Getting the Most out of Google Ad Grants for Nonprofits

For organizations that qualify, Google is offering up to $10,000 a month in free Google Ad spend. That’s $10k a month you can use to attract new donors, drive email lists subscriptions, and promote your cause.
How to get the most out of google ad grants

Sometimes adopting a new marketing platform can be daunting. There’s time required to evaluate which platform is right for you or your organization, there’s setup time and management time, and then there’s the critical part of following up to see if your efforts are producing results. But for 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, Google Ad Grants is a no brainer. For organizations that qualify, Google is offering up to $10,000 a month in free Google Ad spend. That’s $10k a month you can use to attract new donors, drive email lists subscriptions, and promote your cause.

Eric Ressler (Founder & Creative Director at Cosmic) Andreas Mueller (Co-founder & Strategist at Bloofusion) and Ryan McGibben (Marketing Strategist at Cosmic) recently had a conversation about the pros/cons of Google Ad grants, key things to remember, and creative ways you can use Google Ads and Ad Grants together to get the most out of both.

Andreas mueller bloofusion google ad grants

We’ve abstracted the high level step-by-step guide, followed by the full Q&A which gets into the details around strategy and details how to get the most out of your Google Ad Grant and Google Ads with a unique, hybrid approach.

Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: First, you must have a website to drive traffic to. It must be live and populated with content that’s current. It can't be a third party site like a Facebook page, or other social media profile.

Step 2: Acknowledge and agree to Google's required certifications regarding non-discrimination and donation receipt and use.

Step 3: Sign up for Google Nonprofits. One of the things that will be checked right away is are you registered 501(c)(3) with the IRS.

Step 4: Get validated by TechSoup. You just go on there and follow the setup instructions. If you’re in the US, your Google Ad Grants application will automatically set you up via TechSoup.

Step 5: Enroll for Google Ad Grants.

These simples steps should get you started, but read on to learn what you should do next to get the most out of this exciting opportunity.

We weren't planning to release the audio of the interview, but we thought it might be helpful for those who'd prefer to listen along while they do other things. So forgive the rough mix. Thanks!

Full Q&A

Eric: Thank you for stopping by to work with us on this piece. We’re excited to educate people who might be researching Google Ad Grants about what they're for, how to start using them, and whether or not their organization qualifies. At first they sound great, but then you start digging into the details, it's more complicated than it seems.

Andreas: Google Ad Grants are a great opportunity for 501(c)(3) organizations in the US to receive $10k a month in free Google Ad spend. Many of my clients will say "Wow! When do we start?" That's the easy part, but running these ad campaigns can be difficult, as people are finding out.

Recently, there were some changes in the rules and regulations that made it a bit easier. They removed the $2 bid cap restriction. But there are other tough rules in place like your click rate has to stay above 5% or your Ad Grants account will get turned off.

Eric: That CTR is really high.

Andreas: You’re right, it’s pretty darn high. If it drops below 5% during two months, they can turn off your Ad Grants completely.

Ryan: So the cumulative CTR of all of your Ad Grant campaigns needs to be 5% or more?

Andreas: Yes. That’s only for the Ad Grants account.

Eric: You can still run regular AdWords, but your Ad Grant account gets shut down?

Andreas: Yes. What tends to happen is somebody owning a 501(c)(3) thinks, "This is awesome." They start, and they realize, "Oh, wow. This is actually very, very difficult. It's not going to work for us because that click through rate is just so high.” But don’t forget you’re not restricted from using regular Google Ads.

Eric: Are there ways of getting around the 5% CTR restriction?

Andreas: There aren’t any ways around it, but you can get creative with how you manage campaigns. You can do things like use your Google Ad Grants for keywords where you know you're going to get a 5% click through rate because you might be giving away stuff for free. Branding campaigns always work too, because people recognize your brand.

The big deal here is that we recommend a hybrid approach. Don't just do one campaign and then give up. It's not binary. You can actually run Ad Grants, and then run your own regular Google Ad campaigns totally separately.

Eric: What are some of the big misconceptions about Google Ads, and maybe specifically Google Ad Grants as well?

Andreas: A lot of people are hesitant, because they just assume that nobody clicks on ads. That's not true at all.

Eric: That's how Google is so profitable, actually, people buying their ads.

Andreas: Right, so something must be working.

Eric: I think that's good food for thought. The majority of Google’s revenue is still coming from their Ads platform, which means that they work.

Andreas: Exactly. You can easily look at your competitors using competitive analysis tools like SpyFu and SEMrush, and you can see how much they're spending. We currently have an adwords client that is spending $6,000 a month. That's pretty conservative. Then we looked at one of their competitors and they’re at $115,000 a month. Actually, I know a company in Seattle who's spending around maybe two million a month. That's a month!

Eric: In Google Ads alone?

Andreas: Yeah, Google Ads alone, and they're brilliantly profitable. They're doing super well. They've been doing it since 2005,

Eric: I'd imagine that they wouldn't be spending that amount of money if it wasn't effective.

Andreas: That's exactly it. That's how you can bust that misconception. Another misconception is that campaigns cost a lot of money. Some companies will say, "We tried it. It's super expensive. It's $5 a click." I always follow-up and ask what their success metrics are? What are they measuring? Were they actually measuring conversions (a sale or subscription sign up, for example) or cost per conversions? Were they looking at the ROI?

I love when people ask, "How much should we spend?" I often say I’d like to see them spending $30k a month. They’ll say “That’s way too much!” But that’s not necessarily true. If you’re tracking, and if you're tracking well, and you have ROI in the black, you should be asking how can we scale and still maintain this ROI.

Eric: Whether they’re Google Ad Grants, or just standard Google Ads, what’s your recommendation on whether or not an organization should run Google Ads?

Andreas: You have to do Google Ads. You just have to do Google Ads. Even if it's just for your branding keywords. Even if you're managing it internally. You might just be spending $200, $500, $700 per month, but you can get to a point where the ROI is profitable. It just depends on how far you're willing to go. I feel like there's always a way to get Google Ads to work. It's not necessarily everything you're targeting.

Eric: Some nonprofits have products and services that they sell, that might match up a little bit more traditionally to a profit driven model or a product driven model. Other nonprofits are maybe donor funded or receive most of their funding through major gifts, etc… How do you measure ROI when it comes to nonprofits where profit isn’t your motivator?

Andreas: You have to get a little bit creative. Let's say we're looking at conversions: Conversions could be getting a lead. Getting a lead could be anything from getting an email address to getting a donor.

You can get there with persistent analytics tracking and creative reporting. You can track a donor sign up, let’s say. Then you could assign a lifetime value to a donor. It could be between $10,000 and $100,000, but at least that's some kind of a value.

Then, if you're creative enough, you might be able to determine how many email addresses end up equaling a donor. Let’s say in the month of July you had 100 new email address signups, and one of those signups converted to a donor, and that donor donated $1,000. Then it’s pretty easy to calculate that for the month of July, on average new email address sign ups were worth $10 to your organization.

Eric: I think that makes a lot of sense, especially with monthly donations becoming a standard.

Andreas: If your site takes donations directly, then you can see specifically: we've got this many donating $10, so many others donating $20. What was the cost to get that? Then you can actually set up an e-commerce model for that. At the same time, in parallel, you can look at the B2B lead side.

Eric: There's also the cost savings part of the equation, where if your conversion is getting volunteers to sign up and help, then that's one less staff person you may need for a particular event or initiative.

I think for the nonprofit and social purpose world in general, you have to think about it a little bit differently, whereas in traditional B2C product driven space, it's a little bit more clear. "We spent $5 on this lead. This lead spent $20 with us. We have a net gain of $15." It's a little more complicated than that, but it's a much more straightforward equation.

Andreas: One thing I really like about Google Ads in general is that it forces you to generate key performance indicators (KPIs), to generate conversion points, and maybe even set up goals on your website within Google Analytics, because you’re pouring money into your campaign and and you need to know how it’s performing. Instead of saying, "our website, it's working fine. Organically, it's getting us so many visitors." That thinking means you're just drifting along, because you're assuming that the organic side is free, but it's not.

Ryan: You could also use KPIs to look at your cost per acquisition, and compare acquisition methods against one another. You can take the amount you’re spending on each marketing platform like Google Ads, social etc… and divide the total platform spend by the amount of leads that platform generated to get your cost per acquisition (CPA), then reallocate or scale the platforms based on that performance.

Eric: What are some of the benefits of Google Ads, maybe some of the hidden ones?

Andreas: It’s extremely easy to test drive. We’ll usually say to clients, "We could give you specifics, but why don't we just test things?" Actually go in there, and to test, and see if this model is profitable. Which kinds of keywords are going to work, considering your landing pages, considering your website content in general. It's also a great way just to test the market, to understand the market better: throw out some keywords that you might be wanting to know more about and check on performance.

For us, as an agency, that's super important. That's one of the preferred first steps to SEO. With SEO, what you do traditionally is you try to figure out which keywords you should focus on. Then we build content around those keywords. Building the content takes 30 days, then you get things live, that's another 60 days, and then you start tweaking, and suddenly you're at 90 days.

So three months later, you're finally getting a general idea of “are these good keywords with the content that we have?”

With Google AdWords, you can get that question answered within three days, four days, 10 days. Within 30 days, you'll know for sure.

Eric: Are you suggesting that you even start to run the campaigns without having the content developed?

Andreas: Yes.

Eric: So the campaign might point to a piece of content that isn’t totally optimized and your score might not end up being relevant, but you can start to gauge interest?

Andreas: Exactly. Then if it works well, then you know. You can begin to start thinking about expanding the campaign to highlight other types of assets or ad content. For a nonprofit you might be publishing things: articles maybe, or even E-books. If you’re not sure what is going to work well, test it on Google Ads, then you know. If a certain story type works well, pump out three or four more stories like that, maybe in different donor verticals, or industry verticals, or something like that.

Ryan: If you were a nonprofit using Google Ad Grants, you could run those tests using your non Ad Grant budget, find what campaigns are getting 5% click rate or higher, and then transfer those over to the Ad Grant budget.

Andreas: That's a perfect way to do that, especially if you're not certain about how things are going to perform.

Eric: You mentioned how you can scale with Google Ads. Can you tell us more about that?

Andreas: With Google Ads in general, things are extremely scalable, much more scalable than SEO. If you've got a model that's working, you're focused on targeting the right keywords, you've got really good ads, and the landing pages seem to work really well, the message on the landing pages is working well, and you're hitting the right cost per goal achieved, then all you need to do is ratchet things up with the spend.

If one of your goals is to get people subscribing to your newsletters, and each subscriber is worth, let's say $20, then, at this point, you can decide, "We're getting subscribers for $5, $6, $7 ... $20 max. How much more can we spend? Now that we're getting 100 subscribers, can we get it to where we're getting 150 a month, or 200 a month, or 300 subscribers a month, and still keep it within that accepted cost per subscriber?"

Eric: That one's really big, because your list is shrinking every day at some level. You have to replace the subscribers you’re losing, and get more subscribers if you want to grow the list. You need to get to a NET positive.

Eric: How do Google Ads play into to gathering data for SEO? I think one thing that's changed, is it's really hard, if not nearly impossible, to see how people are finding your content organically, because that's gated with SSL for organic traffic. Back in the day, you could see what people were searching for organically to find you. That's not the case anymore. That's been locked down.

Is there a way to see how people are finding your content?

Andreas: Well, that's the beauty of paid search via Google Ads. Like you were alluding to, if you look at organic on the analytics side, it's super depressing. It used to be you look at the keywords that are bringing traffic to your website.

Eric: Super valuable data.

Andreas: Super valuable. But Google has decided it's a privacy issue, at least that's what they say. If you look at your keywords these days, it's probably 90 some percent “not provided.”

Eric: Then I guess vice versa. If you see a lot of organic traffic landing on an article, or a landing page, or a section of your site. You may not know the keywords, but you know the content is really valuable. You could start to test some Google Ads campaigns to try to get more traffic, because you know that content is resonating with an audience. Is it your audience? Hopefully.

Andreas: Another great benefit of running Google Ads is it can cover seasonal flux in traffic, leads, or sales. If you know your slow months are in the summer you can crank up spend during that period. If you usually spend $2,000, crank it up to $5,000 for the months of June, July, August. It makes up for that lack of activity during the seasonality.

Eric: In the nonprofit space, end of the year is huge. Nonprofits receive roughly 70% of total donations for the year in November & December.

Andreas: If you know people are very receptive during the end of the year and you know you’re going to have solid organic traffic, just push some more on the Google Ads and both organic and paid traffic will benefit.

Eric: Is it a requirement that you be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to qualify for Google Ad Grants?

Andreas: Yes, in the US.

Eric: What else do nonprofits need to consider when determining whether or not Google Ad Grants is a good fit for them?

Andreas: I wouldn't even worry so much about the fit. There are some restrictions to Google Ad Grants. For example, government, hospitals, and academic institutions are excluded.

I would say if you're a 501(c)(3), just apply. Worst case, you're running for two months, you just can't get it right. You've had Google give you $2,000, or $20,000. That’s an incredible opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Eric: What are the steps involved in applying for Ad Grants, at a high level?

Andreas: The first step is you need an actual website to drive traffic to. It must be live and populated with content that’s current. It can't be some third party like a Facebook page. It needs to be your own website.

Second, you have to acknowledge and agree to Google's required certifications regarding non-discrimination and donation receipt and use.

Then you just go ahead and sign up for Google Nonprofits. One of the things that will be checked right away is, are you, according to the IRS actually a 501(c)(3) in the US.

Next, you’ll need to get validated by a site called TechSoup. You just go on there and follow the setup instructions. If you’re a US non-profit, this step will be taken care for you automatically as you are qualified for Google Nonprofits.

Lastly, you can go enroll for Google Ad Grants. I do have to say, be super patient at this stage. With a standard Google Ad account, you sign up and you're up and running immediately. Maybe a day later, you get an email from Google with ad recommendations etc... But you’re pretty much off to the races at this point. All this sounds complicated, but it's really not. It's pretty straightforward.

Eric: It should take less than an hour, correct?

Andreas: Oh yeah, I would say so, definitely. With Google Ad Grants, it could take a while to hear back. Give yourself at least 30 days leeway here. Unfortunately, there's nobody you can go to. There's no rep or any place on Google where you can ask, "What's going on?" It's not like going to Amazon, "I just ordered something. When is it arriving?" Google is giving you up to $10,000. This is a free service from their perspective. Just be very patient.

Ryan: Do you see many nonprofits maxing out the $10k they’re given by Google?

Andreas: Actually not really. I think a lot of people are kind of depressed if they can't reach the $10,000. I have to honestly say, it's very unusual to reach that level. Look at the $10,000 Google is offering you. It's like you participate in the lottery, and sure, you could win $10 million, but if you get $2,000 back from the lottery, or if you get $500, why not? Why would you not invest some time into possibly getting $500 from Google every month in perpetuity, basically?

And to be clear, it's not Google paying you. It's Google saying, "We will cover up to $10k of Google Ad Grant spend."

Eric: And you're getting the $500 from Google, but you're also getting the value of the traffic to the site, and the conversions, and the donations. It's not just the $500 that you're getting. It's $500 of value, of hard cost cover that you would be spending otherwise.

Andreas: Exactly.

Eric: If a nonprofit is managing this in-house, what should the be prepared for?

Andreas: Because of the requirements, you have to put a lot of time into management. The account has to be actively managed. You have to be throwing conversions, and there has to be activity. Even if you're achieving the 5% click through rate, if Google doesn't see activity on the account they can turn it off after a few months. They just want to see you engaged, which makes sense. It's like a parent saying, "Here's $10, but I want to see you do something with it. Invest it wisely."

Ryan: Being engaged and more proactive will only benefit the Google Ad user in the long run too, right?

Andreas: Exactly. It makes Google happy, because Google doesn't want a loser market, where the ads aren’t being updated, landing pages aren’t optimized or performing. Google wants it to be good, so Google's exerting a little bit of pressure.

Eric: Being active will also help to keep you aware of updates too.

Andreas: Exactly. Google does like to update the requirements. Be on top of that. Take the 5% click through rate for example. If you weren’t paying attention for two months, you were under 5%, then that could be it. Google would pull the plug on you.

Eric: Once you're shut down, that's it. Right?

Andreas: I think it would be very tough to re-institute an account. Similar to issues with organic ranking, if you have problems with your website, it's very difficult to repair that. If you were shut down and then attempted to get reinstated you could be going up against 1,000 other companies that haven’t yet had their account approved yet and again it’s a free service that Google is providing so they’re more likely to spend their resources on new companies instead of ones that have failed their obligations.

Eric: Let’s talk a little bit about campaign strategy, if you're a yoga apparel company, it's pretty clear what your ad should focus on. It's pretty clear that people will be searching for yoga products.

Why are people searching for nonprofits, or are they even? How is it different for those kind of campaigns where the search term or goal parameters aren’t as clear? Let's take a nonprofit that's focused on clean energy as an example. Are people really searching Google for clean energy companies they’re interested in supporting? Or are they just researching clean energy in general? How does that play into the campaign strategy, again, from more of a nonprofit perspective?

Andreas: That's where Google Ads is so cool, because that's exactly what you can figure out by using Google Ads. You can answer those questions for yourself, and for your executives, and whatever. One example is, locally, we worked with Santa Cruz Shakespeare Company. We looked at, what's the final product? One of the products was a membership? Well, what does that mean? What does a membership give you? That's a little more nebulous, because it's sort of like being a donor. If you’re a member you may get reduced or free tickets from time-to-time.

But SCSC also sells one-time tickets to plays. For those, it was very simple. They could focus on a tourist vertical keywords like "What to do in Santa Cruz?", or "Theater in Santa Cruz," something like that, "Theater in Monterey Bay." Then you look at the tickets themselves and get creative with up-sell ideas like "Hold on. You can buy these tickets here, or if you get a membership, you just pay a little bit more, but you're part of this. You get better seats."

That's where you can use Google Ads really nicely to experiment, to do some A/B testing, and see if that works for you.

Eric: In that example, it's arts and culture, entertainment, a little bit more clear what people might be searching for, and the value that you're providing is a little bit more consumer focused still. I'd say the same goes for civic institutions like museums and libraries.

When you get to nonprofits that are more advocacy focused, or are trying to make a change at a systems level, I think it gets even more challenging because you're not offering a ticket or an experience, you're offering change to society in a positive way.

I feel like that is where Google Ads could come in to help. The focus then could be more on branded terms. Helping people who’ve heard about you find you more easily, or focused on people who are researching your cause. They're aligned with the cause at the mission level, but they don't even know that you exist. Here's a good way for them to find you. I think those are things you should think about if you're in one of those less consumer focused nonprofit organizations.

Eric: Tell us a bit more about the benefits hybrid approach you mentioned earlier. That sounded like it could be really interesting for nonprofits to pursue.

Andreas: The benefits of the hybrid approach are basically that you can use your standard Google Ads and Ad Grants together. You can start your Ad Grants focusing on branded terms which should be pretty easy to keep above the 5% click through rate. Then on the regular Google Ads account, there you can just go crazy. You can do things like remarketing, which you're not allowed to do on Ad Grants, for example.

Eric: Just for our readers who may not know, with remarketing you can continue to market to site visitors after their visit to your site using Google’s third party advertising network. Continue.

Andreas: With remarketing you can get super creative. Let's say you're a theater. You've got tickets, and you never give discounts, but you have somebody who came to your website and checked it out, maybe even looked at the membership page but didn’t convert on that visit. You can target them off of your site with a 10% membership or ticket discount to get them back. You get 3,000 visitors, but it might be only those three people a month that then see that ad. It's almost like a special reminder or ad just for anyone who did not complete the membership sign-up. In addition to the third party network, the remarketing ad might come up when they’re back on Google searching for something else local to do.

Ryan: In the nonprofit space, you could target site visitors who've entered the donation funnel, but haven’t reached the donation success or thank you page with a temporary match offer code. "Complete your donation in the next 48 hours and we’ll match 50%.”

Andreas: Yes, you can be very specific. You can basically say, "You visited us before, hence we wanted to extend this special deal to you." The person then has the experience of you talking to them much more directly. It's like, "Oh, wait. Hold on, hold on. They're talking to me? They're going to give me something on top of what I saw on the website day before yesterday?" I guarantee they're gonna be clicking on that ad.

Ryan: Remarketing also allows you to continue the narrative about your organization, and continue to educate your visitors on your cause and/or services. If you target somebody who's visited a specific page that deals with a certain cause, and there's a complementary set of articles on your site, you can remarket that complementary set, and expand and continue that narrative. Furthering the conversation.

Andreas: That's what it's all about. It's just the storytelling, and storytelling in your campaigns as well. I totally agree.

Eric: Andreas, thanks again for joining us for this discussion. It should be very helpful for our clients and visitors to get started using Google Ad Grants and Google Ads.

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