Catching the Not-for-Profit Goldfish

Published by Chris Washington-Sare on

goldfishIt’s Sunday morning and I’m helping my 9 year-old son with his math homework. 60 sums, 10 seconds each, all in his head. By question 50 he gets frustrated as thoughts of Lego dominate. It’s like pulling teeth getting him to question 60. But I don’t blame him for this situation. Asking for someone’s attention for more than 10 seconds is asking a lot.

Think I’m being a soft touch? Think again.

A recent research study determined that the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds [1]. In 2000 scientists measured the average attention span of adult humans. It was 12 seconds. In 2013 the same test revealed the average attention span had dropped to 8 seconds.

It is a sad reflection of our society that we now have an average attention span that is shorter than a goldfish. And it’s not surprising why.

Assuming I have still got your attention consider this:

  • Every minute on Facebook 293,000 statuses are updated, and 136,000 photos are uploaded [2]
  • 17% of website page views last less than 4 seconds. Only 49% of words are read on website pages with 111 words or more. The average website page contains more than 500 words. [1]

At no point in humanity’s evolutionary history have we had access to more information. But it’s getting someone to notice your message in the first place that’s the challenge.

So why is this relevant to charities?

Just ask your supporters – donors and non-financial supporters – how effective they perceive your organisation to be, compared to a group of organisations with a similar range of programme activities. I have seen results where upwards of 40% of supporters select “Can’t Decide” – a sobering indication that charity communications are not being as effective as they should be.

So how can you catch the not-for-profit goldfish’s attention? Remembering the GOLDfish just may help.


When was the last time you received a piece of communication from an organisation that made you feel good; a message that made you think you are communicating with a person, not a robot? A great way to make something memorable is to communicate with genuine authenticity and sincerity –incredibly hard to achieve in this hyper-cynical age, but it can be done.

For example recently I placed an order from a company called Pedestrian Press. The order confirmation contained typo errors, but it clearly wasn’t auto-generated. The email was written by the owner and he expressed his genuine gratitude for my business. It made me feel great. And in feeling great, I felt compelled to tell others (you) about his company.

Communicating with genuine authenticity helps make the not-for-profit GOLDfish take notice.


Organisations that want to communicate with supporters in unexpected ways need to be prepared for the unexpected and open to different possibilities. Your supporters won’t have a copy of your brand guidelines, but they will share your values and conviction.

Cast your mind back to 2010 when Greenpeace took on Nestlé over the use of palm oil in Kit Kat. After the successful conclusion of the campaign, the environmental activists reported that many supporters: “wore [their] support on [their] sleeves’ Facebook-style by changing profile pictures to images of orang-utans, rainforest, and our campaign Kit Kat ‘killer’ logo. By letting supporters talk about Kit Kat and Nestlé in their own terms, the campaign gathered a momentum all of its own.

Helping supporters to talk about your organisation in their own way holds the attention the not-for-profit GOLDfish.


Albert Einstein once said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. In order to make something memorable, you need to get to the heart of what you want to say quickly – ideally within the first 60 words. Focus on the why you do what you do, not just the what you do. Use simple language and test the readability of your words. Using online readability tools [3] to assess your language can help, as can a friend who is not afraid to give honest feedback.

The not-for-profit GOLDfish will get distracted VERY easily. Say what you have to, clearly, simply and quickly.


There is a difference between interruption and disruption when it comes to communication. Donors have remarkably refined ways of dealing the deluge of charity messages. Messages that interrupt can easily be seen as an annoyance and be ignored. The window of opportunity for disruptive communications to remain unexpected is small. Take the Ice Bucket Challenge last year. Many organisations mimicked the Challenge, which led to over-sharing and in doing so the very essence of disruption was lost.

To catch the not-for-profit GOLDfish you need to deliver your communications disruptively, in unexpected ways.

So the next time your organisation is planning a campaign and wants the not-for-profit goldfish to take notice ask yourself the 4 questions:

  • What will make the message genuine and authentic?
  • What will empower our supporters to deliver the campaign message in their own way?
  • What is the simplest and clearest language we can use to convey our message?
  • What will make the message unexpected?

[1] National Centre for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, The Associated Press
[2] The Social Skinny
[3]According to readability-score.com this article scores 60.7 in the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test which means it can be understood by 13-15 year old students. A score of less than 30 is best understood by university graduates

Chris Washington-Sare

Chris is Founder and Managing Director of Pentatonic Marketing, a fundraising and marketing consultancy for the profit with purpose sector. He has over 20 years experience producing successful strategies and campaigns for not-for-profit and commercial organisations. He has worked in a diverse range of organisations including CAMRADATA Analytical Services, The Management Centre (=mc), Greenpeace Australia Pacific, The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Plan International, Red Rock Media, Central St Martins College of Art and the Royal Shakespeare Company. His recent clients include World Animal Protection, Transparency International, CBM and 10:10.


Tom Ahern · February 9, 2015 at 19:57

Brilliant piece. Thank you, Chris.

Immaculate Grid · August 22, 2023 at 09:46

The phrase “Catching the Not-for-Profit Goldfish” could symbolize the idea that not-for-profit organizations often operate with limited resources and time constraints. Like a goldfish in a bowl that swims around and is difficult to catch, not-for-profit organizations may struggle to achieve their goals within the confines of their available resources and time.

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Educational games are designed to teach specific skills or subjects. They make learning enjoyable and effective, helping players acquire new knowledge while having fun.

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Henry Larry · March 5, 2024 at 06:50

Appreciate the insight into the shrinking attention spans and the challenges nonprofits face. The analogy with the not for profit goldfish is spot on and the emphasis on genuine authenticity resonates as a crucial aspect for effective communication.
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prodentim · March 19, 2024 at 07:31

I admire the honesty and vulnerability of the author in sharing their personal experiences.

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