“Donors don’t give to institutions,” said G.T. Smith, President of Davis & Elkins college. “They invest in ideas and people in whom they believe.”
That’s where engaging ad campaigns come in.
Especially in a crowded online landscape, nonprofits have to make an impact quickly, deeply, and often by using new platforms and technologies.
The good news is that many nonprofits and brands have already paved the way, creating innovative campaigns that transform traditional advertising formats and break ground where no organization has gone before.
Here are 20 ad campaigns all nonprofits should see.
1. World Wildlife Fund: #EndangeredEmoji
What it is: A 2015 campaign by the World Wildlife Fund, for which it created its own set of 17 emojis based on endangered animals. Every time a user tweeted one of the emojis, the nonprofit would tally 10 cents to be donated for its cause. The emojis were used over 200 million times in one year.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Tap into social language and communication by not just joining the conversation but also finding ways to lead and change it.
2. Stabilo Boss: Highlight the Remarkable
What it is: A 2018 print campaign from Stabilo Boss, the world’s largest manufacturer of highlighter pens. The ads show pens highlighting women who had a major impact on history but were left largely unacknowledged. The campaign won awards in the Print & Publishing category at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Show, don’t tell. Provide a unique, visual illustration of how your cause can make an impact.
3. ACLU: Dash Button
What it is: A real-life donate button created by The American Civil Liberties Union. After Amazon debuted its Dash buttons, which allow customers to buy Amazon products with one click, ACLU programmer Nathan Pryor coded his own button that donates $5 to the nonprofit.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Experiment with new donation formats and find opportunities to put your own stamp on technological innovations.
4. Dove: Campaign for Real Beauty
What it is: Dove’s 2004 campaign to celebrate real women of all sizes, colors, and ages. It has consisted of viral videos like “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” and interactive billboards that asked people to text their vote for options like “fat or fit?” and “grey or gorgeous?” The campaign was inspired by a survey, which found that only 2 percent of women across 10 countries saw themselves as beautiful.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Empower your audience to change they way the see not just the world but also themselves by building interactive content.
5. The Truth Initiative: Big Tobacco Be Like
What it is: A 2015 video series from The Truth Initiative, a nonprofit that tries to end teen smoking by exposing Big Tobacco’s lies and manipulation. The Big Tobacco Be Like campaign featured Vine (RIP) and Instagram stars who broke down the idea that social smoking (i.e. “I only smoke at parties”) is still damaging and dangerous. The videos racked up more than 4 million views in just 24 hours.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Partner with influencers who can help expand your reach and engage millennial audiences who trust their favorite online creators.
6. Nike: Colin Kaepernick
What it is: A recent campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback who caused controversy by kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and racism in the US. The ad caused dissenters to boycott and burn their Nike products, but the brand’s market value actually increased by $6 billion just a few weeks after unveiling the new campaign.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Take risks. Heed Nike’s call and be willing to take criticism when standing up for your beliefs.
7. UNICEF: Tap Project
What it is: A campaign that launched in 2007 to help provide clean and safe water for children around the world. The campaign asks diners to donate $1 to UNICEF in exchange for the tap water they usually enjoy for free. Since its inception, it has since generated over $6 million and helped over half a million people.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Consider your supporters’ current behaviors and actions. Incorporate fundraising opportunities into their daily lives to make it easy for them to donate.
8. Red Bull: Stratos
What it is: A record-breaking, gravity-defying stunt in which Australian skydiver Felix Baumgartner made a freefall jump from 128,100 feet in the atmosphere. The event was live-streamed in October 2012. According to Red Bull, the jump “holds the potential to provide valuable medical and scientific research data for future pioneers.”
What nonprofits can learn from it: Live-stream events that keep viewers on their toes and excited to witness groundbreaking feats of human ingenuity.
9. WaterAid: Give a Shit
What it is: A World Toilet Day campaign that brought awareness to the sanitation crisis in 2015. WaterAid sent campaign toolkits of stickers, props, and custom poop emojis pillows to YouTube creators, inspiring them to spread the word and ask for donations from their communities. The nonprofit also built an app that lets people design their own poop emojis and share them on social media.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Create campaign toolkits that empower supporters to share ready-made designs and social posts with their followers.
10. P&G: Thank You, Mom
What it is: A tear-jerker video campaign that celebrates the moms who help raise, train, and support Olympic athletes. P&G launched its first “Thank You, Mom” video for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the brand continues to create new spots for each Olympics Games.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Show gratitude to your target audience by helping to tell their stories through moving videos, articles, or social content.
What it is: Lean In partnered with businesses like Adidas, Lyft, and Reebok to illustrate the pay gap that exists for black women: Black women in the US are paid an average of 38% less than white men. For example, Lyft asked customers how they would feel if their trip ended and they still had 38% of their journey to go. The campaign launched on Black Women Equal Pay Day, August 7, because black women had to work all of 2017 and until that day in 2018 to earn what men earned last year alone.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Create experiences that help people see life through the eyes of others and truly appreciate why your cause is so important.
12. Always: #LikeaGirl
What it is: A campaign that battles the idea that playing “like a girl” is an insult. It aims to empower young girls and build their confidence through adolescence and beyond. The campaign launched in 2014 with a short video that gained more than 85 million views across over 150 countries.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Create a unique hashtag that clearly and succinctly communicates your message and invites people to share their own stories.
13. Metro Trains Melbourne: Dumb Ways to Die
What it is: A public service announcement to promote safety around trains and discourage people from fooling around on train platforms. The silly, animated video and song went viral when it was first published in November 2012, amassing millions of views and inspiring spin-off mobile games, plush toys, and memes.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Don’t be afraid to add humor to your messaging, even if you’re tackling serious issues. A little song and dance can go a long way.
14. Volkswagen: Think Small
What it is: One of the greatest print campaigns of all time. Launched in the 1960s, it broke from the status quo of car ads at the time, which were big, bold, and ostentatious. Instead, Volkswagen’s ad included mostly white space, a small image of its product, and a tagline that highlighted what some might see as an undesirable feature: smallness. The risk helped Volkswagen stand out and create a groundbreaking ad that’s still being discussed today.
What nonprofits can learn from it: The loudest voice and biggest image doesn’t always win. It’s okay to take a minimalistic approach to stand out in a noisy, crowded world of advertising.
15. charity: water: Pledge Your Birthday
What it is: An ongoing campaign that allows people to pledge their birthdays and raise money for charity: water, a nonprofit that brings clean and safe water to people in developing countries. Since it launched in 2006, over 96,000 people have pledged their birthdays and collectively raised over $9 million.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Create a campaign template that supporters can personalize and use throughout the entire year.
16. AARP: Spotify playlists
What it is: Music playlists from AARP, a US nonprofit that provides services for people over 50. The nonprofit took advantage of popular audio platform, Spotify, by creating its own playlists specifically for people dealing with issues such as depression, autism, brain injury, and Alzheimer's Disease.
What nonprofits can learn from it: You can engage your audience in ways that aren’t just visual. Audio content, in particular, is easy to consume on the go and at leisure.
17. Movember: Unmute & Ask Him
What it is: A World Suicide Prevention Day campaign that empowers people to support men struggling with mental health. The Movember Foundation created videos of men with subtitles that didn’t match what they were saying. They asked viewers to unmute the videos to hear the men’s true thoughts and internal struggles.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Use technical limitations, like muted videos, as tools for creating more innovative content and nuanced storytelling.
18. Apple: 1984
What it is: A 1984 Super Bowl commercial promoting the new Apple Macintosh computer. Called one of the 50 best TV ads ever made, the spot shows a dystopian future inspired by George Orwell’s book 1984. In this world, directed by filmmaker Ridley Scott, zombie-like figures are under the trance of Big Brother. Their trance is broken when the screen they’re watching is shattered and it announces the coming of the new Macintosh product.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Put your own spin on cultural events in order to make a more powerful and timely statement.
19. Champions Against Bullying: NiceBot
What it is: A Twitter bot that sends kind messages to randomly selected users every 30 seconds. It was created to combat cyberbullying, making it the “first-ever use of spam for good.” Champions Against Bullying also 3D-printed physical bots, which were sent to celebrity influencers to spread the word. The campaign reached over 14 million people in 142 countries.
What nonprofits can learn from it: In an online world that can breed negative discussions, find ways to spread kindness and goodness.
20. Airbnb: We Accept
What it is: A promise from Airbnb in February 2017 to provide 100,000 refugees with free, short-term housing over the next five years. In response to the US travel ban among muslim-majority nations, Airbnb is working with hosts and communities to help those in need feel connected. The campaign included short videos, a Super Bowl ad, and social ads featuring portraits and testimonials from displaced people who’ve received help.
What nonprofits can learn from it: Mobilize your communities to provide aid to those in need in unprecedented ways. And get your message out there with compelling designs and visual stories.