Legal Traps with Nonprofit Marketing

Legal Traps with Nonprofit Marketing

Slowly…..very…very slowly….but surely I’m working on content for a book. As I draft sections, I’ll post some here for feedback and to see what interests you guys. This post comes from a section on marketing. If any you marketing warriors have anything to add, leave a note in the comments!

“Many ask if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I’d say the more relevant question is if a charity exists that no one’s heard of, can it really have an impact?

(See what I did there?)

Really this another way to say marketing is über important, with an emphasis on the “ü” for anyone wanting to make a real impact.  But where should you start? What should you think about? Should you hire those talented, hypnotizing sign flippers?

I’ll leave the important sign decisions entirely up to you. But with all the nuances that can exist, similar concerns do trend that you should keep in mind. To start, vet content from the reader’s perspective, watching for promises and checking for accuracy. Double-check local law before promoting things that don’t exist, like services you haven’t gotten around to offering . The concern being these can run on the wrong side of consumer law. And speaking of the wrong side, make friends with disclaimers. Stuff happens, and disclaimers create much-needed flexibility if a program terminates or fund changes direction. Have the appropriate disclosures for heavily regulated items, like food or cosmetics. Get the right to use materials you don’t own and keep a record of the approval. Respecting client privacy by getting specific waivers for the marketing use. And draft cause-related marketing as an announcement, not an advertisement. That’s right, resist the urge to gush about how super wonderful a sponsor or their magic mop is because an advertisement could trigger unforeseen taxes.

Further down the line, as you choose a marketing vehicle research what rules exist. For example, if I want to market a new membership to donors over the phone I’d say to myself, “Erin. Are there are rules on marketing over the phone?” To which the world’s encyclopedia (i.e. Google) would pull up resources telling me about federal (The Telephone Act) or regional laws that do cover this. Do it with each medium, pulling in subject matter experts where things get complicated or scale large. And, if someone will market on your behalf get contractual protections in case they don’t follow the law. Making sure you have agreements with the people creating in addition to the ones actually marketing.

I know, I know. The list is pretty long. And we’ve barely scratched the surface. But I’ll leave you with this, never forget your exemption status. A 501(c)(3) exists for the benefit of the public, at its disposal. What’s appropriate for a non-exempt for-profit may not be appropriate for you. There has to be extra consideration of the mission and demographic (along with the demographics’ sensitivities) at each stage. What does this mean? Don’t publish “Save the Panda” campaigns in an NRA newsletter. To that point, planning and communication across the organization will be a biggie. Happy marketing!”


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