One of the biggest challenges every nonprofit faces is the need to balance awareness building and fundraising with the work that launched them in the first place. Effective communications take time and money to develop—time and money that could be spent on people in need, preserving a forest, designating landmarks, or ensuring a rare bird doesn’t face extinction. But if you’re not out there in the world, actively establishing the need and your answer to it, you won’t draw the resources required to pursue your vision.
For the many mission-driven organizations we work with, communicating on a budget presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge? To engage with your existing and potential donors in such a way that they feel invested in your efforts, and compelled to support them… without spending a mint or overwhelming their generosity.
The opportunity? To stand out from the crowd of organizations in your space, to develop an unmistakable brand — and to build a community of loyal, lifelong donors.
Given that we live in a noisy, multi-channel world, and people face multiple “asks” every day, it takes a consistent, thoughtful, intentional effort to make those connections.
We call it “mosaic branding”: creating and arranging a rich mosaic of communications, both organization- and crowd-generated, where each tile is carefully positioned relative to the others to form a brand mural people can understand and believe in — and, mostly importantly, invest in. You can’t control everything that’s said about you or your cause out in the world — but the stronger your brand becomes, the more it can influence those voices for the better.
So how do you accomplish that on a budget? By crafting an authentic, compelling verbal and visual system — a set of consistent, immediately recognizable approaches you draw on for every brochure, email, appeal, case statement, letter, campaign update, or tweet you send.
Building a brand that stands out from the crowd
Project Bread is an anti-hunger organization operating statewide in Massachusetts that develops, pilots, and funds innovative solutions to food insecurity. They meet people in need where they live, work, learn, and play, and focus on providing them with sustainable sources of healthy food — even in food deserts, where fresh produce is hard to come by.
While they support hundreds of year-round programs in places like pre-schools, schools, community centers, and clinics, their best known initiative is The Walk for Hunger: the largest community-building, fundraising walk in the Commonwealth, now headed into its 47th year.
When we signed on for a collaboration with Project Bread, one of our first goals was to start spreading the news they were, in fact, the organization is behind one of the state’s most beloved community events — but that they were hard at work the other 364 days of the year, too. We also wanted to elevate the reality that Project Bread’s work extends far beyond supporting emergency food programs — the programs for which the Walk is best known.
Project Bread’s communications tended to “reinvent the wheel” quite a bit from piece to piece, and year to year. Different colors, different imagery, different logos, different designs, and different ways of describing their work made it tough for casual viewers to recognize them in different venues.
Our direct mail program is no longer a brand afterthought. The language, the structure, the look and feel, and the types of communications we send are a clear reflection of who we are, what we do – and what we want to accomplish. And our supporters are responding to that authenticity. Ellen Parker, Executive Director of Project Bread
Our goal in Project Bread’s makeover was to craft messaging, a tagline, an identifier, a new palette, and a new approach to imagery that reflected their vision, mission, and character as an organization. Their new tagline, “A Fresh Approach to Ending Hunger”, set the tone for an organically textured, farmers market-inspired logo, a lively color palette that would make sense alongside vibrant and inspiring imagery, and messages that simply and clearly outlined their areas of focus, their roles, their goals, and their impact.
With these new assets in hand, mosaic branding was first and foremost on our minds. We wanted their communications to be instantly recognizable — regardless of where or how the reader came across them — irresistible to their core audiences, and “on brand”, both visually and verbally. Their comprehensive website, Walk campaign materials, and social accounts all saw a major makeover, and we created a new piece to speak specifically to major donors.
Direct mail was next on our list – and would become one of our biggest challenges.
Helping direct mail make a direct connection
Project Bread’s direct mail program shared some of the same communications hiccups we had recognized in their other materials: the identifiers changed from piece to piece, the affect of the pieces didn’t match the character and spirit of the organization, the “asks” focused on emergency needs over innovative solutions, and they weren’t quite sure what story they wanted to tell – or who they wanted to tell it to. Our charge was pretty clear.
To ensure their direct mail pieces would feel right at home in Project Bread’s new family of communications, we used the following three words as our guideposts:
From simple donor letters to share specific needs, seasonally themed appeals to encourage end-of-year giving, or news-packed quarterly newsletters, we wanted each thing we sent out to be immediately identifiable as a Project Bread mailing. A front-and-center identifier, a shared palette, fun graphic details, and a people-focused approach to imagery would make an immediate impression.
While Project Bread’s supporters were enthusiastic about what the organization was up to, they often didn’t realize the depth of their outreach. Each mailing now shares a particular area of focus – school breakfasts, reduced cost CSAs, community meals for the elderly, urban agriculture, etc. – or speaks to the needs and potential of a specific program. Not only does this approach educate donors about the range of initiatives Project Bread is working on, it provides different “ways in” for donors who might care about different things.
If education can serve as “way in” for donors, storytelling is the reason they decide to stay where they’ve arrived. As an organization that works with a diverse range of cultures and communities facing unique challenges, Project Bread has a lot of stories to tell – and that was something we want to infuse in their direct mail efforts.
Whether we’re sharing the story of a student who got over their fear of vegetables through Project Bread’s Chefs in Schools initiative, or a police station connecting with the kids in their neighborhood through a summer meals program, or a family who has participated in the Walk for more than a decade together, we put a face and a name to the problems we want our direct mail readers to help us solve.
So how does Project Bread feel about their direct mail makeover?
Ellen Parker, Executive Director of Project Bread, tells us, “Our direct mail program is no longer a brand afterthought. The language, the structure, the look and feel, and the types of communications we send are a clear reflection of who we are, what we do – and what we want to accomplish. And our supporters are responding to that authenticity.”
Ultimately, our goals as a brand strategy firm are to ensure our clients communicate in a compelling way about who they are and what they do – and to help them build strong relationships with the audiences who matter most. Different types of communications vehicles face different challenges in accomplishing those goals.
The reality is that direct mail pieces often have a tougher task to accomplish than most: how can we stay out of the recycling bin long enough to make meaningful contact with a letter opener? And if our recipient opens up what we’ve sent, how quickly can we make a connection with what they care about?
There are, of course, plenty of smart techniques to explore for geo-targeting, segmentation, personalization, data-driven asks, and all the other facets of your direct mail program.
But before you dig into those types of tips, tricks, and tweaks, consider how the critical basics of consistency, education, and storytelling could help you make an even greater impact on your potential supporter or donor — and how they could contribute to the development of your mosaic brand.