Marketing for Thought

3 Lessons from Nonprofit Marketing

Every nonprofit wants to save the world. They want their cause to make a difference and they want all of the general public to be aware and involved.

While this sounds perfect and merry, it’s just not realistic.  People today have too many choices, too many problems.  This is exactly why nonprofits must be very specific about their message, their mission, and who they are targeting.

David Williamson, managing director of the consulting firm of Bernuth & Williamson, argues that marketing is essential for developing a brand, owning a message, and motivating people for a cause in his his essay Marketing & Communications in Nonprofit Organizations: It Matters More Than You Think. The following lessons highlight what I thought were the most essential lessons and nonprofits that have followed these lessons to success (or failure).

Lesson 1: Figure out what motivates your audience. That’s the basis for your message, not what the board, management, or staff want.

Consumers today are tricky. They know what they want, and they know what they want to hear.  What’s even worse? If they don’t like your message, they can easily tune you out. So how do you get them to do what you want to do?

Williamson believes you have to deliver the message in a way that not only the intended audience will listen, but something that will motivate them to do what you want them to do. It’s all about the delivery and the mesage angle.

Case and point: Williamson discussed the “Truth” campaigns vs. traditional anti-smoking messages. Targeting teens through “just say no” conventional commercials- YAWN. Why tell them something they are already hearing from their parents or health classes? They tune out their parents, they will tune this out. Teenagers are just beginning to itch for “independence”- the last thing you would want to do is pull a parental angle.  The “Truth” campaign was a success because it turned the table and made the tobacco companies the bad guys.  The campaign revealed how the tabacco companies had been manipulating them to buy cigarettes, using eye-wrenching images of people talking through tubes and social experiments to demonstrate addiction.

Let’s take this a step further: how do motivate people to act for causes that are harder to understand?

Upstream Impact, a Denver nonprofit that provides assistance for people living in poverty, created a one-day simulation for middle and upper class families to experience what it was like to live in poverty.  During the simulations, participants had to deal with situations like getting evicted, having access to limited resources, being robbed, finding child care, and searching for food. They made the inconceivable conceivable by bridging the lower and middle classes.

In Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, a novel about what makes strong ideas that are rememberable and achieve their goals, the brothers discuss how abstraction makes it harder to understand a concept. “Language is often abstract, but life is not abstract……The barrier is simply forgetfulness- we forget that we’re slipping into abstract peak. We forget that other people don’t know what we know.”

By putting members of the community in a poverty simulation, they finally felt and understood what it would be like to live in poverty.  We have all heard of poverty- we know the statistics, we hear about it on the news, we may pass homeless people on the streets. But it’s harder to understand these concepts when you have never been there.

Another great example of this is City Harvest’s “Skip Lunch Fight Hunger” campaign.  This New York City nonprofit provides healthy groceries and meals to people in the city, and their campaigns aims at spreading awareness of what is like to “be hungry” while raising money- the ten dollars you would have spent on lunch.

Like Holly Stewart said in her presentation, making a situation relatable is the best way to motivate people.

"Skip Lunch Fight Hunger" campaign, City Harvest

“Skip Lunch Fight Hunger” campaign, City Harvest

Lesson 2: There is no such thing as the general public.  Find the audience that matters most to your mission and focus on them lik a laser beam.

Defining your audience- their age, gender, likes dislikes, habits, frequencies  location, needs, wants- can help you narrow down your message and make it more effective.

Eve Mendes posing for PETA's "I would rather go naked" campaign

Eve Mendes posing for PETA’s “I would rather go naked” campaign

PETA, people for the ethical treatment of animals, is the largest nonprofit organization focused on animal rights in factory farms, clothing trade, laboratories, and the entertainment industry. Their organization and mission has always attracted a certain type of person: younger generations, quirky, vegan, ambitious, mostly liberal, passionate, socially and environmentally aware, and the type of person that dedicates their lifestyle to a cause. For these reasons, they have always had considerable liberal leeway with their commercials. For example, PETA’s “I would rather go naked” campaign urges people to boycott fur through pictures of celebrities, athletes, and models posing naked.

Despite their liberal, young, passionate audience, their “Boyfriend Went Vegan and Knocked the Bottom Out of Me” campaign in 2010 arguably took their unconventional approach too far.  The video (below), is a 30 second clip featuring a girl with a neck-brace because of aggressive sex with her boyfriend after he went vegan. While making a fake disease, BWVAKTBOOM, because of a vegan’s sexual prowess could be a humorous tactic, PETA did not consider how involved their target audience is with other nonprofits and social causes.  These people are extremely liberal and opinionated, and those that took this commercial offensively took to all types of social media and news sources to express their concerns and disgust.

“The positive portrayal of women getting physically injured by their boyfriends. Yes, I get the “joke” of amazing sexual prowess by veganism, but nevertheless, you’ve ended up with a campaign where you try to get people to do a particular thing, and then show that thing by boyfriends causing girls to wear neck braces and eyepatches. It’s very counter-productive,” says Youtube user BlackMoonLilith, quoted in the Huffington Post.

Despite this backset, PETA ultimately has the right idea- they knows their target and they certainly know how to catch their attention.

Lesson 3: Don’t just communicate. Market.

Nonprofit organizations have to have two types of content: things that pull you into the cause, and things that push you to take the action. It is important to build awareness and communicate about the issues you are highlighting, but you also need a clear strategy on what people should do with this information.

The Girl Effect does a great job of providing communication and marketing tools on their website.  They call themselves “a movement” to empower girls around the world by making them realize their unique potential and driving massive resources to them. Their website provides an abundance of information and videos for people to be informed about the cause, but they also provide pages of marketing tools so that people can advocate.  Their call-to-action is for people to advocate for empowering young girl’s- and their website provides them all of the avenues to do this. It’s simple, interactive, informative, and motivating.

Girl Effect's website- it has  an entirely separate page to show people what to do with the information

Girl Effect’s website- it has an entirely separate page to show people what to do with the information

In conclusion, nonprofits can make significant leaps through the right marketing strategies.  Just like for-profit brands, nonprofits must make their causes relatable to drive motivation, know their target audience, and provide the right materials to achieve their call-to-action.  Without an effective marketing strategy or powerful, concrete message, their message could get lost in translation.


This post is a part of a series of posts for Integrated Marketing Communications class that explores strategies of integrated marketing communications and recognizes strong and weak branding strategies today.


One thought on “3 Lessons from Nonprofit Marketing

  1. Katie Bloom says:


    I enjoyed reading your own take on the morals we read about for class. I completely agree with you about the “truth” campaign- for some reason, it has taken some time in the past for marketers to realize that kids in fact do not want to hear the same things their parents have been telling them. I also enjoyed reading about the impact that simulations can have on consumers, with your examples from Upstream Impact and City Harvest. In particular, I thought the Skip Lunch Fight Hunger campaign was tremendously powerful yet simple at the same time. Even if this campaign doesn’t convince everyone to skip a meal, it still can make someone realize that just one of the three meals they might take for granted each day is denied to many children throughout the city. I think many nonprofits could look at this model and implement something that has a similar call to action. I believe awareness is the first step in acquiring new loyal followers to a nonprofit. The word of mouth will then (hopefully) take care of the sales and/or donations. I wonder if ABAN could do something like this on a large-scale?

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