Non-profit marketing tips with Robin Hood’s Creative Director
Here at Air, we serve users across all industries. Freelance photographers, top e-commerce brands, championship sports teams, and non-profit organizations alike all use Air to stay organized and maintain an engaging public presence. When you think of marketing, you probably think of brands, of billboards and Instagram ads trying to sell you a product or service. What about non-profit organizations? How do you “sell” a powerful, impactful, do-good mission?
Robin Hood is New York City’s largest poverty-fighting organization, dedicated to supporting low-income families across the city and creating sustainable systems to elevate people from poverty. Over the past three decades, they’ve invested more than $3 billion in New York City to ensure low-income families are on the pathways needed to realize economic mobility. They use Air to help get it all done.
We spoke to Robin Hood’s Creative Director, Mary Power, to glean some insights on what it takes to run impactful marketing campaigns at such a treasured non-profit. Read on to learn what it takes to build a dedicated, invested audience, and empower an organization working to make the world a better place.
Hi Mary! Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do at Robin Hood?
I am the creative director at Robin Hood, where I've worked for about six years. I actually didn’t come from a non-profit background at all. My background is mostly working with small design studios, designing marketing materials for industries including fashion, interiors, corporate, publishing and real estate. Before that, I worked as a writer and editor in the publishing industry. I found that I actually prefer creating the visual narrative.
Language is really important to me, and I really see the line between language and creative visual ideation of that language. That's why I have really enjoyed my time with Robin Hood, because it is a very language-strong organization, where everything happens through storytelling — very lengthy, detailed collegiate-type narratives that sometimes need to be elevated in a more human way.
Meet Robin Hood's 2020 Heroes of New York
How does the process for running marketing and design at Robin Hood — at a non-profit — differ from your past work across all these different industries?
The crucial difference is that Robin Hood's focus is people-first. That's not really intuitive to product-driven organizations. At a non-profit, the creative direction is not motivated by sales. Rather, it's about engaging our donors, and how those donor dollars will help to serve the people that need them the most. It's all down to people.
Every company has their brand mission. Robin Hood's is data-driven and heart-led. The creative process always starts, for me, with looking at the data, looking at the heart, and asking what the data tells us and what the heart tells us. There are areas of Robin Hood that generate the data, and then there are the people in the field. And that's where the heart of the story is.
What's really important in a non-profit is the context. So if you're getting really hardcore data on poverty, it really is important to show the context of that data in real life, to humanize it and reveal the story of a person who is a living expression of that statistic.
Other organizations I have worked with have had a predictable brand formula. At Robin Hood, it’s a little bit more nuanced— balancing the intelligence gathered from the experts, while respecting the reality. You have to know how to share these hard realities without alienating your donors and without disrespecting the people you're telling stories about.
Who is your audience, and how do you conceptualize speaking to them?
Audience is a complicated thing with Robin Hood — it's a foundation, which is different from just a non-profit in some ways. The donor base of Robin Hood is not as big as most people would think. We have a small community of very generous donors, but our base of small dollar donors has increased substantially this year. Our donors are deeply engaged in the work. So they're a very important part of the audience that I have to think about.
Robin Hood is New York’s largest non profit and New Yorkers are very invested in Robin Hood and the impact our work has on the community. It's always surprising how many people know about Robin Hood and have an opinion about us. Many people you meet will say, “Oh, I went to a Robin Hood-funded school,” or “I worked for this non-profit that Robin Hood funded.”
Then a huge part of our audience is our community partners. Robin Hood funds over 300 community partners who not only depend on funding from Robin Hood but also look to Robin Hood as an open source of information and intelligence.
How do you talk about marketing behind the scenes, in terms of planning and higher-level discussions internally? What's the way you form these ideas with your team?
A lot of the conversations are quite high level, from an emotional perspective. We have our process, where we generate a campaign or marketing collateral and follow a process for rolling it out. But every project concept is grounded in the work on the ground at that particular time, how policy or economics are affecting the outcomes of people's lives and how we share these stories. For instance, we leverage direct mail print materials, film narratives, social or editorial or all.
The work is really urgent, and that's what makes it different. Because everything is happening so quickly, teams within Robin Hood must respond very quickly. Then they come to me and they say, “We need this to happen. Like right now.”
The easy formula here is, again, what does the data tell us? What does my heart tell me? How can I make these pieces come together? Sometimes it's not going to be polished and beautiful. I think what matters is if you're telling an honest story, and if it resonates with people it's a success.
An excerpt from Robin Hood's State of Poverty and Disadvantage in New York City 2021 Report
Who is the end user? Our end user, really, is our donors, New Yorkers invested in Robin Hood’s mission, and our community partners. Sometimes you have to not be too caught up in whether there's a nice filter on this or that collateral, since it's about real people and getting the message across as clearly and concisely as possible.
The best people to implement that conversation are not marketers, they're the people who work for Robin Hood on the ground. So that's what makes the work so compelling.
Robin Hood has been around for over three decades. You've been there for six years. What have you done in that time to modernize the messaging and the way Robin Hood does marketing? How has that changed and how have you helped to change that over the past six years?
When I first came to Robin Hood, marketing efforts were much more invested in print. It’s far more difficult to gather analytics around print and direct mail marketing, so it was very difficult to measure and report on how successful a campaign was. Over the past five years, we’ve rebuilt our website, digitized our Annual Reports, and leveraged Mailchimp for our Newsletters.
When the pandemic came, we realized that it was necessary for us to go completely digital, even for our calendar of events. We built out a custom platform to air our Annual Investors Conference and No City Limits Conference, to enormous success.
Our fundraising events and initiatives also had to become more digitally driven. We had to then pivot very quickly — how are we going to get funds to help all these organizations who serve the most in-need New Yorkers? Everything was being drained so quickly. And that's where marketing came in.
We needed to really tap into our donor base and see if we could access a new donor base as well. That required us to catch up with the digital marketing landscape. We hosted a telethon on a variety of TV and radio networks, which catapulted us into a space that was way beyond our wildest dreams. We leveraged celebrities and influencers. We crafted a social media toolkit that we shared with all these stakeholders.
A selection of recent posts from Robin Hood's Instagram page
From the social media campaign and the actual events, our donor base grew by almost 100,000 donors. The challenge now is how do we keep them engaged? What we're discovering is that the best way to do that is through the digital landscape.
There is an audience of people that still love their print magazines or mailers, and I love producing those, but it's very exciting to see that as just a part of the campaign now. For instance, we have a new campaign coming up for the summer that's going to lead up to a big benefit in the fall. So we are producing print materials, adapting our website, shooting film and developing a social media campaign. It’s a more strategic way of approaching campaigns than we ever did before.
You were producing so much for print and now you're producing so much digitally. Is that why you started using Air? How does Air fit into all this?
We'd had an archive system for years, but it was not user-friendly at all. We have a digital archive specialist in-house that manages all the assets, and if anyone needed anything, he had to go in and find it himself. It was tedious. If anyone needed anything and they couldn't get it from the digital asset management system, they would just come to me, and I would share it out to them. It was a lot of work and it wasn’t effective.
Because the ability to enter smart meta tags was not available, there were so many assets that nobody had ever seen. There were a lot of reasons why we ended up going with Air, but one of them was that we needed a much more open source platform that people could dig into themselves. Something that would be much more user-friendly for the administrators to go into and create metadata tags in a way that made sense.
I've been using Air really effectively with outside vendors. When we're working with film production, it's been really useful in uploading B-roll and finished pieces and breaking down all the different footage for colleagues, vendors, and partners so we can share these links out, rather than sending USBs and drives like we used to.
It’s really taken the physical back-and-forth out of the way. For a user who's not savvy with Air, they can go in there, search a keyword and they'll get a precise collection of results — from footage and photos, to graphics, or whatever else is tagged. It’s really very smart.
It’s also great for media release forms, which are a big issue for us. It’s a great resource to keep everything in one place where it doesn't necessarily have to be in the same folder. If you include a lot of great logic, with tagging especially, you save so much time. I’m very happy with Air.
One more question: Do you have any tips for people who work in marketing at other non-profits, any final thoughts for your peers across the non-profit space?
My thing is to listen to people and to be heart-led, really immerse yourself in the people who do the work and immerse yourself in the people who are going to benefit from the work. Everybody has their tricks for getting the work done — but the end result is what matters. Create work that draws from the facts and elevates it to resonate with the hearts and minds of your audience.