4 Tips: How to get more donations with your print ads

I recently got my hands on several issues of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine and was pleasantly surprised to see print ads from non-profit organizations. It makes sense for non-profits to advertise in this publication — it has a high number of subscribers that are senior level business people who likely make a lot of money. An ideal audience to target for donations.

But I seriously doubt that any of these ads are bringing in the big bucks, and here’s why:

  1. Their lead-in statements (“imagine a world without wildlife”, “nature cleans our air”, and “millions are on the brink of starvation”) are focused only on the larger, general — and actually generic — issues of wildlife/habitat loss and poverty, which most people are already aware of.
  2. None of the ads clearly state how that organization is addressing the issue, so there is nothing that differentiates it from the many other non-profits working towards the same cause.
  3. None of the ads clearly state how your donation will help the organization further address these issues.
  4. They all have weak or virtually non-existent call to actions and lack necessary motivators to act.

My rant aimed at these organizations


C’mon guys, you can do better than this!! In this publication, you’re speaking to a group of educated, business savvy, and worldly people. They already know we’re losing trees and destroying habitats; they already know that we’re losing vital species; they already know that children in Africa are starving. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t know these things. So why is that your lead-in? It comes across as patronizing or elementary, which will result in an immediate turning of the page. You’re not spending over $165,000 per ad to raise awareness of an issue they’re already aware of! Your goal here is to raise at least the amount you spent on the ad and ideally a helluva lot more. And you need to be doing a better job of it — both for your organization’s sake, and for the sake of your larger mission.

As much as I would love to stop at the critique phase, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t offer suggestions for improvement. Here are 4 ways these non-profits, and many others, can get more bucks for their buck (Like what I did there? Instead of bang for your buck, it’s bucks for your buck. Get it??):

1. Be clear about what your organization is doing to address the big issues.

What specifically is your organization doing that solves or improves the challenges? What can you say about the impact you’re having? I’m not talking about an entire annual report in an ad. It will take discipline to decide what to promote, of the many things your organization does, but it must be crystal clear how your organization makes an impact. There are many non-profit organizations out there today for donors to give to, so make a compelling case for why they should give to yours.

2. Let’s shift the desired action away from “donating” towards “investing”.

Increasingly people see their charitable contributions as an investment that they expect an ROI on — not a return that accrues to them as individuals, but rather a return for the greater good. Your “investors” want to know how their money, given to your organization, is going to improve and benefit the cause. Building upon how your organization is addressing the issue, you should also be clear on what their investment will achieve.

Two of these organizations do include that information in their online donation pages, but it’s missing from their ads. The ChildFund donation page even lets you choose what you want to donate, like providing a small business loan for a woman or a bicycle for a student to get to school, which is awesome … but only awesome if investors show up to that page.

3. Make a stronger connection to the beneficiaries.
 The “identifiable victim effect” is a psychological principle stating that we’re more likely to aid an individual, identifiable, victim than a larger, more anonymous group of individuals. Similarly, studies have shown that photographs will elicit more emotion and action than silhouettes. The ChildFund ad is the closest to doing this, but doesn’t connect the reader to this individual child: his name, his home, his plight, or his need. These ads should be clearer about who will be benefiting: who are these children? Which trees are we saving? What do these tigers look like? The vaguer it is, the less likely I will believe that my money is going somewhere useful.

4. Make it easier to invest.
 A behavioral economics principle of “hassle factors” describes minor inconveniences that can stand in the way of taking a desired action. If a donation page is too hard to find or too cumbersome to fill out, you risk losing that investor altogether. Most of these ads drive the reader to the homepage where it will take at least 2 extra clicks to donate. Instead, drive readers directly to your donate page featuring a follow-up, compelling call-to-action. Better yet, embed a QR code in your ad or a text-to-donate number where readers can give immediately (these methods are trackable as well, making it easy to measure your own ROI for the ad).

I strongly believe that non-profits CAN BE and NEED TO BE better at standing out, creating stronger connections to their causes, and mobilizing the support they need. Spending time knowing your audience and applying these 4 tips (even just 2 of them!) will help move things in the right direction. I have a handful of other suggestions, but they fall into the nitty-gritty category, which I will happily share with The Nature Conservancy, ChildFund International, and ZSL should they want to chat with me about improving their marketing efforts.

A summary of my 2cents on this topic:

  • Know the audience of the publication you’re advertising in and speak to them on their terms to ensure it is money well spent.
  • We all know what the global issues are, now tell us what your organization is doing to address them.
  • Tell your audience how their money will support your organization and the cause directly — what’s the return on investment for the greater good?
  • Always factor in your audience’s motivators to act — in these cases, the identifiable victim effect can go a long way.
  • Make it easy and, if possible, fun to invest in your organization.


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