Sunday, November 16, 2008

Non-Profit Marketing: Being Charitable to the Charity

The Problem:

If a product can’t create “buzz” then it’s not going to sell. If people don’t talk about your product, it’s labeled not good enough. Now substitute this product for a charitable cause and put it in the same problematical situation. This little equation shows the problem 99% of non-profit organizations are trying to battle. They are told by the communications industry to find a voice, to brand their unique cause to make it marketable, but they are having problems finding their loudspeakers. Often, when they do, the volume is stuck on low.

The (non)Competition:

Many people will not agree with above. Breast Cancer, the new “green” movement, AIDS, the Children’s Miracle Network and a thousand others are splattered onto our television screen and computer monitors, chirped into our ear by that “guy” in the radio, and even seamlessly integrated into many of the consumer products we buy. These popular kids within the non-profit class have worked hard for their status and corporate giants have adopted many. Cause marketing has grown exponentially in recent years, and admittedly its nice to see some good among the 4,000 some-odd advertisements a consumer is exposed to everyday.

“What’s the problem?” you may be asking. If donations are up and word is spreading there isn’t one, right? Wrong. The problem is for every one (1) non-profit organization that receives media time, publicity, or donations, 99 are ignored. In a market where the service can’t be considered superfluous, this is a sad statistic.

The Possible Client:

How about the Pamunkey Regional Library? The Firefighters Association? Americantowns? Or Sergeant Santa?

These four organizations are all local non-profit causes in the Richmond area, and all are desperate to find a better way to collect contributions besides calling and begging. No one wants to live without a local fire department or tell our children we couldn’t afford Santa this year. Noelle Weaver explained this situation in her article, “‘Do-Gooders’ Are Brands Too” (AdvertisingAge) by saying, “Nonprofits and foundations are still treated like orphan children in the advertising and marketing industry.” The problem for these organizations is not that people refuse to donate, but that they don’t know the need to donate.

Or more simply, these organizations have no voice.

The Evolving Situation:

The advertising and marketing industry holds the key that can unleash these suppressed voices. Most agencies have a non-profit on their client list. Some work pro bono, others are paid, but 99% (the key number) of non-profit clients are massive causes. This means money to spare, a developed brand and media exposure around the country: basically a win-win situation for both charity and agency.

Weaver and Gary Mueller, author of “Cause and Effect” (AdWeek), explain the attraction agencies have to successful non-profits and the difficulty agencies face by taking on “underserved causes” as Mueller calls them. First is that the agency gains nothing but the “warm-fuzzy” when working with non-profits. No agency press coverage, no awards, and rarely any money. Another is that non-profits are unable or unwilling to take creative risks, which leads to “formulaic” work explained by Weaver.

Mueller, quoted in “Advertising for a better world: The nation’s only nonprofit ad agency crafts messages with a mission” by James Diers (, says, “Many [agencies] don’t even develop a strategy or a plan; they just come up with a creative poster or PSA, pitch it, and don’t worry about its effectiveness.” Mueller thinks differently about the subject, emphasizing the importance of working at the same level of thinking, strategy, and production to create the same outcome for non-profits as agencies do with “real” clients.

Mueller has found an effective and rewarding solution for this problem. Though still working as creative director for BVK in Milwaukee, he also started his own agency, Serve Marketing. Serve is the first and only non-profit advertising agency, a breakthrough in both the ad industry and non-profit world. Working with the “underdogs” of non-profits in the Milwaukee area, Mueller applies the same strategy in developing a message at Serve as he would with BVK, often with very aggressive and unusual creative outcomes.

With only three full-time employees and around 75 volunteers from the industry, Serve donated about $3.8 million in services and media space in 2005. Imagine the impact if for-profit agencies could donate even a fraction of this to local non-profits in their respective cities.

Agencies could also allow employees more volunteer freedom. Serve account executive Sarah Salzer talks about the struggle that industry people encounter when trying to volunteer in Diers article. “It’s not always easy to [use volunteers] because a lot of agencies don’t want their creatives to work outside for anyone else. But people are starting to know us and what we stand for.”

The Simple Solution:

Here are some choices:
1) Become a maverick, start your own agency and have the freedom to take on whatever client you choose *(such as Mueller).
2) Push your agency to break the mold and allow more lenient volunteer opportunities.
3) Work for an agency that puts pride aside and “adopts” a local cause.

The industry needs to realize the importance for small, unrecognized non-profits to have a little marketing guidance, and that they have the ability to help. Every prevalent cause today started out in a low-man-on-the-totem-pole position. Rotation in popularity is necessary to keep consumers interest peaked and donations flowing.

If for no other reason, everyone can use a little boost in the giving sector of his or her life. Feeling needed and knowing your helping a meaningful cause can only be positive, especially in an industry that can be stressful and overwhelming.

As for creative talent, just because it’s not within work boundaries should not mean you cannot use it. Being creative is a way of life, not a work attribute that should be shut off outside the office.

Take the masters advice:

“What would you get out of it? If you’re like me, you’ll get the joy of knowing that you used your skills and your creativity to make a difference- to give a little-known cause hope, a strong identity and the ability to make an impact. It ain’t easy work. But it comes with satisfaction that no paycheck of any size can bring.”
-Gary Mueller, Founder and President of Serve Marketing, evp, cd BVK Milwaukee, author of “Cause and Effect”.


Cause And Effect

March 27, 2006

By Gary Mueller

Breast cancer. AIDS. Heart disease. Drug addiction. Land mines. What creative person wouldn't jump at the chance to work on any one of these well-publicized, well-funded causes?

But what if the local crisis nursery called? Or the shaken baby association? Or the local epilepsy chapter? How many of us would line up to create awareness for Hmong advancement? Or develop a brochure for the Chrohn's & Colitis Foundation? Or brand a small, intergenerational day care?

There are more than 1.4 million registered nonprofits in the U.S., the bulk of which are nothing more than tiny organizations with little funding, staffed by passionate, committed volunteers who dream of creating greater awareness for their causes. But because they lack the professional marketing experience and star-studded boards, they have little hope of registering even a blip on the public's radar screen.

I must admit that, after 15 years in the trenches as a copywriter and creative director for a wide range of regional and national brands, it's still not easy convincing a dozen inexperienced volunteers of the value of marketing their cause—let alone getting them all to agree on a provocative communications strategy and often very untraditional creative approaches. But there is something exhilarating about being on the side of the underdog, standing by the little guy who doesn't seem to stand a chance against the big, well-managed and well-oiled nonprofit machines. There's something especially satisfying about helping an orphaned cause gain support, or a silent organization find its voice.

Don't get me wrong—I have nothing against large, successful nonprofits. It just seems that while the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. And we advertising folk have a lot to do with that.

Imagine what we could accomplish if every agency donated time each year to one or two relatively unknown nonprofits. Imagine the impact we could have if we chose organizations based on need rather than popularity.

There are 1.8 million Americans who suffer from epilepsy. But nowhere will you see a national campaign to raise awareness or contributions. Every year, more than 10,000 children in the U.S. are injured in riding-mower accidents, but do you think there's ever been a campaign related to that cause? Endometriosis. Gang violence. Living kidney donation. Imagine the change we could effect if we chose to help the most difficult causes.

More than 40,000 women in the U.S. die of breast cancer every year. While that is a very worthwhile cause, there are more cause-marketing campaigns built around breast cancer awareness than any other five causes in America combined. But more Americans die each year from colon cancer. More than 1 million people are devastated by Chrohn's disease, and another 1.5 million by lupus. But how could you know this? Those causes do not have a strong voice. They don't have the biggest and best creatives beating a path to their door.

I must admit that I myself have been guilty of jumping on the bandwagon. Our agency recently created a campaign for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's Race for the Cure, as well as the latest Partnership for a Drug-Free America campaign. I am proud of that work. But I also know that, had we not done it, there would have been a raft of agencies lining up for the assignment. That is why we also have made a conscious effort to help less-popular causes.

Imagine if the best and brightest of our profession got together, in every market, and decided they could do more. Then imagine if they acted on it. Here in Milwaukee, a group of creatives, account and PR people and I have started our own nonprofit, called Serve Marketing. The goal: bring the most talented individuals together, volunteering their time to create public-awareness campaigns that elevate the voice of tiny nonprofits, many of which have nowhere else to turn. With support from our agency, more than 75 Serve volunteers last year donated $1.3 million in time and money helping Serve's clients. Media outlets, production and music companies, talent agencies, printers and photographers donated another $2.5 million in media space and services.

Imagine the same model duplicated in city after city. We could lead a renaissance in nonprofit marketing, one that evens the playing field.

What would you get out of it? If you're like me, you'll get the joy of knowing that you used your skills and your creativity to make a difference—to give a little-known cause hope, a strong identity and the ability to make an impact. It ain't easy work. But with it comes satisfaction that no paycheck of any size can bring.

Gary Mueller is evp, cd at BVK in Milwaukee and founder and president of Serve, which helps underserved nonprofits. He can be reached at


'Do-Gooders' Are Brands Too
Nonprofits, NGOs Are Spending Big Bucks to Get Message Out in Face of Corporate Cause Competition

May 29, 2008

by Noelle Weaver

Hollywood actors, rock stars and corporate titans are all embracing cause marketing and increasing our perception that we need to act now to "save the world." To do it, we need to buy something. Create something. Use something.

Never before has the world of corporate brands and consumer pop culture been so closely linked to cause marketing and the philanthropic world. But if corporate America is all about effecting change, what about the millions of nonprofits, nongovernment organizations and social foundations that have made it their sole focus to "do good" instead of pushing this season's SKUs off store shelves?

Nonprofits and foundations are still treated like orphan children in the advertising and marketing industry.

Sure, within our industry, agencies have historically adopted causes and helped people in need for a year or two at a time, and maybe lent some creative talent. Too bad if the search consultants won't consider the creative as part of a submission. We know we won an award or two -- and it makes us look good. It also makes us feel good. And isn't our creative, one-off public service announcement helping them generate a little buzz and a spike in donations? But we know deep in our hearts that these organizations could never really be clients.

You know the excuses. As an agency, one could argue that there's no solid business gains to be made. Nonprofits don't feed the bottom line. You won't get press coverage for all your hard work. They're thick with bureaucratic things that never get approved or are focus-grouped to death. Nonprofits don't have the guts (or willingness) to break from the pack. The work is formulaic. And as organizations go, many struggle with the fact that marketing is seen as a dirty world in the nonprofit sector, a necessary evil that no one admits spending too much money or time on. To nonprofits, agencies don't "get" the intricate nature of their brands. Their ideas are too risky for conservative audiences. "Our work and creative strategy is formulaic, and it's always worked for us before," they seem to say.

But lately, things have started to change.

It's simple. In today's market, brands matter. In fact nonprofits, NGOs and social organizations are starting to spend big bucks on marketing, advertising, public relations, research and brand identity to drive awareness across the consumer and philanthropic landscape -- over 7.3 billion by some estimates. And they have to. There's calls to buy green. Support this cause. Threats of a recession. Weekly natural disasters. It's no wonder that donor fatigue is setting in. Organizations have to move beyond mailing out a cute, fuzzy brochure when 223 other nonprofits and corporate cause marketers are competing for the same dollar.

Crispin's rise to fame was through the work they did for the American Legacy Foundation. This past summer, Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Change launched an agency review in which big agencies competed for big ad dollars. And let's not forget brand names like the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, who know who they are, what they stand for and how to capitalize emotionally on their brand.

Many of the successful nonprofit organizations in today's marketplace are recognizing that it is more important than ever to follow the laws of branding. They need to create their point of distinction or risk blending in with their competitive set. They need to know how to better tell their story and who to tell it to. Powerful nonprofit brands and social foundations will raise more money, attract more volunteers and help more people if the public better understands who they are and what they stand for.

While work for these organizations may not be game-changers, as small agencies, we offer the speed, flexibility and strategic insight many nonprofits need. Today, creativity and creative thinking is a powerful driving force (look at the success of UNICEF's Tap Project). More and more nonprofits are using the web and other "new media" tools to find new ways to raise funds, build communities that create lasting relationships, tell their stories and compete against the corporations that are spending three times as much on marketing for that special pink limited-edition whirly-bob.

For nonprofits and foundations, it's all about the "brand." Just like the big consumer giants, their success is determined by the perception consumers have about their products and services.


Advertising for a better world: The nation’s only nonprofit ad agency crafts messages with a mission.

December 2006

By James Diers

“I flail around so much—I spill a lot of coffee.”

Gary Mueller sits in his office chair, briskly applying pen-stick stain remover to a fresh coffee blotch on the cuff of his khakis. Tall, tanned, and athletic, he wears a plain gray T-shirt that complements his salt-and-pepper goatee, trimmed extra-close like his hair. What Mueller, 42, self-effacingly calls “flailing around” could be more gently described as restless enthusiasm, evinced by busy hands and a constant readiness to speak. As president of Serve marketing, the nation’s first and only nonprofit advertising and marketing firm, he’s got plenty to talk about.

Based in Milwaukee, Serve provides nonprofit groups—what Mueller refers to as “underserved causes”—with marketing strategies and creative services. While causes such as breast cancer research, AIDS prevention, and drug abuse education enjoy celebrity endorsements and high media profiles among America’s charitable concerns, Serve caters to smaller, more obscure, lesser funded, and sometimes local groups. The Wisconsin-based Shaken Baby Association, the Family Violence Partnership, the Peace Council, and the Brain Injury Association of America are among its clients. Mueller says the agency is a revolutionary vehicle, not only for leveling the playing field among philanthropies, but also for challenging the advertising industry’s uneven approach to nonprofits.

“Every big ad agency handles some level of pro bono work,” says Mueller, who also works full time as creative director at the for-profit firm BVK. “But not all agencies put the same strategic criteria into developing those campaigns. Many don’t even develop a strategy or a plan; they just come up with a creative poster or PSA [public service announcement], pitch it, and don’t worry about its effectiveness. We need to apply the same level of strategic thinking we would give to any paying client, and the same level of insight and creativity.”

On a late summer Monday in Serve’s sparse downtown office, Mueller is leading a presentation to members of a local group dedicated to thwarting teen pregnancy. He excitedly shuffles through a series of mocked-up ad campaigns. In one set of print ads, photos of shirtless teen-age boys have been manipulated to give them enormous pregnant bellies. An alternate guerrilla-marketing concept involves leaving swaddled dolls on the doorsteps of the city’s most influential civic leaders. As with most of Serve’s portfolio, the key messages are delivered with provocative, attention-grabbing imagery and direct language.

“Because we work with underserved causes trying to get on the radar, we tend to go edgier. It breaks through the clutter,” says Serve account executive Sara Knoll. Currently, she and executive director Heather Aldrich are Serve’s only full-time staffers; the bulk of the agency’s creative work comes from a wide web of volunteer professionals who donate their time, expertise, and production resources. As Serve has garnered more attention within the industry, the number of calls from would-be volunteers has jumped.

“It’s not always easy to [use volunteers] because a lot of agencies don’t want their creatives to work outside for anyone else,” Knoll says. “But people are starting to know us and what we stand for. We’re not trying to hire their people away.”

Mueller’s bosses at BVK provide a solid chunk of funding and support for Serve, but as with any nonprofit venture, there are ongoing struggles. “It’s a big undertaking,” Knoll says. “We don’t look for big salaries. We constantly have to be fund-raising four ourselves in order to pay rent. But it’s always for good causes, and our hope is that other agencies will be inspired to do similar things.”

As for what inspired Mueller to create Serve in the first place, he proudly points to his work with the Shaken Baby Association, a small Milwaukee-area group dedicated to educating parents and caregivers about the dangers of shaking infants and small children. When her own son suffered severe brain damage after being shaken by a sitter, Shaken Baby Association cofounder Margie Stelzel decided to team with other mothers in hopes of raising awareness about a largely unpublicized problem. They eventually sought help from Mueller.

“Here was an organization that had no money, no well-heeled board, no connections, and there was this terrible epidemic in Milwaukee, this rash of shakings,” Mueller recalls. “I thought, if you had only one chance to get the message out, what would you do?”

The resulting campaign focused on a bold radio spot: A baby cries uninterrupted for nearly 60 seconds, followed by a concise admonition that, no matter how tired or frustrated you are, you “never, ever shake a baby.” Mueller helped to organize a so-called radio roadblock in which every major station in Milwaukee broadcast the spot at the same time. Not only did the event generate media coverage for the cause, but it also captured the attention of a state senator who subsequently introduced legislation to mandate education on the topic.

“What Gary is doing is saying, ‘I’ve had a good life and now I’m giving back,’” Stelzel says. “It’s not because of money; it’s trying to make this world a better place.”

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