Ethical Marketing For Non-Profit Organizations

super bowl xlvi tim tebow ads
Super Bowl XLVI and non-profit ads: Ethical?
Millions of people around the world gather around television sets for Super Bowl XLVI on February 5th. While the focus is centered on the gridiron battle between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, football fans will also be treated to an ethical battle: The controversial issue of non-profit organizations investing millions of dollars on television commercials.

Major non-profits such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Focus on the Family are veteran Super Bowl television advertisers that have been criticized not only for the content of their commercials, but also for the amount spent. For the two commercials featuring superstar NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, Focus on the Family spent $2.5 million. PETA is no stranger to controversy, and it routinely spends millions on different advertising efforts on television, billboards, radio, and other outlets. Both PETA and Focus on the Family are known as powerful and media-savvy non-profits that can certainly hold their own when it comes to balancing advertising budgets, but the question always lingers: How much is too much when it comes to marketing of non-profits?

Ethical Marketing

A business organization does not have to be a non-profit to engage in ethical marketing. Technology leader Apple, for example, has always procured a strong presence in American classrooms by offering their hardware at very low costs. In this fashion, Apple contributes to education and is capturing customers from an early age. That’s a good example of ethical marketing performed by a business organization that is decidedly non-profit.

When it comes to non-profits, the ethical label should not be applied to their marketing efforts, it should be prominently displayed in their operations. Non-profits cannot be reasonably expected to spend zero dollars in marketing. Their missions must be sold, and their messages effectively conveyed to the public. Successful marketing campaigns work wonders in several contexts, particularly for non-profits. In this regard, we can think about television commercial campaigns distributed by the United States Ad Council, like the Crash Test Dummies and Smokey Bear. A non-profit’s marketing campaigns can only be as ethical as the organizations they promote.

Just like Focus on the Family readily disclosed the amount spent on their Tim Tebow television commercials, non-profits should always exercise a high degree of transparency when it comes to their budgets, especially when it comes to disclosing the amounts allocated toward marketing. Anything related to finances must be straightforward. A rule of thumb for non-profit managers and directors to follow is that if a proposed marketing expenditure makes them feel uneasy, then they should not undertake it.

Marketing budgets should not take away from the non-profit’s ability to perform its mission or execute its business plan, but if marketing is the engine that powers the flow of donations, then it must be administered smartly.

Social Media Marketing for Non-Profits

Non-profits such as PETA and Focus on the Family may be able to rely on Super Bowl TV commercials to spread their message, but that doesn’t mean that every non-profit should go that route. Online social networking has been a boon for non-profits with tight marketing budgets. The major social media platforms like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter are perfectly reasonable for non-profit marketing due to their low cost, community-building features and opportunities for direct engagement of donors and benefactors.

An added advantage of social media for non-profits is that it thrusts them right into the court of public opinion, where members of the social networks typically demand transparency and highly ethical behavior. Non-profits that decide to make social media their primary marketing platform should closely adhere to the ethical and moral standards that their followers expect.

About the Author: John Patterson is a paralegal and content contributor for, a non profit marketing site concerned with furthering the industry’s Internet ethics.