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  • Lairs Johnston

Taking a Non-Profit from $3 million to $8 million in a Year

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

Simon Sinek quotes fill just about every leaders’ LinkedIn but I feel like they are very rarely put into practice. Teams will always outperform when their why becomes greater than their what. Why they do their job should become a higher priority than what they’re actually doing for their job. Luckily, I’ve experienced this and am so passionate about leading teams with a why, long before ever getting into the details of a company’s key performance indicators (KPI).


To be clear, I can tell you exactly WHAT campaigns we ran to bring in millions of dollars, but I think it’s more important that I share with you WHY we did what we did leading us to build campaigns that raised millions.


Let’s start with...


Mission Statements Matter - Treat Them Like Your Team Depends On It


People are always more passionate about their work when they understand how it serves the greater mission, both as a team and as an individual contributor. So, when our team began brainstorming during an offsite, we wrote out all the things we do, could do, and are doing but need to stop doing. We then brainstormed a mission statement that fully encapsulated what we did as a team based on this newly empowered perspective.


We drafted a mission statement that aligned with bloggers, marketers, videographers - literally everyone on the team - so that we all collectively and completely understood the new mission for the organization. It was through this team buy-in that we created a culture of real authenticity that aligned from top to bottom throughout the organization.


I then took it another layer deeper and looked at what the most common age was for our organization’s intervention - turns out it is vastly 17 year old females. I used this information, coupled it with detailed user data, and our mission statement, and was able to craft extraordinarily poignant calls to action based on the 17 year olds we had been helping. This data crafted an inflection point with real world customers, and real world stories, that powerfully exemplified how we were helping teens day in and day out. I also went back 17 years and found the most popular female name to theoretically represent the most popular name of the woman getting the nonprofits services, it was Emily.


From that point forward, we lined the walls of our organization with photos of the 17 year old women we had made it our mission to help and quotes from their experience. Pictures in our conference rooms, offices, and hallways reminded us all of why we came in each day. Emily’s name went up in the marketing department right above our mission statement, “We revolutionize the meaning of being pro-life through empowering women”. Regularly, we would meet people that would end up in tears after a tour because of how emotional and powerful the environment was, and how it continued to bring home that overriding mission.


Our what was so much bigger than our why and it provided a way to inspire others and have hard conversations. Suddenly, accountability and productivity became a must for the cause verses an obligation to get a paycheck. We would regularly have meetings about what we could be doing better because we desperately wanted to know how we could improve because if we excelled, the mission excelled. This mentality also passed down into the hustle and humility of our culture.


Cover the Walls with Your Why


I love marketing because I believe it demands humility. As soon as you ‘think’ you know something, the market space pivots to something totally different. This forces you to constantly be in a learning and studying mode. It was extremely important for our team to lead with the most intense humble curiosity.


Everyone anywhere near marketing loves to say the word optimize, but I find that it’s rarely built upon or transferred from person to person let alone from department to department. This was a challenging pivot, to bring the idea that just because you are the same age/gender/personality as the desired demographic doesn’t give you an advantage; however, thinking objectively does.


I love using Kay Jewelers as an example of objective thinking.


While women are the demographic that wears the jewelry they aren’t the demographic Kay Jewelers cares about reaching. The millions of commercials with petite women wearing very low cut v-neck shirts with a diamond in the middle of her chest are definitely directed at the purchaser...the man in the relationship. Realizing just being the demographic means nothing allows to objectively put on an analytical hat. When you assume you know the demo because you are them it creates complacency and removes the humble hustler. The harder you study in the front end the greater the success of the campaign on the back end.


Some of my highest performing campaigns were the result of putting the most effort into studying the demographic I wanted to reach, not necessarily the demographic who would benefit in the long run, and knowing what makes them operate. I talk more about this in my blog on going viral over 100 times; having a specific demographic share your content millions of times is no accident, it’s the result of analytical creativity.


A lot of people love to ‘fail fast’ but it’s rarely put into practice. After our highest performing branding campaign which received 8 million commercial views, 300k landing page views, and 10k new emails, the team sat and came up with 50 things that we could have done better. We made this a tradition and what it did was allow us to celebrate wins but also create a culture of always improving, always optimizing. When you care more about the teams success than individual you invite criticism. Also, it helps that we were so collaborative that it was hard to be possessive about any campaign because there were so many contributors!


Collaboration and creativity is only half of the equation. I’m a huge preacher on studying before you ever create and the art of learning to ignore vanity metrics. Enter analytics.


Shoot Down Vanity Metrics


This one is always such a battle. Everyone’s a marketer. Hearing the phrase “I feel like we should do…” is the equivalent to claws on a chalkboard or stepping on cooked rice. My favorite moment was when someone came to us with an idea, which is always flattering, but unfortunately this person hadn’t been prepped on everything that we do. And what did they suggest? A commercial of our product that was one of our least viewed products. And immediately the marketer knew this because they had already done the research.


Opinions, vanity metrics, and gut feelings ruin good marketing campaigns. Analytics and data, when interpreted appropriately, make marketing easy because you’re just doing what the right numbers tell you to do. A great example, in this particular case, is around SEO.


Just like all aspects of marketing it really depends what your KPI’s are at the end of the day that determine the best marketing practices to expand your business. At the software company I worked at, leadership began asking why we were on the top of the fourth page in google for the phrase, “Church Management Software”.


So I hired a contractor and spent 3 months and $9,000 to get us from the fourth page to the 8th position on the first page. This process drove an extra 150 page views for ranking that high. That’s $60 per click while our facebook ads were doing about 10 cents per click. What’s worse is the SEO clicks weren’t driving conversions at a higher rate than our facebook ads.


While it’s nice to rank for keywords if it drains your bank account and doesn’t improve your bottom line, it’s probably not the right thing to chase. This is one of the million little things that, when done right, grow your business exponentially.


A Million Things Done Well Equals Cutting Edge Marketing


So now that we had the mentality, to study and interpret data then build campaigns catered to our main customer, the rest was simple. Everything we touched went the extra mile because in every situation we humbly studied. Here’s a few examples:


We had a major donor we needed to thank for a major donation, but how do you thank someone who has everything? We learned that he had an underground shooting range and was a gun enthusiast. So we built a box, loaded it with gunpowder, put a target on it and brought it to his range. When he shot the target the box exploded and a sign made of iron remained saying, “On behalf of all the lives you saved, thank you!”


For an event we built out a theme and gifted every woman who attended a necklace with the name, you guessed it, Emily on it (the same name as used before of the 17 year old woman who was choosing to keep their baby on a Stork bus). The necklaces came with a card and someone’s story on it signed Emily, signifying how many different Emily’s were out there. Every aspect of the event had some extra detail like this promoting story and emotion. This was the first event the organization ever hosted and brought in $1.8 million in donations, over half the previous years’ revenue in one event.


For a digital campaign we studied our online demographic and realized there were some themes in the media they consumed. Our demographic wasn’t extremely conservative or liberal, they lived sort of in the middle. So many of our competitors and our market space focused on being extremely conservative, while we discovered that our demographic didn’t actually like how passive we were in our message. We took this opportunity to create a campaign that would upset the extreme conservatives who would never support us anyway and create something that would bring in new fans. We did a Father’s Day commercial that started off with a man in a dress and makeup with the opening line, “I’m a man, a real man, and only real man would dress up and play tea time with his daughter.” Just as predicted, we infuriated the extreme conservatives that already didn’t like us but millions of views later we had an entire new audience that loved us and were ready to be retargeted with ads. Ads from that campaign had a ROAS of $50:1 (we spent $2,000 on ad spend and it brought in over $100,000 for the one campaign).


When you apply this thinking to dozens of campaigns, both digital and event based, we saw improvements across the board. It was our attention to the demographic and proper analytics that led us to grow the company from $3 million to over $8 in exactly 365 days.


Also can’t speak enough into the humility of the team. We were a team of 6 with an average age of 25, we may have lacked experience but our why was to help women who were being manipulated and abused. When your why is so powerful you’re willing to figure out whatever the “what” was that was in our way.




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