This blog is adapted from Sarah Durham’s book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A Leader’s Guide to Managing Mission-driven Marketing and Communications.
Campaigns are related tactics designed to reach a particular audience and inspire them to take a particular action—often with a common theme, design, or other element. Effective campaigns weave together messages across channels and audiences, leveraging repetition to build mindshare and engagement.
Nonprofit campaigns invite people to pledge, donate, volunteer, vote, and share—becoming more deeply engaged with every action. They can also reinforce an organization’s voice by leveraging its logo, tagline, visuals, and other brand elements.
Communicators regularly design and collaborate on campaigns that:
- Recruit new program participants, such as students, clients, and members.
- Change beliefs, behaviors, and norms, for instance, promoting positive behavior, destigmatizing something that’s considered taboo, or changing public policy.
- Raise money, such as year-end or project-based fundraising appeals.
- Raise awareness, laying a foundation for behavioral change, giving, joining, or other actions higher up.
The Healthy Materials Lab is a program within the New School’s Parsons School of Design that educates architects and designers about toxic building materials and provides them with the resources they need to design spaces that are healthy to live and work in. The Lab’s awareness and recruitment campaigns leverage events, media awareness, social channels, and more to reach professionals who are unaware of the dangerous role toxic materials play in design and architecture. They also encourage visitors to learn why the use of toxic materials matters, sign a pledge, take a class, and more.
The Healthy Materials Lab’s engagement strategy was conceived by its directors, Alison Mears and Jonsara Ruth, leveraging their small team’s professional expertise, owned media, and Parsons School of Design’s staff and students. It applies marketing best practices with its program’s expertise and available resources, and has been successfully reaching and engaging its target audiences since its founding in 2015.
The campaign’s creative theme, “Home is where the (harm) is,” plays on the classic phrase “Home is where the heart is.” Different headlines read, “Home is where the perfluorooctanoic acid is” and “Home is where the trichloro-2-hydroxy diphenyl ether is.” Used in paid and owned social media, on the Lab’s website, and elsewhere, the campaign was adapted for each channel to help reach and build mindshare with its target audience.
Multi-channel campaigns like the Healthy Materials Lab’s “Home is where the (harm) is” communicate consistent messages across different media. In this case, the campaign is designed to raise awareness and change beliefs and behaviors, moving its target audiences (architects and designers) from being unaware toward selecting healthy materials when they design and build.
Campaigns also create a way for different groups and organizations to collaborate and gain strength collectively. Movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and many health causes have all become bigger tents under which organizations and individuals can collaborate, combining forces for greater impact. Organizations with common agendas collaborate through campaigns to increase mindshare, engagement, and impact by pooling their resources and messaging consistently on a topic.
Finite and evergreen campaigns
Campaigns can be finite (occurring within a limited time frame) or evergreen (ongoing).
Finite campaigns usually happen just once or very occasionally, such as a special fundraising appeal when the board chair retires, an awareness campaign to educate peer organizations about a new program, or a particular external event (such as an election). Finite campaigns have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Evergreen campaigns are designed to reach and engage on an ongoing basis, over an extended period of time, or at the same time each year. For example, a community center runs a recruitment campaign each spring to encourage neighborhood parents to sign their kids up for summer camp, or an advocacy organization recruits activists for its annual legislative event.
Many nonprofit communications teams develop a calendar with a steady rhythm of evergreen and finite fundraising, awareness, recruitment, and other campaigns designed to attract, engage, and maintain mindshare.
Acquisition campaigns strive to reach and engage people who are unaware—those currently outside an organization’s ladder of engagement or marketing funnel. They inspire new people to take an action that engages them in your work while giving you an easier or less expensive way to communicate with them directly in the future (most often, by getting their email address). Acquisition campaign strategies include a measurable objective for conversions—the number of people who “convert” (from being unknown to known) by providing their email address. When new people convert, they are no longer strangers to your organization. They’ve engaged by taking an action, and you’ve gained the ability to communicate with them directly.
Many people feel that providing their email address to an organization is like lowering the drawbridge and inviting the cavalry to storm the castle. Effective acquisitions campaigns rely on personally meaningful and easy-to-take, low-bar actions that don’t involve much risk or spark second-guessing. Acquisition campaigns can fail if people are asked to take an action that exceeds their comfort level or commitment to the issue, or if they don’t get something meaningful in return.
A small California farmers’ market with one full-time employee was struggling to build a list of people who regularly visited the market so it could promote special events and test out fundraising. The employee regularly walked around the market asking people to share their feedback and inviting them to sign up to receive e-news. People offered their feedback willingly, but few gave up their email address. The employee needed something more motivating. What would be worth giving up their email address for? She brainstormed ideas with her board and local partners, finally landing on the idea of providing special recipes online that could only be accessed once a shopper gave the market their email address. Want the recipe for your local favorite restaurant’s signature dish? Sign up for the farmers’ market e-news and receive insider access. This simple and elegant acquisition strategy helped the organization build an email list inexpensively by offering its target audience something in exchange for their email address.
When a nonprofit has a department called “marketing” (rather than “communications”) it is usually focused on acquisitions as its primary mandate. Marketing departments are also more likely to design campaigns that leverage paid media. They create ads that promote exhibitions at museums, events at community centers, membership in cultural institutions, and more.
Designing evergreen and finite acquisition campaigns, launching and running them, measuring the results, and adjusting future campaigns to get stronger results can be time-consuming and complex work, requiring specialized skills and deep expertise. Generalist communicators responsible for designing and executing significant acquisitions campaigns will likely need mentoring and professional development to become effective acquisition-campaign strategists and executors.
Engagement and renewal campaigns
For better or worse, many people take their first action on behalf of an organization or issue impulsively. Perhaps they signed up, pledged, or donated because something inspired them to in the moment, not because they’re committed to supporting the work. They gave the farmers’ market their email address only because they wanted the free recipes, or they donated just because their friend asked them to.
Whether or not the team that manages acquisition campaigns is called “marketing” or “communications,” it must collaborate closely with peers in other departments to inspire newly acquired donors, clients, members, and others to remain engaged and move up the ladder of engagement or more deeply into the marketing funnel. At a minimum, they’ll send regular email updates and other communications. They may also explore other ways to expand mindshare, engagement, and renewal collaboratively.
Events are often a key relationship builder at the top of your ladder of engagement, inspiring supporters to become advocates. They become even more effective when preceded by and followed with other mindshare- and engagement-building experiences. Perhaps every person who attends the gala hears more about the speakers through other communications they receive post-event. Everyone who attended the open house might receive a series of follow-up communications thanking them and suggesting additional action, like a conversation with one of your programs staff. However it happens, engaging the newly acquired and inspiring them to keep your work in mind and take further action is central to growing the lifetime value of the people who support your mission.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers three levels of membership, each with different prices and benefits. Its membership department acquires new members in many ways, including a campaign called “Members Count,” which features special offers such as early access to see special exhibits. Benefits increase at higher levels of membership, layering in perks like access to a private dining room, reciprocity at other museums, and more. The Met provides museum visitors with reasons to keep visiting and renewing (or deepening) their support.
According to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, fewer than half of all first-time donors make a second gift. Reaching and engaging people who have converted and inspiring them to renew their support requires different tactics than acquisition campaigns do. If your fundraising team’s objective is to reactivate lapsed donors, a successful campaign plan will marry their interest areas with the tactics that will most effectively engage them, blending the expertise and insights of both departments (development and communications).
Remember “Conjunction Junction”? “This is your brain on drugs”? “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”? Great campaigns share an enduring theme, story, or message that can be woven throughout earned, owned, and paid media channels. They introduce an idea or narrative that’s personally relevant and meaningful to the audience they target, distilling the essence of the message into something memorable and effective.
Many successful campaigns are developed after research (formal or informal) illuminates what the campaign’s primary audiences want, think, and do. A written brief is often developed before research and perhaps refined afterward. This short document clarifies the campaign’s target audience, actions, and success metrics. It can be used to get everyone on the same page and keep them there over time by documenting and clarifying what you set out to achieve.
Campaign concepts—the overarching narrative for the campaigns—are developed next using insights from research and the brief as inspiration. How will the campaign look and sound? What visuals and copy will it use? Map out campaign tactics, timing, and budget—ideally before the campaign launches and implementation begins—so the path ahead is clear.
Some of the most memorable campaigns use unexpected strategies to cut through the clutter and grab attention. They are catchy (like Schoolhouse Rock!), surprising (like the Ice Bucket Challenge), shocking (like Kony 2012), funny (like the Great Schlep), or moving (like Love Has No Labels).
Looking for more inspiration for your next campaign, view these case studies of fundraising, recruitment, and advocacy campaigns from Big Duck.
Sarah Durham is Big Duck’s founder and is a member of our board of directors. She is currently a leadership coach who works with nonprofit executives, agency owners, and accidental entrepreneurs. To learn about her services, workshops, and insights, visit comptondurham.com. You can also find her books on Amazon.com.