By Jean O’Brien, founder of Digital Charity Lab, a social enterprise that builds digital skills in non-profits and shares free learning resources. Jean is also a freelance consultant who works on digital strategy, marketing and design for non-profits.

Facebook Ads are the channel that Digital Charity Lab gets asked for the most help with, by quite a distance. There’s an understanding among non-profits that Facebook Ads offer something very powerful, but there is a large gap in the understanding needed to run truly strategic campaigns.  

It’s very easy to go into Facebook and quickly set up an ad campaign, but difficult to develop a winning strategy if you don’t know what you’re doing.  

There is a technique that you can use for nearly any type of campaign that will help you achieve the best results and the lowest cost per result: it’s all about targeting broadly, having lots of creative variations and giving Facebook time to learn. 

1) Forget about organic, focus on ads

Organic reach on Facebook declines year on year, but there are still so many charities spending valuable time every week trying to make it work. In many cases, it would be a much more efficient use of time to cut way back on organic posts, and instead concentrate on developing a few really effective, conversions-focused ad campaigns. 

Once you’ve developed a campaign that performs, you can set a small daily budget and let it run for most of the year. This is achievable even for small organisations with modest budgets.

2) Learn how to run campaigns in-house

If you always hire agencies to create your Facebook Ad campaigns, it adds greatly to the cost of each campaign. One of the strengths of Facebook Ads is that you can refine and test and greatly increase the success of your campaign yourself. It’s very expensive to run these kinds of tests if you’re reliant on an agency. 

The strongest recommendation in this article is that you invest in building skills in using Facebook Ads inside your organisation.  

The Facebook Ads platform gets more powerful all the time and your organisation is missing a trick if you don’t have some ability to use and understand it. 

3) Understand Facebook Ad objectives

Facebook Ads offer you lots of different objectives for your campaigns, such as reach, video views, engagement or conversions, and they’re even more sophisticated than you might think.  

When you tell Facebook to get clicks, it will find a lot of people who will click on every link they see. If you tell it to get conversions, it will find the people who will actually convert. 

Facebook has over 10 years of data now on user behaviour, and it knows the people who will actually give money or sign up for an event.  

It requires a slight change in thinking for many charities, who are used to putting their call to action into a video, and then set up ads seeking video views, thinking this will get people to take the call to action. Nope! You are much more likely to have a successful campaign on Facebook if you choose the conversions objective.

4) Use broader targeting than you think

Facebook allows you to set up very granular and specific targeting, and many charity advertisers will work this way. They think: “many of our supporters are women aged 50-60 and are interested in animals, so let’s target that demographic on Facebook.” But Facebook has a lot more information about its users than the relatively blunt demographics that your database can provide. If you use broad targeting instead (say an audience of 1 – 2 million people), you will get much better results. 

Here’s how it works: Facebook finds the first 50 people who convert, and builds a statistical model based on them. It will use that model to find 50,000 people who are similar to the first 50. And then it will start showing that audience your ads.

If you try to do the targeting to find those 50,000 people yourself, you’re extremely unlikely to be able to do it. You just don’t have the level of data and insight that Facebook has.

By having a broad audience, you give Facebook scope to run these tests. And then you can run long term campaigns without exhausting the audience.

5) You need more creative variations than you think. Way more.

The more creative variations you use, the more chance you give Facebook to find the relevant people. 

The way many charities will work is: they will spend a lot of time developing the look and feel of a campaign, create a few core assets based on the creative concept, and then just use those assets in their Facebook ads.  But if you start by testing more images, and more that are significantly different, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.  

For example: in a lead campaign for a homeless charity, a photo of two empty beds performed much, much better than an emotive photograph of a man living in homelessness.  

The image on the left performed many times better than an image similar to the one on the right, and the cost per lead it achieved was 50% lower.

By providing lots of variants of images and copy, you increase the chances that your ads will connect with people. The more people they connect with, the better value you will get for your budget.

Have a minimum of 15 ads in each campaign: 5 images x 3 copy versions. It’s very easy to create an ad, then duplicate it and change the image.

6) Your Facebook campaigns need time to learn

Because Facebook is generally a fast channel – it’s quick and easy to publish posts and ads and content can go viral really quickly – charities will often try to create last minute Facebook ad campaigns. But counter-intuitively, Facebook doesn’t like being rushed.

You need to give your ads time to go through Facebook’s ‘learning phase’: this is where Facebook finds the first 50 conversions from your ads, then builds a statistical model to find the rest of the people who will convert. It needs time to do this. Give your campaigns a 4-6 week lead in time. Two weeks for testing and 2-4 weeks to run the best creative variations.

7) Develop acquisition campaigns that you can run for a long time

Lead generation campaigns are great for growing your list. You can also try a value exchange campaign, where you offer a free item (such as a tote bag or a bumper sticker) to gather phone leads, then cultivate them into regular givers. Facebook fundraising expert Adrian O’Flynn has a very detailed free tutorial on how to use Facebook to gather regular givers on his website.  

It’s also worth testing out a campaign to generate cash donations on your website. Focus on a few strategic, properly tested and budgeted campaigns each year instead of just boosting individual posts. 

8) How to run an effective test

A lead campaign is a really useful campaign to start with. These campaigns allow you to gather subscribers for your mailing list directly on Facebook, who you can then contact about your campaigns, events and appeals. 

Use this plan to develop and test an effective lead campaign for your non-profit:

    1. Come up with a concept for your lead campaign – you can offer a free download, or ask people to sign a petition. There are lots of possiblities.
    2. Get a budget of $500.
    3. Find 5 significantly different images to test. Images of beneficiaries, objects, equipment – go for things that are all quite different to each other.
    4. Write 3 different copy versions – one as short as you can manage, one longer version, one with a question.
    5. Set up an ad campaign with the objective of leads, a testing budget of $100 and a duration of 1 week.
    6. Publish 15 ads (5 images x 3 copy versions).
    7. Let the ads run for a week and see which variations perform best. 
    8. Duplicate the ad campaign, run it for another week with another $100. Remove all the lower performing ads, and test different headlines on the best ads.
    9. Let the different headlines test for a week.

At this stage, you’ll know what your cost per lead is, and can set budgets and targets for an ongoing campaign.

9) What about the ethical implications of using Facebook?

You may be uncomfortable with paying Facebook for ads: this is perfectly valid given Facebook’s reputation. But many charities are putting a lot of time and effort into organic Facebook, and this should be questioned too.  Your time has value, and this activity is not free for your organisation.  

Consider either using Facebook properly and making the most of the ad platform, or not using it all.  


Digital Charity Lab has two learning resources to help charities of all sizes master Facebook Ads.

1) Listen to the podcast with Facebook Ads expert Adrian O’Flynn.

2) Download the Facebook Ad Strategy for Charities & Nonprofits.

A 22-page guide that educates on what strategies work for Facebook Ads and why and includes includes a template for a campaign. Readers of Nonprofit Tech for Good can get a 20% discount on this resource by using the code nptech4good at checkout.