It ain’t easy, working for not-for-profit organizations–not in this sludgy economic environment. A couple of years ago, when the economy started to head south, we found we were fortunate to have not-for-profit clients who didn’t have to depend on people walking in the door and buying stuff. Not-for-profits have different revenue streams. They get money from gifts and grants, events and individual donations. So while our for-profit clients struggled, our not-for-profits stayed busy.

Eventually, the bad economy caught up with them. When Wall Street tanks, not-for-profits suffer disproportionately because they depend on the success of other people’s investments. If you foundation’s not making money, you don’t have much to give away.

It takes money to make money, especially in the not-for-profit business. (It’s a good idea to remember that not-for-profits are businesses, even though they don’t always recognize themselves as such.) If you want people to give you money, they have to know you exist, and they have to know why you’re worthy of support. In the marketing business, we call those awareness and consideration.

The pickings are gettin’ slimmer. There may be light at the end of the economic downturn tunnel, but the tunnel is long, and there are lane restrictions along the way. Budgets–including yours–are tight. Sometimes nonexistent. Lots of not-for-profits can’t afford marketing.

Which means that smart marketing is more important than ever before.

Money’s scarce. In an environment of scarcity, if you want to get some of the money, you have to make an extra effort. That means the marketing side of your development effort needs to kick into high gear. You need to be visible. You need, more than ever, to remind people that you’re in the world and doing good work–providing services that are even more needed when times are tough.

Smart marketing doesn’t have to be expensive marketing. These days, the tools to execute an excellent marketing plan are cheap, and you can do a lot of the work yourself. You need a plan, and you need a concept. Investing a little in a good not-for-profit marketing strategist can go a long way.

Fortunately, if you actually make the investment, you stand a good chance of succeeding. Most not-for-profits won’t heed this advice. They’ll decide they can’t afford marketing. Your marketing messages will stand out all the more.

It’s no different in the for-profit world. When times are tough, budgets get slashed, and marketing is one of the first to get the chop. Farsighted marketers know this is the time to take advantage. When everyone else is cowering, you stand out by just standing your ground. You worry less about volume and more about market share. So that when the market recovers–and it will recover–you’ll have a bigger share of a suddenly bigger pie.

That’s the key for not-for-profits in tough economic times: market share. Fewer people are giving less, so you need more of them. Going after market share takes marketing. It may cost you a little up front. But it will pay big dividends when the economic gets percolating. And it’s the only way to survive when the economy’s bad.