content marketing nonprofit daniel melbye digital new media

Your success as a charity depends not only on coming up with great solutions to the problems that persist in society but in making them happen. This requires the support of the public and that in turn requires charities to get those ideas adopted by the public

Charities sell ideas.  Ideas about how the world might be different. They seek to transform the world by convincing the public to share their vision, to believe in it. Without that belief they will never convince the public to support them,. So how can you improve the chances of getting your idea adopted? Ask Everett Rodgers.

In 1962, he published Diffusion of Innovation (where he coined the term “early adopter”) the end result of a large-scale research project on why innovations spread. Rogers, then a sociology professor at Ohio State University, gathered the results of over 500 hundred studies on why innovative ideas are adopted among people and organizations. The result was a set of five factors identified as essential influencers in our decision to adopt or reject new ideas: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability.

1. Relative Advantage

This is the degree to which an idea is perceived as better than the existing standard. How is your vision of the world better – what is your vision of the world. This talks to the need to clearly communicate your vision, the problems that you are campaigning for and providing a clear and demonstrable route to delivering change. Most of all you need to inspire them to want to believe in your visions and the possibility of creating that change.

Clear Cambodia have given clean water to over 600K people in the last 15 years using BioSand filters.

The higher the Relative Advantage, the greater the chance of adoption. Many of the most renowned works of art are heralded for the way in which they dramatically moved their genre forward. Think of how Citizen Kane was able to push the boundaries of the screenplay and camera angles compared to the films of its time. Relative Advantage is what most people think of when they visualize something being “innovative.” The more transformative your idea the more powerful it will be.

2. Compatibility

The level of compatibility that an idea has to be assimilated into an individual’s life. Is your cause something that people care about or can you present your idea in a way that affects people – that relates to them their lives, that they can connect with.

For charities this means making your work relatable. Can the pubic empathize with your cause? What can you do to make people relate to what you do. The higher the similarity with existing norms (that is the experiences of the people you are communicating with) the better the chances of adoption. The use of stories about the impact on people can be one effective approach to this. People can empathize with situations and experiences more so than abstract ideas. So focus on experiences that people can relate to Charity Water advertising campaigns have taken a very clever approach to communicating the need for water in societies that cannot understand what it means to be without water.

3. Complexity (or simplicity)

How easy it the idea to understand to share. If the the problem (and the solution) you are campaigning for  is seen as highly complex or difficult to grasp, people will not find it engaging and the idea is less likely to spread.

The Power of One Campaign launched by No More Malaria had a very simple premise that has been hugely successful. The campaign aims to end all malaria-related deaths in Africa by 2015. A  child dies every minute from malaria, making it one of the top killer diseases among children worldwide.


Your idea should be both simple and powerful and easy to communicate and therefore spread. Often the work charities are involved in can be complex, and that is ok, but for your marketing efforts you need to distill your idea down into something simple and powerful in its simplicity.

4. Trialability

The more they can try it, the less uncertainty there is around committing to it. This is easier to understand by looking at the commercial sector. Companies offer free trials so that customers can test their products knowing that the more they try it the more likely they are to commit to it. Think of all those car salesmen encouraging you to get inside and smell that fresh leather or the sales staff in your local supermarket offering samples of food.

Nonprofits may not sell products, but they do sell ideas. They aim to convince people not only of the validity of their idea and the need for their work, but that they can deliver on those promises. How effortless is it for the target audience to interact with your idea and understand what you do? How easily can they learn about the work you do, to get involved in your charity before they make a financial commitment? The more potential supporters or advocates can get involved without making a commitment, the less uncertainty there is when they decide to support you.

Kiva have taken this idea to heart. They allow potential supporters to make a micro loan for free. This allows supporters to start using the platform without any commitment. They can experience and understand how micro loans work and the positive experience of helping someone without making a financial commitment. I thought this was an incurably smart concept. Effectively it is loaning a loan, but form the perspective of the user they have been given the opportunity to give a gift that helps someone and encourages them to make future loans.

It may seem that not all nonprofits offer a service that provides opportunities to test their products, however this is not necessarily so. Long before a supporter makes a financial commitment to a charity they are likely to have had a number of interactions with you. Each of these connections, consciously or unconsciously, allows people to experience your work through the support and commitment that other people have given and the work that you have achieved.

If you are able to show through your communications what other supporters have experienced through supporting your cause and what you have achieved potential supporters are able to understand the benefits of making a donation or fundraising and you are more likely to encourage new supporters to make a financial commitment and tell other people about your work.

5. Observability

This is the noticeable results of trying or consuming the idea. When new products are highly visible, it drives more people to share it and increases the likelihood of mass adoption.

Think of this idea in terms of communicating the tangible results and the visible benefits of supporting you. If supporters can see that your work is having an impact, that they can see results, they are more likely to be be engaged and share what you do.

I believe that this is not simply a matter of showing the effectiveness of an organisation, but an important feedback loop that encourages supporters to keep engaging by sensing progress and connecting with progressive results. So share what you do and the progress you make in real time so supporters not just know but experience what you do and the challenges you face as they happen.

Zero LRA have an interesting way of doing this. They are raising money for an early waring radio system to warn villages when the rebel army is approaching their area. Supporters receive updates about these results thereby connecting people to the dangers faced by villages in Uganda.