Non-Profits Under Fire - Battling Problems With Charity Digital Marketing in 2017

Charities are facing more uncertainty than they ever have before in their perpetually uncertain existence. Competition is rising; goalposts are shifting, and scrutiny from the public and regulators is at an all time high. We’re in a time where the number of donations is going down, while non-profits are becoming dependent on the whims of the 1%.

Charity marketing has always been an unusual challenge but now they are facing a new future, one that can be difficult to address from within a sector where frugality can be praised over success, and difficult to understand from without. This post is designed to help bridge that gap by offering some insight for the people who don’t work in charities, and some digital solutions for people who do.                                   


The legal bit - The advice below is just that; advice. Laws change from country to country and, as you’ll see, legality is a huge factor, so always get legal input Also, where I mention individual programs below they are just examples, I’m not endorsing the product (they’re usually pretty good, though).

Problem 1: charities are being scrutinised over how often they contact supporters

After the unfortunate suicide of a woman named Olive Cooke in mid-2015, many UK newspapers blamed charities and began campaigning for the government to clamp down on non-profits. Front page headlines included “Hounded to death by cold callers” despite an explicit statement from Cooke’s family that charities were not to blame.This issue sparked multiple follow-up investigations with sometimes daily negative coverage.

In the year following, the number of times charities contacted their supporters fell by 34% while total complaints about charity contact increased by 27%. Email was in the top five means of contact most complained about, though still behind direct mail and door knocking.

Solution: prioritise people over campaigns

Segment and mean it

Many charities already segment their database, but with multiple campaigns, it can be hard to track overlap. You may need to invest in someone with database experience but the people you are contacting don’t care that your Thames Swim and Africa Trek are run by different teams, or what your fundraising target is. If you are contacting someone frequently within a short time period, even on different mediums, it has to be a deliberate decision, one that you know could have negative consequences. Set up ‘minimum safe distance’ rules between campaigns, across all channels and commit to reporting your reasoning whenever you break it.

Investigate automated email sequences

Many Email marketing providers, such as Mailchimp and Dotmailer offer easy automation. For example, if you have a large number of people in a list that you know little about you could set up a sequence focusing on a different thing each month (case studies, registering for a mass participation event, organising something in their community). Based on what they click on, automatically put them in a list delivering just what they are interested in. If they don’t open anything for a while, automatically send them an email asking them to confirm they still want to hear from you and checking whether they would prefer a different medium.

Use light-touch targeting to strengthen contact

Supporting a campaign with different mediums doesn’t have to be the same as overloading supporters. If you’re sending an important email campaign, consider using email list targeting to advertise on platforms like Facebook. Likewise, consider website retargeting on Google, Facebook, and Twitter to advertise specific campaigns to only the people who were interested enough to visit the page on your site. It’s pretty easy to set up but importantly, you must have permission to use data this way, which brings us nicely on to the next challenge.

Problem 2: data concerns and backlash over wealth screening

Globally, concerns about personal data sharing are on the rise, particularly as companies like Facebook and Target glean astonishing amounts of information about us. One public concern is “Wealth Screening” - this is a charity specific term for something done frequently in some for-profit companies as well. Essentially, wealth screening involves investigating an individual or group to see if they are very wealthy. If someone can easily donate a lot, the charity will stop emailing them to ask for £5 a month and instead look at a more appropriate way to contact them, for instance, a personal invite to their offices or an event.

There can be strict, specific non-profit data regulation requirements you have to follow from the first time you get someone’s information in order to investigate them more. Within seven months, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) switched from praising the British Heart Foundation as a data handler, to fining them £18,000. The ICO has also announced that UK charities will have to ask permission before using even publicly available sources of information. This doesn’t apply to for-profit businesses and means a charity could be fined if they don’t notify an individual before they Google their name.

...even if you’ve got the personal data from publicly available sources, you must still provide a privacy notice to individuals. It must explain who you are and what you are doing with their data unless you’re exempt from that duty.

- ICO February 2017 Conference Paper

Solution: double-check your data practices

With the Information Commissioner’s Office ruling, data handling and permission gathering has to be particularly airtight, you’ll also need to address any past mistakes - ignorance isn’t a viable excuse.

Make sure your website has easily accessible information on all the ways you use people's data

The depth and complexity of this is something for another blog post but the ICO have specifically mentioned that glossing over information gathering or using euphemism is not allowed. On this page, you’ll also need to mention any retargeting you are using, Facebook, Google, and Twitter  have specific policies attached to their retargeting products.

Check all of your website forms

If a form is collecting information about a person, it needs to give precise detail about what the information will be used for, and any future uses or further investigation you might use it for.

Update to HTTPS

Google Chome is planning to start placing warnings on any non-HTTPS page, regardless of if it has credit card forms on it. Even if your visitors haven’t come to expect that your website uses HTTPS to protect their private information, some of them will start to get alerts if you aren’t. As an added incentive, over the last six months, we’ve started seeing competent HTTPS migrations resulting in ranking boosts across the board. However, HTTPS migrations can be complicated so start your preparation as soon as possible.
Re-permission your database - if you’re not sure that someone has given you permission to contact them, ask. It’s also good practice to check in regularly and make sure people still want to hear from you, even if they’re agreed before. One method for this is described in the ‘people over campaigns’ solution.

Use automation to target without doing specific research

See the ‘people over campaigns’ solution for details on how to use email automation. As you aren’t specifically researching individuals you may be able better target messages to your supporters without breaking data protection. You will still need to check that you’re operating within the law.

Check where your data is being stored

This is another point that could be a post in and of itself. Essentially - if any tool you use, from your database to your email sending program, is by a US company, make sure you’re not relying on the safe harbour agreement anymore (no one should be). You could use the EU-US Privacy Shield but that isn’t free from uncertainty. Short term, your safest bet is to use reputable companies with data centres in the EU, but you’ll need to revisit this after Brexit.


Problem 3: broad-targeted messaging, particularly paid, can draw criticism


Aside from resourcing problems, successfully reaching a large audience can have its own pitfalls for non-profits. Tightening ad standards in most countries mean that adverts, or even paid endorsements, have to be marked as such, which can draw criticism from supporters, particularly of smaller organisations. Likewise, large charities have had backlash for too successfully taking advantage of popular trends. For instance, after the #NoMakeUpSelfie trend, MacMillan supporters said that the charity had not taken enough advantage of the opportunity. However, when MacMillan ran a fairly successful combined social media, organic search, and paid search campaign around the #IceBucketChallenge trend, they received widespread criticism for “stealing” another charity’s fundraiser. Here’s the blog post they shared explaining their actions.

MacMillan blog post explaining why they ran a fundraising campaign around the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Solution: anticipate, communicate, act

Create an on-call rota with response times

Negative feedback on digital marketing campaigns is usually far more public than for traditional media. This not only means that it might influence a wide audience, but that you are expected to see it and respond quickly. Constant vigilance is impossible for any one person, and most organisations. By assigning a team with rotating on-call hours, you can set internal expectations which help prevent burnout and makes sure that everyone knows your times of vulnerability. By communicating key details to supporters (for example that you aim to get back within an hour but won’t answer between 11 pm and 7 am) you help to reduce fallout. For big or contentious campaigns you may have to temporarily change the working hours or response time - this is a good thing because it helps everyone to be more aware that some members of the team aren’t getting to switch off.

Be prepared to explain yourself

Preparation for any large or contentious campaign should include a FAQ or “more information” page on your website and sample responses signed off and distributed to everyone who will be on call. Where possible, gather statistical evidence for why something was the right choice. For instance, “this tool has helped us raise £5,000 while cutting down £1,000 of team time, so spending £1,500 on it means we can fund X”. If you are concerned about these resources getting out before you are ready you can make sure that the FAQ page is noindexed and that no live pages link to it, and share sample responses through private folders in a Google Drive for example (keep it online, accessible, and in a format that can be easily copied on a mobile phone). Not only does this mean that your team can respond to difficult questions without a stressful and inefficient out-of-hours signoff process, it means that you have time to craft a full answer that says everything you need to say. Likewise, points of ongoing concern (for yearly running costs) should have dedicated and regularly updated answers in a web page and internal guideline form.

Market your point of view

If there is large, public, negative opinion towards your non-profit, responding to individual complaints is around as efficient as only sending fundraising campaigns to people who ask for them. Write a public post, from someone high up in your charity, consider negative posts to be direct competitors and optimise your page to rank in search. If you need to address the problem urgently, decide whether you want to post to social media, send an email or spend money promoting your perspective. These last few options are mainly for large negative PR issues and have to be carefully considered in case they fan the flames.

Make the most of free or discounted options for charities

Google offers a suite of options which are free if you are a non-profit, including Google Ad Grants - around £8,000 a month to spend on google advertising. Many social media monitoring tools, like Sprout Social, offer charity discounts on certain plans, as do email sending programs like MailChimp. Aside from increasing accuracy, which can avoid future problems, tools can decrease staff time which can often be left out of profit calculations. Where possible, record these savings and the impact your tools make, for future responses.

Use local press

While the national press may be less supportive of charities than they used to be, local papers often operate differently, meaning they have more space for your input. They can also hold surprising, if geographically limited, power in terms of local search, social media, and public opinion.

Moving forward

As you can see, there are genuine threats to the non-profit sector which could have huge and unforeseen consequences. For a talk that addresses how our society as a whole limits charities, do watch Dan Pallotta’s fantastic talk from 2013.

What about you? I’d love to hear what you think the top problems are for non-profits in digital, and if there are any tips I’ve missed.

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About the author
Robin Lord

Robin Lord

Robin joined Distilled in February 2017 as an SEO Analyst. Having gained a degree in English Language and Philosophy (essentially a qualification in odd ways of thinking) Robin worked in places from Sussex to Bangalore, India. In every role he...   read more