With 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States alone, the competition for donations is brutal. And with thousands more nonprofits being created every month, the competition will only continue to grow. And nonprofits have a new competitor: businesses that are forming their own charitable enterprises and bypassing nonprofits all together. Panera Cares Cafes and the Dave Thomas Foundation are just two examples.
But while businesses have learned a thing or two from nonprofits, nonprofits can learn a big lesson from companies. To be successful, you have to find ways to stand out and to earn the attention of potential supporters.
Here are three nonprofits that have already gotten the memo on the new attention economy.
THE BOSTONIAN SOCIETY
For the past several years, there’s been a rumor circulating in my own hometown of Boston that a time capsule had been placed in the head of a golden lion statue that sits atop the Old State House in downtown Boston. The location of the lion made it difficult to reach. So there it remained with its undiscovered treasure until this past year when – as part of a restoration project – the lion was carefully lowered to the street.
The Bostonian Society, the nonprofit that manages the Old State House site and collection, seized on a great opportunity to spark people’s interest and imagination on the potential find. Even before the lion was removed, the society began stirring the pot by informing the local media of the potential treasure within the lion. National media outlets such as USA Today,CNN and Time Magazine also picked up the story.
The society earned additional media coverage when the lion was removed from atop the Old State House. More media followed when they announced that there was indeed a time capsule inside the lion’s head! The time capsule was removed from the head of the lion and opened in front of a slew of media. To their disappointment, the society didn’t unpack the items in the capsule. That led to yet another opportunity for drama and promotion!
What was in the time capsule? Nothing special. Sealed letters, photographs and newspaper articles in near-perfect condition from 1901. The capsule also included a political button from the election of McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century.
Unpacking and revealing the contents of the capsule isn’t the end of this story. The society plans to place a new capsule in the lion’s head that will include items from supporters, local schoolchildren, the Mayor of Boston and the local sports teams.
Lesson: Not every nonprofit has a time capsule hidden in its building. But when mystery and opportunity do strike, nonprofits need to make the most of it. The Bostonian Society had to wait 113 years for its moment! Your opportunity may come a lot sooner! Are you ready?
AUSTIN PETS ALIVE!
While the Bostonian Society made good use of an expected opportunity, Austin Pets Alive! has gained local and national attention by relentlessly focusing on an everyday tragedy: the unnecessary euthanizing of dogs and cats.
Since 2008, APA! has generated thousands of pieces of content, largely created by a team of volunteers. Thanks to their efforts, Austin is the country’s largest “no-kill” city. “No-kill” means at least 90 percent of strays are not euthanized.
The APA! takes their work seriously. They have around 100 volunteers writing blog posts, pet bios and producing videos starring dogs and cats in need of homes. They also contribute content like how-to guides for no-kill advocates and adopter resource information for new pet owners.
Lesson: Getting attention for your nonprofit won’t happen without a plan, social media savvy and resources. For example, the APA! has a bi-monthly volunteer orientation that regularly attracts up to 100 people. They were smart to recruit for all types of positions, including content creators. What’s your plan to get attention for your nonprofit?
WINE TO WATER
Is it okay to trick people when it helps a great cause?
The issue was debated after the nonprofit Wine to Water, global PR agency MSLGROUP, and two wine industry experts pulled off a hoax that hundreds of news sites – including ABC News and Time Magazine – covered as real news.
It all began as an effort to promote a great cause: Wine to Water, which was founded by Doc Hendley, a former bartender turned do-gooder. MSLGROUP, a global public relations agency, adopted Wine to Water after one of its managing directors saw the charity profiled on CNN Heroes. Doc knew that Wine To Water needed to do something dramatic to cut through the clutter and get people’s attention.
With the help of two Napa Valley wine experts, they developed and launched the Miracle Machine, which claimed to turn water into wine in three days.
One publication thought so. Business Insider ran the first story on the Miracle Machine.
That’s all it took!
The mainstream press picked up the story and the Miracle Machine appeared in at least 600 publications, and it was read over 500 million times! A Kickstarter board for the machine generated 7,000 requests for more information on the product.
But underneath all the allure and fascination with this revolutionary product was a GOOD secret. The Miracle Machine was a fake! Two weeks after Business Insider ran its story – the hoaxters came clean. In a video, they explained that the true miracle is not turning water into wine, but wine to water. That’s the work of Doc Hendley’s organization Wine To Water.
The hoax introduced Wine to Water to millions of new supporters.
Lesson: Wine to Water took a big risk, but it paid off. Maybe you’re not so bold to pull a hoax, but getting attention requires that you head into the unknown. The Bostonian Society did it when they made a fuss about a time capsule it wasn’t sure existed or had anything in it. The APA! took a chance when they handed over the key to their brand, blog and social media to volunteers.
Not every risk pays off. But if you want attention for your nonprofit you have to do the opposite of what every other nonprofit is doing. As the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained.