Four Things Marketers Can Learn From Non-Profits

I served as the Digital Director at a (very) large church for two years and for as much as I hoped to bring the organization as a marketer and communicator, the experience flipped many of my assumptions about advertising & marketing on its head. Here’s a few of the things that advertising could learn from the good churches and non-profits.


Messaging doesn’t pay the electric bill so, in advertising, our messaging is angled to a product. Sell the thing, build awareness, etc. all with the explicit directive to drive top line sales. But in a non-profit setting there’s a beauty to the simplicity of message. Often the message itself is the product and the donations or sales only exist to spread the message further. We can (and should) borrow this strategy in marketing, but with a twist.

You see companies are increasingly more terrified of taking a stance on anything, even the things they have a clear stance on, because of the polarizing effect of opinions in the current political climate. And I don’t mean a stance on the gay-rights debate or climate change, necessarily, I mean a stance on something that matters to and for the business. Brands do this occasionally as goodwill messages, but it’s almost always a feel-good topic with a little “brought to you by _____” tag at the end. I propose brands should start speaking out about things that matter to them and selling the public on why their organization has a stance and why it matters. Sell the message and start a conversation, not around the thing you sell, but around the things that matter to you. Don’t even try to pivot the conversation. Just participate and listen. Customers will appreciate you for it.


It matters that your product works or your service is reliable. It matters that your customer service department actually gives a damn and has processes in place to really take care of problems and self-adjust when it fails. But it also matters, I would argue more than all the other “core” elements, that you take yourself seriously enough to speak with integrity and lightly enough to apologize sincerely when you stumble.

Not a week goes by when I don’t see a brand make a mistake and respond with a middling, weak-worded PR release that feels like it was written by a lawyer played by Woody Allen. It gets me frustrated. I’d honestly rather you say nothing than write the kind of response every PR team in the country seems trained to write. Instead, structure yourself to respond quickly, honestly, and in a way that appears to be written by an actual human with actual feelings. Empathy, my friends. Lead with empathy and compassion and forgiveness follows with it.


It’s fairly easy to tell the paper-pushers from the passionate people in your business. Fire the paper-pushers. Today. One thing is clear in small-team, tightly-budgeted, non-profit settings. You have passion for it, or you walk. There’s no room for the career-stepping-stoners, the just-in-it-for-the-paychecks, or the good-at-the-job-but-couldn’t-care-less-about-the-goal day-workers. And there shouldn’t be in your business either. Live it, promote it, and watch an employee culture turn into a customer culture.

If you treat your employees with an expectation of loving what they do, then it rubs off. Passionate people attract passionate people. Recruiting becomes easier, retention soars, culture flourishes, customers who feel the same way get pumped about your company and become evangelists for you. It doesn’t exactly matter how it manifests, but it matters that work is more than work for your employees and your culture comes out in everything that leaves your building.


Oh jokey ads, how I love you. A funny ad sticks with me, that’s for sure. I can’t say I’ve ever bought something specifically because an ad was funny, but I’ve bought plenty of things for which the ad was, in fact, funny. But I’m not addicted to a brand because of a funny ad. It may have raised their unaided awareness for me and others, but it’s not the humor that makes me recommend it to a friend. It’s earnestness.

Brands that are true to themselves, own it, and with which I connect are the ones I stick with for years. All of the companies I “identify” with, have a distinct identity. Sounds obvious, but if a customer couldn’t clearly articulate what your company is all about beyond what it sells, then you have a problem to solve. Humor sells in the short-term; identity sells in the long-term.

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