Is Content Marketing the Future of the Annual Fund?

“If you have more money than brains, you should focus on outbound marketing. If you have more brains than money, you should focus on inbound marketing.”

Guy Kawasaki

Since the days of the original ad men of Madison Avenue, frequency of contact has universally been acknowledged as the key to effectively marketing your product, organization, or cause. Placing more ads, sending more letters/emails, posting more billboards, and running more commercials all equals increased sales, engagement, and success.

Today, marketing experts debate about the exact number of times your advertisement or message needs to be seen by a person before they act as you desire, but it is generally accepted that seven to nine messages will do the trick.

Now, if you have a marketing budget like Coca Cola ($3.4 billion in 2014) or a subscriber population like Old Navy, this will not pose any problems. You can afford to create and deploy seven to nine calls-to-action for each need. You can also afford to have 0.3% of your subscriber list disengage from your organization every time you distribute those messages—without damaging your overall brand or your consumer acquisition and retention rates.


I have yet to come across a nonprofit that enjoys either of those luxuries. Luckily for us in the world of educational fundraising, the tide is beginning to turn in our favor.

Savvier consumers/donors, greater regulation on advertising, expansive technological modality, and stricter budgets in all sectors have forced the marketing industry to change its thinking when it comes to engaging constituents and forming lasting, productive, and mutually beneficial relationships.

When Guy Kawasaki—infamous Silicon Valley marketing executive, original member of the Apple team responsible for marketing the Macintosh computer line, and pioneer of the concept of marketing “evangelism”—points to a significant shift away from this expensive and consumer-ignorant practice to a more consumer-centric, fiscally responsible, and strategic approach to marketing via content, it would behoove us all to stop and take notice.

An inbound or “content” marketing approach to constituent engagement is not only applicable to the for-profit arena. In fact, I would argue that it is an even better fit for all of us in higher education, independent schools, or other nonprofits, because it seems to hang from the fundamental, ethical foundations of our fundraising practices.

What is content marketing?

Content marketing is a strategic approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience and drive their actions.

via 10ch Flickr

Sounds a lot like what we’re trying to do in annual giving, right?

This strategy recognizes the power of today’s consumer to ignore marketing and emphasizes the fact that treating your consumer, alumnus, prospect, or donor with respect is the best way to earn their attention and gain their support.

In short, content marketing promotes a truly “donor-centric” approach to your annual giving communications. It treats your supporters as savvy investors in the mission of your institution, provides them with desired information in the modality they prefer, and allows them to choose how they can best support your organization in a manner that is equally meaningful and beneficial to themselves.

Another way to think about content marketing for annual giving is continuous, impact-oriented, mission-focused, donor-centric stewardship.


Believe it or not, this practice is already at work at lots of schools with well-established, successful annual giving programs. (Check out State University of New York’s (SUNY) Big Ideas Blog, Princeton University’s giving website, and Point Park University’s “People of Point Park” campaign.) In some cases, schools may even be implementing a content strategy without realizing it.

While content marketing might sound like a buzzword in the closed-door strategy meetings of executives, in reality, its attention to transparency, respect, and integrity in building a case for support is not anything new to the universities, colleges, and schools for which we solicit support. It is only a different lens through which we can approach our noble work and ultimately serve both our institutions and our donors better.

In my next posts, I will explore how to incorporate content marketing into your existing strategy and measure its effectiveness.

Update: Greta’s next post, “Content Marketing for the Annual Fund: How to Get Started,” is up now!

Greta Daniels is the director of annual giving at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA, and formerly served as director of alumni relations for Sewickley Academy, a PK-12 independent school in Western PA. Greta is fascinated with how cultural consumer trends and big data can drive authentic and sustainable growth in the nonprofit arena. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about annual giving trends and women’s cycling initiatives or to see her latest kitchen adventure.

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