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How confusing tactics with strategy kills your nonprofit marketing

Nonprofit Email Marketing, Strategic Planning for Nonprofits
confusing strategy and tactics

The other day, Evan, a fundraising professional responsible for his nonprofit’s email marketing, was telling me that his boss told him to double the number of emails sent to subscribers.

Evan wanted to know if I had some ideas for him on what types of content he should create to fill out the additional email messages.

“Well, sure,” I said. “I can brainstorm some things for you, but I’m not sure it would help.”

“Why not?” He asked a bit surprised.

“Well, let me ask you something first. What does your boss want you to achieve with your additional email messages?”

“I have no idea,” Evan responded honestly. “He just wants us to send more often. That’s all I was told.”

“I see. What we have here is a problem of confusing tactics with strategy.”

Evan’s boss thought it was enough to simply “send more email.” As if this tactic alone would somehow achieve results.

But without a clear understanding of the strategic goal of sending more email it was impossible for Evan to know what type of content he should be creating.

He had no idea what his emails were supposed to achieve.

Unfortunately, this is a common problem when it comes to nonprofit marketing.

We hear about this great new tactic that helped another nonprofit raise a gazillion dollars so we immediately jump in and try the same thing.

The problem is that without first thinking through the strategic purpose for implementing the tactic then we’re really just flailing about hoping something good comes of it.

And I’m sure you can think of better ways to use your limited resources.

Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between strategies and tactics and how to ensure they work well together.

The difference between strategies and tactics

There are important differences between strategies and tactics. By understanding these differences we can avoid the mistake Evan’s boss was making.

Strategies make explicit your achievement objectives. They lay out exactly what you want to accomplish with your nonprofit marketing.

Examples include:

  1. Increasing subscribers
  2. Proving impact
  3. Differentiating from similar nonprofits

Tactics, in contrast, lay out the specific approaches that will be used for each strategy. Tactics are how you will achieve your strategy.

A clear strategies give tactics focus and direction.

Another important difference is that tactics will evolve over time.

The development of new technologies and new approaches will impact what tactics are most effective.

But if you have the right strategies in place, they will rarely change. Strategies are chosen because they are time tested and proven to work.

Your fundraising will include strategies around email marketing, social media marketing, demonstrating impact, and differentiation because those objectives are essential and will continue to be.

But, how you get subscribers, how often you send an email, the types of email you send, and the length of your messages may change over time.

Email marketing clearly illustrates these differences.

And, since nonprofits raise about a third of all of their donations from email marketing it seems like a helpful place to start.

Let’s look at a few email marketing strategies and then identify some tactics.

Email marketing strategies and tactics

Let’s use these two email marketing strategic objectives as an example:

  1. Increase subscribers
  2. Increase engagement

Tactics for increasing subscribers include:

  1. Testing subscription copy to see which language achieves better results
  2. Relocating your online subscription form.

Tactics for increasing engagement might include:

  1. Testing subject lines
  2. Using automation and segmentation to personalize email messaging
  3. Using open loops
  4. Altering email frequency
  5. Altering email length

Notice how the strategic objectives for email marketing have been relevant since the beginning of email marketing.

We need people on our list and we need them to open the email messages we send and click the links in them.

But the tactics that make email marketing effective have changed significantly in the last 10 years as technology has evolved and become more sophisticated.

It used to be enough to simply blast an email to everyone on your list. Now the most effective email marketing tactics are based on personalization of messaging through segmentation and automation.

But none of these tactics will do much for you if you don’t know what they should achieve.


Strategy informs and gives direction to tactics. Without it they are inefficient at best and at worst a disastrous waste of time.

  1. Strategies identify what you want to achieve
  2. Tactics detail how you will achieve it
  3. Strategies stay relatively static
  4. Tactics often change and evolve
  5. Strategic direction with the wrong tactics will make slow progress
  6. Tactics without a strategic direction will waste time and resources

Take a hard look at all of your nonprofit marketing tactics. Are they each guided by a specific strategy or are they being implemented aimlessly?

Keep doing good work,
Jeremy B. Koch signature and picture


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