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5 Game-Changing Marketing Lessons to Learn From Charities

I truly admire people who are working with charities. They’re passionate, they follow their hearts, and they are making the world a better place. I have the honor of introducing you to Ruth. She’s an amazing person and a very gifted writer. Please visit her website (see the bio at the bottom of the post), I know that you’re going to enjoy her work.

This is her guest post.

I worked in the non-profit sector, primarily in fundraising, for 15 years. And I realized pretty quickly that fundraising is no different than sales. You’re ‘selling’ a cause; you are trying to invest prospects in your organization and your marketing strategy is intended to convince them that they should direct dollars your way.

Sales, right?

I no longer work in fundraising, but I continue to sit on the Board (as a volunteer) of one particular charity, and I am amazed at the marketing genius of this little organization. This is a very small charity that serves fewer than 70 children, all of whom have profound special needs. Furthermore, this is a ‘religious’ organization, so we’re talking about a pretty obscure and fringe target market.

And somehow, this organization raises more than $3 million annually. THREE MILLION DOLLARS! Making this achievement even more impressive is the fact that none of the families of the children served are at all wealthy. In fact, they are almost all subsidized. Most of the donors to this organization have nothing whatsoever to do with the cause, the charity, or the families that are served.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what this organization does right, and what businesses stand to learn from its marketing example. So, how exactly does this little charity raise $3 million each and every year, and what can we learn from its strategy?

Solve a problem that nobody else is solving

If this charity didn’t exist – these children would have nowhere to go. Perhaps it’s not quite that black and white, but it’s a pretty fair representation of the gap in service that is being filled. In business, you want to be clear about the problem you are solving, position yourself as the ‘expert’ in your market, and make the case that unless people buy your product/service, it’s unlikely the problem will be solved to their satisfaction.

Nurture your prospects

Fundraising requires long-term donor cultivation. Rarely can you expect a substantial donation from a direct mail appeal or an isolated solicitation. Similarly, with sales, you need to have a strategy that builds trust and investment over the longer term. Only when your customers really feel connected and invested will they likely make a purchase.

Make it personal

This charity is not shy about sharing the personal stories of the kids who have benefited from their services. I sit on the Board because my daughter is one of those kids, and I’ve pimped her out several times to pull at the heartstrings of prospective donors. It sounds crass, but emotions sell; and to the extent that you can personalize those emotions, even more so. It’s no different in business. If you can demonstrate to your prospective buyers, in an intimate and personal way, that product or service has transformed someone’s life – that’s a golden marketing opportunity. Take advantage of those opportunities and share personal stories.

Table the ask

The number one reason that people cite for not having given to a charity is…they weren’t asked. It’s not that they couldn’t afford it, or they didn’t believe in the charity, or they disapproved of something. It’s that they were never asked. If you don’t table the ‘ask’, you’ve missed the opportunity altogether. Similarly, in business, you have to be crystal clear about your call to action. Do you want your prospective client to sign up for something? Do you want them to make a purchase? Do you want them to participate in a survey? Whatever your goal, state it – loud and clear.

Know your market

Savvy fundraisers spend a lot of time researching their donor prospects. They find out what other charities they support; they learn about their financial circumstances and their personal interests and priorities; they speak to their friends and they plan the ‘ask’ accordingly. In business, you have to understand the challenges and interests of your target market so that you can tailor your sales pitch to meet their needs.

Businesses have much to learn from charities. At the end of the day, charities aren’t selling much more than goodwill. And yet, many of them do it very effectively – in some cases, to the tune of millions of dollars annually. If you’re mindful of these five marketing strategies, chances are, your business will benefit dramatically.

Ruth Zive blogs about freelance writing; she is Mom to five (plus pooch), ASHTANGA yoga devotee, designer handbag enthusiast, special needs advocate and vegetarian chocoholic.

61 responses to “5 Game-Changing Marketing Lessons to Learn From Charities”

  1. Adrienne says:

    Hey Ruth,

    Great to see you over here at Jens place. Welcome and I enjoyed reading your post.

    I’ve never been involved in any fundraising or volunteered for any charities before. I’m definitely not the one to even ask how these are run but you made some excellent points here comparing them to businesses.

    The ask factor was one I had difficulty when starting out. Just like blogging, I never left a comment because they didn’t ask. You would think it would be common sense and I have plenty of that but if they don’t give you a specific call to action, you can’t read their minds.

    That is truly amazing at how much they are able to raise for that cause. That’s just very impressive and we can learn a lot from this example. I appreciate you sharing this with us and for pointing out the obvious.

    Have a great day Ruth (and Jens)!


    • Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog says:

      Thanks for commenting Adrienne! I’m so pleased to be visiting here at Jens.

      It’s really remarkable how powerful the ‘ask’ actually is. A call to action is critical, for charitable activity and for business.

      The little charity I support is a veritable fundraising machine. Indeed – they have much to learn from business in other realms, but I have learned so much about marketing from their remarkable example.

      You have a great day as well (I think it’s already night for Jens!)

    • Jens says:

      Hi Adrienne,

      I absolutely agree with you about the ask factor. I didn’t think about that until I started blogging, and read about it somewhere. But, asking people (and a call to action) is critical. Most people just consume and do what they’re told.

      I have never been involved in fundraising or a charity either, unless giving money to all the various national campaigns in Norway counts 🙂


  2. Raj says:

    That was a nice post Ruth. BTW, what is this vegetarian chocoholic? Maybe you can expand about it in another post? I have always wonder how charities are able to make money at all? Forget million dollars! It always amazes me when people raise funds without giving anything back/ selling some product! Kudos to them, and the good work they are doing.

    • Jens says:

      I have also been wondering about the vegetarian chocoholic, especially being a vegetarian myself and I really love chocolate (so I’m hoping it has something to do with that) 🙂

      To me, a charity is all about the cause. The “right” cause can get a lot of money here in Norway, and especially if the “right” people are supporting it as well.

      Thanks a lot for your comment Raj.

      • Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog says:

        LOL – Vegetarian chocoholic…it pretty much means that I don’t eat meat, chicken or fish (which is good), but I’m completely addicted to chocolate (which is not so good). I should expand on it in another post – I can create a new group of animal advocates – chocotarians. I’m glad you liked the post Raj!

        • Raj says:

          Ruth, thanks for the explanation on that complex term 🙂 I am a vegetarian too… In India there are a lot of vegetarians – its a habit with certain communities from birth.

          Jen, here we are very vary about donating to any charity unless its something like Orphanage which we can personally go and check. There are a lot of scams going around based on charities. Of course, I am happy that its not the case with every place.

  3. Carolyn says:

    Hi Ruth, I agree with Adrienne. I learned that if you want people to comment on a blog post, you have to ask. It’s funny, I usually end my blog posts with questions for my readers. They will not necessarily answer my question, but I think the questions are what get them to comment.

    I have been involved with charities, but never to the extent you have. The fundraising I have done has been in the thousands of dollars, not in the millions.

    Bless you for your work with truly deserving children. Your work is so important, you must feel very rewarded by excelling at your job and making a huge difference in their lives.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Ruth. And thanks to Jens for having Ruth as a guest author!

    • Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog says:

      Hi Carolyn! I love when bloggers get interactive with their posts – it invites commentary in a much more natural way.

      Volunteering is a great outlet, though in the spirit of full disclosure – my daughter is a graduate of the school (she has Down syndrome) so it was a very organic partnership. Another lesson I’ve learned (and perhaps there is some kernel of marketing wisdom in this as well) – align yourself with a cause that feels right. You’ll be much more motivated to persist in the hard work. Thanks for your comment Carolyn.

      • Carolyn says:

        Hi Ruth, I completely agree. If you have a passion for something, you are bound to succeed. It’s as true for charity work as for other pursuits!

      • Jens says:

        Hi Ruth,

        I belive that what you just said, “align yourself with a cause that feels right”, is also very important in business, and especially when it comes to marketing.

        In order for us to be passionate about what we’re doing, and in order for us to become remarkable, we need everything to “feel right”. To me, it’s almost impossible to market a business or a product that I don’t have the right relationship with.

        Thanks again for your awesome guest post.

        – Jens

    • Jens says:

      Hi Carolyn,

      That’s funny, I have been thinking about the questions at the end of the posts in the same way as you. I see people asking them, and I tend to do it myself as well, but most people don’t answer them. But, it makes them comment.

      It’s awesome that you’ve been involved in fundraising. It’s not fundraising, but I’m using Kiva and lending money every month. Not a lot, but all I can afford at the moment 🙂

      – Jens

  4. Eddie Gear says:

    Excellent article Ruth. As a matter of fact, awareness is the key to increase funds for charity. You know what they say, Ask and you shall be given. No harm in asking right?

    • Jens says:

      Hey Eddie,

      Awereness sounds right to me, although I have never been involved with any charity. It would be awesome to do marketing for a charity though, to be doing it all for a good cause. That would be something.

      – Jens

  5. Rochelle R says:

    Brilliant Article Ruth. I really enjoyed reading it. Jens should let you guest post more 🙂 Just a suggestion.

    • Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog says:

      Thanks Rochelle! I would love to guest post more (wink wink). Thanks for the recommendation, and feel free to visit me over at my blog as well.

  6. Jade says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this post Jen’s, it was very useful.

  7. Mark W Schaefer says:

    Thanks for sharing the story and making the useful comparisons. Good job!

  8. Mouh says:

    All of the aforesaid things can be applied to online marketing.

    The ask factor is very important but it can be easily missed. It is a charity. So it goes with the territory that they need money, someone may say. but you still need to ask and be clear about the action you want people to take.

    Really enjoyed reading this guest post. Thanks Jens and Ruth. I am always surprised at how much we can learn from things that seem totally unrelated to blogging and online marketing.


    • Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog says:

      I actually never would have thought that there was so much to learn about promoting a business and marketing from my experience in non profit management. But then, the more I dug deeper as an entrepreneur, things just kept occurring to me – “Oh, I must make sure that I’m clear about my call to action.”, “Of course, I need to distinguish myself and my offering.” “I need to make people feel GREAT about signing up and getting involved.” I’m glad you enjoyed reading this post!

  9. homeforgeeks says:…..certainly worth sharing it!:-)

    I’m always glad to see ur posts create a little conversation, so thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  10. Cendrine Marrouat says:

    This is an excellent article! I am in the process of creating my own organization, and it sure is a handy reminder of the basics. Thank you!

    • Jens says:

      Hi Cendrine,

      Are you creating your own organization? That’s very interesting. Please let me know some more about it, what type of organization?

      – Jens

      • Cendrine Marrouat says:

        I am working towards creating KIP Education & Prevention Programs with Karen Alexander. The organization, which will NOT be a non-profit, will cater to at-risk youth in Winnipeg, Canada, through all-inclusive programs targeting areas of need for these kids. For example, expression through art (writing in particular), nutrition, sport, literacy, employment preparation, certification, etc.

        We launched an online fundraiser a few weeks ago to collect the necessary funds and get started: We are also looking for donations in kind, including clothes, books, art supplies, computers (…

        For more information, you can visit our official website at We are also on Facebook (, Twitter (

        Karen and I are both authors. We hosted a book reading / fundraiser at the beginning of last month. We videotaped everything, and you can watch the event on YouTube.

        I am the person in charge of PR and social media, as well as the webmaster of our website. As co-founder, I will also manage one of the programs.

        If you know a blogger or member of the media interested in interviewing us, tell them to contact me at

        Thank you, Jens for allowing me to talk about KIP! I really appreciate it.

        • Cendrine Marrouat says:

          I forgot to mention that we will partner with existing and established organizations for our programs.

  11. Rick says:

    Interesting post. It leaves me with a bit “cynical” question: Are people involved in charity actually doing it out of the pure goodness of their hearts and expect nothing in return? Perhaps Mother Teresa, but wouldnt it be nice if you could get something in return. Let’s say a website owner gave some money to a worthy cause. Why not get a link back to the sales page and maybe get a few sales or some exposure. Both parties will be happy. I’m not saying we should take advantage of charities, but give and take should go hand in hand. If charities facilitated options like that, perhaps a larger part of the online business owners would contribute more (at least when it comes to donate money). On the other hand, maybe lots of charities already offer this but I simply havent seen it yet.

    • Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog says:

      Rick, you’ve raised an interesting point. Especially when you look at corporate philanthropy, much of it is motivated by self interest. Companies look to enhance their brand, position themselves competitively in the market, target new prospects and comply with community standards and expectations by supporting charities. CSR campaigns and cause alignment is a huge trend in Corporate America. But I say…so what? I think that savvy charities actually consider the potential returns when they target donors. And well they should! When there is reciprocity in the relationship, it is much more likely to persist long term, right?

  12. Always do the ask:)

    I’ve been involved in many not-for-profit organizations, ranging from sports governing bodies to professional theatre to worthy causes, and I believe that, in those organizations, we do a much better job of “doing the ask” than many businesses do. Perhaps that’s because we don’t feel pressure to “close the deal”: our goals are altruistic, and if one person doesn’t respond, there are many others to approach.

    Don’t get me wrong: I believe that works in business as well. I use the phrase “plaid coated used-car salesman” (my apologies to any pcucs reading this) for anyone who does push selling: pull-marketing is what it’s all about.

    Your 5 marketing strategies are spot on, and something we should all do. Jens, thanks for introducing me to a fellow Canuck:) Great to meet you Ruth! My only point of departure: I dislike chocolate…REALLY dislike it. But that shouldn’t hurt or hamper our friendship, right? I’ll send all my chocolate your way:) Cheers! Kaarina

    • Jens says:

      Hi Kaarina,

      You dislike chocolate, wow, you’re probably the first person I’ve heard of that actually don’t like chocolate. But that’s a good thing though, I would love to not like chocolate (and potato chips) 🙂

      I believe that I would do a better job at marketing if I’m passionate about what I’m doing (the cause), and if I didn’t have any pressure (expectations). If I could do my thing, just because I really want to help and make a difference. I’m not sure if this is possible when it comes to charities though.. but like you say you might not have the pressure to close the deal as much as in a regular business.

      – Jens

      • Here’s a little tip: why not just remove the pressure and expectations that you impose on yourself, put yourself out there, do the ask, and allow the results to take care of themselves. Again, this is something we use in athletic coaching. When all is in a state of readiness, the only focus should be on doing the absolute best you can do: the results will take care of themselves.

        It’s amazing how much more effective we are when we remove any self-imposed pressures, be our passionate and authentic selves: give out and the returns will come. Sending cyber chocolate and chips your way:) Cheers! Kaarina

  13. Bill Dorman says:

    I know both worlds very well and you are talking my talk. My day job is commercial insurance sales. 99.9% of my business is business I seek out and cultivate; we have very little walk in sales if any.

    My volunteerism is with the local YMCA and we do a community support campaign every year to help pay for the subsidized kids and families who can’t afford to pay. At this particular Y with 5 branches, it is to the tune of $500,000 in subsidies.

    I never correlated the two but it does make so much more sense. The two biggest killers are not making the ask and not doing the proper relationship building.

    Good stuff and thanks for sharing; I will pass this on at my next board meeting.

    Good to see you at Jens.

    • Jens says:

      Hey Bill,

      I didn’t know that you are connected to the YMCA. I stayed at the YMCA in New York a long time ago, that’s my only connection. It’s very interesting what you’re doing and I’m hoping that you’ll share more in a post fairly soon.

      I haven’t thought much about charities and marketing, but to me charities and inbound marketing seems to be a perfect match.

      – Jens

  14. Jens says:

    Thank you so much for your feedback.

    – Jens

  15. Jens says:

    Thank you so much for the feedback.

    – Jens

  16. Jens says:

    Thank you for the feedback 🙂

    – Jens

  17. Interesting post with very valid points. Charities ARE businesses so the rules should be the same.

  18. Stan Faryna says:

    A lot of bloggers would benefit by applying these five lessons to each and every blog they write.

  19. Rizwan Sultan says:

    Hey Jens,

    Thanks for sharing this post the title for this post is not fitted to the content.It’s my personal blogging experience not want to dis-heart or degrade anyone.

    • Jens says:

      Hi Rizwan,

      I’m not sure if I understand. I have read the post more than one time, and to me the title seems perfect. Can you please explain, I would love to see your argument. Let’s discuss 🙂

      – Jens

  20. Sarah says:

    Great post. I used to do charity work and there’s no doubt that some people are passionate but probably not all.

  21. Mary says:

    I love the point about nurturing your prospects. When it’s done with integrity as a real connection, it creates heart-based marketing.

    – Mary Jaksch

  22. rockhuki101 says:


  23. Jac Evans says:

    This post is very useful. Thanks for share this. Keep it up. I like these five things specially solve the problem and make it personal.

  24. Tushar says:

    Thanks for the article.. awesome language.

  25. Jac Evans says:

    Marketing is basic thing for every business. Without marketing,our business is not successful.

  26. Alex Brad says:

    Changing market is not an easy step. We must have large amount of assets for changing the market. We can follow above rules for changing the market.

  27. James Corn says:

    Charity may change the poor man life. We must give the charity for the sake of goodness.

  28. Claire says:

    I am inspired from those persons whose are participating to collect the charities. These people workinh for poor people.

  29. Claire says:

    I want to start a new business on charity. This blog is very helpful for me. I will try to follow these instruction. Process, policies and procedure is the main thing to continue the business well.

  30. Bruce Bent II says:

    I am also inspired from these persons whose are working for collect the charity. They feel the problems of poor people.

  31. Internet Marketing Company says:

    Marketing is the one way to become a millioner…and this is a ‘religious’ organization, so we’re talking about a pretty obscure and fringe target market.

  32. lana says:

    Very well said. Indeed for successful fundraising it takes a long time to cultivate donors. This is what is most often lacking in many less successful fundraisers.

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