‘Tis the season for charitable giving.

Just as with retail sales, charities and nonprofits tend to see their highest volume of donations during the holiday season. On average, about 30% of charitable donations are made during the month of December alone.

Organizations that rely on donations are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they share their stories and spread their messages. Social media has revolutionized many organizations’ entire models now that charities and nonprofits can speak directly to — and engage with — individual followers.

We thought it would be helpful to shift our frame of reference a bit and examine some successful efforts in charity marketing. Below are 10 charities and nonprofits getting their message out through innovation and marketing best practices. We will examine what worked for each organization so you can try to model their success with your own efforts.


Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association (SSAFA)


2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, and UK armed forces support charity SSAFA wanted to mark the occasion to highlight how it continues to help servicemembers and their families, just as it did in 1914.

SSAFA’s campaign centered around a video of multiple groups of people singing “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” a song popular among British soldiers marching off to war during WWI. The group launched its campaign on August 10, 2014, with a photo session right in the middle of London, at Tower Bridge, SSAFA public relations officer Nicola Hammond told CharityComms.org.uk.

The campaign, which aimed primarily at raising awareness, ran for two weeks and resulted in nearly 250 pieces of coverage in British media and more than 14,000 social media shares.

“People could engage with our video on either their social networks or on our specially designed campaign hub,” Hammond wrote. “On social media, our organic content performed best in the first few days of the campaign with over 10,000 views on YouTube in the first 48 hours.”

SSAFA saw success because they capitalized on a rare situation. It’s not often that a charity gets to mark a 100th anniversary! And as the war’s centennial was a major news story in the UK and continental Europe in the summer of 2014, SSAFA was able to tap into that interest and share a message of unity that resonated among people in Britain.



10 Charities and Nonprofits Are Doing a Great Job of Getting Their Messages Out

In 2013, the Swedish branch of UNICEF launched a bracing ad campaign called “Likes don’t save lives,” targeted directly at Facebook and other social media.

“[I]t was in response to the great focus on collecting Facebook likes, among both businesses and organisations, over the last few years,” UNICEF Sweden communications officer Emma Grummas wrote in the Guardian. “What does being ‘liked’ on Facebook actually mean for an organisation such as UNICEF? Social media is an excellent platform to raise awareness for a cause, but what if people’s involvement stops after the click of a like button?”

Four videos based on this message were created and distributed via social media. This direct confrontation of what Grummas called “slacktivism” garnered attention not just from users but also traditional media outlets such as The Atlantic, and it made people uncomfortable.

More importantly for UNICEF Sweden, it drove donations — enough to vaccinate 637,324 against polio, according to Grummas.

UNICEF Sweden’s campaign was a great example of how you can mess with an audience’s shared fiction to startle them into attention. Theater and television have long done this by breaking down the fourth wall between the actors and the audience.

“Likes don’t save lives” is simply a contemporary version of this, although it poked at a pain point that didn’t exist within older media. By calling out conspicuously conscientious social media users, UNICEF Sweden made more than a few people uncomfortable via self-realization, and then it introduced them to a tangible way (donations) to ease that discomfort.


Sean’s Outpost

10 Charities and Nonprofits Are Doing a Great Job of Getting Their Messages Out

Sean’s Outpost is a homeless outreach center in Pensacola, Florida, that is primarily funded via Bitcoin donations. Sean’s Outpost founder Jason King is particularly active on the /r/Bitcoin subreddit, and as a result many Bitcoin community members around the world are quite familiar with a locally focused charity in a medium-sized city in northern Florida.

This level of notoriety in the Bitcoin community also allows Sean’s Outpost to get press coverage for its campaigns, which in 2014 included having King run from Miami to San Francisco to raise money for the organization.

For a small charity such as Sean’s Outpost, the team understands that in order to be sustainable they need to niche down to highly specific targeted audiences so they can share their message. It becomes a question of quality over quantity.

Also, this is a good example of going where the money is. If a charity wants to raise money in dollars, it should go find communities where people hold concentrated amounts of wealth in dollars. If a charity wants to raise money in bitcoins, it should go find concentrated amounts of wealth in bitcoins.


Charity: Water

10 Charities and Nonprofits Are Doing a Great Job of Getting Their Messages Out

Digital marketer Chloe Mason Gray dives deep into all the things Charity: water does right with its marketing in a fantastic post at KISSMetrics.

Charity: water works to make clean, drinkable water available to the billions of people worldwide who lack reliable access to it, and a core part of their outreach is content marketing.

“[T]heir marketing has tangible results,” Gray writes. “In 2012 alone, they raised $33 million, of which over $8 million was raised through their online fundraising platform.”

What is most interesting about Charity: water is how clearly the organization applies online marketing best practices — the kinds of things anyone actually selling a product or service should know — and they just knock it out of the park.

Consider the fact that the organization’s home page has an obvious three-point value proposition:
10 Charities and Nonprofits Are Doing a Great Job of Getting Their Messages Out

“[C]harity: water didn’t decide on this value proposition haphazardly,” Gray writes. “They hit on three major pain points for nonprofit donors:

  • Most donors prefer to know that their money goes directly to helping people rather than to operating costs (hence the ‘100% model’).
  • Donors often feel confused about where their money ends up or don’t really trust that it’s being used as promised (hence ‘proving it’).
  • In the nonprofit space, there often is concern about western organizations barging into foreign countries and implementing solutions without really understanding the people’s needs (hence ‘local partners’).


The lesson here is that the fundamentals of persuasion and copywriting work, even for charity organizations.


Not Up In Smokes

10 Charities and Nonprofits Are Doing a Great Job of Getting Their Messages Out

Australian social marketing agency The Social Deck has an interesting case study on its blog about market segmentation within its own social marketing activities.

The Social Deck was tapped to help launch a campaign on behalf of Aboriginal organization Nunkuwarrin Yunti of South Australia, whose younger members are prone to taking up smoking. In fact, while overall smoking rates are declining in Australia, indigenous people still remain 2.5 times as likely to take up the habit.

Therefore, The Social Deck had to segment among behavioral statistics to find a message that would connect with a very specific group of people.

“By targeting communication specifically to the segmented audience, messages that particularly resonate with that group can be used to the greatest effect to produce change,” The Social Deck wrote. “Thus, in our research we were able to focus in on smoking behaviours for young Aboriginal people.”

An interesting discovery: The team realized they had to be mindful of accidentally creating pro-smoking social proof by talking about how many people smoked; rather, they noted trends such as how Aboriginal people between the ages of 15 and 25 were taking up smoking less than in other age groups.

“When it comes to social marketing or behaviour change, we can’t expect that our message for one group will work for another,” The Social Deck’s Kate Bowmaker wrote in another post. “Or the campaign tactic, the viral video attempt or billboard will have the same exposure or level of influence on everyone.

“For this reason one of the most important parts of effective social marketing and behaviour change campaigns is segmenting your audience.”


Lauren Luke for Refuge.org.uk

Here is another campaign that relied on shock to grab the audience’s attention. Start by watching the video:

This is Lauren Luke, who demonstrates makeup tips on YouTube, and her channel currently has more than 130 million views. In 2012, Refuge.org.uk, a UK organization dedicated to preventing domestic violence, partnered with Luke to create a video in which she applied makeup to cover up obvious signs of battery.

Luke even treated the video as if it were a normal piece from her. Here is the video description text:

Hia Everyone,
Hope you’re all well?
I’m not feeling 100% today so I’ve done a video on how to look your best the morning after.
Sorry if I’m not me usual perky self but the look turned out great and I think it’s perfect whether you’re off out or just staying home with your other half.
Thanks so much for watching, sharing, liking and most of all supporting all that I do.
For more info on today’s look go here http://www.refuge.org.uk/lauren
Zoom zoom!
Lauren 🙂

The message was clear to just about everyone who saw the video, and other outlets picked up the story and shared the video when it was released.

There are two key takeaways to this campaign. First, the 50-year-old idea that “the medium is the message” applies perfectly here. Having a popular YouTube channel display this message — rather than, say, have a 30-second TV spot during a soccer match’s halftime — reveals just whom the message targets.

Second, this is a great example of how to leverage influencers, which goes somewhat hand-in-hand with the previous point. Having an influential figure deliver your message (and even shroud it in her own language) is one of the best wins a marketer could have.


Southern Poverty Law Center


Sometimes, an organization has to tackle many multi-faceted issues, and this means there are many diverse stakeholders who care about the organization’s work.

This is the case with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which fights for the rights of children at risk, LGBT people, anyone who has been victimized by hate or extremism, immigrants, and any group/individuals who have to deal with intolerance.

That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning. But the SPLC does a good job of keeping its various stakeholders informed through a simple newsletter, something even the spammiest Amazon affiliate sites create, but that charities and nonprofits often overlook.

“When polled, 25-30% of nonprofits do not use email to promote their programs and fundraising campaigns which is a mistake since email is the primary source of online donations,” Nonprofit Tech For Good wrote in August. “In fact, for every 1,000 fundraising messages delivered, nonprofits raised $17.”

When there are various audiences interested in your work, or your service, or your product, rally them around an information resource such as a newsletter. This will keep them up-to-date on news, and it gives you a direct pipeline into their inboxes, where most of us spend hours a day already.


Central Asia Institute’s Communique blog

10 Charities and Nonprofits Are Doing a Great Job of Getting Their Messages Out

Likewise, if an organization has a core group of stakeholders but interesting, regular news, this is a solid opportunity to build a strategy around blogging.

This is what the Central Asia Institute — which promotes peace, literacy and education among communities in central Asia — did.

There are already few organizations in its countries of focus (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan), and this means that the people on the ground have some fairly unique stories to tell. The fact that the organization’s work touches on many of the same themes that recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousefzai has spoken out on only stokes public fascination.

“The [Central Asia Institute’s] blog is a vivid reminder of just what a blog can do to promote the work of a nonprofit, not only in this remote but geostrategic region, but around the globe,” PR Daily wrote in 2014 when announcing that it had selected the CAI Communique blog as the best blog for its Nonprofit PR Awards.


The US Holocaust Memorial Museum Tour

10 Charities and Nonprofits Are Doing a Great Job of Getting Their Messages Out

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013, and so it embarked on a nationwide touring exhibition.

In the run-up before each stop in New York, Chicago and LA, the tour’s organizers took out ad space on the websites of major local publications such as NYMag.com, ChicagoTribune.com and LATimes.com promoting the local stops.

That sounds like basic advertising strategy, but notice the focus of online media, even if it’s just the online channel of a traditional media outlet. Where does hate speech and anti-Semitism flourish most, online or offline?

“Hate on the Internet is on the rise, anti-Semitism is on the rise, Holocaust denial is on the rise,” museum CMO Lorna Miles told the New York Times. “The relevance and importance of the museum and the urgency of our work to educate about the lessons of the Holocaust has never been greater.”

Furthermore, the museum even took steps to pre-empt anti-Semitism by purchasing the URL ThirdReich.com and redirecting visitors to the museum’s home page.

These are great examples of an organization being proactive about possible opponents or trolls, and any business can adopt these same strategies.


Durrell Wildlife

10 Charities and Nonprofits Are Doing a Great Job of Getting Their Messages Out

And if nothing else, just share photos of animals. That’s what Durrell Wildlife on the island of Jersey does on its social media outlets, although they have a bit of a leg up because they run a wildlife conservation trust.

In all honesty, though, this is a fine example of an organization leveraging its own assets. If there is something in your own organization that large audiences would find interesting, by all means share it. Maybe there are no lemurs hopping around your office, but there is probably a story worth telling.

All images courtesy of organizations’ websites and social media outlets.

Casey Meehan