Special Report


It’s not enough to make donors feel good—they need to feel cool. Brother, can you spare $19.99?

CYNTHIA REYNOLDS December 20 2004
Special Report


It’s not enough to make donors feel good—they need to feel cool. Brother, can you spare $19.99?

CYNTHIA REYNOLDS December 20 2004


Special Report


WE DON’T THINK OF CHARITIES as having glory days, but remember the early ’90s? Madonna, Elton John, RuPaul, the red ribbon—practically overnight, it seemed, talking about AIDS went from being taboo to something fashionable and anti-establishment, even hip. It wasn’t just some cheap fad, either; the fight against HIV and AIDS needed public support, and it got plenty of it.

But celebrities are fickle, and so are trends, even among good causes. Today, if you’re watching an AIDS benefit concert, chances are it’s for victims in Africa, supported by

champions of developing-world issues such as U2’s Bono and Nelson Mandela. As for Madonna, she’s largely traded in the red ribbon for a red Kabbalah bracelet. Crass but true: domestic AIDS is passé, even though the number of infections is still rising (up 12 per cent since 1999). According to Paul Lapierre, executive director of the Canadian AIDS Society, donations have steadily declined over the past decade. “We need to do some major investing in social marketing,” he admits. “It helps these days to have a good spin doctor on your team.”

It’s a challenging time to be in the goodworks business. With some 80,000 registered charities in Canada alone, competition for donor dollars is fierce, especially at this time of year. Government cuts to social spending through the 1990s hit the sector hard, decimating an important revenue stream and leaving notfor-profits with little choice but to duke it out in the marketplace. What they’re finding, though, is that the traditional approach of playing on people’s heart strings is no longer enough to get the attention of consumers surrounded by myriad appeals for their cash. This is especially true of those under 35—the very ones who drive the trends, obsess the media, and represent charities’ future. “How do you compete with a GM ad promoting their latest car when ours is talking about the

SAVVY non-profits are adopting the language of survival: terms like branding, target groups and demographics

dangers of dirty needles?” asks Lapierre.

Faced with such dilemmas, the savvy organizations are adopting the language of survival: terms like branding, demographic shifts and target audiences. They’re learning the value of a famous face in pitching the cause—from Tom Green introducing his young fans to the spectre of testicular cancer to the late Christopher Reeve bringing attention to spinal-cord injuries. But celebrity isn’t enough. Donors, especially younger ones, are jaded by stories of profligacy in the not-for-profit sector, so charities are offering to reveal exactly where their money is going. And, above all, they’re paying close attention to the evolving tactics of the sector’s successes.

UNICEF is a case in point of a charity’s revival through marketing. Despite a long list of high-profile ambassadors, such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Laurence Fishburne and Susan Sarandon, research showed that people were confused about what the UN organization did, other than send kids out on Halloween to collect money. So UNICEF hired two consulting firms to tweak its brand, and re-launched in 2002. Along with an updated logo and jazzier promotional materials, it adopted a new tag line—“For every child: health, education, equality, protection”—that clearly announced its purpose. Did it work? Individual donations in

It’s not enough to make donors feel good—they need to feel cool. Brother, can you spare $19.99?

Canada alone increased from $6.9 million to $9.1 million in the most recent fiscal year.

No cause, though, has benefited more from sophisticated promotion than breast cancer. The issue was once marginalized as a woman’s disease. Now, its profile is unrivalled—in the charity world, pink is decidedly the new black. Celebrities like Demi Moore, Claire Danes and Jon Bon Jovi have flocked to offer support; supermodel-studded fashion shows help to raise money; major storylines on hit shows like Sex and the City have popularized the pink ribbon. As a result, a long list of companies clamour to be associated with the cause, from Avon selling lipsticks with the tag line “Kiss goodbye to breast cancer” to Mars Inc. offering pink and white M&Ms. The CIBC Run for the Cure attracted 170,000 participants this year, raising the highest amount ever: $21 million. Compare that to the $9.5 million brought in by the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada’s walks this year, or the mere $1.7 million raised by the AIDS Walk, with participation down by a third from last year.

Some in the sector confess to a discomfort with all the corporate tie-ins and pandering to pop-cultural trends. But they fear that failing to play the marketing game will make them impoverished, irrelevant and eventually invisible. Take the case of Greenpeace. Back in the ’70s the organization loudly urged us to Save the Whales. It mobilized idealists, mostly kids fresh from the anti-war movement, with an advocacy style no charity had the guts to use: bloody images of animal slaughter and dangerous stunts that made TV news. The success of the campaign was phenomenal, leading to an international whaling ban in 1986.

But in a climate driven less by idealism than consumerism, Greenpeace seems unable to stir the public. Its American membership dropped by more than half through the ’90s,

and the Canadian membership is flat. In fact, established environmental organizations in general have fallen out of favour. The youth who fought for the whales are now in their 40s and 50s and favour health causes, with 61 per cent donating to health organizations. Only five per cent of Canadians give to the environment. As for younger people, Toronto’s D-Code, a youth research and marketing firm, has found that while those under 35 claim the environment is among their top three concerns, a mere two per cent of their donations go to support the cause. The prospect of the whaling ban being

lifted next year has drawn little protest. Why don’t environmental groups reach for modern marketing weapons? “We wear our hearts on our sleeves,” says Matthew Sherrington, head of fundraising for Greenpeace in the U.S. “If someone doesn’t like our tactics, then we’re not the organization for that person. You can’t change to suit the times. People will see through you.”

Marketing experts argue just the opposite: you must change, because the people you rely on for donations change. Judith Nichols, a marketing consultant to nonprofits, notes that in 10 years only four per

cent of donors will be from the prewar generation, and those currently in the 24-to35 age bracket will start moving into middle age, becoming charities’ bread and butter. “A lot of the traditional organizations are putting blinders on” in not pitching to younger donors, she says. “It’ll be a crisis.” Nichols admits tapping youth is a challenge for charities. As she tells her clients, the under-35s are extremely media-sawy and more cynical than their parents. They don’t respond to marketing messages that make grand claims of saving the world, and instead want proof that their contributions

are making an impact. Sophisticated design and quirky humour also go a long way to enticing them. The problem is, there’s a generation gap between those who run many established non-profits and those they should be targeting. “The World War II generation knows what it takes for them to give,” says Nichols. “They don’t see why this younger generation has to be coddled.” As importantly, charities worry that edgier marketing will drive away their core, older audience.

Despite such reservations, some charity stalwarts are making changes. The United Way of Greater Toronto, for one, has created a

‘A LOT of traditional charities are putting blinders on in not pitching to younger donors. It’ll be a crisis.’

subsidiary called The GenNext Cabinet, which is run by 25to 35-year-olds charged with targeting their peers. This year, the group hosted such funky events as the Moulin Rouge-inspired Masquerade fundraiser and the first Great Neighbourhood Race, loosely based on the reality show The Amazing Race. GenNext also runs a luncheon series that includes speakers who had personally benefited from United Way support.

But here again it’s breast cancer that leads the way with innovative ideas. Rethink, a breast-cancer charity launched four years ago, before the cause became célèbre, specifically targets a younger crowd using techniques that may well offend their parents. One TV commercial features a man with breasts wearing a wet T-shirt, and the voiceover: “If men had breasts, they’d really appreciate them.” The group also pushes the envelope of design, with handouts printed in orange and fuchsia and relying more on visuals than plaintive text. “A lot of materials for breast cancer awareness were very traditional in how they looked,” says Alison Gordon, Rethink’s head of marketing. “But the younger demographic is used to a certain level of design.”

It’s also used to a certain level of style. Hence the promotional T-shirts Rethink sells reject the oversized pajama look in favour of sexy, fitted tees with a bull’s eye on the chest. The group has sold almost 20,000 since introducing them in May, raising more

than $250,000. Rethink also hosts fashion shows, auctions and other hip events at posh urban clubs, keeping ticket prices within the $60 range. “The younger generation was looking to support the cause in ways they could afford,” says Gordon, “not a $500 sit-down dinner or a golf tournament.”

Cool events, chic merchandise and low prices have the further benefit of helping to attract the most elusive group among potential givers: those in their teens and early 20s. According to Nichols, this crowd tends to be more like their grandparents than their parents—civic-minded, positively predisposed to companies and brands, and willing to work for change within the system. And they’re very susceptible to trends. Not surprisingly, when Lance Armstrong’s cancer foundation partnered with Nike to sell US$1 yellow wristbands, with proceeds going to the foundation, youth embraced the products with enthusiasm. Twenty million bracelets have been sold so far, and they’ve become ubiquitous on American college campuses. Other charities and retailers soon piled on the bandwagon. Clothing chain American Eagle Outfitters now peddles bracelets in four colours linked to different charity partners. Even the stodgy Salvation Army is turning to fashion to update its image. In Holland, it has launched a line of “vintage” clothes made from donated items.

Lapierre of the CAS knows AIDS causes can’t afford to be left behind. So his organization will be using a portion of the first government funding increase it has seen in a decade to launch a new marketing campaign. A partnership with MuchMusic and MusiquePlus TV channels, it will aim to raise AIDS awareness among teens, a group that’s grossly misinformed about the disease. According to a recent Council of Ministers of Education survey, for example, two-thirds of grade 7 students believe there’s a cure for AIDS. To Lapierre, such findings serve as a reminder that, amid all the rivalry for donations and talk of marketing strategies and demographics, charities’ success can’t be measured just by dollars raised, but by progress in changing attitudes. And while he recognizes that it’s critical to effectively sell the message, Lapierre says some of the modern tactics make him uncomfortable. “I really don’t want to compete with other worthy causes,” he says. “At the end of the day, I just want to know that maybe I’ve made a difference in someone’s life.” lifl