The World Deserves Better Nonprofit Ad Campaigns

5 principles for nonprofits looking to connect.


It seems like you can’t go a minute without some mention of the election in our 24 hour news cycle. Which got me thinking, how does a brand compete with the deep pockets of presidential candidates for attention? This must be especially hard for nonprofit brands with limited resources. It’s frustrating to me that many nonprofit campaigns lack the creativity we see in their corporate counterparts.


Pity or guilt-inducing communications remain a frequent go-to for many nonprofit brands yet consumers are tuned out to shock tactics. One-eyed puppies with pinkeye or malnourished babies no longer build brands nor change consumer behavior. Brands, whether they’re nonprofit or for-profit, that take risks and innovatively tap into the power of social media will be rewarded.

A lot has been written about armchair activism or slactivism and how detrimental is has been to the charity industry. I believe it has the capacity to do more good than any other medium at our disposal today. But throwing our collective marketing industry hands in the air will get us nowhere. We must be the engine for higher standards, more insightful campaigns that will influence culture and endure.

Here are five principles on how we can ensure we do better:

1: Do one thing well

With money and resources so precious in the charity-sector, every dollar spent on advertising is a dollar not spent on sending a kid to camp or furthering cancer research. It’s understandable why it’s temping to want to make nonprofit communications be the panacea for all ills. In a world where people are bombarded by messages, it’s paramount to demonstrate restraint and avoid jam packing a campaign with multiple objectives. The ideas that thrive on social do one thing well. If the objective is awareness, let it be that and use other mediums or tactics to accomplish other goals like driving donations. “Single-minded and simple” should be the mantra because it allows audiences to walk away from their screens with a clear understanding of what you do and how they can help.

2: Look for a pattern – not a formula

If the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge taught us anything, it’s that we can never predict what is going to blow up. Who’d have ever believed that a campaign for a disease no one could pronounce would become the biggest viral success by getting people to pour cold water over their heads. ALS recognized consumers’ love for being the center of attention, which enabled the organization to game the system and increase their likelihood of the campaign gaining traction. And while success is not always a sure thing, you can look for a pattern in online consumer behavior for clues. A great example of a brand identifying a pattern and making it work for them was the World Wildlife Fund. They saw hundreds of brands failing to successfully integrate emojis into their campaign. However, they successfully took a trite and trivial expression of emotion and turned it into a relevant donation tool to help endangered animals.


3: Apply rigor even if it can’t be quantified

Unlike for-profit brands with sales and ROI goals, the nonprofit sector is rife with objectives that are often challenging to measure. Clear objectives for success are critical and should drive all activity. However, softer goals like confidence building and leadership skills can be harder to track and prove. Nonetheless, clear and rigorous thinking applied to every step along the way will ensure a superior output. The Ad Council’s Love Has No Labels campaign challenged Americans to identify their own subconscious bias against others, and then work to eliminate it. Bias is implicit, pervasive, and invisible – inherently challenging to quantify and measure. This campaign demonstrates the value of being grounded in insights, (albeit invisible to most) which defy classic measurement.

4: Relinquish the need to control everything.

The economist John Maynard Keynes is credited for saying “It’s easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits.” Nonprofits should consider the viability and benefits of an open source mindset. When we relinquish the need to control everything and accept inputs from others, our ability to effect change at scale can be extraordinary. Donations frequently come in a form other than dollars or volunteers. A great example of this is HospitalRun, a charity that designs open source software for developing world hospitals. Coders with software development experience can contribute via Slack to HospitalRun.

5: Preach that consensus is the foundation of mediocrity

Charitable organizations, especially large and well-established ones, are often hierarchical by nature and full of people used to having their voices heard. Creative work by committee never results in anything exceptional. In order to create influential communications, a leader must be empowered to outline a vision and see it through to completion. The structure and culture of many nonprofit organizations protect and encourage mediocrity. Brands brave enough to step out of this comfort zone will be rewarded.

The challenges facing society today can feel overwhelming, and yet there have never been so many technologies designed to solve them. It’s an amazing time to be in the business of creating social good. New standards emerge daily to push our industry beyond great and to ensure charities influence behavior and ultimately create meaningful change.

Elaine Purcell is a Strategy Director at Droga5 where she oversees the integrated strategy development on Hennessy, Dixie, Quilted Northern, and the Y.