We are not funny – why nonprofits suck at being “viral”

Lately I have been present at a lot of pitches where someone from my organization would tell an agency: “And we need a viral video”.

At that point you can always see someone on the agency’s side flinch because that person knows: we won’t have the guts.

As long as we are aiming for safe we will never create something that gets passed along like crazy.

Yes, as a non profit organization you will always find people who are sympathetic to your message and will spread it. As a result getting a couple of thousand or even a couple of ten thousand views (depending on your mandate and the size of your organization) is easy.

But can you remember the last time you saw an advocacy video from a non profit organization that had more than 100,000 views (except for “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Home“)? Or one that you couldn’t wait to pass along because it was so cool?

Don’t make me feel sad!

As an industry we are very good at making heartfelt, emotional videos – but most of them make me feel sad. And I don’t want to pass on something on my friends that makes them feel sad. At the bottom of my heart I want to be perceived as funny, as cool and maybe also as someone who has something important to say; but I definitely don’t want to be know as “the guy who always sends the sad stuff”.

Sad can work

Admittedly sad can work. I just went to the YouTube channel for nonprofits and looked at the most successfull videos. “Don’t die for a diet” (below)  is one of them. It has over 300,000 views, and is one of the saddest ads I have seen in a long time.

Funny is better

So, is that video a success? Sure. But my point is – how much more could we achieve if we were funny?

I think it’s a mistake to compare all the sad messages with all the other sad messages and use that as our baseline. Instead we should compare the sad videos with the funny ones and use those numbers to define success. Because if you do that, you suddenly realize that there is an unrealized potenial that’s not just in tens of thousands, but in the tens of millions.

I’m not saying that we should marginalize the suffering of vulnerable people. But why can’t we at least try to be a little bit tongue in cheek like this old spot for condoms?

You will notice that this video was not made by an NGO but by a company selling condoms. But it could just as well have been made by an NGO advocating for safer sex or trying to reduce unwanted teenage pregnancies. But I bet that even if this idea had been on the table, it wouldn’t have been made it because it might offend people with obnoxious children. FYI: This video was viewed over 16 million times!

I think this doesn’t only hold true for videos, I think this is true for a lot of our messages.

So, here are some random ideas that I think could be viral:

  • UN Mine Action creates and distributes a customized version of “Mine Sweeper”.
  • The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) asks Jibjab, the guys behind this video, to create an e-card about pandemic (H1N1) preparedness
  • Amnesty creates a version of “Hangman” where you have to guess words from the Declaration fo Human Rights.

Update: Please also read my follow-up post “10 nonprofit videos that don’t suck”.

What do you think? Are we taking ourselves to serious?


  1. marty August 19, 2009
    • Timo August 19, 2009
  2. Juliana August 25, 2009
  3. Juliette August 25, 2009
    • Timo August 26, 2009
  4. Jeff Smith August 25, 2009
    • Timo August 26, 2009
  5. Magnolia Medina August 26, 2009
    • Timo August 26, 2009