Paying with blood: The case for better marketing of the altruistic “product”

Do charitable acts exist outside of the market? At first glance it certainly seems that donating hard-earned cash to an emotional cause or devoting a lifetime to help total strangers has little to do with the rational self-interest said to animate our economic transactions. Yet failing to see the cold, hard economic skeleton of warm and fuzzy altruism – and especially the crucial relation between marketing and philanthropy – is a common mistake that could easy turn into disaster for small nonprofits.

According to economist Peter Fader of the Wharton School, philanthropy should be considered an economic transaction in which payment is exchanged for a product, just like any other. This holds even for volunteering or other instances where no money is involved at all. Let’s take, for example, a blood drive sponsored by the Red Cross. If the act of donation is the transaction, what’s the product? Most people would say it’s the blood, and they’d be wrong. Blood is the payment! The product blood donors are after is the feeling of having done some good – having helped save a life – and sometimes the Red Cross “I donated” sticker that shares this message with the world.


Spelling it out for those lame non-charitable folks.

Spelling it out for those lame non-charitable folks.


The thing is that many small nonprofits don’t bother trying to “sell” the sense of making a real difference to potential individual donors, volunteers, or grantmakers. Sometimes this is due to naivety and lack of foresight, but usually it’s a deliberate decision. Because it can be seen as taking time and money away from helping people, many small nonprofits opt out of marketing themselves and ironically end up with far fewer resources to show for their good intentions.

At the intersection of marketing and philanthropy is the brand. If nonprofit giving is a classic market transaction then potential donors are, analogously, the consumers. A brand should be concise and consistent, reflecting not only the organization’s aims but its personality, reputation, and any attributes that set it apart from its “competitors.”

Large nonprofits with national or international scope spend a pretty penny developing their brand. Lots of market research and design work goes into any given Salvation Army or World Wildlife Fund campaign, and even just coordinating the message across website content, mailings, traditional media outreach, social media, and local affiliates is full-time work for a whole office. The nonprofits the public perceives as the most reliable and effective are the ones hauling in the most donations – regardless of how and how well the organization actually operates. And why not? After all, virtually every blind taste test has a shocker, the one potato chip or beer that tasters rate much higher or lower once they’re no longer able to refer to the brand they trust (or, in the case of Walgreens soda, regard with apparently unwarranted suspicion).

Yet while Lay’s and Coca Cola can be forgiven for trying to convince consumers that their products are more delicious than they really are, the same can’t be said for nonprofits. In recent years some large nonprofits have become so overzealous with branding and marketing that they’ve alienated erstwhile supporters. Consider Komen, which has come under fire since 2012 for a series of questionable choices including spending an embarrassing proportion of their income on “raising awareness” rather than on actual breast cancer patient services and for promiscuously pursuing partnerships with everyone from KFC to the makers of fracking drills.


No, sadly it wasn't just a Stephen Colbert joke.

Sadly not just a Stephen Colbert joke.


Should small nonprofits also be wary of getting too caught up in the marketing game? Of course. But given that almost all of them rely on a disparate group of well-meaning amateurs to cobble together their brand, a much more common marketing problem for them is not doing it (well) enough. Professional consultants might be a smart investment. At the very least, a nonprofit should take the time to elaborate and implement a strategic plan that addresses issues such as:

Niche. The name and mission statement need to be specific because a small nonprofit simply can’t afford to be generic. Why would anyone donate to the Youth Society when highly effective and trustworthy national charities that seemingly provide the same services, such as Save the Children, already exist? You cannot depend on consumers making the effort to track down and read the five paragraphs on your website that explain what makes you different. If you can still pick a name for your organization consider something catchy that identifies your scope and target audience – the Youth Society might locally organize extracurricular STEM education, but if it were called Growing Scientists New Orleans everyone would already know that. If you’re keeping an established or legacy name, focus on condensing your specific strengths and core objectives into a memorable 10-15 word mission statement.

Consistency. It’s generous of that summer intern to offer to manage the organization’s Twitter feed, but perhaps the constant retweets of Taylor Swift are weakening your brand identity. Ditto for delivering programs that don’t seem to work together towards a common end. And as tempting as it is to play up or down certain attributes to appeal to different consumer segments, remember that nonprofits aren’t car dealerships. They don’t have luxury and economy models for which targeted marketing makes sense. Nonprofits are only “selling” one thing; trying to be everything to everyone risks losing your message (not to mention your trustworthiness) altogether.

Outcomes and achievements. These form an important part of any brand’s cache. Again, for small and local nonprofits it’s important to be as specific as possible: “Provided semester-long music lessons to 2,500 low-income high school students in 2014” will inspire more confidence in a potential donor than the ubiquitous catch-all phrase “arts enrichment.”

Co-creation. Here small nonprofits have a distinct advantage over their national counterparts. Organizations such as Goodwill and the Wounded Warrior Project can hardly hope that their consumers (i.e., supporters) will personally meet the millions of people they help. It’s up to the big nonprofit to mediate success stories and other feedback and so co-creation is usually reduced to the choice of being a supporter or not. Arguably last year’s Ice Bucket Challenge resulted in more silly Facebook posts than donations to the ALS Foundation, but it was a rare national organization campaign that was able to enlist the initiative, creativity, and authenticity of the consumers. Alison Carlman of GlobalGiving puts it this way: “Branding started out because customers no longer had personal relationships with the people behind growing companies. Companies had to create these fictional stories and characters so that consumers would relate to their products. The thing about grassroots organizations is, they already have authentic relationships, stories, and characters in the form of the people they’ve worked with over the years.” So the task of a good grassroots nonprofit director is similar to that of a for-profit CEO: They’ve got to facilitate positive co-creation, cultivate “brand loyalty,” and if necessary tweak their approach in response to consumer demand.


I'm a grassroots advocate, hear me roar!

I’m a grassroots advocate, hear me roar!


I do not mean to suggest that market exchange is the only metaphor through which we can understand nonprofits – far from it! Nevertheless it usefully underscores the relation between marketing and philanthropy. Donors seek the ability to improve the world. They seek, moreover, the confidence that their altruistic act indeed is improving the world, and there’s no reason to dismiss the desire to feel like a good person as a less legitimate of a consumer motive than wanting to feel comfortable, pretty, or entertained. Nonprofits are one of the few providers of this valuable “product.” A strong brand, far from being a waste of resources, is imperative to successful fundraising as well as to seeking out partnerships with other organizations, from government to businesses to other nonprofits. To return to the blood drive metaphor, imagine that an idealistic med student took it upon herself to purchase an autoclave and provide blood transfusions to homeless anemic people in her neighborhood. She is certainly saving lives. Yet if she solicited your help in the mall, would you agree to follow her out to her van? Most likely you’d politely decline and wait for the next time the Red Cross comes into town. After all there’s only so much blood you can donate in a month. You want to make it count.