How One Marketer Turned Cat Birthdays Into a Charity Cash Cow

How One Marketer Turned Cat Birthdays Into a Charity Cash Cow

Marketing is hard enough for cashed up organisations but for charities with tiny marketing teams and even smaller budgets getting cut-through can be harder then keeping a birthday hat on a grumpy cat.

Considering this, US-based online charity, which links donors to public school teachers’ requests for help, has done well. With a marketing department of six, the charity delivered $65m to classrooms during the previous American school-year.

Half of that came from 200 companies and the other half from 300,000 individuals, according to’s chief marketing officer Katie Bisbee.

“We spend very little on marketing, we don’t do any advertising,” Bisbee told B&T in San Francisco last week for Salesforce ExactTarget’s Global Media Day.

The only money DonorsChoose does spend on marketing goes towards enabling people to help the charity with word-of-mouth and into areas such as e-mail and social.

Bisbee spoke to B&T about the challenges facing the charity, how cat birthdays are profitable and why its best email subject line ever was ‘cake anyone?’.

What attracted you to

A combination of a really well run business with social impact is what attracted me to it. And, more specifically, our organisation is really entrepreneurial and we can take a ton of risks.When I say risks I mean try different marketing campaigns.

As a marketer I like to have a high failure rate because it means you are trialling a bunch of things. And I’m allowed to try stuff and fail as long as I learn from it. To be able to work in an organisation like that is a marketers dream.

Can you describe one of these ‘failures’ and what you learned?

We have tried have tried everything in our checkout flow to try and up sell you…our ability to up sell you in check out does not work. No one can get up sold. And it is crazy because when you are at Amazon it so easy to get them to add something at the last minute.

I don’t know what you learn from that except that people know what they want to give you and can’t shake them from that.

Another thing that we have tired that hasn’t been that successful: we have tried to get people to donate their birthday to DonorsChoose and instead of getting presents from friends, getting them to ask for donations for their page.

We just found that people aren’t comfortable pitching other people on their birthday and we spent a whole lot of time and energy  on it because it just seemed to make a ton of sense.

We had a leader board for different types of birthdays…and the thing that performed the best was pets birthdays. So people were creating fundraisers for their cats and dogs birthdays more for their own.

We literally sent an email out to our entire email list a couple of years ago with a cat wearing a birthday hat saying you can raise money for your pets birthday. Our best subject line literally ever was ‘cake anyone?’ with a 40% open rate.

What would you consider to be your number one success with

When we get a really large national media story it is so helpful to give credibility to our organisation.

Just one example of this, Fast Company magazine had our founder and CEO on the cover in March and said that he was the pioneer of crowd funding and we were one of the most innovative charities in the world.

My mum read the article and was like ‘oh my gosh, I didn’t even realise how great the organisation that you worked at was!’ And I was like ‘Mum, I tell you about it every day you read one article and now you think that it is cooler then you did the day before?’

What is the biggest challenge facing you as a marketer at DonorsChoose?

Choice can be really a good thing and choice can be really overwhelming for people. At any given time we have 25,000 projects on the site and matching them with a project that they care about when they first arrive on the site is a huge challenge.

We have our whole database integrated with Salesforce ExactTarget Marketing Cloud and we can see their whole giving history and can send them one project that they care about.

We know that that is the most successful thing we can do to get someone to give. So how we can tailor an experience like that when someone is first starting is our biggest challenge.

If you weren’t a marketer what would you be?

I think I would have loved to have been in operations. I love numbers, I love systems, I love efficiencies. I think being an engineer would be really fun and I think running operational efficiencies would be really fun. I would be like a nerdy, numbers person.

Jessica Kennedy was a guest of Salesforce in San Francisco.

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