Ethical marketing strategies for non-profits

Ethical marketing for non-profit organisations can be a tricky hill to navigate. Not only does marketing for a non-profit mean a modest to bashful budget, it also means you’re likely asking people for money, support, or to take action. Three things that, unfortunately for humanity’s sake, aren’t always lobbed around in a hurry.

Luckily, our entire ethos is around creating positive change for good in this world. We also happen to be specialists in effective brand marketing. Marry the two, and we present you the love child: the ultimate guide to ethical marketing strategies for non-profits. Below, we’ll run you through our topline strategy for creating a put down your laptop and get out there non-profit advertising campaign that will help drive real change in this world. On a budget, of course.

  1. It’s all in the message

Before you spend your hard-raised money on marketing, make sure your purpose and messaging is crystal palace clear. We’re talking both internally and externally here: can you articulate your purpose in one sentence? If not, keep asking yourself why until the sugar melts away and your purpose comes shining through. Whether that’s curing cancer, changing a specific law in your hometown or providing housing for homeless veterans, figuring out your ‘why’ is your first, and most important point of call.

Once you’ve nailed that, it’s time to package your purpose up and feed it to the masses. No matter how you decorate it, make sure your message remains clear right the way through your communications. How can you clearly present your cause and stand out from everyone else asking for eyes, hearts and donations?

Everybody Eats is one local example of a clear-cut message. Their purpose is to save food, and in the process, feed people. Breast Cancer Cure is another - it’s all about the cure, nothing else. They’re the only not-for-profit in New Zealand established solely to support research into finding a cure for breast cancer, with zero fluff around the edges.

  1. Connect with your audience

Asking people for money is tricky. Especially when they see an ad that no doubt costs buckets to make, or someone getting paid money to ask for it. A call for action can be even harder - we're a stubborn lot, us humans, and driving behaviour change can feel like dragging a fully grown Ostrich's head out of the sand. The answer? Connecting with your audience, by figuring out the inner workings of their brain. Literally.

Study your audience like they’re your weird celebrity crush. Do your research, collect the data, and identify those real insights that tell you what they need, what they want, and what tugs at their heartstrings. Find out where they invest their time, and what they’re investing that time in. Get those nuggets of gold, and you’re halfway there. 

Help for Help is one campaign that nailed the brief. “Menschen für Menschen” or “Humans for Humans” are a German NGO supporting Ethiopian aid that flipped the narrative on asking for help for third-world countries. Starting with a truckload of research, they found their target audience was weirdly into lifestyle help videos. So, they asked for help by giving help. They created a series of videos across the world wide web, where Ethiopians in need helped Germans with everyday problems - like how to clean your shoes or bake gluten-free bread. And at the end, viewers could return the help with a donation. They connected with their audience, then got creative.

  1. Get creative

This brings us very nicely to our next point: getting creative. In a world riddled with problems vying for help, there’s a small planet load of non-profits vying for attention, and you’ve got to be pretty bold to stand out from the crowd. It’s not enough to know your audience inside and out. It then takes a special kind of creativity to reach them, to stand out from the endless efforts competing for their attention on the daily.

A lot of the time, you’ve got less than one second to make an impression before they’re moving on. Grab it. Use what you’ve learned about your audience to drive the narrative, then get right outside the box and let all your creative juices flow, baby. If you’re short on marketing ideas for non-profits, here are a few of our favourites.

This Breast Milk campaign for Breast Cancer Cure sold Breast Milk in supermarkets. Sort of, anyway, and all for a good cause. They raised $20,000 for medical research without any charitable spend.

Project 84 stood 84 men on the edge of a rooftop in Britain to represent the number of males lost to suicide in a year, and sparked thousands of conversations about mental health all over the world.

The Tiniest Listing campaign put out thousands of accommodation listings all across Chicago for incubators in the NICU. Instead of booking accommodation, people could book nights for premature babies. 

“Game of Balls” quietly hijacked a porno to teach men how to check their balls for lumps. Heads up, it’s definitely not safe for work. Unless you work at Brand+Butter, where this isn’t even close to the weirdest thing we’ll throw across the desks today.

The point is, creativity works. Being bold works. Taking a leap of faith works. Humans are desperate for something a little out of the ordinary, and if it can catch their attention then it can hold their attention. And not to plug ourselves in the middle of a heartfelt cry, but if you’re two licks short of the creative juice, this is where we thrive. Drop us a line to talk shop.

  1. Be transparent

Charities and NGOs need to be open about what they're asking for, and where that money will go. Be shamelessly transparent about why you’re investing in marketing, how this increases donations and in turn, how it increases impact. Be clear about your overheads, about your results, and about the real change you’re making in the world. Because the opposite is hiding that information, and nothing screams red flag more than a charity that sweeps donations under the rug.

According to this Donor Trust Report, 32% of respondents trust charities less today than they did five years ago. And 73% of respondents to a separate survey rated trust as one of the most important factors when considering which charities to donate to. Point is, public trust has been a bit frail after more and more fraudulent charities have been forced into the lightbulb chair in recent years, so it’s important to make a stand here and shine a light all over your funding.

There are different rules to live by here depending on where you’re based, but in general, the more upfront you can be with the world, the better. And lucky for you, humans are more likely to donate if they know exactly where their money is going and what its impact will be. Win win for you.

  1. Walking the talk

Finally, and this really goes without saying, but walk the damn talk. You're a non-profit fighting for good in the world - your marketing content and chosen media platforms should reflect your values. Take a considered approach here, putting a little more thought into the type of content you’re sharing and the platforms you’re using to tell that story.

When it comes to content, treat every single person you feature with respect. You’re not here to share poverty porn, or to exploit people in vulnerable positions for the sake of your marketing campaign. If you’re sharing stories of individuals, communities or people needing help, do that with as much respect for them as you’d hope someone would have for you in the same situation. Your goal is to tell the story of the (whole) person behind the problem, without putting a shiny red cape on your NGO. There’s more on that in this article, and we’d recommend the read.

When it comes to the nitty gritty of marketing strategies for non-profit organisations, the way you share your content matters. Make sure the platforms, news outlets, influencers, media, and money you use to get your message out have your values printed all over them. There’s a bigger ethical picture at play in the way you share your content, so make sure the funding you’re spending on your campaigns can rest easy knowing it’s feeding social good rather than corporate machines. Here’s a blog we whipped up earlier about ethical social media marketing - turns out non-profit marketing vs for-profit marketing isn’t so different after all. Or if you’re after a more bespoke recommendation, get in touch.

In short?

Overall, your non-profit organisation or charity is already on the right road to creating social good and social change in the world. You’ve got your priorities in check, and following the steps above can help make sure your cause is getting the support, resources and funding it needs to continue changing our planet for the better. Now go forth and do good things.