While some mega-nonprofits have grown enormously through effective marketing (e.g. St. Jude’s Hospital, UNICEF, the American Cancer Society), most have shied away from spending money on promoting their work. I have expressed my general view on spending money on marketing here and on a specific type of advertising here.
Consistent with this point of view, I jumped at the chance to support one of our recommended nonprofits, Village Enterprise, when they were offered a discounted price to advertise on a video billboard in Times Square for three months.
Village Enterprise provides rural Africans living in extreme poverty with the tools and resources they need to start sustainable businesses and savings groups. With the profits and savings from their businesses, entrepreneurs can send their children to school, feed their families more nutritious food, and break cycles of poverty that can span generations. Third-party evidence recently published by Innovations for Poverty Action (another of our recommended nonprofits) demonstrates that Village Enterprise's integrated poverty "graduation" model is impactful and cost-effective.
To be clear, The Life You Can Save supported this experiment not because I was certain that there would be a positive return on investment (ROI), but because I strongly believe we need to learn about what types of marketing work and what types don’t. Since this was an “experiment,” my wife and I donated the money for the billboard to The Life You Can Save and that donation was passed along to Village Enterprise.
The reason I see this billboard as an “experiment” is that outdoor advertising generally requires a sustained campaign to be effective, e.g. signs in multiple locations (billboards, buses, subways) that people see many times over a period of weeks or months. The Times Square ad is one very high-profile billboard that most viewers will only see 1 to 3 times. The nonprofit world is generally allergic to this type of experimentation largely because donors severely mark down organizations for non programmatic expenditures (e.g. overhead). Marketing, however, requires experimentation in order to eventually maximize return-on-investment (ROI), so this seemed worth trying in light of the unique opportunity offered.
Our hope is that a substantial number of people seeing the billboard or learning about the campaign through social media will go to the dedicated landing page on Village Enterprise’s website to learn more about their fantastic work. The fact that their program focuses on training and supporting people living in sub-Saharan Africa below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 to become entrepreneurs will hopefully resonate with donors despite the fact that only 7.8% of annual individual U.S. giving goes to international causes ($22 billion of $281 billion).
The Life You Can Save and Village Enterprise are committed to being transparent about our results, regardless of the outcome. We encourage other organizations to engage in more marketing and to make their results public in an effort to grow the sector’s overall knowledge, with the ultimate goal of increasing awareness about and support for effective nonprofit interventions.