An ad that unplugs a flood of nonprofit stupidity

Leave it to an ad agency to make sure nobody knows what you’re talking about, even when you’re talking about something everybody knows about.

Written by
Jeff Brooks
May 14, 2013

The winner they came up with is a nearly full-page newspaper print ad done for the Canadian Red Cross.

It’s true that many fundraisers have struggled to communicate the crushing scope of the flooding in Pakistan. (There are some unfortunately predictable reasons for this; read about them here.) But the main reason donors aren’t pouring their donations into Pakistan like they did with Haiti is because the disaster there seems less real.

You might think a solution to that problem would be to find a way to make it more real, wouldn’t you? Well, the ad agency working for the Canadian Red Cross this time took a rather different approach: make it less real.

Yep, the Geniuses of Abstraction felt the best way to use nearly a full newspaper page of space wasn’t a heart-wrenching photo, wasn’t a headline that captured the pain and urgency of the crisis, wasn’t copy that pulled the reader viscerally into the situation. Their solution was a cute visual pun.

Actually, I’m not sure it even rises to the level of a pun. In what way do letters falling down the page recall a catastrophic flood that devastated the lives of something like a third of one of Earth’s most populous nations? The little red cross acting as an umbrella? Isn’t that kind of like illustrating the Haiti earthquake by showing a picture of maracas?

And if all that weren’t bad enough, the tiny bit of copy makes several basic rookie copywriting mistakes:

‘Don’t let hope get washed away. We are on the ground, providing aid to flood victims in Pakistan. And we need your support.’

An abstract slogan, followed by two look-at-us sentences. Not how you motivate giving. It’s never worked before and it’s not going to work this time.

I understand the frustration. This was a big disaster. Not nearly enough funds were raised. Sadly, given the circumstances, even a well-constructed ad wouldn’t have performed the way it should.

But no matter how frustrated you get, don’t call in the abstract fairy dust that the ad agencies sell. It’s just going to waste time, money and good will.

Newspaper print ad done for the Canadian Red Cross.


This ad has won an award! So it has accomplished its purpose. Too bad that’s about all it will ever do.

About the author: Jeff Brooks

Jeff Brooks

Jeff Brooks, creative director at TrueSense Marketing, has served the nonprofit community for more than 20 years, working as a writer and creative director on behalf of a variety of organisations, including CARE, Bible League International, World Vision, Feeding America, World Relief and dozens of urban rescue missions and Salvation Army divisions. He blogs at Future Fundraising Now, podcasts at Fundraising is Beautiful and is a columnist forFundraising Successmagazine. In previous careers, he's been an English teacher and a classical musician. He lives in Seattle in the USA.

Recent Articles

The A to Z of writing fundraising appeals: A to F

Writing a good appeal is a big undertaking and isn’t as easy as some may think. In this handy guide Blue Frog London’s Steve Lynch gives a handy alphabetical guide to the dos and don’ts of writing a fundraising appeal.

Read more

From the Mythsmashers: the myth of the ‘rational donor’.

In the first presentation from Mythsmashers, an I Wish I’d Thought of That (IWITOT)-inspired event that takes place every year down under, Alice Anwar of CARE Australia explores the myth of donor rationality and asks ‘Can the head and the heart ever be friends?’

Read more

Secrets of direct mail 3: how people read letters

How do potential donors react to direct mail letters? In part three of our series on the legendary Siegfried Vögele, we explain this important aspect of his approach.

Read more

SOFII presents: meet the fundraising myth-smashers

Over the coming weeks, SOFII will share the three winning presentations from Myth Smashers, Fundraising Institute Australia’s IWITOT-inspired event. These three young fundraisers each shine a light on dispiriting fundraising myths and show how they can be overcome.

Read more

Marie Burnett: she lived, laughed, loved and left a huge hole in our hearts

We are sad to announce the death of Marie Burnett, co-founder of SOFII, trustee, company secretary, honorary treasurer and voluntary editor in chief.

Read more

Also in Categories