Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Search for donate goat oxfamWell, this is odd.

Above, a Google search for “donate goat Oxfam” is topped by ads for the World Wildlife Fund and the ASPCA.

Below, a Google search for “Oxfam goats” turns up ads for two other charities, Compassion International and Outreach International.

Search for Oxfam goats

What’s going on here?

That’s hard to know. It certainly appears as if the four charities took out Google ads that included the word “Oxfam” in order to capitalize on the brand name of a well-known global NGO. When I came upon these results after being tipped off by a friend at a small foundation, I surmised that this was guerrilla marketing, NGO-style: Nonprofits poaching on a popular brand as they compete aggressively for donor dollars. Buying search ads using rival brands is not uncommon in the business world. (See The Complete Guide to Bidding on Competitor Brand Names & Trademarked Terms.)

This, however, is not what Google intended when it established Google Ad Grants for nonprofit groups. The popular program provides free Google AdWords advertising—up to $10,000 per month—on Google search result pages to qualified nonprofits. More than 35,000 nonprofits participate, according to Google.

Ad Grants, Google says, are “designed to help organizations extend their public service messages to a global audience to make a greater impact on the world.”

Fundraising by tapping into people’s desire to buy goats for the very poor–a dubious idea, in any event, as we’ll explain–would not seem to qualify.

The story gets stranger. A WWF spokesperson who declined to be identified — which is never a good sign — told me by email

While WWF generally does not share details of its online ad strategy, in this instance we can tell you that WWF is not bidding on any Google ads for the words “Oxfam” or “goat.” As you likely know, Google uses a complex algorithm to determine where to put an organization’s ads, and only Google would be able to answer why our ad showed up in this particular search.

Notice that the use of the present tense. (“WWF is not bidding…”) Nothing about whether it has bid on the word “Oxfam” in the past.

Tim Glenn of Compassion International wrote me:

We did purchase the ad word goat and gift, but not Oxfam. I’m sure this came up solely because of those words we purchased in an effort to promote our Christmas Gift Catalog. You’re right, that would be odd to purchase another NGO’s brand name as an ad word for promotion and it’s not something we would do.

Charlotte Belshe of Outreach International explained by email:

The use of the organization name “Oxfam” in our ad was an error. When Google suggested a list of 50+ keywords to incorporate to our existing ads, “Oxfam” must have been included in the list of suggestions and was added as a part of the entire group of recommended keywords. We would never intentionally use the name of another charity to boost our content.

Danielle Arnold of the ASPCA, via email, also challenged my assumption that the ASPCA was poaching:

There are a combination of factors that impact the ads displayed on Google searches, including an individual user’s search history, current bid rates, and Google’s proprietary algorithm, so that assumption is incorrect. Beyond that, we do not comment on our marketing strategy.

Somehow I doubt that Google’s algorithm would insert an ASPCA ad into a search for “donate goat Oxfam,” but maybe that’s just me.

Search for the ASPCA, by the way, and you find an ad from Best Friends, a smaller animal welfare nonprofit:

Search for ASPCA

Google, as you’d expect, isn’t happy about this. Last month, it made changes to Ad Grants. Google told nonprofits that “branded words that you don’t own like “YouTube” or “Google” or names of newspapers or other organizations” are not permitted as keywords. That should put an end to the practice of poaching.

Why blog about this? Primarily because it’s a reminder of how competition works in the nonprofit sector, which is to say, not very well. All too often, NGOs view their competitors as other NGOS, as they seek donors or media attention. There’s more talk of collaboration in the sector than there is actual collaboration.

It’s also illustrates how big nonprofits use data. Witness WWF’s reluctance to “share details of our online ad strategy.” Well-funded NGOS use A/B testing to determine which direct mail or email fundraising messages work best, in order to maximize the impact of their ad budgets. Very few are as rigorous when it comes to testing the impact of their programs to see which work and which don’t. 

Finally, goats. Wow, they’re popular. Vanguard Charitable, which hosts donor-advised funds, buys Google ads for the search terms “donate goats.”  So do Compassion International, Save the Children and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital:

Screen shot of donate goats

Never mind that buying a goat (or a chicken or ducks) for a poor family at Christmas (or any other time) is a dumb idea.

For one thing, it’s not really a goat. The small print in those charity holiday gift catalogs gives the charity the freedom to take money donated for goats, and spend it on other programs; often they do. In essence, goats are a fund-raising gimmicks. How many goat-giving charities ever report on how many goats they’ve given away, how much they cost and whether improve incomes  for the poor? Not one that I am aware of.

The bigger question is, why would donors in rich countries presume that what people in poor countries want is a goat? (It’s hard enough for me to figure out what my wife wants for her birthday.) Maybe what poor people in Africa, Asia or Latin America want is a chicken or a tin roof or school fees or, gee, cash. I wouldn’t expect someone I’ve never met in a poor country to choose a gift out of a catalog for me. So why would I choose one for them?


5 thoughts on “Google, goats and guerilla marketing, NGO-style

  1. Adam Creighton says:

    I noticed this when I first dove into Google Ad Words. It didn’t occur to me at that time what a big deal it might be when you’re talking about the biggest nonprofits, and more frequent searches. With respect to Bidding, it might be worth diving into the mechanics of it. As I recall, Google’s Ad Grants program gives nonprofits (who receive the granted ad budget) a limit to how much they can bid on a specific keyword. Paid advertising (obviously) has no such limits, and it seems like the larger nonprofits might be able to bid higher than the smaller nonprofits can afford to for the same search terms. It’s also possible to delimit or target specific regions (e.g. countries) so that if you (for example) find that too many people are searching for your term from a region where you think you’re unlikely to get donations, you can exclude those searches from your bids. It’s a fascinating topic, worth looking at. I’m sure that Google has interesting metrics. Their Analytics may be able to even track how many of those clicks turn into conversations. At least, the larger nonprofits should have that data. Whether they’ll share it…that’s another thing. I know that marketing and fundraising strategies and tactics are “Trade Secrets” so it’s not clear if we’ll ever know.

    Great coverage of the topic. I appreciate Susan’s remark about how nonprofits ought to track impact with some of the raised funds. Still though, it’s unlikely that nonprofits, no matter how well-capitalized, are going to handcuff themselves to pouring money into monitoring and evaluation when it’s not clear what the financial ROI will be on their doing so.


  2. Susan Davis says:

    For me, this is the most important takeaway: “Very few are as rigorous when it comes to testing the impact of their programs to see which work and which don’t.” I’ve wondered for awhile if NGOs took all the money they spend on marketing and used it to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs (or better yet, have a third party check it out), they wouldn’t need all the marketing. They could simply post their results. The first few would have a major market advantage because hardly any international non-profit does this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks, Susan, yes, that is why I wrote this post. Ordinarily I try to avoid fundraising as a topic since it is so widely covered elsewhere.


  3. Charities can add “oxfam” and other brands to a list of negative keywords that will prevent a charity’s ad from being entered into an auction for search queries including that particular keyword.

    Charities can learn more here:

    And they can find step-by-step instructions here:

    Hope it helps.

    Liked by 1 person

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