A strong brand is integral to successful fundraising

by Roger Sametz for FundRaising Success

Connection, relevance, resonance

Most nonprofit organizations operate within very competitive landscapes—vying for participants, staff, partners, board members, and, especially, funders. But, unlike the makers of soap and laptops who can financially reward investors, partners, and board members, nonprofits have to rely on less tangible currency; people have to want to work with your organization—they have to believe in your efforts.

More and more, prospective donors to nonprofit organizations make decisions based on whether the nonprofit’s brand will enhance their personal brand: “Is this an organization in sync with my values? How I see myself? How I view the world? Is my brand bolstered by this association?”

Prospective donors to nonprofit organizations make decisions based on whether the nonprofit’s brand will enhance their personal brand.

Major donors increasingly view the checks they write as “investments” rather than “charitable giving.” Beyond just “doing good,” they’re looking for a return on their investment. Donors and prospects want to invest in organizations whose vision aligns with their own, where their participation will make the most difference, and where their interests will be advanced—ideally in concert with the interests of the nonprofit. How your organization is positioned and perceived—how your brand is developed and managed—is important if prospects are to see your organization as the best choice through which they can advance their goals. If your brand is resonant and relevant, you’re more likely to be successful competing for investment dollars. Being “worthy” is not enough

Major gift prospects are looking to invest in the organizations most likely to help them realize their goals.

A clearly defined, consistently communicated brand helps build the connection and trust needed to advance fundraising efforts. It makes your vision and promise clear, fostering the needed alignment between your organization and the vision and objectives of donor / investors. It adds value, coherence, and meaning to your offerings by increasing awareness and comprehension around what you do, what you stand for, and why people should care. It makes the most of your mission.

And a well-articulated brand provides the shared understanding necessary to build a corps of effective ambassadors among staff and board; it creates “pull”—moving people closer to your organization, further increasing connection.

Don’t I have a brand?

Your organization has a name, and it may have a logo, but neither is necessarily a brand. A brand is a set of promises and expectations that exist in the hearts and minds of your constituents. Brands are built by consistently pairing an organization with the attributes, positioning, promise—and behavior—by which the institution wants to be known and understood. Brands are learned.

Your brand can be defined in the boardroom, but you don’t actually have a brand until those constituencies you’re trying to engage “get it.” Every communication—print, digital, environmental, social—is an opportunity to advance this learning and understanding. Over time, your logo or logotype becomes shorthand for who you are and what you mean. Brand building is a process, not an event; it takes active management and investment.

Getting from here to there.

Sometimes what’s needed is a start-at-square-one brand-building process—for start-up endeavors or for organizations that are neither known nor understood (often from not having put energy into their brand). Sometimes what’s needed is repositioning and rebranding—for organizations that are not perceived as they wish to be, who have changed (but whose brands haven’t), or whose current brand image does not positively influence their constituents.

Whether you’re launching a new organization and brand, or re-positioning or re-energizing an existing one, the key steps in the process are similar:

Form a core team that represents the different interests and constituencies of your organization and include outside communications consultants, as needed. Brand-building and brand stewardship is a shared enterprise. Your project (process and outcomes) will be more successful if people with different interests and constituents are at the table.

Get calibrated through a mix of quantitative and qualitative research. Mix inexpensive online surveys with cups of tea with leadership, key donors, staff, and prospects. You want to look inward and outward to understand where you are, where you’re going, what will help to get you there, and what’s in the way. Engaging the people within your organization who are closest to your “customers”—and asking them what questions they hate to get asked—is a good way to start the discussion.

Think about the different “ways in” to your organization. You’re not monolithic and neither are your constituents. Drawing on what you’ve learned through research and experience, evolve entry points that are likely to appeal to donors and prospects—and connect to institutional priorities. At a large symphony orchestra that we’re working with, some donors care about performing the classics, some care about new music, some care about bringing music to underserved youth, and some care about the hall. Check.

Define your core constituencies. Who are those groups whose interest, understanding, participation, and commitment are critical to the organization’s success? What are these people looking for? Do their interests align with what you’re trying to advance? How “close” or “far” are they from you? What will it take to move them nearer?

Check that your mission and vision statement are genuinely relevant to these groups—and outwardly focused. Re-frame, if needed. “Why” you’re doing what you’re doing—and the benefits envisioned—are more important than the “what” and the “how,” which will certainly change over time as you work to realize your vision. Communicating “why” you’re doing what you’re doing is more important than the “what” and the “how.”

Examine your brand promise and position in the landscape. Do you have a promise? Does it differentiate you? Do you deliver it? What’s the position among “competitors” that you want to occupy—the slice of turf you can own?

Generate or refine attributes, often adjectives that you want associated with your organization. Once agreed upon, they will inform how you write and design; they’ll provide a yardstick with which to evaluate your communication decisions; and, if you’re going to roll out a new brand, they will be valuable in explaining to the troops why you made the decisions you did.

Think about the different “ways in” to your organization. You’re not monolithic and neither are your constituents. Drawing on what you’ve learned through research and experience, evolve entry points that are likely to appeal to donors and prospects—and connect to institutional priorities. At a large symphony orchestra that we’re working with, some donors care about performing the classics, some care about new music, some care about bringing music to underserved youth, and some care about the hall. Check.

Craft a messaging structure that is modular: Develop your “elevator” or “umbrella” message, and then more specific “spokes.” Key messages not only guide the writing and design of different communications, they also serve to build familiarity and comfort within the family—so that the conversation a board member has over a martini with a prospect is in sync with your annual appeal and website. If the structure includes messages for the different “ways in,” then you’ll easily be able to pivot if the prospect you thought wanted to talk about land preservation really wants to talk about educating the next generation of environmental stewards.

A messaging structure provides people with the ability to be agile—to start and steer dialogues

Start collecting stories that demonstrate—and put a face on—how your organization makes a difference. Make sure there is a “so what” for every “what.” Draft stories that involve donors and prospects—stories that are only possible because of the participation of donors / investors. Show results.

Look at your logo or logotype. Do they mean what you want them to mean? Unless they strongly send out the wrong signals, or have heavy baggage attached to them, you may be able to re-tool what they mean by consistently pairing them with language and images that communicate your desired meaning—in this way, constituents re-learn what your mark symbolizes, and, by extension, what you’re about. If you can’t transition the meaning of your logo to where it needs to be, creating a new one—based on all you’ve learned—may be needed.

Evolve consistent—and compelling—approaches to your use of color, type, imagery, and composition. These approaches—your visual voice—provide shared thinking across departments and the “glue” to ensure that different communications will reinforce each other. If people can easily connect the e-newsletter that just showed up in their inbox to your website, to the banners outside your building, etc. they will understand and value you more quickly—for fewer dollars. And if your marketing and development materials share a common visual vocabulary, then all marketing materials support fundraising.

Get your story out. How and when do your constituencies want to hear from you? Email? Brochures? A meeting? Your blog? Craft a communications architecture that helps move prospects and donors along this continuum:

It’s very hard to skip a step. No one is likely to come across with a significant gift if he or she doesn’t know who you are, doesn’t understand you, and hasn’t participated in what you do in some way. And remember that people who know little about you need different communications than those who are already close. Treating a long-time donor like a newbie will send that person skittering away. Similarly, sending a planned giving packet to someone who has just interacted with your organization for the first time will probably guarantee that that person never writes a check. Understand and acknowledge where people are in the above sales cycle, and then communicate appropriately to move them closer.

Engage your organization. Provide the thinking, tools, and training so that everyone—including those whose cards don’t say “development” or “marketing”—can effectively communicate on the organization’s behalf. While only a few people may “make” communications, others commission them, and many more communicate informally… over the backyard fence. Board members may need a “cheat sheet” so they’re comfortable delivering your main message—and can tell the stories to back it up.

Befriend social media. People will talk—and tweet, and blog, and comment. By crafting an easily memorable message structure, ensuring that your logo is shorthand for what you want to be known for, and consistently promulgating a shared visual system, you increase the likelihood that what you want to be shared, will be. Soon after rolling out a new messaging system at a large public media enterprise, we were thrilled to see the messages showing up on Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

A strong brand system increases the likelihood that what you want shared will be shared

Live your brand. The best planning—and the most effective communications—can be easily subverted by negative customer / donor experiences. It’s hard to be perceived as compassionate and caring if the person soliciting funds on the phone is rude. People won’t believe you’re innovative if your website is slow and difficult to navigate. It’s hard to reinforce your commitment to building relationships if you don’t listen.

What does success look like?

Communications and brand building are not, ultimately, about the creation of artifacts—your logo, website, annual appeal mailing, podcast, or Twitter site. You communicate to inform and connect, to influence thinking and behavior. You communicate to realize your strategic and tactical goals—to get results. These can be measured in different dimensions:

  • Immediate > long term
  • Tangible > intangible
  • External > internal
  • Departmental > institutional

In other words, while the results of an annual appeal can be counted in the near term, building relationships that lead to a substantial planned giving bequest evolves over a longer time frame. Results that are tangible and immediate for one department may also support less tangible, longer-term results for another. A subscription acquisition piece needs to sell tickets, but it is also an opportunity to encourage a deeper affiliation—one that could lead to a major gift.

Your brand is a mosaic

Not all that many years ago, you controlled the relatively small number of communications that expressed your brand—and moved prospects to become donors, and donors to become major ones.

Not so any more. While now have many more channels through which to express your brand, there are also multiple channels—tweets, blogs, and other messaging technologies that make it easier for people to dash off two lines than it ever was to get out stationery and lick a stamp—that you don’t control.

Today, your brand is a mosaic. You place many of the “tiles,” but some are placed by others—ideally in line with your plan. But if an unwelcomed tile is inserted, the negative impact on your brand picture will be far less if you’ve provided a strong context for that rogue tile—if the color, material, and “edges” of the tiles you’ve placed influence how this new tile is perceived.

You place many of the “tiles” in your brand mosaic, but some are placed by others

If every communication from across your organization works hard to support your brand—in addition to fulfilling its more specific, tactical marketing or development goals—the institution always benefits. People will get to know you better, more quickly, and find a way in to your organization that resonates with their goals and values. And you’ll be able to build the trust and connection to move people to invest in your enterprise.