This is not sponsored content

The article title on Charity Navigator’s blog is bold enough: “The Death of Conventional Fundraising.”  Well, I’m on record saying that any article proclaiming the Death of X is going to be overblown.  But let’s see: maybe they have some compelling evidence.

When you read the post, however, not only does it not make a compelling case that I’ve been wasting the last dozen or so years of my life with conventional fundraising, but it actually reads like an ad for personal video emails.  They are mentioned in every paragraph but the first (which is the only one that makes a passing attempt at eulogizing conventional fundraising) and one provider (who I will not name here lest we give them additional press) is mentioned by name. 

Very weird stuff on Charity Navigator’s blog.  Who wrote this piece?

When you get to the end, you find the whole thing was written by the Head of Growth of a company that provides personal video emails.  And, lo and behold, that company was the one mentioned by name!  What a coincidence!

It is technically legal for a nonprofit to promote a product like this, but because it’s really pure advertising, the company should get no tax benefit for their “sponsorship” and the nonprofit needs to report it as unrelated business income and pay tax on it, as it’s non-germane to their charitable mission.  Most nonprofits, however, won’t touch it because once you can be bought in this way by an unrelated product, the only other questions are “how much” and “what else is for sale.”

We’ve seen this type of branded placement around the web.  And in my book, I advocate for nonprofits to seek these types of placements — if companies are going to sell you their audiences who believe in your issue, buy them and make them your own.

But there are some ethical practices when you engage in branded content on other people’s platforms, just as there would be if you started accepting such placements:

Transparency: If you want to keep your reputation, or want the organization with whom you are doing placement to keep theirs, you want to state up-front that it is advertiser content or sponsored content.  In addition to this being the upright honest thing to do, it’s also the law: the FTC has mandated this type of disclosure.

This transparency should extend to the byline.  This is one thing Charity Navigator did well—they did disclose that the person selling something was in fact the person selling something.  (They also put some puffy language about how the author had vast experience working with non-profits, so still no full marks.)

Content fit: The ideal sponsored content will be distinguishable from the rest of the publication only by that transparency label, so well should it match the rest of the publication.  If you were accepting sponsored content, you would want it to be of equal or greater value to your constituents as your usual content.  You should strive toward the same standard when placing content in other publications.  This isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-off relationship but an opportunity to work together over the long term; don’t kill it by creating bad or bad fitting content.

Content marketing, not selling.  Fitting the publication standards for most will mean thought leadership, awareness, education, and increasing brand perception.  That makes creating content of value.  When you are done, you should be able to tell why this merited content and not a banner ad asking for a donation.

Most of this should be common sense.  You are a guest in someone else’s platform: announce your presence, wipe your feet before entering, and have a reason to be there.  But alas, it would appear not all common sense is common.

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