By Mo Waja
For many nonprofits, ‘marketing’ has been — and remains — a support tool for fundraising; its purpose, mainly to serve as a medium to get the fundraising message out there to as many prospective donors as possible, via social media or otherwise. But this limited use fails to capitalize on the opportunity of marketing. For nonprofits making more robust use of marketing and communications, the act of ‘marketing’ becomes everything from a branding exercise to a recruitment tool, to a way to connect with key stakeholders, to community engagement, to profile building, to storytelling.
But it’s that last, storytelling, that sits at the core of good marketing. No matter what message your organization is looking to put out into the world, the story you tell is the heart of how you express the need of your population, how you connect with your community of supporters, and how you show the continuous positive impact your organization has. The question is, how do you tell that story well?
The thing is, ‘telling a story well’ encompasses more than simply telling a good story that (hopefully) raises fundraising dollars. Why? Because every charitable organization owes a duty of care to the population they serve that goes beyond the good work provided.
This, how to market, advertise, or tell a nonprofit story well, has been a topic of much debate. While, broadly, we can agree that tapping into empathy and, from that, compassion, is a key component of generating giving behaviour through storytelling, the real question is how do we get there. One common way is the use of ‘shock’ campaigns depicting imagery of people in desperate circumstances. Yet this strategy has been used so frequently that it has almost become a cliché, while simultaneously becoming an unfortunate standard by which many fundraising campaigns are set, particularly those for international aid (think your classic imagery of impoverished, starving Africa). While, even today, these shock campaigns — often more harshly labeled ‘poverty porn’ — can undoubtedly be effective in soliciting short-term donations, the problems with this approach are multifold.
On the fundraising side of the equation, there is the immediate challenge of sustainability. At this point, we as a global population of donors/consumers are so inundated with very similar looking marketing messages from charitable organizations seeking support that we become desensitized to the trauma shown in many fundraising videos. This creates a scenario where, to continue to use shock tactics effectively, fundraising marketing needs to use more and more “shocking” tactics in order to overcome the desensitization of its prospective donor population, create empathy, and encourage giving behaviour. In the long term, the frequent use of shock tactics in marketing means you run the risk of compassion fatigue in your donors — a growing sense of indifference to your charitable appeals. This is in large part due to the fact that shock tactics in fundraising marketing rely on feelings of guilt and pity to encourage giving behaviour, but those emotions have a short lifespan. Guilt builds up a wall around it that becomes more and more difficult to scale. Moreover, the feeling of guilt is one that is exhausting to the person experiencing it meaning that, in extreme cases, the continuous use of guilt as your emotional lever may push certain prospective donors to avoid your content altogether in order to avoid the emotions they’ve come to associate with your brand. Encouraging people to give to get rid of guilt only works if the guilt continues to exist.
But beyond fundraising there is also an ethical side to this discussion. Again, we owe a duty of care to the population we serve, and that duty goes beyond the good work provided.
In many cases, a charitable organization serves as both aid to a population and ambassador for that population. In a world where that population may often lack a voice of its own, the organization becomes that voice; and the story they tell about their population is the one that becomes public perception. Shock tactics in marketing fundraising, what we can think of as problem-based marketing, do one thing well — and that is express need. The other side of this, however, is that in doing so they tend to place a pall of victimhood over their population, creating a dichotomy where they are the helpless people and we (the organization, the volunteers, the donors, etc.) are their heroes. The problem is that once that characterization occurs, it’s very hard for that population to become empowered to break out of that mold. It creates a sense of potentially permanent othership where that other is a helpless beneficiary of an organization’s benevolence. Problem-based marketing makes people a problem to be solved by quantifying their challenges in a digestible (and often oversimplified) format that encourages giving behaviour through a sense of pity and guilt.
Of course, at this point we move into a means/ends conversation. Are the downsides not worth it if it equips the organization with the resources it needs to continue positively impacting the lives of its population?
Perhaps, if this wasn’t a short-term solution that creates transient, transactional relationships with donors. After all, a person can only be exposed to a problem so many times before they stop affecting with that cause or, worse, begin to believe that the problem is so big that it’s insurmountable and that they can’t possibly help. With that being the case, we have to ask ourselves; at what point does telling stories of greater and greater hardship in order to generate more donations become exploitative?
Fortunately for us, there is another option. In my upcoming talk, Marketing vs. Mission: Selling Your Story Without Exploiting Your Population, we’ll look at the positive side of empathy and how to use outcome-based marketing to build long term relationships with a community of supporters. During this talk, we’ll discuss how to find and collect your organization’s stories without disrupting the good work you do, and then how to transform those stories into powerful marketing content.
Join us on Day 3 of AFP Congress 2018!
About the Author
Marketing Storytelling Expert, Speaker, Author, Host of the Let’s Talk Show podcast
Mo Waja is a professional speaker, marketer, entrepreneur, the author of presentIMPACT: The Speaker’s Guide, the Host of the Toronto Story Archive podcast, the Host of the Let’s Talk Show podcast, and specializes in marketing storytelling for nonprofit organizations. Mo has worked with clients in the software, finance, and e-commerce sectors, among others, developing their digital storytelling strategies. To date, Mo has spent tens of thousands of hours coaching business professionals, entrepreneurs, non-profits, campaign advocates, post-secondary students, politicians, motivational speakers, and medical practitioners in the art of professional speaking and communication. Currently, Mo is producing the She Speaks Project, a documentary covering barriers women face in professional communication in the workplace.