Blogs & Comment

Good causes or not, charities use some of the worst marketing tactics

Piles of junk mail. Calls during dinner. Sidewalk hectoring. No wonder giving is down

Many hands extended

(H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty)

The funniest commercial I ever made was for a charity, a Catholic organization supported by the ad agency where I was creative director at the time. The spot, a parable about how easily we forget the true meaning of charity, opened with a perfect replica of da Vinci’s The Last Supper, using actors posing as the characters in the painting. Over the muted clinking of cutlery, a phone rang. One of the apostles rose and walked off-screen to answer it. A moment later, he returned to his seat. Another apostle turned to him and said, “Who was it?” To which the first one replied, shaking his head, “Oh, just some charity. Why do they always call during dinner?” In what is probably my favourite piece of client feedback ever, we were later told, “The archbishop laughed his ass off.”

Unfortunately, unimpressed by the prelate’s mirth, the organization soon pulled the spot off the air. Whatever the commercial’s persuasive charms may have been, the charity was nervous that it was sacrilege. It wasn’t worth the risk of offending the organization’s most loyal donors. At the time, I was apoplectic. Now I’m nostalgic. If only charitable marketing still had such respectful sensibilities.

Sadly, that’s becoming rarer. While there are charitable organizations out there doing their good work with dignity, the sector has degenerated into one of marketing’s rowdiest corners, a place where a noble enough cause seems to excuse almost any tactic. Just in the past year, our family has had to terminate its relationship with a cultural organization for trading our contact information with another one; I did the same with a prominent NGO after losing patience with weekly calls to my mobile phone. That one still mails us a map of the world every few months, which stands out from the wad of shrill appeals in our mailbox only by the girth of its envelope. Between the brimming recycling bin and the obstacle course of aggressively sweet kids wielding clipboards on urban sidewalks, we’re being trained that compassion is the road to marketing hell.

Causality would be tough to prove, but it’s worth noting that Canadians are indeed giving less these days, according to Statistics Canada. Even as the economy marched back toward prosperity over the past few years, both the number of us donating and the amount we give have declined; analysis by the Fraser Institute pegged the drop at a total of $11.1 billion between 2006 and 2011.

Maybe we’re becoming meaner, but I doubt it. Maybe it’s donor fatigue, as they call it in the business. Or maybe we’re just fed up with the excesses of charity marketing.


This discontent hasn’t gelled into a phenomenon here in Canada—not yet, anyway—but we don’t have to look far to see how it could happen. In the U.K., where complaints about charity marketing tactics are reported publicly, the number of grievances have risen dramatically in recent years, though apparently a handful of particularly active organizations are mostly to blame. Complaints focus on intrusive fundraising methods (like telephone and doorstep appeals) and sloppy or unethical data security practices—the same problems that slammed our household wallet shut.

“Fundraisers must take great care in…how their actions may be perceived,” said a spokesperson for the U.K.’s Fundraising Standards Board, gently suggesting they need to walk a fine line between promoting their causes and making people uncomfortable. In other words, charity marketers have to remember they’re still marketers, because that’s the standard people are holding them to.

And maybe therein lies a parable for marketers of anything at all. The trust and patience of consumers is a garden to be tended—not a forest to be clear cut. The job of marketing isn’t just to make this year’s numbers but to ensure charities can come back next year and the year after that, and do it again. All marketers have an eternal duty to monitor the effect we’re having as carefully as we do our results and to make sure we stay firmly on the side of the angels.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award. Follow him @brandcowboy.