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The Nonprofit Marcomm Transformation, Part 1: From Burnout to Breakthrough

Your Roadmap for Communications Success That Fuels Fundraising

Marketing communications (marcomm) is a vast field, encompassing activities from internal town halls and crisis communications to websites and public relations. In the lean world of nonprofit marcomm, practitioners often wear many hats and are required to have deep knowledge of many specialties. With technology’s relentless pace, staying up-to-date in so many areas becomes a monumental task.

I’ve seen so many marcomm leaders jump from task to task, without a long-range strategic plan, often at the behest of organizational leadership or the board. These dedicated staff try to do it all and wind up feeling like they’re constantly failing. I can’t count the number of times I have heard, or said myself, some version of, “We’re building the plane while flying.”

It’s a noble cause, but no matter how great a person’s commitment and expertise, this chaotic approach is a recipe for disaster. It leads to ineffective communications, wasted resources, burnout, and ultimately turnover, damaging the organization as well as its staff.

But there’s hope! Here are four key steps to break this vicious cycle and achieve for-profit results on a nonprofit budget.

Step 1: Generate Buy-In: Educate Leadership (and All Staff) on Marcomm

It’s impossible to implement a strategic marcomm plan without organizational understanding and support. Invest time in education:

  • Define Marcomm’s Scope: Explain that marcomm encompasses far more than social media posts. Highlight its ability to drive mission-critical activities like fundraising, donor engagement, and program awareness. 
  • Show Impact: Provide regular reports tracking key metrics that show marcomm’s direct relation to organizational goals. Track website traffic, social engagement, email open rates, and demonstrate their effect on donations, volunteering, or program enrollments.
  • Open Communication Channels: Regularly discuss with leadership what they envision for marcomm and be clear about capacity and limitations. A collaborative approach gets far better results.

Step 2: Use PESO, Emphasizing Balance and Synergy

The PESO model (Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned) offers a framework for prioritizing your activities. The special sauce is achieving synergy across all four quadrants:

  • Paid Media: Targeted campaigns for hyper-awareness or crucial fundraising periods.
  • Earned Media: Build relationships with journalists and leverage current events to garner more press coverage.
  • Shared Media: Build your audience with targeted social media engagement and partnerships with stakeholders and influencers.
  • Owned Media: Develop high-value owned content like blogs, website pages, and newsletters, showcasing your nonprofit’s expertise.

Don’t aim for perfection immediately!  Small efforts in each PESO quadrant are more effective than focusing heavily on one area at the expense of others. This balanced approach creates momentum, increases chances you reach your entire target audience on more than one channel, and avoids the risks of relying too heavily on one channel.

Step 3: Create a Roadmap (It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect!)

Strategic planning can seem daunting, but a basic framework combats burnout, tames chaos, and more importantly, helps align goals across the organization. Start with a five-year plan. I understand that can feel impossible when in reaction mode, but hear me out! Begin by focusing on Year 1:

  • Clear Goals: Set three or four overarching goals that directly relate to your nonprofit’s mission. Break these down into smaller, achievable goals. Again, not too many. You want to set yourself up for success, especially at the beginning.
  • Tactics and Timeline: Brainstorm PESO initiatives to support your Year 1 goals and a basic rollout timeline.
  • Set Metrics: Decide what will truly demonstrate progress towards goals and identify ways to measure these.

A basic, high-level one-year plan can be put together in a couple of hours a week for a month. Don’t get stuck on whether the goals are truly SMART goals or how you’re going to measure a single specific tactic. Begin by beginning, and the rest will follow.

Step 4: Invest in Strategy Incrementally—Starting with the Long View

Wait, I thought you said a five-year plan? Yes and strategic planning is an ongoing, sometimes slow process. That shouldn’t be an impediment. Each quarter, commit to refining your one-year plan and fleshing out the future vision:

  • Add Layers to Year 1: Go deeper into initiatives—define concrete tactics, resource needs, timelines, and KPIs.
  • Outline Years 2–5: Begin setting long-term goals. But don’t make the common mistake of going from Year 1 directly to Year 2. Start with Year 5—even high-level objectives create a crucial destination. Planning Years 2, 3, and 4 in detail will be much easier with a general direction, and your results will be much more relevant and effective.
  • Be Flexible: Remain adaptable as conditions, technology, and internal goals evolve. Regularly revisit and adjust your plans.

By following these steps, you will have a five-year plan, within a year and have spent the first year of that plan with a progressively detailed roadmap. A year may seem like a distant horizon, but what’s important is that it’s feasible for even the leanest programs. If you have more resources, by all means, invest more time. If you commit to monthly work on the plan instead of quarterly, you can have a high-level plan in five months. 

Finally, as soon as the five-year plan is complete, begin on Year 6, then 10, then 7–9, continuing the process iteratively. This process can be part of a marcomm succession plan, ensuring long-term sustainability.


The true power of this four-step approach lies in the way it forges a resilient path toward your goals. These steps break down the seemingly monumental task into achievable increments. You’ll gradually overcome the paralysis of competing demands and the frustration of uncoordinated execution. As planning and communications become integral facets of your nonprofit’s culture, a powerful cycle is born:

Control and Confidence: A well-defined roadmap boosts clarity and reduces reliance on reactive tactics. You gain autonomy by anticipating needs and challenges.

Organizational Learning: Collaboration within your team and across departments fosters shared commitment and a wider understanding of strategic priorities.

Donor Trust: Skilled messaging and well-executed marketing communications demonstrate organizational strength. Even when not directly tied to fundraising efforts, donors and prospects recognize this and come to trust that their gifts will be harnessed to maximize effect.

Moving from burnout to breakthrough in your marketing communications program demands that your organization applies the same steady commitment it demonstrates in its program work. By embracing these core principles, you plant the seeds for a future in which your transformative vision inspires sustained support and drives long-term change.


Want to get Part 2 of this series, Winning Hearts & Minds: Change Management for High-Impact Advancement Programs, as soon as it drops? It dives into overcoming internal resistance to your best-laid plans. Follow our page for this guide and more strategies to streamline your nonprofit’s impact! 

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