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5 Top Digital Marketing Tactics for Nonprofits in Chicago

October 19th, 2023 | 4 min. read

By Michele Potts

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A woman running a nonprofit organization talks to her team about marketing

In the nonprofit realm, crunched budgets are a constant challenge. It’s little wonder, as nearly 90% of U.S. nonprofits operate on less than $500,000 total — needed for both key services and digital marketing efforts (ideally requiring 5%-15% of that budget).

If you’re a nonprofit in Chicagoland, you understand these stats well. Stretching resources is a hurdle. And it underscores the importance of getting the most out of your marketing.

You’re in good company. Zoe Marketing & Communications has assisted Chicago nonprofits like yours for nearly four decades through our sister company, Chicago Parent. We’ve pinpointed tactics that help organizations raise awareness, donations and volunteers.

In this article, we’ll explain what potential “givers” are concerned about — and the five top digital marketing tactics for nonprofits, including: 

By the end, you’ll see how these strategies can work for you, too. You’ll also have some clear next steps to put marketing to work for your organization.

The mindset of Chicagoans who might give to nonprofits

Before donating, people want assurance that their money will make a tangible impact. 

  • Donors want to know how their contributions will directly benefit your cause
  • They're also interested in who the exact beneficiaries are

In other words, they need to know you’re trustworthy and worthy of their time and resources. This is true whether your cause is education, homelessness, health or any cause between using digital marketing.

Transparency is essential, along with making a meaningful connection to your Chicagoland audience. Your ads should show what you do and resonate with people on an emotional level.

5 top digital marketing tactics for nonprofits in Chicagoland

The Chicago region is broad and diverse, so a multi-faceted approach to marketing is essential. We’ve seen organizations find success with social media, programmatic ads, content, search engine marketing and email. 

a phone screen showing the different social media app icons1. Social media brings your message to people throughout Chicagoland

Social media is a crucial tool for building nonprofit communities — and for resonating with impactful content, especially videos. As far as digital ads go, they also tend to be more cost-effective. Be sure you’re paying attention to both:

  • Paid social ads: Boosting visibility and reach on social media with ads is necessary. It also lets you hone in on specific demographics, interests and more.
  • Organic social posts: While its reach is smaller, consistent regular posting also matters. Create a personal connection with stories from local volunteers or beneficiaries.

If you’re unsure where to start, explore Facebook and Instagram, which have the highest volume of users. They’re also on the same Meta platform, streamlining the ad process.

Be sure to promote quality content. Remember: It doesn’t have to link to your website! In fact, images, infographics and personal messages tend to get more engagement than URL links.

Keep this in mind as you work to stand apart from the nonprofit competition on social.

An example of programmatic ads on two different screen types2. Programmatic ads deliver the power of precision to Illinois nonprofits

By leveraging algorithms, programmatic ads place your ads on other websites and apps in real-time. It’s all based on targeting people’s locations, browsing histories and more. You can also retarget potential donors who clicked your ad but didn’t give.

Imagine fine-tuning your ads to people who’ve recently visited a cultural landmark like the Field Museum. Or folks who have participated in local charity runs or events in Millennium Park.

Your message is far more likely to find the most receptive audience with this level of detail.

Example of a Sponsored content article on top of an image of a nonprofit team member taking a donation box3. Content marketing builds deeper trust with Chicagoans

Creating a connection takes time, and content marketing is one of the best tools for the job. It takes time and energy to make it, but it also has a strong cumulative impact.

There are three common types of content:

  • Videos: Use short-form videos (30-60 seconds), such as Reels or YouTube Shorts, to showcase testimonials or success stories. Post to both your social media and website.
  • Blogs: Consider writing blogs on your website, whether you address animal welfare in Wicker Park or offer community programs in South Chicago. Focus on the people who make your story and illustrate what you offer.
  • Sponsored content: Partner with local publishers who can reach your audience. At Chicago Parent, for example, we feature blogs on various local nonprofits with missions that connect to our women/parent community.

As much as possible, focus on your work and not self-promotion. You don’t need to mention your organization more than 20% of the time.

Consistency is crucial, too. Keep a schedule for both creating and posting your content. An in-house content director or marketing agency can help if you need support.

An example of a Search engine with "non-profits in Chicago" in the search bar4. Google Ad Grants and additional SEM ads elevate your visibility

SEM, or search engine marketing, helps you connect with Chicagoans searching for keywords related to your nonprofit. Charitable organizations are also in a prime place to benefit from special grants.

Google Ad Grants

Let’s start with the big perk: Qualifying 501(c)(3) organizations can get up to $10,000 in free monthly ads. These grants are especially helpful in promoting bigger donation drives.

You’ll need a 10% click-through rate to sustain your grant, so optimizing your campaigns over time is paramount. But don’t leave this potential money on the table: Apply for a grant.

Regular Google Ads

Meanwhile, invest in “standard” Google Ads every month, too — use them to augment the limited-time grant, not replace it. Use these for ongoing “volunteer” or “give now” calls to action. 

An man checking his email on mobile5. Email marketing connects with existing and fresh Chicago donors

Last but not least, email marketing can connect you with your best prospects, whether in your realm now or not.

‘Cold’ emails

Targeted emails offer audience targeting akin to programmatic. These let you focus on people’s spending behavior and demographics, retargeting follow-up emails to people who clicked but didn't give.

Keep in mind that your recipients here might not know you. So make your email content short yet evocative. Again, focus on the “why” of giving and the “where” the money goes.

‘Warm’ emails

Don’t forget your previous donors! Consider that up to 45% of past donors are repeat contributors. And the beauty is, you have their emails. Let them know what you’re up to.

Staying “top of mind” is important to remind people you’re a worthy cause. Send emails that show how you’re making a difference thanks to their donations.

Next steps to boost digital marketing for nonprofits in Chicago

Standing out in Chicagoland’s crowded nonprofit scene takes effort. Fortunately, tactics like social media, programmatic, content, SEM and email can all elevate your marketing. Even when resources are tight.

If you need help, talk to us at Zoe and Chicago Parent. We leverage our decades of experience to help you maximize your budget and reach your goals.

Or keep learning how to optimize your marketing by discovering:

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Michele Potts

Michele Potts is sales director for Zoe Marketing & Communications. Constantly evolving during her 20+ years in the field, she values building trust and helping clients in various industries understand the basics of complex digital marketing.