How your nonprofit brand can put you out of business — or make you fully human

Why does branding have a bad reputation in the fundraising world?

It should be a powerful tool for motivating donors to higher levels of giving and other engagement.

But too often, it does the exact opposite. A spiffy new brand rolls out, and fundraising crashes.

All that tells us is that in those cases, the brand is a negative, or that it is wrongly applied.

But it happens alarmingly often. Which leads many observant and experienced people to conclude that there’s something broken about the discipline of branding itself. That nonprofits shouldn’t “do” branding.

It’s a reasonable conclusion, but it’s wrong.

There’s a very helpful post on this topic at The Agitator: Who Polices the Brand Police? that puts forth the one and only reason branding should exist and be followed by a nonprofit organization:

To vouchsafe and communicate the central values of the organization. [That is] the only purpose of brand and brand exercises.

Amen to that.

Knowing and being able to compellingly communicate your core values might boost your fundraising. This is what most of us want branding to do.

Or it might interfere with your fundraising.

If they’re your core values, you hold them even if they make fundraising more difficult. Don’t pretend otherwise. Violating your values to make more money is amoral. Having and following values makes you fully human.

I find that most damaging branding practices come from fuzzy thinking that mixes the values goal of branding with other things that don’t belong in the conversation. Example:

Our brand rejects [some common fundraising practice] because it’s against our values, and anyway, our fundraising will be stronger without it.

So you have two great reasons not to do it!

Here’s how it goes: Many organizations don’t want to use photos of people who appear to be suffering. Now it’s almost a sure thing that “negative” images will raise more funds than positive ones. There are exceptions, but this is most likely to be the case for you.

But if using such images really violates your values, you must not use them. Even if they will raise you buckets of more money.

In so many of these conversations, what’s really being said is, Those negative images make us uncomfortable. But we’re outlawing them because they don’t work! They don’t actually violate our values; we just don’t like them.

If you admit the reality that not using those images will cost you, but choose not to use them anyway because of your values, that’s brand doing what it should do.

Another common claim:

Our brand rejects [some common fundraising practice] because donors hate it. I know this because I hate it.

Dead wrong. If you hate it, that’s a fairly good indicator that donors will respond to it! (Sometimes, they’ll even tell you they hate it, but still respond to it.)

This often drives brand decisions about design, color palettes, fonts, etc. They are often aimed at young, hip, sophisticated insiders. It makes them so happy when they can stop doing ugly, corny, old-fashioned fundraising.

Suddenly, they’re no longer connecting with donors, who are different from us. So fundraising drops.

Sloppy thinking that muddles our own preference and taste with our values almost always leads to fundraising-negative brands.

You can avoid this disaster with The Agitator’s two-question test for branding decisions:

  1. Does it work?
  2. Even if it works, is it at a higher moral cost?

That will result in a brand that protects your values (most important) and possibly improves your fundraising (also important).

Every decision made in your brand should be to improve fundraising. Unless it violates your values. No muddy in-betweens!


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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