How The American Cancer Society Became The World’s Wealthiest Nonprofit

nonprofit marketing strategies

Nonprofits fight for causes that improve people’s lives. They rely heavily on donations and grants to win in these battles.

Some causes generate disproportionate amounts of donations. Like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2015 Nepal earthquake. But most nonprofits find it tough to raise donations consistently for causes like eradicating hunger and poverty, rehabilitating disaster-struck areas, and educating the underprivileged.

One nonprofit stands out. The American Cancer Society (ACS) generates over $1 billion each year. In the nonprofit world, the ACS has been so successful in capturing the enthusiastic support of the public that it has become “the world’s wealthiest nonprofit.

This post is not to take anything away from the good work of the ACS. It’s to dissect what makes them successful in raising funds, and what marketing strategies nonprofits can apply to increase donations for their causes.

Behind the American Cancer Society’s success is its astute understanding of human nature. The three key elements they capitalize on are:

1. The Identifiable Victim

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.” — Mother Teresa

In an experiment, Deborah Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic gave participants $5 to fill a questionnaire. Then they informed the participants about a food-shortage problem and asked how much of the $5 they would donate to fight the crisis.

One focus group read the following description:

Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in the maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. More than eleven million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.

The second focus group saw a picture of Rokia, a desperately poor seven-year-old girl from Mali who faced starvation. Then they read the following description:

Her life would be changed for a better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with an education, as well as basic care and hygiene education.

Participants in the second group donated twice as much as those in the first, because of the drop-in-the-bucket effect.

Seeing huge needs makes us feel overwhelmed. We feel that even an intense level of our personal involvement will be a drop in a bucket. As a result, we shut down emotionally and ask, “What’s the point?” But when we see an identifiable victim, we’re much more prone to help because we feel we can make an impact.

The American Cancer Society does this effectively. It doesn’t ask for donations based on mammoth statistics. Instead, it shows just one person. Ketto, another platform that raises donations online for various causes does the same.

how nonprofits can build marketing strategies
A Ketto campaign screenshot

But the ACS goes a step further. It dubs each cancer-affected person a “survivor,” regardless of the severity of the condition. This term ignites a wave of emotion and gives the cause an additional charge. It also helps the ACS create a sympathetic network of people with a personal interest in the cause, and a personal connection with others who don’t. When people know a cancer survivor, their concern for that person motivates them to give their time and money to the ACS.

Takeaway: Rather than statistics, share stories of individuals and how the donor’s help will improve their lives. Use emotion-rousing terms like “fighter” and “dreamer.” When people feel they can single-handedly impact someone’s life, the chances of their engaging increase.

The Proximity

Here’s a thought experiment suggested by Dan Ariely.

Imagine you’re interviewing for your dream job. You have an hour before the interview so you take a stroll to see the location. You’re wearing a brand-new suit or dress that costs you around $1,000. As you walk along the bank of a river, you spot a drowning girl. You’re a good swimmer but have no time to remove anything if you want to save her. What will you do? Chances are you’ll jump in, save her, wet your suit and accouterments, and postpone the interview.

Now assume that the drowning girl lives in a faraway land hit by a tsunami. You could help save her from her fate by spending much lesser than $1,000. What are the odds that you would “jump in” with your dollars?

Proximity is the second factor that influences our desire to contribute to a cause. Along with physical distance, it’s any connection we feel with the victim. When a tragedy is faraway, our perspectives are often more distant and less emotional.

The ACS doesn’t raise funds for faraway lands. instead, by reaching out to citizens in the US, it makes donors feel connected with the cause through physical nearness and a kinship with the victims. 

Takeaway: In the social-media age, hyper-localization is a boon. You can target potential donors by showing individuals from their respective locations and using the local lingo in your campaigns. The lesser the proximity, the higher a donor’s chance to take action.

The Vividness

The final factor is vividness. Tell someone you’ve cut yourself and they don’t get the full picture or feel your pain. But describe the cut in detail—how deep the wound is, how much the torn skin hurts, how you’re losing blood—and they’ll even offer to call the doctor or 911 for you.

This vividness (or lack thereof) is why we don’t have many takers for global warming—we rarely see the melting glaciers, pollution, and loss of precious flora and fauna. It’s why children suffering from malaria and diarrhea don’t receive more help from citizens in better-off countries. (I’m not trying to pick on you. I behave the same way.)

On the other hand, the ACS uses vividness in its stories to stir emotions in people. Like this post, where it elaborated on how the survivor hasn’t met her oncologist for months, how her appointment with her breast surgeon got canceled, how she’s struggling without medication, and how she feels forgotten.

how nonprofits can promote themselves online to raise more donations

Takeaway: If you can highlight the small details and create a more vivid, emotional perspective, you’ll compel people to act.

Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling summed up these three points brilliantly when he wrote:

Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.

Schelling’s words or this post are not encouragements to ‘manipulate’ donors. The aim is to highlight how human emotions work and how nonprofits can work with them.

Summing Up

The marketing strategies that make the American Cancer Society’s successful are:

  1. Showing individual stories: Turning suffering into statistics induces a drop-in-the-bucket effect. Showing individual stories makes donors feel like they can make a larger impact.
  2. Reducing proximity: Physical nearness and a feeling of connection with the victim are powerful ways to spur potential donors to act.
  3. Increasing vividness: Vivid and detailed stories stir emotions. And the way to people’s wallets is through their emotions.

Apply these in online and offline campaigns and marketing strategies for your nonprofit and rest assured that the contributions will rise.

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