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The documentary “Chasing Coral” has its premiere on Netflix today. It’s about the ecological carnage that is happening to the formerly beautiful coral reefs around the planet (ie death by warmer ocean temperatures).

photo of sea corals for article about using digital marketing skills for non-profit causes


What struck me as I read the review in last weekend’s New York Times was the fact that Richard Vevers, the narrator and instigator of the film, moved from a successful career in advertising to applying his communication skills to his visionary passion (protection of the oceans).

Not part-time, either. Mr. Vevers left his agency life and founded a non-profit organization (The Ocean Agency) of which he is now CEO. National Geographic describes it as “an unconventional not-for-profit that uses the powerful combination of new technology, media, partnerships, and above all creativity to work at a meaningful speed and scale”.

This is inspiring—and not just because someone left the for-profit world for the non-profit world. There are plenty of for-profit companies that adhere to more visionary purposes than simply maximizing profits. But in this instance, a non-profit was established with a very strong sense of needing to use every advance in technology and media to communicate the plight of the corals.

That’s the strategic assertiveness of the advertising world being applied to the sector sometimes disregarded as the terrain of charitable but ineffective souls.


Building brand awareness, a specialty of the digital marketing/advertising industry, is an area in which many non-profits could do better.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a non-profit organization that used to be little-known but which is doing really well in this respect now. They hired the ambitious former politician David Miliband as CEO in 2013 and between his prodigious talents for public relations and a bright and clear website, the organization is now probably the organization Americans first think of as the organization that resettles refugees. If you search for ”organization that resettles refugees” you get this page near the top of the search results: www.rescue.org/topic/refugees-america

banner from non-profit website with great design for clarity and engagement

It is optimized for search engines, it is supported by the organization’s branding and marketing work, and it communicates the work the organization does with refugees brightly and immediately. Everything is big and bold; if you visit the page and scroll down, you’ll see it is well-designed to raise your awareness, gain your trust and enlist your support. The IRC Facebook page is updated frequently with community-building stories.

There are many other non-profit organizations who are doing similar work to the IRC but who lack a publicly-recognizable spokesperson, have lack-luster und uncompelling websites, and have no community-building Facebook pages. The IRC is unmatched for its public profile.

It is understandable that people committed to working on behalf of those in desperate circumstances want to focus on getting the work done and making a difference. But it is short-sighted to work without a strong branding and marketing effort. With a high and trusted profile, an organization can leverage public support to enable them to do more of the good work they are already doing.


The art world is another sector where awareness of the need for branding and marketing is sadly neglected (other than at the level of major art organizations).

In the work I do designing websites and working on digital marketing efforts, I often find that artists think having a basic who-I-am/here’s-my-work/contact-me site is all they need. Maintaining an ongoing marketing effort is seen as (i) arduous and (ii) compromising/tainted/egotistic.

Where the resistance is the “arduous” variety, artists could do well to incorporate marketing as an investigation of their process and vision. Even when the purpose of art is not articulated during its creation, purpose exists. Identifying the people who could benefit from the artwork can help clarify the artistic process.

Where the resistance comes is of the “compromising/tainted/egotistic” variety, it is important to realize that if your work is coming from deep and ongoing investigation, it is needed by those whose lives are too busy to make those investigations themselves. To refrain from marketing your work is depriving people of benefit just as much as if apple farmers refrained from marketing their apples. When something has value, it is worth marketing.

And: your work should support you.

It is understandable that individual artists need to be deeply in the flow of their work in order to create the work. It is also true that to promote work that is mediocre won’t make it better. But if an artist has worked long and hard to create artwork which resonates, moves, and inspires people, it needs and deserves to be marketed.

A good example of an artist who has both created a valuable body of work over time and who has made an equally strong and effective practice of marketing her work is Barbara Hammer.

website of an artist who understands the importance of promoting one's art

Barbara is a pioneering lesbian filmmaker whose work has been about opening up more a supportive and informed space for lesbians. Her website is simple but full of content and while that provides her stable presence, she has also built a large and enthusiastic following on Facebook and posts news frequently. Her promotion of her films is an integral part of ensuring that her work serves the purpose for which she created it; her every post is a reminder that, with persistent effort, good change happens.


So, back to where I started, let’s all watch the movie Chasing Coral—and keep in mind that we are benefitting from someone who learned from a career in advertising and who assertively used the best communications expertise and technology available to get this message to us.


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Author: Rohesia Hamilton Metcalfe
I design websites and write about things people might like to know about websites and digital marketing.

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