Super Sized Brand-Building on a Value Meal Budget



During Mardi Gras last year Big Love Little Hearts wrapped up Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week with a trip to New Orleans: Big Love in the Big Easy.

Since Mardi Gras is going on as I type I’m remembering how much fun I had there but I’m also remembering how many valuable lessons I can share with you from the how, what and most importantly – why – we did what we did.

When you’re a small organization and especially when you’re a new one, every last dollar counts. While your impulse is to use every dollar raised for program and mission, you need to invest in brand building and awareness raising. What matters is that you’re smart in how you spend it and maximize the opportunities you choose to the nth degree.

As an 8 month old organization (our age at the time of Mardi Gras last year) we had four concerns: building good programs, funding those programs, building our brand so the public associated us with the cause of heart defects, and raising awareness of heart defects so people knew they were a problem that needed fixing.

I chose to do a brand-building and awareness campaign at Mardi Gras because it fulfilled all four of those.

We had interest from several students at Tulane to start a fundraising chapter for us in New Orleans so I had already planned on being there at some point. I really like to maximize my travel expenses and whenever possible build in multiple purposes – that’s what I did here.

I arranged meetings with the students and appointments with several venues and potential partners for the days following Mardi Gras to make it a worthwhile trip on the fundraising side.

On the program side, I made appointments with pediatric cardiologists and cardiovascular-thoracic surgeons who could help us accomplish the meat of our mission: delivering lifesaving heart surgery to children in developing countries.

The last two goals, brand-building and awareness, are why I chose to go to New Orleans during Mardi Gras though.

When raising awareness for your cause the chief goal is always to raise that awareness among people who don’t know about it. Brand-building has the same goal (along with increasing brand position among the people who already know about your cause).

Both these share a similar problem: reaching people on a broad basis outside of a narrowly confined demographic can be expensive. It’s a challenge to find an event, venue or platform that encompasses people from all over the country and from all walks of life that isn’t already inundated with cause messaging (like facebook).

Mardi Gras is filled with people from every corner of the country (and beyond!) and people from every demographic you can think of.

My cause, heart defects, has an incidence of 1 in 100. Few of the nearly 40 identified defects have genetic links and do not correlate to any demographic. For us, everyone is our demographic.

We brought 1500 Mardi Gras beads and a couple hundred t-shirts with our branding to New Orleans with us to give away during the parades. While that alone would have exposed us to a large and diverse audience, we did some things that really amplified our impact and made the dollars we spent wiser.




Smart Branding.

We tried to make our beads unique. They were red with a big heart pendant where we printed our log0 and our web address. They needed to be unique enough for people to want to take home with them where they might look us up online.

We printed our logo and web address on the backs of our t-shirts. People spend more time behind someone than they do walking towards them. Our t-shirts are made of soft, high-quality cotton and fit well…people like to wear them, and they like to wear them most to the gym – where someone might spend up to an hour behind them on a treadmill staring at our logo and web address.


Talking To, Not At.

We didn’t stand on a balcony or a float and throw beads and t-shirts at people. We put the beads on people’s necks for them. We told them who we were. They asked us what we did and who we helped. We had conversations.

Similarly, we had conversations with the people we gave the t-shirts to. Having to ask them what size they’d need started a dialog and every last person who got one wanted to know more about us.

Just by having conversations we created an experience for them that differentiated us from the hundreds of other businesses and groups  throwing beads at them – this gave them a reason to remember us and talk about us to their friends.


Being Different.

Besides differentiating ourselves by engaging with the crowd, we were the only cause there giving out beads and t-shirts.

When you do something  no one else is doing, even when it’s as simple as giving out beads at a parade, you let people know you’re forward thinking. Never underestimate the importance of this: innovation and out of the box thinking are key to solving social problems. Donors want to see you think this way everywhere.


We did the most we possibly could with this opportunity and it paid off. We saw a huge spike in page visits and newsletter sign-ups in the days following Mardi Gras and started receiving donations from new supporters immediately.

How can you maximize your brand-building and awareness spending?


Bigotry & Racism in Philanthropy

I’ve been on sabbatical this summer to spend time with my little boy but I read a blog the other day that I’ve been sick over. My non-profit Big Love Little Hearts helps children in developing countries with heart defects get lifesaving surgery. We collaborate with other groups to get this done and one of them, ICHF, was set to travel to Iraq in just a few weeks to work with another, Preemptive Love, to perform surgery on some 30 children.

Nothing about that sounds sickening yet, I know – it’s wonderful in fact. Except it might not happen anymore. Not because it’s not safe enough for a U.S. team to travel there, not because the right equipment couldn’t be donated or because the right doctors wouldn’t volunteer their time. Because of bigotry and racism, plain and simple.

An excerpt from the ICHF blog:

“Our team was due to go to Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. We had been contacted by a foundation several months ago telling us they had $17,000 that had been given specifically for Iraqi children to be operated on. When we contacted the donor directly we were told that the funds were only for Sunni and Shia children, not for Kurdish children – and since we were going to Kurdistan the funds were no longer available.”

Their Founder goes on to say “Bigotry and racism have no place in this world…these two together have killed millions.” I couldn’t agree more strongly as I think all of us working in the non-profit community do. Need is a human condition. It is not bound by color of skin or language or geography.

What I don’t agree with is his next sentence: “Death is coming again to Iraq and this time the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are Bigotry, Racism, Misunderstanding and Vindictiveness.” Why not? Because I know that this won’t sit well with you either. And you have fans and friends and followers and blogs and facebook pages.

I’ve never used my blog for a call to action before but today I am. Today I have to:

Donate $5 – Save Babies and Fight Bigotry (double karma points!)

Tweet this

Blog about it

Talk about it

Facebook it (did I really just use that as a verb?)

A few dollars, a few minutes…however you do it, I’d love your help standing up to the new Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Children shouldn’t die because of racism.

Bang For Your Brandraising Buck

My non-profits are small and like all young organizations we are short on time, manpower and most of all – money. That doesn’t stop me from spending it on brandraising or awareness, though. You can have the best cause in the world and be doing incredible work but if nobody knows you exist, or worse – that your cause does, you won’t get very far.

I try to think out of the box when it comes to raising awareness for my cause and my brands, with the most important objectives always being reaching as many people from as many different places as possible who aren’t already in my cause community without breaking the proverbial bank.

This past February my non-profit, Big Love Little Hearts, launched The Global Geocoin Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Campaign. It not only achieved all of those objectives  – it has become one of the most emotional projects I’ve ever created.

Geocoins are trackable items used in geocaching, a sort of high tech treasure hunt. There are more than one million geocaches hidden around the world by approximately 100,000 active geocachers. Geocoins can be minted to look like most anything and have a trackable number on the back which directs the finder to a specific website where they can read and contribute to that coins log, as well as find out what they should do next.

My son and I are avid geocachers and the first time I found a geocoin a light-bulb went off in my head. People who geocache come from all walks of  life, are active all over the world and have no connection to the congenital heart defect community – a perfect opportunity to raise awareness and build our brand!

I set about having 200 geocoins minted to look like our logo, complete with trackable item numbers and google-map icons (this cost approximately $1800). While they were being processed I made a post on the geocaching forums requesting volunteers to help hide the coins. Not two hours later I had volunteers for all 200 coins from 37 states and 18 countries.

Once they arrived my brother and I customized the log website for each of the 200 coins with information about heart defects, the campaign and how they could donate.

If it doesn’t seem like 200 is enough to make much of a difference let me point out that on average each geocoin is moved once or twice a week. This means that those 200 coins will be found 10,000 – 20,000 times per year. That’s an average of 15,000 new people who’ll see our logo, read about heart defects and what we do. Per year. Perpetually.

We shipped the coins along with this letter to our volunteer “hiders” who released them during Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week, February 7-14, 2010. I can’t tell you how blown away I was by their passion – this log represents a typical sentiment. Because heart defects are common – 1 in 100 – it’s not surprising that one of our hiders was personally affected by them. A volunteer in Japan even translated our message and made a spiffy holder for this one!

Since then they have been moved and found over and over and over again. I receive hundreds of log notifications a week. Some have moved through several countries and traveled more than 10,000 miles from their original release. They have done their job of raising awareness and continue to touch people personally. One family lost their daughter to a heart defect and they put our coin in a cache near her grave. They took a picture of it cradled in the arms of an angel overlooking her headstone – it is one of the most moving pictures I’ve ever seen. I cry every time I look at it.

It has raised money – not very much, but that wasn’t the point. Our $1,800 got us 15,000 new eyes and ears a year, every year. It also got us a whole lot of SEO power. Each one of those 200 coins has its own webpage and every time a new log entry is registered it caches separately. I don’t think we could have gotten more bang for our brandraising buck with this campaign if we tried!

Start thinking more creatively about how you can do more with less and how you can make the money you do spend on brand building and awareness as impactful as possible. Even small things like placing your logo/website on the back of your t-shirts can make a big difference when someone’s behind one of your supporters on a running path or at the gym.

Being a small non-profit with a small budget doesn’t mean you have to forgo brandraising or awareness campaigns – it just means you have to be smart about it and think a little more outside the box.

Before I end this post I want to include this geocoin log because it’s the greatest ROI I’ve gotten from this project on a personal level. To know that I made someone want to give more – do more – love more, is an immeasurable gift.