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When I think about nonprofit content marketing, one of my favorite marketing strategists I often am inspired by is Jay Baer, author of Youtility and countless other social media classics.

He says the difference between “helping” and “selling’ is only two letters. But what a difference those two letters makes!

Sell something and you create a customer today. Help someone and you create a customer for life.

If you substitute ‘h’ and ‘p’ for ‘s’ and ‘l’ in building your nonprofit content marketing strategy you’ll convince more of your nonprofit social media fans and followers to convert to donors.

Think of it this way. If you’ve traditionally focused on selling vs. helping, you’ve emphasized ‘s’ and ‘l’ [stupidity (your customers) and laziness (you)]. You’ve acted like your customers don’t know very much, so they need you to show them the way. And you’ve been too lazy to teach them what they need to know.

You keep them dependent on you (and, consequently, feeling disempowered) by telling them what to do and keeping them in the dark about the details.

Selling is a master/servant model.

Master/servant is an outbound marketing model where the organization matters more than the customer. This won’t serve you well in the digital age. You no longer own your information. Everyone has access to everything. So trying to hold it back is simply going to make you look stingy and unhelpful. Besides, ego-centric content is boring and won’t get you where you want to go. You won’t get shared. And, over time, you’ll stop being read. Your tree will fall in the forest, but no one will hear it.

Today’s consumers don’t like to be infantilized.

Now imagine you focus on helping vs. selling. You emphasize ‘h’ and ‘p’ [humanity (your customers) and peer (you and your customer)]. You treat your constituents like individuals with specific values, needs and desires. You endeavor to learn more about them so you can meet their needs. You engage them as partners, showing that you’re all in this together. You create a community of like-minded folks. You welcome folks to your community, and you take care of your members. Not as infants, but as peers.

Embrace a peer-to-peer model.

Peer-to-peer is an inbound marketing model where customer input is sought after and valued. It lends itself well to the digital age where folks are increasingly connected across multiple channels and have the ability to share with their networks.

So what kind of content works best in the current inbound, peer-to-peer marketing zeitgeist?

Content that will be effective is content that is useful.

Jay Baer calls this type of content a “Youtility.” Marketing that is about the consumer. Marketing that is so useful, people would pay for it (though, of course, you won’t ask them to).

You see, people don’t want more “content.”  But they do want stuff that helps them.  That answers their questions. That solves their problems.

You’ve no doubt got lots of beneficial content hanging around that you’re not even using. Maybe it’s buried on your website. Or stuffed into a file cabinet. Dig it out and wrap it up with a bow.

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If you want gifts, you must give them.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean.

I once worked for a comprehensive human services organization. One of our more than 40 different programs was a parenting program. One afternoon I was there for an advisory committee meeting. While waiting for folks to arrive, I happened on a file cabinet with a drawer labelled “Tips for New Moms and Dads.” I opened it up. Bonanza!

Inside were files filled with tip sheet after tip sheet intended to help new parents. They were used in workshops which had, on average, 8 – 10 participants. What a waste of valuable information!

I realized we could use these tips as content for our newsletter, thereby disseminating the information more broadly (part of our nonprofit mission) and also solving our content creation dilemma. A gift for our marketing staff; a gift for our readers!

Feedback was immediate. People thanked us and even called to ask if we had more tips. After a year of doing this, enrollment in our workshops had increased as well. A real win/win.

More than any other business, nonprofits should understand and embrace the concept of offering content that is helpful. Why? As I’ve said before, nonprofit content marketing is the heart and soul of your branding strategy. Your essence.  And isn’t it the essence of a nonprofit to be of service?

Let’s look at some gifts of helpful content for different types of nonprofits:

Human services

  • 10 Ways to Keep Seniors Safe
  • Smart Strategies to Childproof Your Home
  • How to Recognize Signs of Bullying


  • Tips for Safely Bringing Home a Rescue Dog
  • 10 Things You Can Do to Save Endangered Species
  • Tips for Taking Toddlers to the Zoo


  • 7 Tips for Planning the Perfect Museum Date
  • How to Get the Most Out of Taking Your Child to the Symphony
  • Where to Get Senior Discounts for Cultural Opportunities in [your community]


  • 8 Ways College Students Can Save the Environment Every Day
  • 10 Easy Ways to Go Green at Work
  • 22 Ways to Save Your Planet

Health Services

  • 17 Tricks to Stop Eating Mindlessly
  • 13 Surprising Ways to Avoid Colds and Flu
  • How to Make the Most out of Your Doctor Visit


  • Tips for Talking to Someone with Cancer
  • 5 Ways You Can Prevent Antibiotic Resistance
  • Tips on Caring for Elders with Dementia


  • 17 Proven Ideas to Help Struggling Readers
  • Top 10 Ways to Get Your Child Ready for College
  • 7 Study Tips for Busy Adult Learners

Civil Rights

  • Steps to Take if You Think You’ve Been Discriminated Against
  • How to Get Legal Help When You Can’t Afford a Lawyer

5 Action Tips to Develop Helpful Nonprofit Content:

  1. Figure out what people want and need from you. A good place to begin is with your reception staff. Ask them what types of questions they get most frequently. Ask program staff what questions they often get? Also find out which pages on your website are most frequently searched. Which articles in your e-news are most frequently click on?
  2. Ask your constituents for their input. What if you asked your constituents what they think? What they need? How they might address the problem? It’s easy to put together a quick, free survey using SurveyMonkey or Google Docs (you can get some great examples of questions you can ask here). While you’re at it, what if you congratulated them on their contributions, rather than promoting yours?
  3. Get your team together and share your research. Put all the needs you’ve discovered on one side of a whiteboard. Now hold a brainstorming session. What useful content do you have that addresses these needs? What could you easily create?
  4. Create an editorial content marketing calendar. This will facilitate the consistent creation of helpful content and give your plan some needed organization. There are many different marketing tools for nonprofits available, including templates and content scheduling tools out there to choose from, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel (It can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet template; a Google calendar; a free Editorial Calendar Plug-in with a simple drag and drop interface or even a Word document, desk-top or wall calendar. It doesn’t need to be fancy; it just needs to be something with which you’re comfortable).
  5. Use online marketing and social media to promote your ‘youtility’; not your organization. Break the bad habit of operating from the master/servant model. Don’t make it all about you. What you do. Your skills. Your knowledge. Your work. “We just helped 2,000 people get meals.”
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How this comes across: “Hey you! You servants! You folks who really don’t understand how this is done, and need us to tell you. Want to jump on board?”

What if you shifted your model to peer/peer? What if you hyped your supporters instead of your organization? “You fed at-risk families 2,000 meals. Here’s a recipe we distribute at our food pantries for a quick, nutritious snack for kids.”

How this comes across: “Hey you! Did you know you’re a hero? Do you know how much we appreciate that you ‘get it’ and are willing to walk your talk? We want to thank you by sharing this recipe.”

Don’t hold out on your constituents who need your help. Get your worthwhile content together, put it into your content calendar; then share it! The way you build a relationship in the digital age is different. You’re no longer master/servant marketing at people. You’re peer/peer marketing with people.

Help people first with your nonprofit content marketing strategy. Stop leading with what you need. Lead with what they need.

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is an expert on Social Media and Nonprofits. Claire was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years frontline development experience to her work as principal of Clairification. A sought-after coach, Claire teaches the CFRE Fundraising Certification Course and frequently presents for The Foundation Center and 4GOOD. Claire writes this monthly column on Nonprofit Social Media plus regular columns for Nonprofit Pro and Guidestar. Clairification was named “Best Fundraising Blog of 2013” by FundRaising Success Magazine.

Claire Axelrad

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