[Guest Post] Three Ways Nonprofits Can Use Promotional Products Effectively

I met Elaine Fogel a few years ago when she organized a conference in DC. I've been impressed with her commitment to nonprofits and her knowledge of promotional items. (I call it schwag.) So I asked her if she'd write a post on how nonprofits can use them effectively. When she's not blogging here, she is a professional speaker, writer, marketing consultant and president & CMO of Solutions Marketing & Consulting LLC, a boutique marketing agency that serves nonprofits and smaller businesses. The company also distributes promotional products as part of its product and service mix. You can reach her on Twitter @Elaine_Fogel

Elaine Fogel headshot with her guest blog post on how nonprofits can effectively use promotional products

Three Ways Nonprofits Can Use Promotional Products Effectively

by Elaine Fogel, President & CMO Solutions Marketing & Consulting, LLC

Most fundraisers and nonprofit marketers share one major objective – to raise more money for the mission! And, with the thousands of fundraising marketing options available today, where do promotional products fit?

Called by many names: advertising specialties, swag, promotional items, branded goods, chotchkes (Yiddish), giveaways, promotional gifts, advertising gifts, or promotional merchandise, promotional products can help your organization accomplish many of its goals – some related to external audiences, and some internal.

Here are three ways to use promotional products effectively:

  1. Build brand awareness

    Giving out appropriate promotional products offers a simple and inexpensive way to leverage your organization’s brand and keep its name and reputation in front of its target markets. When donors and volunteers carry tote bags, wear T-shirts, or use everyday items with your nonprofit’s logo on them, they are sending a message of support for your mission.

    As with most consumer products, the more visible your logo and name are in the communities your organization operates, the more people will recognize the brand. The more they recognize it, the greater the odds in responding to “an ask” or event invitation or stimulating a conversation about the mission.

    There are many opportunities to distribute promotional products for brand awareness:

    • Advocacy events
    • Community fairs/trade shows
    • Contests prizes and promotions
    • Fundraising events
    • Public events

    One word of caution here. For larger crowds or quantities, don’t buy cheap items that are likely to break or fall apart quickly. That will do nothing for your brand. Know your audience and what they will use and not throw away. Items like stickers, pins, clips, wallet-sized calendars, pens, pencils, golf tees, and magnets are a few of the less expensive giveaways. If children are part of the audience, there are countless kid-focused items that parents will appreciate.

  2. Demonstrate appreciation and recognition

    Nonprofits can never say thank you enough and recognize the people who contribute to their success. Showing regular appreciation to your special donors, volunteers, funders, corporate partners, and employees can help keep them motivated and committed to your cause.

    Awards and plaques can be especially valuable to business partners that display them in their offices and to individuals who will place them proudly in their homes. However, if the product is cheaply made or is unattractive, it will defeat the purpose and the recipient will either give it away, toss it, or put it away.

    As with many things, price often determines the item’s quality and appeal. There are many stunning products available today that are bound to impress, as well as affordable pieces that are pleasing and well made.

    Award Examples:

    Image of a nonprofit award that is Multi-toned Moonstone finish Stonecast plaque with realistic wood grain finish.

    Multi-toned Moonstone finish Stonecast plaque with realistic wood grain finish.

    Image of This free-flowing award  has cobalt blue-toned veining and rests on an ebony optical glass base with a mirrored reflector. Each piece is  hand made and signed by the artist.

    This free-flowing award has cobalt blue-toned veining and rests on an ebony optical glass base with a mirrored reflector. Each piece is hand made and signed by the artist.

    Ensure you send appreciation gifts to donors after they’ve made a gift and not before. Some newer research indicates that using promo products as up-front incentives may actually be counterproductive to donor retention.

    For major gifts donors, special volunteers, and other worthy recipients, there are many quality products in a range of prices. Use branded items that are useful, represent the brand well, and are priced to suit the specific group.

    In the accompanying thank-you note, remind recipients that whenever they wear or use their appreciation gifts, they are helping to advance your organization’s mission. That way, you can reduce any misgivings about the cost.

    In addition to appreciation and recognition, there are many similar opportunities to use promotional products:

    • Holiday gifts
    • Milestones
    • Retention
    • Rewards
    • Stewardship
  3. Generate additional revenue

    Some entrepreneurial nonprofits sell their branded goods online and at events to generate additional revenue as well as build brand awareness. There are companies that can manage online sales and fulfillment on your nonprofit’s behalf if employees cannot. Typical sales products include mugs, T-shirts, hats, drinkware, bags, and office accessories.

There are a few statistics worth noting when deciding on promotional products.

  • Nearly nine in ten (87%) recipients of promotional merchandise can identify the advertiser on the item.
  • Over one-half (52%) of the time, ad specialties leave a more favorable impression of the advertiser.
  • Promotional products deliver the same or a better ROI than other forms of media.
  • About eight in 10 (81%) of product recipients indicated that an item’s usefulness is the primary reason to keep it.
  • The products that leave the most positive impression and that recipients keep longer are: outerwear, shirts, recognition items (awards, plaques), caps/headwear, flash drives, health and safety products, desk/office accessories, and bags.

Promotional products give your nonprofit an affordable way to build goodwill, demonstrate appreciation and recognition, make a few bucks, and gain brand name recognition. According to Professor Ian Bruce, founding director of the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at London City University’s Cass Business School, “The name is so important because it is a shorthand for everything you do and stand for.”

Chart on how recipients feel about the advertiser

©2012 Advertising Specialty Institute®

About Marc A. Pitman

Marc A. Pitman is the CEO of The Concord Leadership Group, the author of Ask Without Fear! and director of The Nonprofit Academy. A coach to leaders around the world, Marc's expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences and has caught the attention of media organizations as diverse as Al Jazeera and Fox News. Marc’s experience also includes pastoring a Vineyard church, managing a gubernatorial campaign, and teaching internet marketing and fundraising at colleges and universities. He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing 80’s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family! You can connect with him on Google+, on Twitter @marcapitman, and like "Ask Without Fear!" on Facebook.
To get his free ebook on 21 ways to get board members engaged with fundraising, go to https://fundraisingcoach.com/21-ways/


  1. Thanks for inviting me to post about promotional products, Marc!

  2. Thank you for this post, Marc and Elaine.
    Everyone needs to be recognized and I think we often miss the win/win benefits for nonprofit organizations when they recognize their donors, volunteers and employees with "stuff". Your logo-ed awards on their desks or shelves or clothing draw attention to your brand and open opportunities for your awardees to talk about the organization and build more support.

  3. The best thing about promotional items to me is the fact that a lot of the items are very fun to play with. They have robot shaped USB drives, stress balls are no longer sand filled balloons (miss those), and of course the pen's that have the cruise ship moving around in the pen when you turn it upside down. Innovation is why branding items works

  4. One reason many products work great as corporate gifts is that they offer practical utility to the recipients while promoting your brand. Products with functionality are retained and used for a long period of time; e.g. advertising gifts like mugs, folders, pens and other stationery products.

  5. A well written, carefully constructed article. I also like the response chart "How Recipients Feel About The Advertiser"


    Kyle Smith
    Purely Promotions Australia

  6. Stan Roberts says:

    Elaine, I have been in the promotional products industry as a distributor for close to 28 years now. I cross the gamut for industries served as well as working with clients on a national level. Your article is pretty good except for #1, the terms trash, trinkets, stuff, chotkes, as well as all the others used only serves to cheapen their use as probably the strongest way a company or organization, other then their own reputation has to brand themselves. #2 point I would like to bring up is get away from the "me-too" syndrome when branding yourself. This is an industry that is rich with so many ways to brand your company with all price points.This is how we approach a client's promotion al program. Be unique and creative.

    • Hi, Stan. I have never used terms like "trash," "trinkets," or "stuff." I did, however, refer to some of the common words used by others in the industry, such as ad specialties.

      I agree with you that using promotional products should be creative. There are so many fun and attention-grabbing marketing ideas that organizations can employ to reach their objectives. And, there are excellent "serious" ways, too, like showing appreciation with a product that is attractive and practical.

      I will add one more thing to your comment that promo product use is, "probably the strongest way a company or organization, other then their own reputation has to brand themselves." I agree that using them can add tremendous value to a campaign or marketing objective. But, it cannot replace the necessary work that organizations must do in building and sustaining their brands. Branding requires an investment of time and energy in consistent use of brand identity and image, providing amazing customer service at every touchpoint, using consistent messaging, etc. Promo products add complementary value to the brand.

      Thanks for weighing in. I'm sure your clients are in good hands with your commitment to their brands. 🙂

      • Stan Roberts says:

        Elaine, I wasn't implying YOU used them. I was merely pointing out that all the IMPROPER ways of describing them only hurts and cheapens then entire process. To add to your final point, the items themselves are REALLY not the more important factor in the project. They represent the reinforcement for the message or goal of the user. I totally agree with you about organizations constantly having to reinforce their brand identity.

  7. So nice to see such a wonderful post about promotional products and how they can help non-profits. I've just recently started selling promo products & the whole reason I got into the field is to help these amazing non-profits with any way I can. It seems that the my products can have a huge impact on their organizations- which I think is amazing! Thanks Elaine 🙂

  8. Yes i am fully agree with that promotional products can help non-profits also.

  9. Mind listing out some of your preferred "companies that can manage online sales and fulfillment on your nonprofit’s behalf if employees cannot."

  10. Promotional products can definitely be used effectively for nonprofit organisations. We completely support the use of promotional products, such as our bespoke and personal confectionery, to build brand awareness. They are a simple product that pretty much everybody will love, meaning they are more likely to come to you and take some of the confectionery from you at events such as fundraisers or public events. Promotional products will increase your brand awareness, but also develop the perception that people have of you in a positive way!

What would you add?