Stefanie Stark Reveals 6 Marketing Gems for Thriving Nonprofits

Stefanie Stark determined six years ago that American entrepreneur, author, and humanitarian activist Dan Pallotta gave a TED Talk that rippled throughout our sector and had nonprofit veterans nodding their heads in a resounding, “YES,”

Here’s what Stark has to say about Pallotta’s, “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong.” She shares, Dan argued that there exists a double standard between the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Especially in the areas of advertising and marketing there is discrimination toward any charity that invests in marketing because the common attitude is that donors don’t want to see their donations spent on advertising.

“Our attitude is, ‘Well, look, if you can get the advertising donated, you know, to air at four o’clock in the morning, I’m okay with that. But I don’t want my donation spent on advertising, I want it to go to the needy.’ As if the money invested in advertising could not bring in dramatically greater sums of money to serve the needy.” Dan went on to detail how those charities that invest in hiring great talent, paying competitive salaries, advertising, marketing, and in new ideas are the charities that experience the most significant growth and sustainability.

The nonprofits who are thriving today are those that have embraced Dan Pallotta’s strategy. I want to share 6 invaluable marketing lessons from thriving nonprofits that you can adopt for your organization today. I’ll focus on a few leaders: Amnesty International, who recently invested in overhauling their marketing strategy, Charity: Water, an organization that has mastered inbound marketing, and The Nature Conservancy, who grew their operating budget incrementally from $444 million to $790 million over the past decade, in spite of the great recession.

Stefanie Stark Marketing Gem #1: Think Positive

Your customer is tired of negative ideas and content. And so are we. Fear, division, and bad news overwhelms the content we consume everyday, and especially our news, by an estimated 90% – which leaves a huge unanswered thirst for positive content from most consumers and donors. Meanwhile, 85% of these donors now declare they prefer buying from brands and giving to organizations that provide solutions to causes like social justice, human rights, the environment and climate change. Organizations that want to create a legacy must act and effectively communicate on these key subjects now to answer donors’ expectations, or risk becoming irrelevant.

Amnesty International has taken inspiration from a number of for-profit and nonprofit brands and reaped the rewards in spades. Now ranked 3rd in the Top 100 Nonprofits of 2019, Amnesty International made a seismic shift in their marketing strategy: moving away from negative messaging, which has been a decades-long marketing strategy to “name-and-shame” their political opponents, in favor of making their communications “more about the humans than the rights,” according to Thomas Coombes, Head of Brand and Deputy Director of Communications.

Coombes said, “We’re always saying what we’re against…  What we get from neuroscience is that we’re trying to trigger a pain response, which most people reject.” He continued, “I’m not saying we never shock people. We need a sense of urgency, but urgency doesn’t come when something bad’s happening, because that’s all the time. Urgency is when something bad’s happening and we have this great solution that’s not being used. Above all, we want to get away from saying that bad things are happening without that context of what we can do about it.”

The new strategy is a playbook of ideas that involves championing the positive action taken by Amnesty members and telling compelling human stories about ordinary people. Donors and advocates become the heroes in Amnesty International’s story, and the nonprofit is merely the guide, the vehicle by which these everyday heroes accomplish their quest. In this way, rather than opting for shocking negative images, Amnesty is showing its donors the world as they want it to be, thanks to their involvement: a positive one!

Instead of their previous strategy of naming and shaming politicians whose policies violate human rights, Amnesty took a new tag line and marketing strategy that focuses on the positive goals and outcomes of the organization: “WE LOVE PEOPLE.” Get the picture?

Stefanie Stark Marketing Gem #2: Tell a Better Story

Storytelling is an ancient and intimate tradition between the storyteller and their audience. A recent study in Harvard Business Review by Paul J. Zak, looked at the production of oxytocin – the brain’s natural feel-good chemical – and found that storytelling narratives shot on video could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. They found especially that character-driven stories consistently cause oxytocin synthesis, and the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others, and in our case: donating money to a charity associated with the narrative. Paul Zak concluded, “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains.”

One nonprofit that stands out for its mastery of harnessing the power of storytelling is Charity: Water. If you haven’t seen their video  “The Spring” do yourself a favor and watch it. Charity: Water is a nonprofit that provides clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. They have invested time and resources in creating powerful positive video content to inspire others to join their cause. And they have reaped an enormous reward for this investment. In 2012, Charity: Water raised $33 million, and by 2019, their annual operating budget grew to over $71 million.

Charity Water’s CEO, Scott Harrison, shares his personal story about how he went from wealthy, young, self-centered nightclub promoter to yearning for something more in life. While Harrison’s own life story is often woven into the brand’s video content, there is even more narrative about the Charity: Water team members, stories from the field, and inspiring stories about the people they serve. The result is ever-increasing financial support for their work.

Stefanie Stark Marketing Gem #3: If You Build It, They Will Not Necessarily Come

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? The same can be said for nonprofits. If prospective donors never discover them, are they still doing a good job? Great missions of scale without equally great promotion are unfortunately as good as non-existent.

If you do not inform your neighbors and contacts far and wide about the mission and work of your charity, and the solutions your organization provides to problems, you deprive them of their opportunity to get involved.

How do you reach your target audience? In the 21st century, you do that by investing in digital marketing and develop a distribution strategy. Your website, email campaigns, social media channels, and especially short, impactful video content all work together to reach a broader audience of donors and advocates, but only if you build distribution.

Unfortunately, you may have already discovered, just because you finally upgraded your nonprofit’s decade-old website to a more sleek, attractive, mobile-friendly design, announcing the big ”launch” on social media, it did little to increase site traffic and online donations. Think of your website like your digital business card and brochure. In order for your print collateral to be effective you have to actually hand it out. In the digital space, you reach your target audience by investing in search engine optimization (SEO), Google Ad Grants, Display and Remarketing Ads, boosting posts on social media, buying lists, and email marketing. You will quickly see the results in your website Analytics when you hire a professional marketing company to drive the right traffic to your website and track the increase in online donations.

Stefanie Stark Marketing Gem #4: Viral Videos Are Your Megaphone

Forgive me for being the bearer of bad news, but someone has to. The days of 5-minute-long “about us” and corporate testimonial videos are long gone. Your donor prospects simply will not take the time out of their busy schedules, by in large, to watch even 3 minutes of donor and staff testimonials. People want to be inspired by human stories, engaged, and moved to do more. And in this texting culture, you’re expected to get to that point quickly.

I can’t tell you, as a nonprofit consultant, how many executives tell me that their goal is to reach a new audience of donors. Millennials, you should know, have an appetite for (short) video content, not written content. Put away your white papers. Reduce your spending on printed collateral material, and invest in professional video content. In fact, in 2016, there were 78 million Millennial digital video viewers, representing more than 92% of all US Millennials. The trend is the same in the rest of the world. It’s also important to note that Millennials are social media enthusiasts. They are 4 times more likely to use Instagram and twice as likely to use Twitter weekly than non-Millennials. They are also active social media sharers. So, if you want to spread viral image or video, this is your main target market.

Charity: Water has a page on their website that reads, “The best way to share a story is to show it.” The landing page is a digital library of Charity: Water high resolution photos and videos, along with instructions about how to share “so that you can help us tell the story of how clean water is transforming lives.” This simple request cost no money, and it has increased brand awareness for Charity: Water a hundredfold.

Stefanie Stark Marketing Gem #5: You Have to Spend Money to Make Money

I’ve consulted for hundreds of nonprofits across the country of all sizes and missions. And one commonality is that they are typically under-staffed, and the directors in the organization are often asked to wear many hats. This does a double disservice – both to the organization and its staff members. As a health and human service nonprofit, I am quite certain you wouldn’t ask your Development Director to treat a patient in your walk-in clinic in order to keep overhead low. Yet many nonprofit leaders dismiss the value of professional marketing and frequently ask their development directors or other staff to handle the organization’s marketing.  In order to produce quality marketing, invest in a professional marketing agency. Don’t leave that monumental task in the hands of amateurs. You can’t afford to cut this corner if your organization is going to scale financially. This is about survival, not just looking good.

Charity: Water understands the art of engagement and how to get people to form personal connections with their brand. Paul Young, Director of Digital, said, “We are trying to build a movement of passionate people who are going to build a relationship with us for years. We want our donors to be advocates. We want them to share content; we want them to feel really connected to their impact, and we want them to represent that to all their friends and family.”

Stefanie Stark Marketing Gem #6: Form Partnerships – Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

St. Augustine of Hippo famously said that fear is the enemy of love. Many nonprofit leaders get cold feet and fear asking company owners or corporate HR executives to partner with their organization for good. Go ahead and ask a like-minded corporation to underwrite your marketing campaign. They often, even more than your individual donors, understand your organization’s need for marketing. They understand that their gift will be multiplied when more donors and volunteers, through your marketing campaign, get involved. And your corporate partner will enjoy positive brand awareness when your marketing campaign includes content that showcases their support to your cause.

The Nature Conservancy has done a brilliant job of cultivating cause partnerships with like-minded for-profit companies like Tom’s of Maine, the leading maker of natural personal care products. Tom’s of Maine has a full page on their company’s website that touts this cause-marketing partnership to consumers, titled, “The Nature Conservancy, Tom’s of Maine, and You: Restoring Nature Together.” In this simple, effective title, the mutually beneficial partnership has made the consumer, by purchasing Tom’s of Maine products, the hero in environmental conservation. Tom’s of Maine advertises that it donates 10% of its profits to The Nature Conservancy, and this feel-good marketing further cements brand loyalty for the for-profit and the non-profit company alike.

I sincerely hope that the tips and examples listed in this article give you some valuable food for thought about your own organization’s marketing strategy and move you toward investing in positive content creation. Dan Pallotta closed his TED Talk with these poignant remarks:

“Our generation does not want its epitaph to read, “We kept charity overhead low… We want it to read that we changed the world, and that part of the way we did that was by changing the way we think about these things.”

About Stefanie Stark:

As a charity executive and strategic consultant with 20+ years’ experience in the non-profit sector, and having served as head of development and marketing, and Executive Director, I recognize first-hand the power that content marketing has today on donors, and in turn on the charities they support. And because, like you, I am primarily motivated by the positive impact that my work has on the greater number of people, I recently joined the team of Positive Solutions: a content marketing agency that only creates campaigns that have a positive impact on people and/or the planet. Using positive marketing and staying away from fear-based techniques.

Positive Solutions was started by award-winning filmmakers and marketers led by Thierry Daher whom after decades in the for-profit-only film and agency business in NYC decided to focus exclusively on positive and social impact. I recommend you start a Thierry at [email protected] to find out how positive storytelling can help increase your non-profit’s brand recognition and revenues.

Stefanie Stark is a charter member of the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and hold’s NANOE’s Certified Nonprofit Credential (CNC)

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