Marketing Your Cause – Jason Mitchell


Value-based products and services sell themselves. Companies work to provide more for less and in exchange will sell a product or service so customers get more value than the price paid for the service.

What if you are trying to solicit funds for your cause?

Jason Mitchell is an expert in nonprofit marketing and fundraising campaigns. I sought him out since I starting getting questions about fundraising and nonprofit marketing.  I didn’t know anybody like that so a couple of referrals later, I met Jason. Jason has years of experience helping universities and charities run campaigns to increase donations and charitable gifts. In this episode, Jason discusses what makes marketing for nonprofits different and how certain organizations are more effective than others. Listen in and learn how to tell great stories.

Contact Jason


[Full transcription follows]

You were referred to me as a nonprofit marketing expert. Why?

Jason: Well, I’ll accept that title but I’m aware the moniker carefully. I hope I can be helpful to you. I guess it’s time as much as anything. I’ve spent of my adult life in and around nonprofits probably for the first decade or more working inside a variety of nonprofit endeavors where I was busy trying to market the initiative and raise funds for initiatives, expand the initiatives and spent now close to 15 years on the for profits besides serving in the nonprofits based, so assisting marketing nonprofit organizations in their marketing and fundraising efforts both from anywhere – how do you acquire $25 donor acquisition strategy all the way up to campaign that might raise $100 million for an athletic football stadium or something like that. So I’ve had the pleasure to see and work with inside of and outside and assisting alongside small and large organizations so I’ve seen quite a bit so I suppose wisdom just comes with seeing a lot of things and making a few mistakes and learning how to do it better over time.

What is a small organization? Can you name the exact one that you worked with? What’s the largest so we can get a scale?

Jason: Man, I’m trying to think of an example of a really small one. We worked with a group early on in the early 2000s, a group called “Teen Mania” in Texas. It was a small faith-based organization and they were just trying to expand their donor base outside of their small group. They may have had a database of a thousand names at that time of people who they had as constituents, participants, donors. On the big side, we could be talking University of Notre Dame, with an alumni base of half a million folks, at least that they have on record, and the participation rate of 20%. I had the privilege of working with them on a number of projects and those are two different problems. You know you have on the one hand a small fledgling kind of unknown organization that doesn’t have any money and then on the other hand, you have a large well-known, solid brand, fairly lucrative organization but they also need to survive on raising funds annually as well.

What makes marketing different in your opinion for the nonprofits? What makes the difference for the marketing professionals that work there?

Jason: I think the first thing is from the outside looking in when you’re working with a nonprofit that may be seeking your help. A lot of times, nonprofits are started by passion-based people. These are folks who may or may not have business expertise or marketing expertise or fundraising expertise. They just know how to deliver the service to the people that need help and that’s what or whatever that is. Successful ones, develop an organization as able to assist a lot of people, but at some point that doesn’t necessarily translate into effective marketing or communication of the great things that are happening maybe sometimes halfway across the world.

So typically, organizations develop and spend a lot of time building the infrastructure of the delivery of service and so therefore they’re late adopters in things that relate to telling their story in a grand and efficient scale. The organizations that have grown the medium scale or large scale have become very good to direct a response in the mail and digital spaces as well. If you have donated to one humanitarian organization, you get seven others. My wife likes to donate to animal causes, she gets mail from virtually every animal cause there is now.

But the biggest issue really is just the competitive space. There are so many good organizations doing so many great things around the world and it’s so easy to be on places like Facebook. For me to see my niece in Boise, Idaho who’s raising money for her school, it is easy to donate. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have known that possibility existed but that may pull some of my philanthropic dollars because I love my niece. Alternatively, I can see an ad for Kiva and make a $25 loan to a gentleman in Sudan who wants to raise money for his bike shop. So there’s immediacy in it and intimacy to where we’re inundated with opportunities to be philanthropic with a lot of good causes. Therefore, really it’s incumbent upon nonprofits to be aware of those things. But those are the challenges, is realizing that oftentimes they’re late adopters to technology and leading edge solutions.

How do nonprofits perform target marketing and then target the different donors?

Jason: Well, first of all, there are a lot of opportunities that exist out there and certainly, the sophisticated ones have done some marketing work in the area of personas and breakdown of their donor base. But there are also different audiences they’re talking to. A healthy donor file will have a certain amount of new donors coming on into organization at all times and a certain amount of shepherding of those donors from lower levels to mid-levels. Then a certain amount of marketing goes into identifying, through data and other kinds of communication pieces, who are those people that aren’t just going to do a hundred bucks a month but might do a thousand dollars or hundred dollars a year to a thousand dollars a year? Then, who are those people that may become the kind of people that would be relevant for a campaign that would give $10,000 donations, $50,000 donations, or even million dollar donations? So the way that you might talk to individuals who you want to acquire at 25 bucks on social media sharing your vision and the impact of a specific project is even different than how you might talk to a person who’s been giving for ten years and you simply want to grow them to a new level versus the person that you want to make a transformative gift. So there’s the marketing outside which is I think was your original question which I put blank and completely ignore which is how do we find – and that’s done through: What is the typical type of persona of an individual who’s attracted to this organization? And then using resources that exist on Facebook to take their own data and provide look alike audiences and also general targeting. But obviously, then there are multiple layers of marketing within the organization as a donor base as well.

Do they measure what the most effective channels are?

Jason: Yeah, they do and it’s interesting because obviously digital marketing and email marketing has been around for quite a while but it’s hard for medium size and large nonprofits to completely cut the cord from direct mail because it’s a cash generator. But what I’ve seen in some large organizations, in one particular relief based organization that I’ve worked with, is that the cash generation that came through direct mail which was strong which justified the continuing messaging in that regard, actually held the organization back because it was an organization that had a million records. I guess we should have thrown that out earlier as an organization even bigger, I didn’t think of this. And their core message was built around a direct response ask, a monthly ask, an annual ask. And so of these million people, you could imagine that there’s a certain percentage of them that have the capacity to do a lot more. But they were stuck in this sort of “direct response, urgent, next 25 bucks, this project here” mode that really prevented them from casting the big vision of solving huge problems in regions that caused millions of dollars that could have attracted a different kind of investment from people. And that’s a tough thing about organizations is you have to be responsible. Another difference with for profits base is there’s a certain understanding that: “Hey, if you put a certain amount of money in the marketing and sales engine, you’re going to get a certain amount of return out of it.” That mindset has to be even sort of further calibrated inside the nonprofit because there’s a limited budget that exists. One, they’re trying to get as much money to the field and making an impact. But two, now we have organizations that scrutinize the percentage of dollars that actually makes it to the field. There is this general sense that you have to keep operational costs at a level so when someone says, “Hey, we want to move some direct response, direct mail dollars over to some media buys on Facebook.” There’s a turf war because they know money comes in that way but there’s not a lot of new money that they spend in the new areas. So those are some of the challenges that people face in terms of finding new audiences.

Scott: But it’s interesting, you did talk a little bit about the percentage of money that actually makes it to the field versus the operational cost. I had a friend recently, she died of breast cancer and she was never a fan of the pink shoes and gloves all over the football field because she’s like, “Hey, all these money goes to awareness. I’m dying and I need a cure.” So that was always a conversation topic. But in terms of what you talked about the competition and the different channels, you know, we’ve gotten and I’m going to go back to what you’re talking about with the urgent need. So what I see if I get on Facebook, I see the urgent need of one, there’s all these Kickstarter projects or someone needs to cover medical expenses or something that just pops up. It looks like a high percentage of them are successful are maybe the ones that just reach me are. How is that affecting everything? It’s easy to give $5, $10 immediately.

Are the nonprofit guys catching on to the Kickstarter tactic?

Jason: Oh, for sure and some of the more sophisticated ones are. There are a number of groups doing it. I think the more immediate and intimate that organizations can make the impact and the sense of connection to what’s happening is a good thing. The thing that your friend has with you as a potential donor that you see her suffering from a certain condition or you might know somebody who’s doing a Kickstarter campaign because it’s a friend of a friend. The benefit of that is that there is some immediacy and intimacy to that idea that I can give 25 bucks and I know that’s going to solve a particular problem. And with the nonprofit, they don’t necessarily benefit from that so they have to use marketing to create that immediacy and intimacy as it relates to the way that they tell the story and the way that they can show how particular monies go to make particular impact. Usually, the good organizations are able to do that in a creative, narrative form and using channels like Facebook and Instagram, and frankly YouTube, to essentially take advantage of their message in those channels in such a way that it’s filling your feed because you are connected to that type of giving in some way. Just like the boots that you searched on Amazon are also coming up in your Facebook feed. So, there is but that’s still a big opportunity because many organizations like I still are still saying the direct mail and email and what’s next. So they sometimes need to be let there a little bit.

What is one of the most effective campaigns or organizations that you worked with and what did they do to raise a lot more money or get more donors?

Jason: Yeah, I had a lot of them. I think one of my most favorite is because it’s not self-congratulatory in order to play into the sad story. I’ll tell in a minute probably because I know you’re going to ask that one, too. The first time that I went to visit at Oregon State University to meet with the athletic fundraising department, I got there a little early and I was inside Gil Coliseum Arena. It’s an older building and inside it’s not super attractive. The arena itself where the basketball arena is as beautiful but around, but they had all this really cool black and white iconic photography of student athletes. It was interesting because the student athletes weren’t pictured in their athletic gear; they were pictured in regular, normal environments so sort befitted their individual story and their individuality. Then there was a little blurb about each of them or what they were studying, what they hope to be when get out of school and all these things. So I walked around the whole arena and read at least 25 of them. By the time I walked into the meeting, I kind of intuitively knew what the message they were trying to say. It’s when I get into the room, I said, “Tell me about those photography out there.” Todd Stansbury, who’s now the athletic director at Georgia Tech was the number two guy there, told me the story about Everyday Champions. Everyday Champions was an attempt to provide a context where student athletes were more than just athletes. They were students and preparing in very practical ways for life after college, life after football or athletics. That was more than just a slogan, you could tell just sort of… I asked them at that time, I said, “Well, if you don’t come into this building, how do people know about this?” He said, “Well, I think that’s why you’re here.” We ended up doing a number of different things for them. One of our early campaigns for them was an acquisition campaign that probably tripled any response that we’d ever seen in the athletic fundraising space. It was a multichannel initiative where we combined email, search, social, some re-marketing, and I think there might have been some offline media that they provided to augment the process. In about in about a week’s time, leading up to football season, we had about a thousand donors make their first-time gifts to the organization. What was interesting was I think 30% of those donors, I’m probably getting the percentage wrong, but it was a high percentage of those donors was outside their original data set. In other words, because of the push that we were able to do in through re-marketing and social advertising, we were actually able to find donors outside their existing file which is a big deal for any nonprofit but especially universities who try to maintain record with all their alumni and that’s just hard to do overtime. So that was incredibly proud because I felt like in that particular campaign, we inherited the good story and we successfully told that story in a way that we know. We did a bunch of things for them over time that was also successful. But that was one that we were very proud of because you know, if you don’t have a good story to tell, you can apply any kind of marketing tactic that relates to an optimize email strategy, good Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, media buy strategy and you’re going to fall flat. So that was an exciting one and that’s one of my favorites.

What was a campaign that did not work?

Jason: I cringe even a little bit to tell the story. I won’t be specific to the school, but it was an ACC school. This particular school came to us and told us of the history of what was going on in the athletic department in terms of donor engagement. It wasn’t strong and sort of the transitions that were happening and so there’s just this sort of lackluster story. They didn’t really have a clear vision or thing to stand on like in everyday champions or successful football, because keep in mind, Oregon State University is not like the University of Alabama and they’re just hanging national championships in the wall. This is Oregon State University in the shadow of the University of Oregon and they were able to successfully tell that story in that context. There’s similar situation with the ACC school and we cautioned them at the beginning that you probably will not see the results that we’ve seen with other schools. They were convinced this was an important effort for them to take and we applied the same techniques that we used at Oregon State and it was a massive failure. Our tactics getting better every day in applying multichannel efforts of marketing and acquiring donors and getting the message out and extending the list but in this case, unfortunately, we didn’t have a good story to tell. No matter how good of the story that we made our creative department was able to do, it landed flat on an alumni base that was frustrated. Granted, did we look at ourselves and say, “Was the video too long, or did we not tell enough?” You know, we dissected ourselves 900 different ways on that one and I’m certain there are things we could have done better. But those are fun to you know. Again, it just goes back to…Fundraising is about relationships and transformation, and if there’s no transformation happening, then it’s hard to sell that no matter how good your strategy is.

Did you just tell those guys to win more football games?

Jason: The conversation was really me listening a lot and them being upset so those are some of those where you just have to take it and work for it. You learn. You learn that there are some jobs you just should say no to because being able to someone: “We can help you with this,” but you’d be better off spending the next 18 months building the foundation and cast and vision for what the transformation that’s actually happening here because people think there’s nothing happening here. That’s the reality.

How far behind do you think nonprofits are with digital marketing or are they?

Jason: They’re behind. So are a lot of for-profit mailing lists that I sit on. You know, Dollar Shave Club stands out to me because they still use email incredibly effectively. I know that I’m a victim because I signed up for their razors. They have me on in a marketing funnel and every time I respond it trigger, then there is something else. But the thing is what happens that comes to them is that they’re saying things like: “Hey, are we sending you too many razors?” “Who says that”? No one says that. Oh, you have. Yes, take that to two months. But then the next month is, “Hey, have you seen our new soap?” I’m like, “No. I’ll try out that.” “Have you seen our new shampoo? Have you seen our new face scrub or whatever?” So I’ve gone from razors to shaving cream to soap and now body wash. And so they have moved me down this path by throwing out free offers and things. So there are still are organizations that when you get an email from someone, you feel like they’re doing you a favor. I feel like most emails I get from most organizations nonprofits including is not doing me a favor, it’s a burden. An email has become this incredibly cluttered place that we call work and now where we do to get away from work, we go to Facebook, 13 times a day for 26 seconds or whatever it is. And it’s interesting because at least anecdotally from my perspective when I see ads on Facebook, they’re so hyper-intelligent to who I am that I fell like it’s a favor.

I was searching on Amazon for boots one week, I didn’t pull the trigger and then Facebook threw up an ad for that same boot but 20% off. I made the purchase. I feel like that almost does me favor. Where nonprofits can slip in, is if they can like smart businesses are doing, find out my interest and passions, what I post about, what I talk about in terms of my personal philanthropic interest and target me with those similar advertisings that allow me to see into things that I’m not currently aware of to be reminded of things that I am aware of but need to do more. That’s a huge opportunity because that space again is more still an entertainment space than a business or work space like we feel like email is. To me that’s the horizon. And I think, I’ll give you one other illustration if you can let me chat just for a little bit longer unless you have something else you wanted to ask me in that regard.

Scott: No. You’re on a roll. You’ve gone from athletics to razors, to soap and body wash.

Jason: I should probably be taking Adderall right now. I won’t get these numbers correct but we’ve just recently run numbers on several universities. So think about these ten years or even five years ago. You talked to a university or nonprofit, they have a million records. Well, they probably have half… Let’s just use Oregon Statea University for example. So they have 600,000 living alumni. They have mailing addresses for 475,000 of them and then they have emails for 260,000 of them. The workable data sets are mere percentages of your known alumni base. Well, think of most large university brands and even some big nonprofit brands like Compassion International or Operation Smile or The American Cancer Society. I mean, these brands are big and respected, right? So when you go into the world of Facebook and you can break down the audiences that not only identifies as alumni, not only identify as fans of the football program, fans of Notre Dame in general. You start counting the amount of people that you can reach just on people who flag themselves as loyal fans of that institution, your 260,000 email number jumps to 5 million globally. Now you’re realistic base of talking to people with passion toward an institution can expand immensely in terms of your advertising. Now it’s just, now you just have a new problem. We’re going to focus on Europe this quarter with our media buys or whatever because the potential then to pull in a different kind of like – I told you the Oregon State example earlier, we were excited because some of our re-marketing efforts got people outside the data set. But those people primarily were probably alumni and friends of the organization. Now Facebook just expands the potential of that so much. There’s so many things that you can do and augment with Google, Instagram and YouTube and sort of augmenting your strategies with video pre-roll advertising and other things, but at the end of the day, I think that’s the big opportunity for nonprofits because the ability to get your good message out to more people who have a like-minded heart and passion for getting nets to people to prevent the mosquito problem in certain parts of the world is a whole another thing.

So basically just use the same tools that everybody else is using?

Jason: Well, exactly. And you know what, and the thing is one of the ways that and sometimes for profit businesses do this too. They’ll bring consultants in and they’ll say, “Hey, we need to learn how to do X.” That consultant will teach them and help develop and craft a strategy for them to solve X and then the company will go, “Okay, now that we’ve done that, we’re going to do that ourselves.” Nonprofits are good at that too. The good ones know that they need to bring some people in sometimes who have expertise in doing optimize email communications that would look more like Dollar Shave Club than some intrusive communication that clogs up your email and how to navigate the world that the particularization and power of social spaces as well. They’re going to figure those things out and some of the good ones are probably onto it more than I know.

What would you do with your time if you weren’t doing all of this?

Jason: There’s a little general store, I would hope, it’s not too far from here and it’s actually across the street from where I caught the bus as a kid in the morning when I was in grammar school. It’s got this beautiful, old gas pumps out front that doesn’t work anymore but they should never be moved, and it’s got a side yard where you could host mini-concerts and have the big barbecue smoker out there, I would like to own that place and be the ambassador of goodwill through food and music, and make a difference with some of the proceeds of that thing. It just sounds like something fantastic. So that’s something I dream about. All the elements of those things fascinate me, running a general store and probably the least of it but the barbecue and music part for sure. And if it involves people and it makes a difference in people’s lives then I’m all about it.

Scott: All right, I feel the Kickstarter project coming on pretty shortly.

Jason: I’ve got your email address now so you’ll be one of the first to get one if I do.

Scott: Perfect. See you hit a hot button with me, right? You found my passion which is barbecue.

Jason: Nice.

Scott: So let’s how you did that. You better get to it.

Jason: Well, you’re in Texas so I just assumed that came with the birthright of sorts, right?

Scott: Yeah, it really does and then we get snobby about our barbecue. I can’t go anywhere else and buy barbecue because it’s just better down here or over here.

Jason: Well, I know were lengthening this thing probably than you wanted but one of the reasons I now have this passion personally for barbecuing is we lived in Texas for 13 years. I was at your fingertips all the time. Even friends were wonderful connoisseurs so I never felt like I had to dive into it personally. But here, there’s a void and there are places you can get good barbecue but not Texas style barbecue per se in abundance and I’m like someone needs to bring that beauty to this region because it’s a wonderful thing.