The Case for Marketing Automation in Nonprofit Advocacy, Education, and Fundraising

In 2013, a company fired a tech worker by the codename of “Bob” after discovering he outsourced his entire job to China.

According to CNN, Bob’s typical day went something like:

  • 9:00 a.m. — Get to work, surf Reddit, watch cat videos
  • 11:30 a.m. — Lunch
  • 1:00 p.m. — Ebay
  • 2:00 p.m or so — Facebook and LinkedIn
  • 4:30 p.m. — Send end-of-day email update to management
  • 5:00 p.m. — Go home

(Now before you get any bright ideas, remember the story ends with him getting fired.)

There’s something peculiarly admirable about Bob’s story, isn’t there?

Putting aside Bob’s blatant dishonesty for a moment, his story sparks a moment of creative inspiration. We read it and wonder—is creating this kind of leverage possible in my work? Am I missing something obvious right in front of me?

To me, marketing automation represents this kind of leverage for organizations that are heavily invested in digital marketing and want to make it more efficient and effective without having to scale up their staff significantly.

Let’s dig into the tremendous opportunity I see for nonprofit organizations to use this technology for advocacy, education, and fundraising.

Who will benefit from marketing automation

The simple fact of life is that marketing automation is just one tool in a long list of tactics your organization must choose from with its limited time and budget.

It’s important to acknowledge that marketing automation will not equally benefit every organization and is not a good investment for everyone.

(If you are not familiar with the concept of marketing automation, check out the list of links at the end of this article for more information.)

Idealist has some useful guidelines in their Marketing Automation 101 paper, but the field has changed a bit since its original publication in 2015. 

Here is my current take on who will benefit from marketing automation:

  1. You are an established organization that consistently uses email marketing, social media, or landing pages to some degree of success—and has been doing so for 2-3 years. Marketing automation helps you scale and automate processes, and you must have some basic ones in place before scaling up.
  2. You have at least one dedicated digital staff member to manage the marketing automation system. This guideline is still as relevant as it was in 2015. Someone with adequate digital skills needs to be checking reports, tweaking automations, and setting up new campaigns.
  3. I find specific revenue numbers a bit arbitrary now. In the past, marketing automation was costly, so you needed to reach a 7-figure revenue threshold for it to make sense. Now, marketing automation features are rolling out to providers such as MailChimp for a fraction of the cost. Pretty much any organization can now afford some degree of marketing automation (though that doesn’t mean you should be using it).
  4. I also find contact thresholds to be similarly arbitrary, although the more contacts you have, the more potential marketing automation will give you. I think it’s more about your staff’s capacity as it relates to your contact volume. For example, if you have a great approach that works well but takes a lot of staff time to do manually (e.g., tons of manual email follow-ups), it’s a better use of staff time to build out automations for that work.
  5. Most importantly (and I think Idealist hits it on the head here), you need to be feeling pain around your current communications solutions. You feel the struggle of keeping up with your content schedule and hopping between a bunch of different tools to get the job done. You know that if you weren’t so busy spinning plates, you could get more meaningful, strategic work done.

Marketing automation ideas for advocacy, education, and fundraising

Let’s talk about some opportunities I see for nonprofit organizations to use marketing automation to tremendous advantage. (I will use health organizations as an example here because we specialize in helping them, but if you don’t work at one of those, you can translate these ideas to your own issue space.)


If you are working to create systemic change, your first consideration is your audience. Many of you will be trying to leverage patients’ voices to sign petitions, write Congress, or give money. But you need to be incredibly sensitive to how and when these advocacy messages are delivered.

To someone experiencing a significant health-related event, all your communications are white noise until they have wrapped their head around what’s happening to them.

Frequent, wordy, and urgent advocacy messages are going to fall on deaf ears, or worse, turn people off to your cause entirely. You must catch people at the right stage of their journey to be receptive to your messages.

Marketing automation facilitates this by allowing you to profile people in your contact database and identify who is ready to hear an advocacy message. For example, you could look for:

  • Someone on your email list for at least 30 days with an open rate of >25% and click rate of >10%.
  • Has filled out a landing page to download a resource PDF that’s correlated with an advocacy-receptive stage in the patient journey.
  • Has visited a particular page on your website indicating they are aware of and interested in an advocacy-related issue.

…and then set up a trigger to deliver them a series of timed email messages encouraging them to sign a petition or call their representative.


Providing educational resources to patients is an excellent use of marketing automation.

Chances are, you have specific evergreen resources on your site—e.g., for someone newly diagnosed or experiencing a common health issue.

Some visitors will be happy reading this content on your site, but for others, you can package up common resources in an automated email series that gets dripped into someone’s inbox every day or week.

This approach matters a whole lot because you are offering an incentive for a new visitor to:

  1. Sign up to your email list
  2. Return to your site again and again as you send them resources and links
  3. Give you cold, hard data on what they are interested in (via their open and click measures)

I hope you can see how this is significantly more valuable than an anonymous user who comes to your site and bounces around a few pages before leaving.


One of the most potent benefits of marketing automation is the sheer amount of data you’re able to collect on your contacts:

  • The pages on your site they’ve visited
  • Which topics interest them the most
  • How engaged they are with your organization (a combination of email opens/clicks, website visits, and other measures)
  • Custom demographic data you’ve collected via signup forms

This demographic and behavioral data gives you an exciting opportunity to segment your list and write an appeal to potential new donors based on their behavioral signals.

And the cunning part about this is you can set it on autopilot.

More advanced marketing automation tools have “lead scoring,” which allows the software to assign a number (e.g., 0-100) to a contact based on how active and engaged they are with your marketing. You can set up a trigger to send a fundraising email to someone who hits, say, a 70—and even tailor that email to include different messaging based on their interests.

That’s a more advanced example of marketing automation, but the purpose of this article is to spark your creative imagination and understand what’s possible with these tools.

You may not be able to outsource your job as Bob did, but for some of you reading this, you just might be able to outsource the tedious parts of your marketing to a machine you design.

Additional resources:

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