Cause And Effect

B reast cancer. AIDS. Heart disease. Drug addiction. Land mines. What creative person wouldn’t jump at the chance to work on any one of these well- publicized, well-funded causes?

But what if the local crisis nursery called? Or the shaken baby association? Or the local epilepsy chapter? How many of us would line up to create awareness for Hmong advancement? Or develop a brochure for the Chrohn’s & Colitis Foundation? Or brand a small, intergenerational day care?

There are more than 1.4 million registered nonprofits in the U.S., the bulk of which are nothing more than tiny organizations with little funding, staffed by passionate, committed volunteers who dream of creating greater awareness for their causes. But because they lack the professional marketing experience and star-studded boards, they have little hope of registering even a blip on the public’s radar screen.

I must admit that, after 15 years in the trenches as a copywriter and creative director for a wide range of regional and national brands, it’s still not easy convincing a dozen inexperienced volunteers of the value of marketing their cause—let alone getting them all to agree on a provocative communications strategy and often very untraditional creative approaches. But there is something exhilarating about being on the side of the underdog, standing by the little guy who doesn’t seem to stand a chance against the big, well-managed and well-oiled nonprofit machines. There’s something especially satisfying about helping an orphaned cause gain support, or a silent organization find its voice.

Don’t get me wrong—I have nothing against large, successful nonprofits. It just seems that while the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. And we advertising folk have a lot to do with that.

Imagine what we could accomplish if every agency donated time each year to one or two relatively unknown nonprofits. Imagine the impact we could have if we chose organizations based on need rather than popularity.

There are 1.8 million Americans who suffer from epilepsy. But nowhere will you see a national campaign to raise awareness or contributions. Every year, more than 10,000 children in the U.S. are injured in riding-mower accidents, but do you think there’s ever been a campaign related to that cause? Endometriosis. Gang violence. Living kidney donation. Imagine the change we could effect if we chose to help the most difficult causes.

More than 40,000 women in the U.S. die of breast cancer every year. While that is a very worthwhile cause, there are more cause-marketing campaigns built around breast cancer awareness than any other five causes in America combined. But more Americans die each year from colon cancer. More than 1 million people are devastated by Chrohn’s disease, and another 1.5 million by lupus. But how could you know this? Those causes do not have a strong voice. They don’t have the biggest and best creatives beating a path to their door.

I must admit that I myself have been guilty of jumping on the bandwagon. Our agency recently created a campaign for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s Race for the Cure, as well as the latest Partnership for a Drug-Free America campaign. I am proud of that work. But I also know that, had we not done it, there would have been a raft of agencies lining up for the assignment. That is why we also have made a conscious effort to help less-popular causes.

Imagine if the best and brightest of our profession got together, in every market, and decided they could do more. Then imagine if they acted on it. Here in Milwaukee, a group of creatives, account and PR people and I have started our own nonprofit, called Serve Marketing. The goal: bring the most talented individuals together, volunteering their time to create public-awareness campaigns that elevate the voice of tiny nonprofits, many of which have nowhere else to turn. With support from our agency, more than 75 Serve volunteers last year donated $1.3 million in time and money helping Serve’s clients. Media outlets, production and music companies, talent agencies, printers and photographers donated another $2.5 million in media space and services.

Imagine the same model duplicated in city after city. We could lead a renaissance in nonprofit marketing, one that evens the playing field.

What would you get out of it? If you’re like me, you’ll get the joy of knowing that you used your skills and your creativity to make a difference—to give a little-known cause hope, a strong identity and the ability to make an impact. It ain’t easy work. But with it comes satisfaction that no paycheck of any size can bring.

Gary Mueller is evp, cd at BVK in Milwaukee and founder and president of Serve, which helps underserved nonprofits. He can be reached at