these things and sending them to every media outlet in your geographical area as often as you have something happening. Here is an article from, which will show you how to craft a professional looking press release. This can be added to a separate pubic service announcement, which is basically a script for a radio or TV spot. Also from eHow, here is a quick guide to writing the PSA. Many times, radio and TV stations are looking for content and will happily pick up on these press releases free of charge.

The key to getting their attention though is to add some excitement to the announcement. Ultimately, this means adding some excitement to your event. In your release, focus on some key aspect of your activity that will pique people’s interest. Maybe you have a minor celebrity coming to the event, or somebody’s famous dessert will be served. Come up with a hook that will make your press release stand out among all the others. It will be hard to gain any attention if you are just putting on the same old auction you’ve been doing for years.

The Classified Section
If you do want to pay money to advertise, I would strongly consider doing it in the classified section of the newspaper. In my experience, the classified section is the most popular in the whole paper. When I was opened a day care center inside our elementary school, I ran a nice sized classified ad for weeks and got a great response. And, the best part was that it was dirt cheap!

Campaign Yard Signs
While it may be alluring to spend a lot of money on a big billboard ad on a heavily traveled road in your community, this can be very expensive- not only for renting the space, but also for creating the huge banner of an ad.

I would suggest paying much less and having hundreds of campaign yard signs made up. Your message space is limited, but if you get enough of them placed strategically in your target area, people will really notice. A new Charter School in my area utilized this strategy and they had the highest enrollment of any school in town that year. I used a company called Political Yard, although there are dozens of such companies advertising online.


In the course of carrying out your non-profit’s mission, it is understandable that you would want to do or spend whatever it takes to spread the word. However, reality often forces us to re-adjust our desires and substitute them with practical compromises. Fortunately, when it comes to advertising and marketing, there are numerous alternatives that will both save you money and still bring you success in promotion of your organization.

This article is part of the Mythbusters series.

Here’s a list of each of the articles in this series:

  1. Fundraising Myth: If You Build It They Will Come by Sandra Sims
  2. The Myth of the “Selfless Volunteer” by Tom Welsh
  3. Fundraising Myth: It’s Great to Be Cheap by Marc Pitman
  4. Advertising and Marketing Are Too Expensive by Jim Berigan
  5. The Myth of the Dried Up Well by Sandy Rees
  6. Myths About Foundation Funding by Aaron Atwood

Posted on 17 April 2008

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