Top 3 Mistakes Nonprofits Make When Investing in Creative (and How to Avoid Them)

Top 3 Mistakes Nonprofits Make When Investing in Creative (and How to Avoid Them)

Karen Ong Barone Aug 8, 2023 4 MIN READ

Twenty years ago I started my career as a graphic designer with a dream (like many other do-gooder creatives) to help nonprofits and social causes. For a while, I volunteered my time or worked for very little. It didn’t take me long to realize donating my graphic design skills was not going to make the impact that I and the well intentioned causes I was working for both wanted. A good-looking annual report made with donated designer time can only move the needle so much. That’s when I fell into the world of behavioral science. How could we combine the science of what changes human behavior with design, marketing and communications? That’s what I and my colleagues at Marketing for Change have been doing since our start in 2005. 

We’ve learned a lot over the years and as part of our mission to help all good causes do better, I’m sharing the top three mistakes we see organizations make over and over — so you can avoid them. 

Appealing to too wide of an audience

It’s so tempting. You have a lot of audiences to reach but limited budget and time. So… how about one big campaign that targets everyone! Unfortunately, by targeting everyone you ended up targeting no one. To truly reach an audience and move them into action, you need to develop messages that authentically resonate with them. Think about that junk mail that comes into your mailbox that hits the recycling bin before you even walk back into the house. Or the commercials you see that you mute or wait for that “skip” button to show up so you can get on with what you really wanted to watch. Now think about that mail that you get that makes you think “I’ve been waiting for this” or that ad that you let play though the “skip” period just to see what it’s for. The voices that seem to know you and answer a question or need you already have. Those types of messages can only be impactful if the audience is narrow enough to reach them in a meaningful way. Which brings me to the next common mistake…

Making it about you instead of about them

You are likely working at your organization because you are passionate about the cause. And in your day-to-day life you are likely surrounded by other like-minded people who are also passionate about your same issue. But to make real change you need to speak to those who are not already passionate about your issue — they may not even be aware of it. So, how do you bring in those who don’t know or don’t care? It helps me to think about the poor volunteers on the street trying to get signatures to “save the bay” or donate to [insert worthy cause]. What do you often see surrounding those volunteers? That’s right. People crossing the street to avoid them.

So, how do you get people to not cross the street? Make it about them. As part of our Burp Better campaign to get people to drink less sugary drinks, we set out on a hot day to give out free cold beverages. People were looking for a way to cool down and we were looking for a way to get people to sample non-sugary drink options. Win win! We even had other fun swag like frisbees and blow up balls to make it all about fun vs. preaching about the dangers of too much sugar. 

And the final mistake we see over and over again…

Too many calls to action

If you want your audience to act, give them one thing to do. That’s it. Just one. Yes. Just one. And make sure it’s an action people can take. One of the most painful mistakes is developing great creative that grabs the audience’s attention and then gets them to do nothing at all. In the nonprofit space, the mistake is usually providing too many calls to action (do this, this, oh yeah and this too!). I know I know, there is so much we want the audience to do. But in our experience we see over and over again that if there is more than one ask it drastically decreases the chances of people taking any action at all. And in our business, it doesn’t matter how many people can recall the ad — what matters is action.

That’s it. The top three. If you have done these things you are not alone. Nonprofit communications is tough and requires a lot of prioritization to make an impact. When done correctly, though, the pay off is amazing. I hope by sharing these mistakes your organization is in a better place to make good in the world.

Karen Ong Barone is Principal + Executive Creative Director at Marketing for Change.