Marketing a cause? You might want to read Brains on Fire.

How do we build our list of email subscribers? How do we get Facebook users to ‘like’ our page?

Brains on Fire: Igniting Powerful, Sustainable, Word of Mouth Movements asks you to stop tweeting at people for a moment, stop obsessing about the numbers, and pose a completely different question: What do our biggest fans care about most, and how do we give them more of it?

Though this is clearly a book by and for marketers, there’s a lot of good stuff in here for almost anyone who wants to get people excited and build long-lasting change.

The book makes its point through a number of case studies from both the nonprofit and corporate worlds. The authors, who run a marketing firm of the same name, learned quite a bit about movement-building from working with Rage Against the Haze, a youth-led anti-smoking movement in South Carolina.



They had been handed a tough job:

  • combat one of the highest rates of teen tobacco use in the country
  • …without publicly demonizing an industry that is a major contributor to the state’s economy
  • …and do it with a very small budget.

So what did they do? More important is what they didn’t do: they didn’t start brainstorming hip commercials or slogans. They didn’t bombard teens with lots of scary statistics about the dangers of smoking – statistics that had fallen on deaf ears for years. They started by meeting teens face-to-face and asking them for ideas.

What really matters to teens? Autonomy. Owning your self. The ‘grown-ups’ just needed to get out of the way. So the firm had the teens choose the title of their own movement. They designed their own swag: numbered dog tags they could wear and t-shirts that put an ironic spin on the state motto, “While I breathe, I hope.” They went to high school football games and talked to other kids where they already were. They changed the conversation from one about mortality to one about empowerment – choosing not to be controlled by big tobacco. And it worked so well that, even when the money ran out, the movement kept right on going. In just four years, with no major media campaign or new taxes on cigarettes, they decreased teen smoking rates by 16.9% – one of the biggest decreases in the nation.

The authors offer other cases, too, from a customer-led community at Fiskars to Love146, a movement to end child sex trafficking.

The bottom line? Find the people who care the most and give them more power. You can make them feel special just by giving them a little face time, a little inside knowledge, and the authority to make some real decisions. Scary? Yes. But a risk worth taking? Absolutely.

Want to read Brains on Fire? If you purchase the book through this Amazon link, a percentage of the proceeds will help power our work.

More book reviews: The Networked Nonprofit; Jobs That Matter; Brandraising

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Idea File: Creative marketing? Think inside the (pizza) box.

Today’s idea sharing model

As a native New Yorker, loving pizza is part of my cultural DNA. Besides the delicious combination of cheese, sauce, and bread, it’s the only food that makes me think about both Sunday family dinners and late night grease-fests with friends.

And now I can add idea sharing to that list thanks to Lonesome’s, a pizza place in my new home of Portland, OR. With every pie I order, I’m guaranteed to find on the inside cover a story about a local artist – plus their CD or DVD. While chomping on a slice recently, I read about a funk band that was in the process of opening up a music charter school in Portland.


The names of their pies make me giggle. I recommend “My dad vs. your dad.” Photo credit: Heather Zinger (

I’ve ordered from Lonesome’s before, but it was this bit about the charter school that made me think about using pizza boxes to  get the word out about nonprofit programs, raise awareness around a particular issue, and/or highlight good ideas.

This idea doesn’t have to be limited to pizza. If you own a business or know someone who does, think creatively about how you can use your products or services to get the word out about all the awesome community work going on. Letting people know about an innovative bartering schoolis a much nicer use of space than, say, promoting the latest flavor of Mountain Dew.


  • Novelty. Create buzz for both the project and the pizza place.
  • Cost effective. All you need is photocopies, glue, and someone to spend the time attaching materials.
  • Community engagement. Local businesses + local efforts = a win-win connection.
  • Universality. Who doesn’t like pizza? According to Food Industry News, 93% of Americans eat pizza at least once a month. Maybe that number will increase once there’s some local do-gooderness in the box.


  • Buy in. Nonprofits might think it’s too weird, and navigating the bureaucracy of big chains might be challenging. Local mom and pop restaurants are probably the best bet.
  • Adding to the marketing clutter. More paper that might end up in the recycling bin.
  • Disinterest. “Please, I just want to eat my pizza in peace.”

What do you think – might delivery boxes be another way to communicate with your community? What’s the most creative partnership you’ve seen a local business strike with a local organization?

Read more Idea File posts here.

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Book Review: An Introduction to Brandraising

“Brandraising” blends fundraising with marketing to outline a new way of thinking about a nonprofit’s communications with the public. Brandraising (a new book by Sarah Durham) is an easy to read, easy to use guide to bringing this new way of thinking to bear on the work of all types of public benefit organizations.

Brandraising (the concept) is building “a strong framework for communication” that rests securely on vision, mission and values — “the core elements that direct all aspects of the organization’s work.” The difference between brandraising and other guides to nonprofit communications is apparent from the start when Durham adds to the list of core elements four more concepts: objectives, audiences, positioning and personality.

Most planning sessions for nonprofits likely get as far as objectives, though considering that sort of detail when thinking about organizational communications may be rare. Rarer still, Durham thinks, is attention to the audiences to be reached, the position to be achieved, and the personality that best suits the organization’s goals. What adjectives describe the way the organization wants to be perceived? What is the big idea the organization wants to be known for? Who, exactly, needs to hear and understand the organization’s messages?

The book offers straightforward and practical exercises for working out the answers to questions like these. My personal favorite: Make a list on a whiteboard of all the other organizations that might be seen by the public as working with more or less the same goals as those that guide your work. Write your tagline or identity statement at the top just to the right of the list. And then make a check mark next to the name of any other organization that could comfortably use those same words to describe itself. Too many check marks? Your message is going to come across as blurred; key members of the public may all too easily confuse your work with that of other organizations that approach the goals differently.

Clarifying the key components of identity so they can be communicated accurately is half of the brandraising project. The other half—and maybe the harder half—is aligning communications efforts in every part of the work across all “the channels and tools through which audiences connect with the organization.” Too often, Durham suggests, organizations invest too little in developing a framework for communication that can be, and is, used by everyone consistently and comfortably.

Many people who work in nonprofits, Durham observes, are not engaged with the idea of marketing as an important contributor to organizational success. Brandraising serves well as an introduction, building on nonprofit examples and respecting the distinctiveness of nonprofits’ work.

You can order Brandraising from with this link; a small royalty will be paid that helps support this site.

For an advanced exploration of the idea, look at the 7th edition of Phillip Kotler’s classic (and expensive) Strategic Marketing for Non-Profit Organizations.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Add Facebook Friends for a Cause…Or a Living

By Flickr user LarimdaME (Creative Commons)

If you’re like a lot of young internet users these days, you may think you spend a little too much time on Facebook, MySpace, or other social networking sites. But there’s a way you can continue your habit…without feeling like a total waste of space.

Believe it or not, all those hours spent on Facebook and MySpace mean that you have acquired valuable skills: so valuable that many nonprofit organizations are actively recruiting volunteers, interns, and even full-time employees to handle social networking tasks. Maintaining a presence on social networking sites is an important part of many nonprofit organizations’ outreach and fundraising strategies these days. But most staff members are too busy to deal with all the new friend requests, comments, groups, and applications; not to mention figuring out how to use these sites in the first place. That’s why consultant DIOSA Communications strongly recommends that its nonprofit clients hand off the responsibilities to volunteers or interns who already have the experience managing their own online presence.

Nonprofits are posting volunteer requests like “Internet Geek to Use MySpace and Facebook,” internships with descriptions like “Social Media Marketing,” and job titles such as “Online Outreach Assistant.” Just search for keyword “facebook” on Idealist, and you’ll find dozens of jobs, internships, and volunteer opportunities!

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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