Content Marketing for Nonprofits

Are the rules of content marketing different for nonprofits? We talk with Help One Now founder Chris Marlow to find out.

Content marketing has exploded in traditional for-profit companies, but nonprofits have different needs and agendas.

In this 29-minute episode, Chris Marlow and I talk about:

  • The #1 mistake most nonprofits make with their content — and what to do instead
  • How a charitable organization can get its message through in an environment of “constant crisis”
  • Getting your messages opened and building relationships for the long term (Chris has great tips for for-profit businesses as well on this)
  • Thoughts on how we as individuals — as well as our companies — can make the world a better place


The Show Notes


Content Marketing for Nonprofits

Jerod Morris: Hey, Jerod Morris here. If you know anything about Rainmaker Digital and Copyblogger, you may know that we produce incredible live events. Some would say that we produce incredible live events as an excuse to throw great parties, but that’s another story. We’ve got another one coming up this October in Denver, it’s called Digital Commerce Summit. It is entirely focused on giving you the smartest ways to create and sell digital products and services.

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Sonia Simone: Hey there, it is so good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone, I’m the Chief Content Officer for Rainmaker Digital. I hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You can always get extra links, extra resources, and additional notes in the show notes. You can find those anytime at Copyblogger.FM, along with the complete archive for the series.

I’m excited because for a long time now I’ve been trying to snag Chris Marlow. Chris founded a non-profit organization called Help One Now. We were able to catch up today. He’s a busy guy. I’m a busy gal. We’re going to be talking about Chris’ marketing and how he communicates with the nonprofit audience. We don’t talk about that a lot here at Copyblogger, but I know a significant number of you are doing communication for nonprofits. We’re also going to talk about a new book that he has out, which is really powerful. I think people will get a lot out of it.

Chris, hello. It’s so good to talk to you.

Chris Marlow: Hey Sonia, it’s so good to be here. I’m super excited to be on your podcast and be able to connect with your audience. I love talking about nonprofit communications because it’s so important and it can make such an impact in the world.

Sonia Simone: It really can. Let’s start with just letting people know — I mentioned your organization is called Help One Now. When I heard Chris speak, I was really moved by how he approaches his mission. I became a regular donor. If anybody listening to the call thinks that would be cool, you can certainly do that. What does Help One Now do? What kind of organization is it?

Chris Marlow: Awesome. Thank you so much for asking. Help One Now basically does three key scenarios. One is we want to impact high-capacity local leaders. We’re trying to source leaders all over the world who are doing amazing work in their communities and we want to come behind them and help them accomplish their dreams. We do that in order to care for kids who have been orphaned, abandoned, or trafficked.

Then we do what we call community development, community transformation work. It’s all the big-picture infrastructure stuff that we all deal with all over the world: clean water, education, healthcare, and job creation. The goal, basically, is to make sure folks are empowered to be able to care for themselves and not have to rely on aid forever.

The #1 Mistake Nonprofits Make with their Content — and What to Do instead

Sonia Simone: Yeah, that’s excellent. It’s great work. It really gets to the hands of people and really helps them out. Let’s talk about a little bit — because we had a really good conversation. Chris and I met at Jeff Goins’ event, Tribes. We had a really good talk about what nonprofit communication usually looks like when we get the newsletters from the charities that we’ve signed up for or donated for. The usual model for nonprofit content marketing is essentially, “Let’s make our potential donors feel really guilty.”

Chris Marlow: Yeah.

Sonia Simone: “We’re going to just squeeze all the guilt dollars out of these people that we can.” You know, I think that we talked about it. To some, degree it works.

Chris Marlow: It does work.

Sonia Simone: It sure works. Let’s talk about your perspective on that and why that’s not an approach that you actually recommend.

Chris Marlow: Yeah, it’s so interesting. There are two things. Folks in the nonprofit world, one, we really care about the issues that we’re trying to solve. Part of the challenge in any nonprofit is you’re typically giving away most of your proceeds. There’s a culture in so many nonprofits — it’s this desperation. It’s this never-ending, “We have to get more money, get more money, get more money.” It’s a machine that doesn’t stop.

When I started Help One Now in 2009, the economy was falling apart. I was living in Austin, Texas. I spent a year doing research. I’m like, “What nonprofits are communicating really well in making their donor base feel really good about being a part of the nonprofit?” Guilt is one of those things that I don’t think works long term. If you’re guilting people to give money, they’re going to stop giving money and being a part of the organization, being part of your tribe. Eventually you’re going to have to go out and guilt more people because you’re going to have to replace people who are tired of being guilt-ridden with the way you communicate.

What if we just communicated in a way where we invited people into the story and they were a part of this thing — short-term or long-term — and they felt super amazing about being a part of doing good, doing it well, and doing it together? What if we just stayed away from the guilt?

What we try to do — and this is important — we don’t want to hide from the realities of the world. There are certain realities that are harsh and hard to deal with. For the most part, we want our stories to be based on hope, and impact, and transformation. Then, occasionally, we’ll have to deal with some of the hard things. I think in our current world especially, everything seems so hard and so much complexity. When people hear from Help One Now, I want them to be excited to read it because they’re going to hear a story that’s going to give them fuel to take it another day and make another impact.

How a Charitable Organization Can Get Its Message Through in an Environment of “Constant Crisis”

Sonia Simone: Yeah, I think that’s kind of core to your organization. We’re going to talk about — we can actually just talk about it right now.

Chris Marlow: All right, go ahead.

Sonia Simone: You work on global extreme poverty.

Chris Marlow: Correct, yes.

Sonia Simone: This is an issue among many that we’re looking at right now that makes people feel completely hopeless. In your book — we’ll talk about your book in little bit – I’ve heard you share and I’ve read in your books some stories about situations that were overwhelming because they were so painful. That feeling of helplessness is overwhelming. We were talking before we started recording — it is worse now.

Chris Marlow: Yep.

Sonia Simone: We can really get into this, but people feel overwhelmed. You were mentioning, right now, basically anybody who’s on Facebook and paying attention to the world and the situations. What’s going on in Turkey. What’s going on in the United States. What’s going on with even something like Brexit. People feel completely helpless and paralyzed. How does a nonprofit communicate when everything’s an emergency all the time and everybody is actually quickly going numb?

Chris Marlow: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think every nonprofit leader is basically spending time trying to process, “What does it mean to communicate in an age where every single day there’s another emergency, there’s another tragedy, there’s another issue?” It’s almost driving — we’re digging a hole of hopelessness, and we’re digging deeper and deeper.

You know this as well as anyone, the media only tells one side of the story. There’s all this amazing work being done all over the world, in our back yard. I just got back from Uganda and Ethiopia. To see the hope and the amazing impact that people are making — but those stories never make it on the news.

Chris Marlow: I think there are a few things. At Help One Now, we try to invite people into a story that will really help them feel good about who they are and would want to continue to be a part of the story. We also want to create on ramps and off ramps. Here’s one thing that nonprofits do — it’s really hard. “If I sponsor this child, is it a forever thing or is it not?” How do we communicate clearly, “Hey, there’s so much chaos going into the world, but here’s a way you can make an impact and here’s what we expect of you.”

Often times, in nonprofit spaces, we don’t tell people what to expect. People want to be involved and they want to bring hope and they want to fight all the negativity, but they also need a clear line of sight. “What do you want from me?” Then one thing they’re always asking is, “Will you be transparent? Will you tell me — is it working, is it not working? I at least want to have access to the information.”

We’re fans of having fun. There’s so much negativity in our world. I just spent two weeks — just had a blast with real people who are living real lives in a much better place because folks are jumping in, donating, sponsoring a child, or being part of the 10 Dollar Tribe. Throwing Garage Sale 4 Orphan parties. Donating out of their budget. It is making a huge impact.

I think the most important thing as we think through the layers of communication, is for the listener to really have a disciplined approach to making sure — as we listen to the national news, let’s also make sure we have news feeds that are more authentic and down to the ground. What we’re hearing about hope and transformation — because it is happening — we’re just never going to hear it in the mainstream.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, I agree. You touched on something, and I talk about this a lot with marketing and communication and content. People will associate you with what you communicate, and they will associate with you a certain feeling. If you create communication content that makes people feel positive, then they will open your next email. If you are constantly making people feel — now, usually when I talk about this it’s in the context of a pitch. I’m pitching you on an ebook. I’m pitching you on a course. I’m pitching you on a $10,000 mastermind, whatever it is. If all I do is pitch, pitch, pitch, eventually you associate seeing my name in the email with being kind of irritated, and you stop opening.

In your world, it’s the same equation. I have my organizations I donate to, and some of them I always open and some of them I don’t, because some of them it’s always like, “I can’t deal with that today. I just can’t.”

Chris Marlow: The real question is, do you open Help One Now? That’s really what — no, I’m just kidding.

You’re totally right though, think about it. Anyone who’s communicating, the goal is to get people to click. There’s so much information. If folks see Help One Now in their subject line, or in Twitter, in social media, if we’re not creating content that’s going to want them to be a part of reading and engaging the content and sharing the content then we’re in trouble, because basically the end-user now gets to choose how or if they even pay attention to us.

Our job is to make sure folks who are already part of Help One Now’s tribe — they’re donating, they’re advocating, they’re moving the mission forward — when they see Help One Now they want to know about it and they want to engage it. Then for new folks who we’re inviting into the story, for them to realize “Wait a minute, this is something that actually matters. It’s hope-based. They deal with the reality. I want to be a part of this because if I’m a part of this, my life will also be better.”

I think the other thing, Sonia, here’s where a lot of non-profits really fail. Every time they send something out they’re asking for money. That’s a big mistake. Even personally, I don’t want anyone to think when they see Chris Marlow, that I’m going to ask them for money. I hardly ever ask people for money in day-to-day conversations. I’m being very strategic. Because if you become known as someone who’s always asking for something, eventually people aren’t going to want to hang out with you. They’re not going to do lunch with you. They’re definitely not going to do coffee with you. They’ll begin to ignore you. It’s really your own fault.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s so smart, that understanding of, “it’s story-based.” I think that communication is very powerful. I think you guys do an awesome job of helping people see — and the book is also really great for this — helping people see that there’s the material needs which are really important, but then there’s just that message of, “You’re not alone, person having an issue on this planet. There are other people who care about what’s going on.” Knowing that is really important.

I liked what you said about on ramps and off ramps. It seems to me like that’s the theme of your book: small actions can roll up to big results. Don’t be afraid. I teach this all the time about everything — from your fitness to your business to everything else. Just that message — small actions can roll up to big results — is really powerful and it helps us get out of that paralysis of gloom that is always a factor. And boy, 2016 is giving it to us in spades.

Chris Marlow: It is. 2016 is a year that, when it’s over, we’ll probably be glad it’s over. Especially here in the United States with the Presidential elections. I was just listening to Rio and all the different issues for the Olympics — even the Olympics are having these problems. The one thing that could bring hope to the world this year, and excitement and a little entertainment, is having issues.

I think what people who are donating to charities don’t sometimes know is: What is the win? What are we trying to do? We’re trying to help our tribe understand, “Here’s what the win is. You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems, you don’t have to fix everything. You can go enjoy your normal life, whatever that is. But when you participate in this charity, in this cause, in this community, in this movement — if we all do small powerful, intentional acts, it can create massive change and massive momentum to see real live, some change.”

I was just in Ethiopia last week with our family empowerment program. Over a hundred families who, instead of having their kids orphaned and living in an institutional orphanage, for a thousand dollars they go through this year-long program. Basically, their entire family, by the end of that year, is sustained. They have a place to live. They have jobs. They can provide for themselves. When fifteen or twenty or thirty people come together and give to that one family, it creates a long-term impact in that community. What’s great is that donors get to see the entire process.

We can’t change everything, but what we can’t do is get paralyzed by the issues being too big. I talk about this in the book a little bit. There are so many issues. The problems are big. They’re so complicated, but we can’t let that paralyze us. Instead we have to start small, follow our passions, use our gifts and build relationships. The one thing where I think a lot of donors struggle is they have to stick with their causes through the ups and the downs. Causes aren’t perfect, we make mistakes. But man, when donors stick with us long term, it creates even a greater impact. When people see the transformation, then I think it really helps everyone involved.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, I like that a lot. Let’s talk a little bit about if you have somebody, comes up to you at a conference or an event or something, they’re trying to do a better job of their non-profit communication. They’re trying to do a better job reaching their people, raise more money for the organization, and also create better loyalty with the donors, and maybe more word of mouth with the donors. What are some steps that you would tell those people, “Okay, I want you to go back to your office and I want you to do these one or two things?”

Chris Marlow: Yeah, that’s good. I love it, too, because I think if nonprofit leaders create better cultures then people want to be more involved, and they’d be more open in the beginning. It’s actually really important. We have some Major League Baseball players involved. It’s pretty interesting when you begin to engage in folks of wealth and of fame. They get asked all the time. We do the whole opposite approach. We build a relationship and invite them into a story and just show them ways that they can make an impact and they can be involved. We allow them to pick and choose their own path. Some of them have been thoroughly involved and given significant funds. Others have gotten involved a little bit. We don’t make either one feel guilty.

I think one of the things that we’re constantly doing, and what I would encourage everyone to do, is invite people into a story where you have created a pathway for them to find their own way. Now, don’t get me wrong, one of my jobs is to ask for money. My job as the leaders of a nonprofit is to make sure it’s funded. I have clear conversations. I make clear asks, but the thing that’s beautiful is if people can’t be involved, it’s no big deal. It’s not like it’s awkward when I see them next.

A lot of it is creating this culture where people feel comfortable even saying no, because eventually if they’re sticking around you long enough, there’s going to come a moment where they say yes. Or they help someone else get involved. Or where they just respect you enough to say, “Man, I really want to be a part of that.”

I think nonprofit leaders — we’re so focused on the urgent, this quarter, this need — that we’re not creating a culture where people have time to process and get involved. Sometimes we’re on level eight, and our donors are on level one. We’re full steam ahead and they’re like, “What is going on? I had no clue this issue was happening.” We want them to immediately go from one to eight. We need to help them go from one to two to three, then some of them will actually be fully committed long term, and it’s powerful.

Sonia Simone: The thing is, it applies to so many different kinds of organizations too, it’s actually not just charities and nonprofits. That applies in a lot of ways.

I don’t want to not talk about the book, because you have a new book out, which is awesome. I’m reading it. It’s very powerful. It has a strong Christian perspective, that’s the framework, that’s the lens. Would you recommend it to people who don’t come from that tradition, they’re not a Christian? Do you think that it’s something that would benefit people who don’t come from the same tradition you do?

Chris Marlow: Yeah, I think so. At Help One Now in general, we have so many people involved. I was a pastor for over a decade, so a lot of my personal faith is important to my professional side of my life. I was pastoring when I met a starving orphan in a gas station in Zimbabwe. One of the things I challenged was, “I need this to be an authentic story where the reader can follow with me in the transformation that I’ve had.” But also we have so many people involved in Help One Now. We have people who are outside of the Christian faith. They don’t have any faith at all. They’re conservative, they’re liberals. I love that I can bring unity to the world. “For this one issue we can all agree that we need to care for people in need. Here’s how.”

I think most folks will — if they’re open-minded and they can understand that the faith thing is I’m not preaching to them. I’m not trying to convert. I’m just bringing people into my story. Then for those who are of faith, maybe helping them realize the calling that we have as a Christian faith. I think most folks would be okay with it because I’m mostly focused on stories and practical ways to make a difference.

Sonia Simone: Yeah. There are powerful stories. I admire that about you so much, because you’ve put yourself in the path of all of these intense stories, many of which I know you did not choose. You didn’t come from a fairy tale upbringing.

Chris Marlow: No.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, that’s a very powerful part of who you are, I think, that you come into contact with these stories and you share them with us.

Thoughts on How We As Individuals — As Well As Our Companies — Can Make the World a Better Place

Sonia Simone: What would you say about the book? I know what I think the theme of your book is, but what would you say the theme of your book is, and how could somebody even before they pick it up, go out and take that into the world? Not necessarily as a marketer, just as a person.

Chris Marlow: Yeah. When I began to write the book I had three goals. I wanted people to be able to read the book in two hours. I wanted them to laugh, I wanted them to cry. And I wanted them to close the book saying, “You know what? I can make a significant difference in the world and I don’t have to change everything.”

Often when people think about making a difference it’s like, “Do I need to move somewhere or do I need to change all my habits?” There’s such a guilt-driven culture often when it comes to issues of doing good and justice. I wanted to create a book where people felt they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re worth a lot. Every individual is worth a lot, and they can make a big difference in the world.

Whether you’re of Christian faith, outside the faith, whether you’re famous or you’re the most normal person in the world like I was. I literally was just a normal person trying to raise my family. Trying to do my job. We started a nonprofit, and it is what it is now. I wanted people to feel unstuck, and that they weren’t paralyzed, and they can spend their moments in life making the world better, but in a way with grace and hope.

Sonia Simone: Yeah. You have such wonderful examples of people doing little things. Especially to me, doing little things within a community so that your one little action — but that little action gets added to … Whether your community is your Twitter community — a lot of us are so online — or the people you go to church with, or your kid’s soccer team, whatever it is. If you can pull people together to take focused action together, actually it’s amazing how quickly that can add up into something really meaningful.

Chris Marlow: Yeah, it’s amazing how far dollars will go around the world. One of the things we were trying to figure out is, often giving was done in such a private nature and people weren’t talking about what they were doing. “We give to this nonprofit or to this charity or to this church.” We wanted to make giving and making an impact a very community-driven reality.

Folks want to be together. We’re all really busy, so we hardly have time for even sometimes for community, for family. How do we integrate giving and community and making an impact? Something as little as throwing a Garage Sale party with your family or friends. It’s definitely a little bit of work to throw a Garage Sale party, but you get to do it together. We’ve rescued 60 kids from trafficking in Haiti all because 40 or 50 different families threw a Garage Sale party and launched this project in Haiti that helped rescue kids from trafficking.

None of that money came out of the normal budget. It was an action step that moms and dads and kids did together. Church small groups did together. All sorts of different people joined this movement, took small steps, and today over 60 kids are rescued because of that small but powerful step that they made.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, it’s funny because I actually had a note here about talking about contribution. In our culture a lot of people don’t think it’s right to talk about your contributions. You’re supposed to make a charity contribution and then not say anything about it because you’re bragging and you’re only doing it to make yourself feel better. Personally I’m like, “Go for it.” If making a big charity contribution makes you feel better about yourself and you brag on it, hey that’s awesome. You still did a lot of good.

Chris Marlow: Yep. Please, tell everyone.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, because your contribution might inspire somebody else to say, “Oh, I want to do that too.”

Chris Marlow: Speaking of that, it’s amazing how many people don’t know where they can help. It’s so important for Help One Now for our donors, our tribe if you will, for them to share their experience with other people because that’s how — it’s one-for-one marketing. We don’t have to spend as much money in marketing. We can spend more money on making an impact when our tribe is sharing.

We give them tools to share. They can figure out how much they want to share. We have folks who give significant money that never talk about it. We have folks who are always talking about it. Again, it’s back to letting donors pick what they feel is good for them. But one thing we always say, “Hey, please talk about Help One Now on your socials.” It does truly help the nonprofit. Another thing it does is it does bring hope to the world if we’ve given them powerful content that they can use to share with people that they’re connected to. It’s a huge part of what we do.

Sonia Simone: Yeah. It just strikes me. What are we? Six billion on the planet now, coming on seven?

Chris Marlow: Yep.

Sonia Simone: Working together, we really could fix the whole thing. We could just fix the whole thing.

Chris Marlow: Yes.

Sonia Simone: If we could just get out of this feeling of helplessness and isolation. It’s do-able. I think we can see it from here, but it’s just getting people to see that we can see it from here.

Chris Marlow: I was just in East Africa, and we had some well-known people with us and because of some issues they had to bring two former Navy Seals. It was interesting with these Navy Seals. The first day or two they were normal, stand-offish, to themselves — just doing their job. By day three, as they were with us meeting kids, meeting families, seeing the impact — you begin to see the humanity come back to them.

I don’t understand that world, it’s not my world. The powerful thing about it is they see so much of the negative in the world. In just two days being around hope-filled communities, one of them as we were leaving said, “You’ve restored my hope in humanity. That we can actually care for one another.” This guy’s only been through all the crazy parts of his life that he can’t talk about. But just a few days with people and he realized the humanity that we share in, and that we need one another if we’re going to make the world different. It was interesting to watch that whole thing flow for five days last week.

Sonia Simone: That’s cool. I think that’s really the power. That’s why I think content is so powerful for this kind of project or mission, is telling the stories. You can really change people a lot with a little bit of content and a little bit of sharing and a little bit of community. Very cool.

Chris Marlow: Yeah. Can I add real quick? We do have a six-step process. How does someone help make the world better? I talk about this in the book. You do something. You start small. You follow your passion. You use your gift. Build a real relationship.

Here’s the struggle. You go back to content marketing. Oftentimes, people don’t feel like there’s a relationship between the nonprofit and the people who are making the impact. A check is coming out, cash is coming out of a bank account, but there’s no humanity behind the gift, there’s no connection. So what we’re constantly trying to do is just again and again and again, build a human connection, because then it matters more.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, very cool. All right, good. People who are interested in what you’re doing, you do have a TEDx talk which is really powerful, and it’s a great way to get more of a sense of Chris and who he is and where he’s coming from. Some great stories. I’ll share all the links, guys. If you just go to Copyblogger.FM you get all the links as well as the show archives. The book is called, “Doing Good Is Simple. Making A Difference Right Where You Are,” which is a wonderful title. I think it really helps people start to see the themes. Then the organization is at

All right, anything you want to leave folks with before we wrap it up?

Chris Marlow: First of all, thanks for having me on the show. Second of all, I just want to let you know — when people listen to the podcast, if you’re listening to this right now — please know that the world needs you. You can make a huge impact. You don’t have to write big checks. You don’t have to change your entire life. You can start small and you can do good, and that doing good can be significant in the world. I think more than anything, we just need everyone to contribute to make the world brighter and better.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, awesome. Lovely. All right, Chris. I really appreciate your time. I’m really glad we got to sit down and talk about some of the nuts and bolts. Thank you so much.

Chris Marlow: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me.