Is your brand helping or hurting you?

Be aware of potentially damaging messages you might inadvertently be sending donors.

By Tom Harrison

I’ve been fairly critical in articles and speeches of nonprofits that allow their branding to undermine their fundraising. This most often happens when the branding people focus on articulating the complexity and success of a charity’s programs and, in so doing, inadvertently undermine successful direct-response fundraising that depends on urgency, need and simplicity.

Examples abound. We’ve known brand folks to suggest an organization focus on sustainable community development rather than sponsoring or feeding a hungry child. While the brand people are correct that sustainable community development is essential programmatically, they have learned the hard way that it doesn’t work in mass fundraising.

I recall one national nonprofit that combats a painful and debilitating disease. The organization funds research into prevention and cures, and advocacy for sufferers. When it came time to articulate its brand, the branding folks put all their focus on communicating that those afflicted with the disease can live normal lives with dignity. They actually said, “We don’t want to give the impression that people with this disease need help!” What they communicated without intending to do so: “We don’t need your donations because our people are fine as is.” That’s an extreme example, of course, but every time your brand guidelines insist you focus on hope instead of need, on complexity instead of simplicity, you risk undermining your fundraising and the future of your organization.

The brand must support program. If it doesn’t, it’s poor branding. This is pretty much universally understood. Most nonprofits do a pretty good job in having the brand reflect and support programming.

But the brand also must support fundraising. If it doesn’t, it’s poor branding. And the organization soon won’t have the funds it needs to conduct its program.

So nonprofits shouldn’t undermine their own fundraising with their brands.

Here’s what you should do

All of your communications should help build your brand. Your public relations. Your events. Even your direct-response fundraising.

When a brand seeks to lay out distinctions, it often involves a combination of a problem or injustice or crisis that needs to be addressed and the organization’s programmatic approach to solving the need.

The most effective way to reach people is through stories. Human beings are wired for storytelling. It’s been true through the centuries. Tribal tales. Family histories. Stories that speak to our hearts. To our ethos. Stories help shape what we aspire to do and be. The Bible speaks through stories (parables) to convey a right way of thinking and living.

I know you’re proud of your programs. Rightly so. Just please make sure your stories generate more passion for the need you’re tackling than information about the complexity and efficacy of your program. Tell your story and the stories of people helped by your organization. Select and shape those stories to move people emotionally closer to your cause … and your brand.

Direct mail, DRTV, radio and digital fundraising use stories effectively to raise money, but many of us underutilize storytelling power to build the brand — along with acquiring new donors and generating net revenue.

Here are some things you can do to enhance your brand while fundraising:

  • Know your target audiences. How do they experience you now? What do they want from you? What do you want from each of them? What do you want them to experience from your brand?
  • What does your data tell you are the most important messages for your target audiences? What messages do they like so much that they actually send money? (You don’t want to accidentally create a brand platform that negates these messages.)
  • Test the branding carefully before adopting it. Does it accurately reflect and support your program? Does it successfully support your fundraising (do people give?)? Hint: If you believe your brand promise is “hope,” you haven’t applied enough discipline to differentiate yourself from every other nonprofit. Plus, you’re undermining your fundraising.
  • Keep your logo front and center. Some have tested hiding the organization in the hopes that more people will open the blank envelope than if they know who it is from. It’s not good for your brand to trick people. They’ll resent it.
  • Integrate your messaging across all channels so when a donor sees your PSA or DRTV spot and receives an email and goes to your website, your messages and images are consistent — so wherever that donor goes, it “feels” like you.
  • People pay attention to thank-yous because they’re about them. So use thank-yous to communicate your brand distinctiveness. We need to be better at showing donors, volunteers and participants how we value them. No better place than in a thank-you.
    • Thank your donors properly for each gift by citing the power and the impact of that donation.
    • Thank your donors for their longevity and describe what their support over time has accomplished.
    • Thank your donors for volunteering or participating in events. And again, stress the impact of their contributions.
  • Choose stories that convey compelling need and urgency. Let your donors know how their gifts can make a life-changing or even life-saving difference.

Remember: People can’t give to you if they don’t know you’re there, and people won’t give to you until they’re persuaded of the importance of your work (and the urgency of the need). Use your branding efforts to strengthen your organization programmatically and financially.

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