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Balancing Quality and Cost-Efficiency in
Your Nonprofit Marketing Materials (Case Study)

by Nancy Schwartz


I work for the foundation of a non-profit health care organization. I recently read your article on effective communication budgets for non-profits and found it very insightful.

However, what you did not address was "appropriate" production values and expenditures. In other words, not what we can afford, but what we can do to make our newsletter look fantastic, be effective but not appear over-the-top? We don't want our donors to question how their money is spent?

How do we effectively balance cost-efficiency with quality? Specifically, we're looking at revamping our newsletter and brochures.

Thank you for any help you can provide.

Angie Zmarzly Grant Developer
The Madonna Foundation, Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital
Lincoln, NE

Dear Angie:

You've asked a great question. As a matter of fact, it's one I hear frequently from marketing and communications staff members at nonprofits around the country.

As marketers, and as consumers, we know that quality matters. It's a fact that print readers enjoy color printing, striking graphics and photographs, and nice paper stock (let's call these components "production values"). Similarly, Internet audiences appreciate websites and e-newsletters that are designed in a unique, color-rich style.

However, your communications quest isn't to generate your audiences' enjoyment or appreciation. It's to motivate your audiences to act to give, to join or to register. And Angie, it's likely that each campaign or even marketing piece will require you to hone a different production value.

I advise you to look beyond design and print production values to the real objectives of print and online communications. Ask yourself the following questions to help you make decisions on production values:

  • Do you aim for audiences to keep a printed piece (as you might with an Annual Report) or read it and toss it?

    A "keeper" should be produced with higher production values than a throwaway flyer.

  • What do your audiences respond to most? For a nonprofit focused on teens and 20-somethings, sharp web design and lots of (useful) interactivity is a must. For the AARP, print materials are equally, if not more, important.

    Talk to your audiences to find out what really matters to them. Spend your budget in those places.

    Your allocation will also depend on the medium. For websites, usability (ease of use) is much more important than slick design, although an outdated look can discourage potential donors or volunteers.

  • How can you produce quality print and online marketing components, at a somewhat lower cost?

    It's not all about money. What I think is most important is that a nonprofit marketing piece or site is professionally done.

    For example, a clear, recognizable design is more important than four-color printing or a glossy paper stock. You can save more by having a professional graphic designer design one or more templates for your brochures and flyers. Then you and your colleagues can plug in content as needed for a series of flyers or brochures.

  • Will your print or online piece stand alone or be reviewed as one of several communications from various nonprofits and other entities?

    If you are advertising in a local newspaper or taking a page in a community guide, it is critical that your ad is designed to look at least as (if not more) professional than the other ads in the publication. Otherwise, readers are likely to overlook your promotion. Even worse, an unprofessional look and feel can convey that your nonprofit itself is unprofessional.

Angie, use these guidelines to start your own planning checklist. Add other parameters that are critical to your organization. I think you'll find that you'll develop a checklist that enables you to make the right decision on production values time after time.

Don't forget to design some strategies to manage issues as they evolve. For example, if a board member has criticized a recent annual report for looking "too glossy," ask that board member for suggestions on how to create professional, quality communications, sans gloss. Request that he or she pass on to you good models.

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About the Author:

Nancy E. Schwartz helps nonprofits succeed through effective marketing and communications. As President of Nancy Schwartz & Company (, Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to organizations as varied as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Center for Asian American Media, and Wake County (NC) Health Services.

Subscribe to her free e-newsletter "Getting Attention", ( and read her blog at for more insights, ideas and great tips on attracting the attention your organization deserves.

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