5 Reasons to Use Paid Google Ads as a Nonprofit

Digital AdvertisingGoogle Ad Grant

The nonprofit world knows a deal when they see it, and the free $10,000 a month Google offers to qualifying organizations as part of the Google Ad Grant is a surefire deal. But there may still be reason to invest in the paid version of Google Ads.

Nonprofits with the Google Ad Grant can have it both ways. Google recommends keeping 2 separate accounts for different strategies if you want to explore your options on Google Ads beyond the limitations of the Ad Grant. Here are 5 instances in which you may want to sign up for that second, paid account.

1. You want to build a campaign outside of Search Network

While there are a number of ways to advertise via the Google Ads platform, the Google Ad Grant only covers Search Network campaigns (the text-based ads that appear in search results for related terms). Paid Google Ads allow you to build other campaigns, including:

Display Network Campaigns

These are the visual banner ads you see on websites that support Google Ads. According to Google, Display ads reach 90% of Internet users worldwide, and cover websites on-Google (including Gmail and YouTube) and off. If you have great visuals or video and want to meet users on some of the most visited sites on the Internet, this can be an effective use of your advertising budget. Here’s an example from Lincoln Center, which used the Google Display network to reach users on a New York Times review of a performance at the Metropolitan Opera for an upcoming concert. Geotargeting means that, as a New York reader, I’m seeing this ad whereas someone in Los Angeles may see an ad for the LA Philharmonic.

Google Display Ad for Lincoln Center on NYTimes.com

Video Campaigns

Google owns YouTube, which means whenever you have to sit through an ad for Geico in order to catch up on SNL clips, you’re seeing an ad served up via Google. YouTube ads turn your uploaded videos into potential ad spots and place them on other channels relevant to your organization. If you have great, short-form video assets like charity: water, and if you have a relevant market that can be reached via YouTube, this can be an effective tool. Here’s an example from LA Opera, which repurposes its TV spots for upcoming performances as YouTube uploads that are then used as ads on relevant videos. (Yes, we may be biased on picking this exact video to share… #whaledit)  

Shopping Campaigns

The 2018 revamp of Google Ads included the opportunity to promote products on Google Shopping. If you’re an organization like the World Wildlife Fund, whose online “store” allows you to symbolically adopt an endangered or threatened species in exchange for a plush version of that animal, you may want to experiment with this type of campaign. And for a search term like “stuffed animals,” which carries with it an average volume of 74,000 searches per month, you may have a hard time competing in organic Google Shopping results against heavy-hitters like GUND and Jellycat on store sites like Bloomingdale’s and Crate and Kids.


The competitive, fluffy world of Google Shopping ads for keyword "stuffed animals"

The competitive, fluffy world of Google Shopping ads for keyword “stuffed animals”


An ad boost on Google Shopping could help take your wolverines, whales, and sturgeons to the head of the pack.


Google Shopping results for World Wildlife Fund

Google Shopping results for World Wildlife Fund


With all of these ad types, you may also want to aim for keywords that are either not covered by the Google Ad Grant policy or the Google Ad Grant’s cap of $2 CPC for keywords. Which brings us to reasons 2 and 3…

2. You want to target keywords that aren’t covered by the Ad Grant

Organizations advertising with a Google Ad Grant account are not permitted to bid on keywords that are branded and not owned by the organization. This means if you’re a humanitarian relief organization, you can’t bid on “the Red Cross” or “UNICEF” (unless you are the Red Cross or UNICEF). However, this can also be an effective way of meeting new donors.

Other keywords no longer permitted by the Google Ad Grant include single-word keywords (excluding branded words, medical conditions, and other Ad Grant exception keywords), what Google deems to be generic keywords like today’s news or free videos, and keywords with a quality score below 2.
So let’s say you’re a nonprofit news organization like ProPublica. If you have the Google Ad Grant, even with a website that is almost entirely devoted to the news of the day, the Google Ad Grants team may argue that “today’s news” is too generic a keyword to bid on with the Ad Grant. Depending on how competitive you want to be with these keywords, you might want to split your advertising between Grant and paid Google Ads.

But even if your keyword is covered by the Ad Grant, it may have a higher CPC value than $2. So you also might want to include a paid Google Ads account if…

3. You want to bid on higher-value keywords

The Google Ad Grant guidelines exclude universities/colleges/educational institutions as well as hospitals and medical facilities. This means even if you are a health-related nonprofit, you might be facing an uphill battle against hospitals that are also bidding on the same keywords with their paid Google Ads account. For instance, lung cancer prevention may be an extremely valuable keyword to your organization if you’re say, the Lung Cancer Foundation of America. Yet it runs at an average cost-per-click of $3.37 and sees ads from organizations like New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Google Ads for keyword "lung cancer"
This can also be a huge boon for giving season: By bidding on high-volume keywords and pairing that strategy with donation asks, we at Whole Whale were able to help one client generate over $150,000 in EOY donations — over a 4x return on their total end-of-year ad spend.

4. You want to remarket to your site visitors or try a different bidding type

Much like Facebook retargeting, Google Ads allows paying users to remarket website visitors or app users, reaching audiences who have already engaged with your organization — audiences who are more likely to take a meaningful action like donating. The minimum for these lists varies depending on your campaign type: For Google Display Network or Gmail ads, aim to have a minimum of 100 active users within the last 30 days; for Google Search or YouTube, you’ll want a minimum of 1000 (yes, with an extra zero).

There are also multiple ways to bid on the Google Ads platform. The Google Ad Grant focuses on cost-per-click and smart bidding. Depending on your goals, you have a range of bid strategies that may be more appropriate with a paid Google Ads account.

5. You want to optimize your ad to display at the top

You may have heard that Google is able to prioritize paid accounts over Grant accounts for Ad placement and wondered how this is possible. The short answer: Google doesn’t have Ad Grant and paid Ads accounts competing in the same auction at all. Instead, Grant accounts are considered for placement only when there is leftover inventory. So even super high-quality keywords or ads may not be able to compete in crowded spaces on an Ad Grant account. If these are crucial to your mission, or you want to stay at the top no matter what (and you’re willing to pay for it), a paid Google Ads account will help.

If you’re a Google Ads newbie and would like to dive deeper about how to set up an account from scratch, how to write awesome ads, where to find keywords, and how to measure success within your account, enroll in our three-hour Whole Whale University course. You’ll learn how to make the absolute best use of this grant, which will mean thousands more users taking meaningful action on your site this year. We’ve managed over $4 million in Google Grants and we want to help you get free money too!