How a Major Charity Uses Nonprofit Promotional Items to Build Its Brand
Fundraisers, walk-a-thons, pledge drives and so much more. These days, nonprofits have many ways to reach their prospective and long-time donors. And while we’d like to think that giving for giving’s sake is enough to reach fundraising goals, the reality is that nonprofits are increasingly relying on promotional products to increase brand awareness, and subsequently, increase donations. We spoke to Phillip Johnson, creative director; and Shari Mason, vice president of marketing communications, for Smile Train, New York City, to learn how they use nonprofit promotional items to achieve their organization's goals.
Promo Marketing: Tell us a little about Smile Train.
Phillip Johnson: Smile Train is an international children’s charity with a sustainable approach to a single, solvable problem: cleft lip and palate. Millions of children in developing countries with untreated clefts live in isolation, but, more importantly, have difficulty eating, breathing and speaking. Cleft repair surgery is simple, and the transformation is immediate. Smile Train’s sustainable model provides training, funding, and resources to empower local doctors in more than 85 developing countries to provide 100 percent free cleft repair surgery and comprehensive cleft care in their own communities.
PM: How can promotional products help you achieve your nonprofit’s goals?
PJ: One of Smile Train’s biggest challenges is patient outreach and awareness in the remote areas of the developing world where we have local cleft programs. Promotional products help us establish a presence in these areas and allow for consistent brand recognition in order to help more children and their families receive the care they need. Brand awareness is also vital for our current supporters and potential new donors. Strategically producing cost-efficient promotional products that satisfy a variety of uses for prospect awareness and for patient care helps us achieve our goals.
PM: What types of promotional products do you use? Why do you use those specific products?
PJ: We keep our programmatic and fundraising goals, in addition to feedback from our supporters, top of mind when it comes to deciding which promotional products to use. We make sure any items we share are relevant and meaningful to our cause.
PM: Which branded products are your most popular?
PJ: Smile Train’s most popular items are our branded scrubs, which we share with our local in-country medical partners for use during cleft surgery. Items we produce for our direct mail program, such as Smile Train tote bags and our year-end patient update premium, also serve as a way to deepen the connection between our donors and our patients—while helping to continue to raise awareness for the cleft children we serve.
PM: Are there any new promotional products you’ve seen recent success with?
Shari Mason: Our year-end patient update premium, which this year has taken the form of a calendar, has been successful for us. We’ve also seen success during the holidays with our branded Smile Jars.
PM: What goes into your search for the right promotional products?
PJ: We are extremely mindful of cost when sourcing the right promotional products. ... We also want to make sure that the items are practical and cause-based.
PM: What do you look for when selecting the vendors for your promotional products? How can a promotional products vendor get your attention?
PJ: We look for vendors whose core values are philanthropic and see the need for quality premiums and innovative ideas at a reasonable cost.
PM: Do you have a story or anecdote about your branded merchandise that you could share?
SM: In 2004, Morng Tang Pilot was just 6 years old when he received surgery to correct his cleft lip. Morng’s new smile was so big that he was featured in Smile Train communication updates and on our website. In 2013, I had the opportunity to visit Morng at his home in Cambodia. I brought with me a photo of him at age 6 in one of our Smile Train branded photo frames. The photo was taken a few weeks after his cleft lip was repaired by one of our local in-country Smile Train medical partners. Morng’s mother quickly grabbed the photo in the frame and closed her eyes. I watched her closely, as a single tear grazed her face and slipped down to the ground. She began to speak so quickly and I asked her why she was crying. Morng’s mother explained she had never had a photo of any of her children. The picture I brought her of Morng as a young child in the photo frame was her very first. I let Morng’s mother know that the photo and frame were hers to keep. With this knowledge, Morng’s mother’s eyes sparkled brightly—almost as bright as Morng’s beautiful smile.
PM: Is there anything else you would like to add?
SM: Our No. 1 priority here at Smile Train is to help as many children with clefts receive the safe and quality care they so desperately need. Leveraging the use of promotional products in a strategic and thoughtful way brings us closer to this goal.