I CAN: the adopt-a-word’ campaign

Exhibited by
Clare Horwood, I CAN.
January 13, 2014
Medium of Communication
Target Audience
Single gift.
Type of Charity
Children, youth and family, public / society benefit.
Country of Origin
Date of first appearance
November, 2008.

SOFII’s view

Advertising and copywriting genius David Ogilvy said that he only ever had about 20 big ideas* – they’re pretty hard to come by. To help anyone recognise a big idea, Ogilvy developed five criteria – 1. Did it make me gasp when I first saw it. 2. Do I wish I had thought of it myself? 3. Is it unique? 4. Does it fit the strategy to perfection? 5. Could it be used for 30 years?

The children’s communication charity I CAN has developed an e-commerce gift campaign – adopt a word – that fits these criteria to perfection.

Creator / originator

Concept: Kevin Gillard/Charles Simpson – I CAN.

Development: Nikki Williams/Clare Horwood – I CAN, Remedy Creative and Rogue Interactive.

Summary / objectives

To provide an unrestricted income stream. To create an opted-in email list of donors who could be contacted to buy again, or who I CAN can convert to regular (monthly) givers.

To increase awareness about I CAN, speech, language and the communication needs of children amongst people who appreciate the value of words. 


As I CAN has low brand awareness and understanding of its cause, growing an individual giving donor base using traditional methods was a slow and expensive process.

By creating adopt a word, which is an easy to understand, on mission proposition, we were able to go down a low-risk low-cost route, through the seasonal gift market.

Obviously, we couldn’t use goats or pandas so words, which are at the heart of our cause and the building blocks of communication, were the natural choice. A member of I CAN’s communication team had a back-of-a-beer mat idea about auctioning off the English language. The fundraisers thought this was brilliant and developed it into a sustainable and strategic option – adopt a word.

By putting words up for adoption we hope to make their importance understood in the context of children with communication difficulties. As Professor David Crystal OBE, one of the many celebrities and noteworthy individuals featured on the website, encapsulates with his quote:

‘It costs us nothing to use a word; but being wordless costs a child everything.’

Special characteristics

I CAN teamed up with Collins, one of Europe’s leading dictionary and language publishers, who provided us with their core database of 80,000 words. They gave the campaign a well-known and official stamp of approval and added credibility to the concept of adopting a word.

Visitors to the website can choose and adopt a word as a unique gift or as a treat for themselves. For a donation of £20 they get to own the word exclusively for 365 days. They also receive an official adoption certificate; a pack telling them how to look after their word; and an option to buy (at additional cost) a mug or t-shirt with their word printed on them.

After 365 days adopted words come up for renewal – an opportunity to ask for a repeat gift – or the word is liberated for someone else to adopt. This potentially makes it an effective acquisition and cultivation tool and means popular words always come back into circulation.

The website itself is built as a simple application with a search and thesaurus function. There are also categories of words, which are managed by the charity, that, much like a shop window, can be dressed for different gift buying times, such as Christmas and Valentine’s day. A small flash module displays all recent adoptions adding value to the concept of owning a word.

Plans for the second phase of the website are to build a members’ area, where people create their own content around the word they have adopted; and to include more gaming aspects. This will give the site added ‘stickiness’ (i.e. users will stop there longer) and increase the chances of word-of-mouth promotion.

Influence / impact

After just six months adopt a word increased our online donations by over 2500 per cent. Media reach for the Valentine’s day campaign alone – the number of people that could see the promotion – was 45 million.


I CAN is conducting a range of tests, including:

Both offline and online media are being tested to find the most effective mix. As it is a website with no offline
alternative, an alternative to direct mail was felt likely to be more effective. Online direct response marketing, such as emails and banners, together with direct response press advertising were tested for Christmas 2008. Further media will be tested as the campaign continues.

There were two tests:
1. Asking people to buy a word as a gift.
2. Asking people to buy a word for themselves.

This confirmed that it would be mostly (but not exclusively) a gift. This helps define acquisition timings and creative for the future.


Set up costs: c. £30,000.

Year one media and creative costs: c. £30,000.


Results so far have far exceeded projections. A thousand words were sold in first six months, with 700 new individuals added to the database. One-third of people opted in to receive further emails.


Alternative gifts are used by many organisations, resulting in a fairly crowded market in which it is hard to stand out. Adopt a word is a simple e-commerce solution. Our concept of putting the English language up for adoption is unique and so intrinsically tied up with what we do as an organisation we can really ‘own’ it. In addition, because words have very broad appeal we can extend our audience far beyond our traditional donor and stakeholder groups.

Lindsay Boswell, former chief executive of the UK’s Institute of Fundraising, said on the Fundraising magazine website:

‘Every charity should look at this neat idea executed with simple and clear brilliance as an e-commerce masterclass in action.’
  • You can read more about David Ogilvy’s big ideas and much more in his book Ogilvy on Advertising, first published in 1983. SOFII has reviewed this timeless classic and the life of ‘the pope of advertising’, here.

Follow-up of the project

January 2014 - take a look at the special thank-you letter on the left.

SOFII’s thanks and congratulations go to Matthew Sherrington for this superb thank-you letter. Click here to see his full article on why fundraisers should forget about saying thank you. For more from Matthew on SOFII click here.

This case study was featured at SOFII's I Wish I'd Thought Of That 2012 event by Imogen Ward.

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SOFII’s thanks and congratulations go to Matthew Sherrington for this superb thank-you letter.