What is Marketing

What’s Marketing? It Might Not Be What You Think

In Learning Network, Marketing by Jamie Mierau

Today’s successful nonprofits realize the need to engage a more loyal and diverse audience to support their work.

We regularly receive calls from organizations who want to reach new audiences or more deeply engage their current members, donors, volunteers, participants, and partners – all of whom are critical to the success and sustainability of an organization. Typically, they want to know, “what strategies and messages are going to help us reach new people?”

We find that nonprofits often use the generic term outreach to refer to some combination of marketing, public relations, or communications. Marketing, public relations, and communications are related practices but are distinct.  It is useful to understand the differences between them.


Marketing is a systematic, objective, data-informed process used to identify and understand your organization’s audience and to create the strategies that are most relevant and resonant to those audiences so they take action on your behalf.

The action is usually making a donation, becoming a member, responding to an action alert, participating in an event, or deciding to volunteer. It may also mean changing individual behavior, influencing policy, or shifting a social norm.

Marketing is not about persuading the audience to purchase goods or services or trying to convince them what they should believe in. Rather, it’s understanding and satisfying the interests of your audience within the parameters of your mission and core work. How does your work relate to their values, beliefs, or lifestyles?

Public Relations

Public relations seek to build and maintain relationships with various audiences and to create a positive image or reputation for your organization within its broader community.

Public relations support marketing. It helps create the conditions for marketing efforts to succeed. For example, a marketing effort to attract volunteers will be less effective if no one in the community knows about the organization’s purpose or services.

Public relations refer to earned media, promotional activities, and participation in community events to increase participation (e.g. tabling at a fair).


Finally, communications underlie both marketing and public relations (and just about everything your organization does).

Communications involves designing messages that are resonant, delivering them to your intended audiences through the right channels, receiving feedback, and engaging in a two-way conversation. Communications should have a specific purpose in mind.

The key to truly effective communications is consistency and constancy. Repetition is good. Changing your message frequently or having too many or inconsistent messages across difference audiences is confusing and ineffective.

Now what?

Marketing, public relations, and communications are related but distinct functions. Each serves important and slightly different purposes. It’s useful to understand the differences so that you can most appropriately use your resources towards attracting and engaging your audiences.

Please contact us if you have questions or want to explore how we can help you create a marketing plan, public relations plan, or communications plan that will build broad and sustained support for your organization.