I was puzzled by this nonprofit advertisement I saw recently at Seattle Tacoma International Airport:

This billboard style ad is visually somewhat pleasing and mildly creative given its location next to my gate.  However, what I struggled with is what its purpose was.  It really doesn’t say.  In fact, it does not even mention what they are protecting the earth from.  It is the type of piece that just leaves you wondering if you take the time to wonder at all.

Most of us lead extremely busy and distracted lives.  Frankly, few have time to wonder enough to “get” this ad; even fewer are motivated to do so.  We have so much going on that our personal spam filters simply bounce off anything unimportant that requires too much work to process.

After years and years of asking donors for gifts, I have come to a very simple formula that is incredibly helpful in nearly every nonprofit communication.  In fact, it is so deceptively simple that you may groan a bit when you see it:

Problem. Solution. Call to Action.

Despite its simplicity, it is amazing to me how many nonprofits miss one or more of these items in their attempts at fundraising and marketing.  But there is power in this fundraising trinity.  In the Earth Justice ad, there is no problem stated, barely a solution, and no call to action.  Many nonprofits just want to focus on the solution, which most often is their services.  You see, focusing on the problem is considered by many to be too negative.  However, if you don’t present a problem to a donor, then there is really nothing for them to solve with their philanthropy.  Without a problem, you are asking your donor to support your organization, not better the world.

Your call to action is what you want the reader to do with the information you just presented.  You could ask them to give a gift, volunteer, go to a website, tell a friend.  Without a call to action, your communication pieces quietly tell the donor that you don’t need them or their help.  What should you do after viewing the Earth Justice ad?  I don’t know.  Maybe write a blog about it?

Here is an ad by Oxfam that I saw at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport that includes all three elements.  While it is not quite as simple, it has more power to engage.  You can do the same in your newsletters, appeal letters, in-person asks, websites, and other donor communications.

Final comment: there are some marketers that will say the Earth Justice ad creates “brand awareness.”  While I understand the concept, nonprofits do not have the marketing budgets of Coca-Cola or Apple.  We don’t usually have the luxury to just do brand awareness for the sake of brand awareness.  Therefore, we need to use our budgets most efficiently to get our full message across.  And that means using all three elements of a powerful ask:

Problem.  Solution.  Call to Action.


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