First Person

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

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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? Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+