Why Charities Are So Bad At Marketing - And What They Should Do About It

Charities suck at marketing. They really do. Can you think of any other brands that can turn so much initial enthusiasm into such deep-seated resentment within a year?

In fact, as I wrote these very words the dog went crazy at the postman delivering -- you guessed it -- another letter from a charity I must have contributed to a year or so ago. Today it was the turn of The Salvation Army to drive me insane with some piece of marketing that is best described as a random two-page begging letter from someone called Sarah. I don't know her, and I couldn't understand what she wanted -- beyond a contribution -- and so it went straight in to the bin.

I've never given a charity permission to write to me because I know what will happen. I've even called a couple up to request they stop writing to me. Yet still the begging letters amass. 

No wonder charities have been shown today to be twice as likely to be complained about as any other sector using direct mail.

The irony is, I've given every charity I've supported in the past few years permission to email me -- but only one does. None has looked me up on Twitter or promoted a post to me on Facebook so I could like them. Curiously, not a single one has ever asked for me for a social media identity, or encouraged me to check them out in social media. 

I've asked not to be written to, they have my email, and still my inbox is virtually empty but my doormat is full. 

The worst part is the letters are designed to make you feel awful. Messages tend to read along the lines of you've helped to save one child but are you going to allow the rest of the village to die. After signing up to a direct debit, you're still always greeted with the same pessimism. No thanks for the help you've offered, just a putdown line that if you think a fiver a month is enough, you can dream on -- kids are dying and it's down to you.

It's the same messaging problem the church has. Every Sunday the nicest people in a locality get together and get told how sinful they are. Forget rejoicing in the good they've done and charging up those batteries for another week of doing good -- they're told how terrible they are.

So where do you start with charities? Well first off, they're not all terrible. Cancer Research UK stands out to me as the only one that gets it about right. They email rather than write, as I've asked them to, and there's a lot of hope in their messaging. They understand the emotional side of marketing and get the balance right between offering thanks and reminding there is still much more to do. 

As for the others, here are a couple of very quick pointers.

If you're writing more than monthly, stop, and stop now. While you're at it, check permissions. Create a virtual person and then call up to unsubscribe them from mailing lists. Bet you it never happens, no matter how many times you call.

So ensure that you have permission to write to people and then offer a Web site where donors can be directed to reconfigure marketing preferences. It could even be done positively that you'd rather email than write, to save on wood, and so would they mind terribly ticking a box online.

What you must not do is just keep on sending out begging letters or raffle tickets telling people that their contribution so far has barely made a dent in a problem. Nobody wants to feel bad about giving money to charity and nobody ever signs up to sell raffle tickets for you, so why presume they want to?

So check permissions, ensure that you have a robust marketing preference system in place, and then send out some joy with understated requests for more money. 

Stop spamming letter boxes with messages of misery. Go as digital as your donors will allow and spread some emotion. Mix a little joy in with the prompts for more money.

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