Beaconfire Survey: Should non-profits market to minors?

Editor’s note: Photo Credit: Each week, we do a survey of Beaconfire staff to get impressions on a variety of non-profit technology issues. All opinions expressed here are solely those of their authors. This week we asked: Should non-profit organizations market to minors?

Milo, Marketing Consultant: Cause marketing for youth is totally appropriate, especially when it’s geared toward youth engagement.  Most people would agree that membership-based nonprofits that offer teens and pre-teens the opportunity to be engaged in volunteer leadership structures (committees, working groups, board youth liaisons, etc.) provide great opportunities for kids to learn about community, leadership and civic engagement.

Cara, Project Manager: Personally, for younger kids, I think it would be great if NPO’s made more materials available for parents that they could use to engage their children and help get them interested and aware – especially living where we do, we struggle with how to make the girls understand that there is a big world out there.  I would love for organizations to provide kits/programs, created with children in mind, that we could access and work through as a family.    Some do this for educators but, frankly, I don’t have the time to take something created for a classroom and whittle it down to something that can still be used at home.  Make it easy for me (I mean really easy) and there is a very good chance I’ll use the materials to focus my kids on your key issues and, thus, introduce them to your organization at an early age.

Michael, Principal Consultant: I believe nonprofits have a responsibility to market to minors… but not “in your face” Cheetos & Coke selling strategies. Rather, they need to approach this market with the express intent of educating the next generation about the relevance of their issues to their lives & give them opportunities to step forward to share, network, volunteer, fundraise or give if they want to. Minors – read teens / pre-teens – can be active advocates for a cause. They can be influencers of peers and parents both in how they think and how they act. But, organizations shouldn’t pander to or treat this group in loco parenti. Rather, engage them on their terms – which is letting them dialogue, share, identify and be active as they want to be. In my opinion, no organization has done this better online that PETA.

Andrew, Project Manager: I am not sure that I agree with Michael, especially the statement that “Minors – read teens / pre-teens – can be active advocates for a cause. They can be influencers of peers and parents both in how they think and how they act.”

As an adult, a parent should (this obviously is not always the case) have a broader perspective on the world, more education, experience, wisdom, etc. than their children. For the most part, it is the parents’ role to guide their children, not the other way around. Now, I do not mean to imply that adults cannot learn from children. What I am saying is that non-profits are mission driven with nuanced objectives and approaches that may be lost on a minor.

I agree with the conceptual missions of a myriad of non-profits, but I do not support all of them due to concerns about specific policies, stances, politics, actions, marketing tactics, etc. Minors are more likely to overlook the cold realities and become enamored with the conceptual aspects only. Do we really want a non-profit, regardless of the altruism of their mission, to introduce our kids to the next Joe Camel?

Mark, Functional Consultant: Absolutely. I would think that most parents would agree that building a sense of charity from an early age is an important activity. NPO’s marketing themselves and their campaigns to minors work towards that purpose, and as long as any direct interactions involved parental consent for kids under 13 (per Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 and any similar legislation that governs offline interaction) I don’t see an issue.

Corporate and much less wholesome organizations already reach kids so effectively through mass media – think Joe Camel and Tony the Tiger. Any parent I’m sure would rather their kids get excited about something like Conservation International’s Stephanie Colburtle the Leatherback Turtle over Ronald McDonald any day.

There are already great models to follow, like UNICEF’s Trick or Treat for UNICEF campaign, where kids are marketed special collection boxes for Halloween, engage in fundraising, learn the importance of charity and have fun doing it. I’ve also heard stories of  kids having their parents help them use online tools like Heifer’s gift registry to ask for friends coming to their birthday party to buy an animal from the catalog (donation to Heifer), rather than bring a toy or other gift. That’s powerful but not surprising that kids can grasp the importance of giving to someone else and enjoy the experience, over yet another toy.

Marissa, Functional Consultant: For educational purposes, I think it is okay to market to minors (Smokey the Bear, anyone). But I’d feel uncomfortable marketing to minors for fundraising purposes. There’s something that does not feel right about convincing children to ask mommy and daddy for money. Non-profits raise money to accomplish their mission, and shouldn’t necessarily get embroiled in the same tactics as corporations, where making money is the mission. That’s not to say that non-profits can’t take a few cues from Madison Avenue. They just don’t need to be like Toys R Us.

Kate, Administrative Assistant: I think it’s very important that non-profits market to minors. While I don’t think it’s appropriate to seek donations from them, there are so many other ways they can become involved. There’s certainly nothing wrong with encouraging a youngster to save the gorillas, see a play, mind their cholesterol, and end hunger. With all of the marketing geared towards turning minors into good consumers, there ought to be as hearty of a drive to encourage them to be good citizens. I say, pump the youth full of idealism! Maybe they’ll grow up to care about something.

John Brian, Marketing Consultant: I’d say it’s important to get your brand in front of young folks as early as possible. If non-profits cede the field, kids will grow up knowing all about Pepsi and Apple and nothing about protecting the environment or marriage equality. There are certainly some issues that might be touchy, like choice or the death penalty, but as long as organizations are concentrating on branding and issue education, cultivating young people early will make them more responsive to you and better citizens in general.

Of course, that’s not to say that you should market to them on the same channels you’re marketing to the rest of your list. Even my generation isn’t interested in direct mail, and I’ve read that even email seems too old-fashioned for today’s teens, who prefer SMS, social networks, and social bookmarks as their media of choice.

Jennifer, Project Manager: Seeing how for-profits market to minors at very tender ages through all variety of channels, from TV to grocery store shelves, why should nonprofits be any different?

Public sector and nonprofit organizations use cause marketing techniques to affect positive social change ranging from improved individual behaviors to winning hearts and minds. Nor is this the exclusive domain of nonprofits. The entertainment industry, often the torch bearer of trendy issues, is arguably better positioned to reach youth, a recent example being the animated movie Happy Feet that raises awareness about the topic of global warming. The worry is that when commercial interests drive an issue there is always the underlying motive to promote the company, sell its brand and ‘grow’ its customer base, from any age. A company may shift to a new issue du jour when the public tires of the current one, and even follow practices that are counter to its marketing messages, but it will work to retain its customer loyalty nevertheless. This is particularly troublesome with young children who lack the education, experience and mature capacities to reason and inform themselves about the issues and their messenger. One might argue that nonprofits should be held to a higher standard. That is, should their mission and their cause be above their brand and their institutional shelf life? I think it should – their mission is what makes them the special civic organizations that they are. They should ask hard questions about the goals of their marketing efforts: are they designed to increase funding and membership levels? Or are they truly focused on raising awareness and educating young people about their cause? The sector struggles with measuring the latter, but that shouldn’t deter organizations from being honest about their marketing. Otherwise, I as a parent will grow just as leery of nonprofits as I am of for-profit companies that market to my kids.

Many nonprofits work towards causes I support, and ones I hope my children will also champion one day. But there are some organizations that promote ideas that are completely opposite and counter to what I try to teach my kids, or have less than admirable practices. I prefer that a nonprofit’s outreach to youth focus on informing and educating them so that they can make up their own minds, both about the issue and the organization.

One Beaconfire project directed at younger folks will be going live in a couple months – APS‘s Physics Central is dedicated to teaching young people (among others) about the importance of physics. We’re spearheading their redesign – look for it later this Spring. That’s all for this week – join us next week where we’ll hear about the Beaconfire staff’s favorite YouTube videos.

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