First Person Blog

Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

When it comes to poverty, is marketing a dirty word?

Posted by

During my first year in book publishing, I would often balk at parties when people asked, “What do you do? Are you an editor?” I had to begin by explaining that working with authors and booksellers to bring a book to market was the other half of the profession, but I did not like casting myself as a marketer because their inevitable response would be a smug, quasi-judgmental “ah.” Very quickly, I made peace with the fact that because my work involved selling books and ideas−not soap or violent video games−there was inherent meaning in what I did.

Now, I work as a press officer for branding at Oxfam America, where, given our mission, marketing is still sometimes a dirty word. Which brings me to Nick Kristof’s assertion in a recent column: that toothpaste sellers do a better job of peddling their wares than non-profits do, even in situations of urgent need.

I’m not entirely sure it’s as simple as that. For one, there is immense pressure on non-profits from donors to direct funds to our programs on the ground. Yet, if non-profits don’t also have the resources to devote to marketing budgets, how do they spread awareness about their life-changing work, and how do they raise money to continue it?

Dan Pallotta argues that non-profits must ruthlessly use for-profit models of aggressive advertising to spread the word and raise money. For instance, he says, big mainstream media sites are full of ads from Apple, Netflix, and Disney. Yet you will be hard pressed to find advertising on these pages “for Darfur, ending AIDS, or curing breast cancer… Gigantic consumer brands advertise. Gigantic causes don’t.”  Pallotta posits that people generally want to do good, but that we must stimulate their desire to be altruistic.

Straight shot paid advertising certainly isn’t a magic answer, but I agree that marketing is key for non-profits to succeed. Sustained, well thought out branding/advertising can raise the profile of complex, gnarly issues, and connect them with a wider audience—meaning people will be more likely to contribute to those causes.

Marketing with integrity intact is something we aspire to at Oxfam, through programs like Oxfam America Unwrapped. Working with communities, we listen to what people tell us will help change their lives. Then we offer supporters the opportunity to honor loved ones with a gift—like sheep, mosquito nets, or toys—that’s also a contribution to Oxfam. We use the money to fund what’s really needed and to improve the lives of people living in poverty. We spread the word about Unwrapped during the holiday season, when people are most likely to be searching for presents.

But what do you think? Are groups like Oxfam going too far when it comes to marketing our mission? Or do we need to be doing even more to “sell” ourselves and our cause?

Share this story:

Join the conversation


    This was an excellent post on why non-profits make better use of social media than your typical business:

    So yes marketing is important, but more important is how you connect with people and the relationship you create. The use of the traditional, interruptive for-profit advertising models could very likely be the least successful method for non-profits and causes.

  2.'Dalaiah Kusner

    I agree wholeheartedly that marketing is key for the success of non-profits. Not only does strategic marketing multiply the efforts of a non-profit’s mission, but when a non-profit has a strong mission, there is so much more of a REASON to conduct aggressive marketing. Oxfam Unwrapped is a beautiful program and a perfect example of how marketing (with integrity) can produce so much good for the world. Keep up the good work!


    Thought provoking piece by Zeenat. As a layperson my thoughts would be that people donate/contribute for one of the following reasons – 1. We genuinely believe in the cause and just need to be guided to the right avenues for contribution 2. Peer pressure, coz everyone we know at work/play is contributing 3. Because it has a ‘cool’ factor associated with it In the first instance, marketing can be underplayed and the resources can be saved for something else. But, the sad truth is that the number of us falling in the no. 1 category are far less than is enough. And, so in my opinion non-profits should market their causes and shamelessly so. Use every tool and weapon out there to appeal, coerce or cajole us into giving. For there is nothing greater than getting the resources to those who need them and if pragmatic marketing/selling/promoting is the answer then I am all for it. And as a consumer I do think Oxfam is getting it just about right.

  4.'Hong Anh

    Someone once told me that we all do marketing for survival. The main distinction to be made is the kind of skills that one sells. The great advantage of the non-profit sector, it seems, is the good things it can offer the world rather than take from it. Having been in the non-profit world myself, I understand that much of the marketing of non-profit organizations are done by the outreach unit for fund raising purposes. Others working on program development have a very different job description. It is thus important to ask what it is that each person/unit in their specific area of expertise can sell/market and to whom. If not-for-profit workers/employers occupy themselves with such questions, I am sure we should have achieved far greater results than the “business style” that many have adopted.

  5.'Drew Warner

    BGood Discussion. Groups like Oxfam are certainly not going too far in marketing their efforts. Whether a non-profit, or a traditional business model,the bottom line is that if your heart is in the right place, you should never feel bad about selling what you believe in. I recently spent 13 months in a corporate job (will leave the company unnamed) in Business Development. I became fairly good at selling myself and in turn the services/solutions that my employer specialized in. After about a year, feeling like I had mastered my particular postion and being somewhat dissolutioned by the meaninglessness in it all, I decided to leave…yes in this economy. Since then, my wife and I have tripled the efforts with what was our side project,, an online retailer of Fair Trade goods from all over the world. Our eventual plans are for direct artisan relationships, cooperatives, and possibly branching into some Fair Trade specialty food items as well. I truly believe that if you are trying to make the world a better place, you have nothing to feel guilty about by pushing your particular line of work. We’re all consumers in some way, and we all have to make a living. If the do-good companies stayed in the dark, how would anyone know about us?

  6.'Daniel Francavilla

    As a smaller youth-run non-profit organization, we collectively agree that at this point, we would like to remain giving 100% of our donations to education projects in the developing world. It is not practical nor is it responsible to spend large amounts of donors hard-earned money on advertising and promotional campaigns. If you were to ask a donor, “Would you rather us buy a Dominican child a school uniform with this, or print 500 colour business cards for our charity?” almost anyone would prefer their money is spent on the impoverished child. There are actually organizations that manage to have all costs covered – from donated office space to print shops as regular sponsors for their printed materials. It’s a shame to see large “corporate” style charities spending such large percentages of donor money – seek separate sponsors for expenses.

  7. zeenat

    Thank you all for your comments. It’s gratifying to see the post generate so much discussion.

    Brad and David: Thanks for links to those interesting blog posts.

    Dalaiah: I appreciate your endorsement of good marketing as key to a non-profit’s success. Thank you for the kind words about Oxfam America Unwrapped.

    Abira: I enjoyed your line, “Use every tool and weapon out there to appeal, coerce or cajole us into giving.” This supports the notion that when motivated most people want to make a difference, and we need to (through marketing as one of the means) tap into that goodwill, educate folks about our work, and the donations will likely flow.

    Drew: Good luck with your new venture, and congratulations to you for taking such a bold step.

    Daniel: Appreciate your take, but I tend to think that marketing money is an investment towards the future of the organization. Marketing is part awareness, part fundraising, and done well, it can only contribute to the health of a non-profit, and help programmatic efforts go the distance.

  8.'Pierre Ferrari

    Hi, Oxfam’s mission to alleviate poverty is aligned with ours at Guayaki.
    Our mission is to steward and restore 200,000 acres
    of South American Atlantic rainforest and create over
    1,000 living wage jobs by 2020 by leveraging our
    Market Driven Restoration business model.
    We hope to achieve our goals using all marketing techniques available executed with integrity and respect. Marketing tools are just that, tools. They are morally neutral and can be used for great good. We at Guayaki would love to partner with oxfam and promote each other. Can we, who should I talk to?


  9.'Sasha Dichter

    Zeenat, thanks for the thought-provoking post. It’s a complicated question, but I think the answer begins by recognizing that, when done the right way, marketing/selling/promoting your nonprofit’s mission is integral to your strategy, rather than an ancillary pursuit to raise funds. There’s a hackneyed vision of the “salesperson” pushing unneeded products door-to-door on unsuspecting buyers, something we all have to get beyond.

    Of the $300+ billion in 2008 U.S. philanthropy, $13B (about 4%) went to international issues ( Yet half of the world’s population is still living on less than $3 a day.

    Those of us who are passionate about the fight on poverty and who believe that we have new tools to crack some of the most intransigent problems have an obligation to be great marketers and storytellers — to spread the word effectively about what is possible and why it matters.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *