Robin Hood Marketing: Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes

Anyone who has raised funds for a nonprofit organization or charitable cause will recognize the marketing techniques described in Katya Andresen's book Robin Hood Marketing. Indeed, her examples of the marketing tactics of for-profit companies will be familiar to most Americans, as will her message to nonprofits: "Do as the private sector does and act according to the perspective of the people you want to reach."

From the opening pages of her book, Andresen, a former journalist, emphasizes that nonprofit organizations, just like their for-profit cousins, need to have a goal in mind and work backward from that goal in order to achieve it. But while many donors and employees of nonprofits still have reservations about focus group-tested, marketing-driven campaigns, Andresen's argument is not about the ends justifying the means. Instead, she urges readers to think of cause-related marketing in terms of influence. "There is nothing intrinsically immoral about it," she argues. "Isn't that what good causes are trying to do every day — to influence people to donate money, recycle their plastic, stop smoking, or feed the hungry?"

Andresen traces the concept of "Robin Hood marketing" to an article by public opinion researcher Gerhart D. Wiebe that appeared in Public Opinion Quarterly in the 1950s in which he argued that brotherhood could be "sold like soap." In fact, Wiebe maintained that, when it came to social-change campaigns, the more commercial the approach, the better the chance of success. His writings eventually led to the emergence of "social marketing" in the 1970s, which, while disparaged by many nonprofit leaders, ultimately proved successful and was widely adopted within the sector.

Following in Wiebe's footsteps, Andresen believes that fundraising should be viewed like any other marketing campaign, and that the "customer" (i.e., the donor) should always be the focus of the campaign. And in the information age, she adds, it's not necessary for customers to know everything — just the things that are immediately relevant to their interests and/or concerns.

What makes such an approach viable in the nonprofit world, Andresen argues, is that nonprofits invariably have more than one audience. If, for example, an organization is running an anti-smoking campaign, that campaign has several audiences, the most obvious being smokers. But insurance companies who might consider funding the campaign are another audience, and the goal in their case might be to ask them to provide their customers with a health benefit that includes nicotine replacement therapy and phone counseling. "If I'm a public health advocate in 2001," she writes of the post-9/11 and anthrax-attack world, "my immediate concern is my field's crumbling infrastructure....I don't need [the public] to turn over a new leaf and quit smoking, eat better, and exercise more. Right now, I just need them to fund my project, pass my bill, or call a member of Congress and ask for money to protect the health of the country."

In all, Andresen plots out ten key marketing principles — each the topic of a chapter — and all but one of them (media relations) illustrated by a well-known corporate marketing campaign. From there, she explains how each principle has been applied to a range of nonprofit causes and campaigns. Each chapter also includes interviews with nonprofit leaders who have applied that principle to their cause. Like a good marketer, Andresen also makes it easy for people to find what they're looking for: For those who want to focus their message, read chapters 1, 2, and 6-8; for media relations, go to chapters 7-9.

Despite its easy-to-follow structure, Robin Hood Marketing somehow feels incomplete. The interviews at the end of each chapter left this reader wanting more, and the book ends without clear-cut recommendations or a conclusion. But the author is clear about one thing: It's not enough to try to strike while the iron is hot; organizations have to work, and work hard, to stay on top of ever-changing markets. "Marketing," she writes, "is not a scientific system as much as a messy, living, breathing process. With neglect it shrivels and fades. But with consistent care and attention, it grows and thrives."

For citations to additional materials on this topic refer to the Catalog of Nonprofit Literature, using the subject heading "Nonprofit organizations—marketing—handbooks, manuals, etc."