Nonprofit Marketers: Rebels With a Cause Who Help Make a Difference

They're Not Your Average CMO. The Dollars They Save on Marketing Could Go Toward Saving Lives

By Published on .

It's easy for marketers to think outside the box when they're sitting on a $200 million advertising-media budget, but what about when the organization is just as big but the budget is considerably less?

Sue Schwartz, co-founder of Stand Up to Cancer and co-partner in marketing, RSA
Sue Schwartz, co-founder of Stand Up to Cancer and co-partner in marketing, RSA

Welcome to the world of nonprofits, where inventiveness is as important as efficiency and effectiveness. Of necessity, the more successful non-profit chief marketing officers are also some of the most passionate, innovative, pragmatic and quick thinking around.

"Every dollar I don't spend in marketing goes back to saving someone's life," said Emily Callahan, CMO of St. Jude's fundraising organization, Alsac. "Do we want to pay for more therapies and research, or do we want to pay for more advertising?"

Jeff Davidoff, CMO of One
"Everything we're doing really has to make a difference," said Rusty Robertson, who along with Sue Schwartz is co-partner in marketing agency RSA, and one of two co-founders of Stand Up to Cancer. "Marketing in all forms comes from our mission of acceleration, collaboration and innovation."

Those forms rely heavily on social media, word-of -mouth and event marketing. And while benefiting a good cause is naturally part of the appeal, another upside is the challenge and opportunity of working a respected megabrand.

"I do every facet of marketing that I would do at any company: interactive, mobile, branding, crisis management," Ms. Callahan said. "I probably don't get paid as much money, but I make a nice living, and I get to make a difference."

Emily Callahan, CMO of St. Jude's fundraising organization Alsac
Emily Callahan, CMO of St. Jude's fundraising organization Alsac

Having a ready slate of famous celebrities, talented musicians and top-tier brands eager to represent or partner with you isn't too shabby, either. And it's a boon to making a cause relevant -- or at least intriguing -- to consumers. "The most obvious benefit is almost anyone will talk to you. "When you're on the do-good side of things, people are happy to talk," said Jeff Davidoff, CMO of One, the anti-poverty advocacy group founded by Bono. "And the second benefit is the air of celebrity."

Celebrities and collaboration are indeed important to many nonprofits, but both strategies require picking the right partners to best amplify the message. When chosen carefully, the former provide instant recognition and fan-base access; the latter provides business clout, funding and credibility with a new group of potential advocates.

Rusty Robertson, co-partner at marketing agency RSA
Rusty Robertson, co-partner at marketing agency RSA
However, while big-time celebrity and brand endorsements may be the most apparent marketing vehicles to consumers, those aren't their most important tools for many big nonprofits. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for instance, though well-known for its variety of "naked" celebrity ads, views online video as its most critical marketing vehicle.

"The goal has always been to show people what happens to animals in factories, pharma labs and the circus, and it was a struggle before there was TV, but many times our ads were censored as too graphic for TV," said Tracy Reiman, exec VP at Peta overseeing all marketing.

Tracy Reiman, exec VP at Peta, overseeing all marketing
Tracy Reiman, exec VP at Peta, overseeing all marketing
"With the internet, where we can show people videos in the privacy of their own home or at work, everything has changed. Facebook, YouTube and all the social media have extended our reach far beyond our network of fans and activists," Ms. Reiman said.

Stand Up to Cancer uses its biannual hourlong entertainment TV show as a showcase for its celebrity spokespeople and research scientists. And while Ms. Robertson and Ms. Schwartz agree it's an unparalleled platform, they also realize that marketing day in and day out is what keeps the organization going. A partnership with Major League Baseball, for instance, advances the message all summer long.

One fully funded group that asks for action instead of dollar donations includes many political and Hollywood luminaries in its public-service announcements. But its marketing focuses on specific, goal-driven calls to action for issues such as mother-and-child health, clean drinking water and vaccines for all children.

"It's easy to get people to buy into the idea of change, but it's much tougher to get them to actually change," Mr. Davidoff said.

Anyone who considers running nonprofit marketing easy should keep in mind Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which learned a hard lesson this month, after its decision to pull funding for Planned Parenthood caused a nationwide outcry and the company had to reverse its self. The group is now trying to repair relationships with donors and sponsors.

But even the biggest charities have a small-guy mentality. It doesn't matter if you've been in business four years (like Stand Up), 10 years (like One), 20 years (like Peta), 30 years (like Komen) or even 50 years (like St. Jude), slim budgets and lean staffing require a startup attitude every day.

"The hardest thing, but the best thing, is executing with a very small staff because we want as much money as possible to go to what it's all about: research," Ms. Schwartz said.

Why These CMOs Chose Their Jobs

Jeff Davidoff wasn't having a midlife crisis. But at a midpoint in his working life, he -- like a lot of people -- began talking to family and friends about wanting to do something meaningful with his career. He wanted to use his marketing skills for a greater good.

And then he was offered the top marketing job at One, the anti-poverty advocacy group founded by U2 lead singer Bono. He said he had to ask himself, "Well, am I going to be one of those guys who just sits around and talks about it, or am I going to do it?"

Now, more than a year-and-a-half later, he has no regrets.

"I naively underrated how important this would become to me," he said. "I don't think I've ever worked harder or at a higher level, but I love it. … The do-gooder world is not so strange."

Like a lot of nonprofit marketing chiefs, Mr. Davidoff has found that the work is not only compelling and challenging, but comes with added bonus of being soul-satisfying.

Tracy Reiman, exec VP at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, started working at the organization in college and has been there for 20 years. She has never even considered working anywhere else. "I'm passionate about animal rights, but Peta is a wonderfully exciting and interesting organization. We are encouraged to be creative and collaborative, and to find any way we can to educate people about these issues," she said.

Rusty Robertson and Sue Schwartz, who do the marketing for Stand Up to Cancer, are unique in that they also have for-profit clients at their marketing agency, RSA.

"On one hand it's so rewarding, to think we're really making a difference," Ms. Robertson said. "But it's also very difficult on a day-to-day basis to be faced with so many people who are dealing with cancer. It's become so personal to us." Ms. Schwartz added: "This brings purpose to our organization."

For these CMOs, hiring people like themselves isn't usually a problem.

"There are a certain percentage of people who get to a certain point and say, 'There's got to be something more than this. I love marketing, I love my industry, but I've got to do it for a bigger reason,'" said Emily Callahan, chief marketing officer of St. Jude's Children's Hospital's fundraising organization, Alsac. "Here I know I have a greater mission. I carry the stories and the hopes of the patients and families I've met with me everywhere. We all know the reason why we're here and we don't ever forget it."

Most Popular
In this article: