A Marketing Pitch that Actually Matters

How Russ Reid helps nonprofits raise money to do good. | “I think we will see a wave of generosity in America.”

Since 1966, Russ Reid has helped World Vision attract millions of child sponsors to help children throughout the developing world. (Photo: David duChemin)

From “Mad Men” to Madison Avenue, most people know about commercial advertising. But who helps charities put those fund-raising programs on TV, and all that mail in your mailbox? The answer, more often than not, is Russ Reid. Launched in 1964 by its eponymous founder, it is now the nation’s largest marketing agency for nonprofits. “Russ applied direct-marketing principles from the corporate world to help nonprofits grow,” says Tom Harrison, the current CEO of Russ Reid.

Whether it’s for World Vision or the Salvation Army, Russ Reid does whatever it takes to help its clients. “We are media agnostic,” Harrison explains. “If the way to help a nonprofit is to go to Capitol Hill and get a law changed, then we go to Capitol Hill. If it’s to have a press conference in New York, we’ll go to New York and have a press conference.”

As these examples indicate, marketing campaigns for nonprofits take a different approach than their commercial counterparts. “Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and says, I have to give my money away today,” Harrison says. “So you can’t just do brand advertising for nonprofits, or you’ll end up with a lot of awareness but no donations.” To avoid this, Russ Reid focuses on making the case that there is an urgent need that people can help by donating money. “We wish that people would give just because there is a need out there, but wishing doesn’t make it so,” Harrison adds. “You have to make the case.”

Direct mail remains the “real workhorse” for nonprofits. Digital marketing only generates 12 percent of nonprofit revenues. Social media is good for advocacy and raising interest in a cause, but doesn’t bring in donations. “Combine social media with other direct-response strategies [and] you can raise a lot of money,” Harrison says.

Another secret to nonprofit fund-raising is that older donors are the most generous. “Without a doubt, the most important donors are over 50,” explains Harrison, noting that, decades ago, people were worried the young baby boomers wouldn’t give. “Now they’re enormous donors.”

Russ Reid’s legendary television fund-raising began in the 1970s with World Vision, which sponsors children in the developing world. World Vision brought films of children in poor countries around to American churches to raise money. “Russ said to them, ‘I think if we took a celebrity like Art Linkletter around the world and filmed him, we could put that film on TV instead of going to all those individual churches,’” Harrison recalls. The agency did just that, running the spot with an 800 number for people to call and donate. It marked the first time a nonprofit had used an 800 number, and the money flowed in.

World Vision isn’t Russ Reid’s only historic partnership. Thirty years ago, the agency began advising Danny Thomas, the popular comedian and founder of St. Jude’s Research Hospital. Today, Russ Reid still helps with St. Jude’s telethons and works with Danny’s daughter Marlo Thomas.

Harrison himself feels passionate about the firm’s work. He cites his experience with Operation Smile, which funds surgical procedures to repair cleft palates in poor children around the world. “I was in this little hut in Vietnam, where the parents had taken the one mirror they had and put it way up high so the son couldn’t see himself,” Harrison recalls. After a 45-minute procedure,“there’s that magical moment when the child looks at himself in the mirror and sees that he looks normal,” he adds.

The recent economic turbulence has affected the revenue model for nonprofits. Large-scale donations fell sharply, as such gifts are often driven by the tax breaks that accompany them. “You can’t give a tax-favored gift of appreciated property, if that property hasn’t appreciated,” Harrison explains. Direct response appeals, on the other hand, have remained strong.

With the economy improving, Harrison feels donations will pick up again, as the people who return to work after being unemployed will remember their experience and seek to help others. “I think we will see a wave of generosity in America,” he says.