5 Ways Your Brand Can Destroy Your Fundraising Results

I’ve been talking about nonprofit branding a lot lately with organizations all over the country.  Seems brand strategy is top of mind once again for organizations trying to raise their community profile and generate more money for their causes.

There’s only one problem.  Brands  and fundraising don’t always mix.  In fact, often when a nonprofit makes changes to their brand strategy, it ends up killing their fundraising results.

Don’t let this happen to your organization.  Watch out for these five ways branding can kill your fundraising results.

But first, let’s understand what your brand is, and what it is not.

Your brand is not your: logo, tagline, color pallate or style guide.

Your brand is sum total of all experiences and interactions that someone has with your organization.  Whether that person is your donor, your client, your employee, volunteer, board member or member of the general public.  This may shift a few world views out there, but marinate on what I just said for a minute.  Your brand isn’t just about your print and online materials.  It includes the interactions people have with your staff and volunteers.  The way you answer the phone (or don’t).  The way you treat donors, volunteers and clients.  It is everything you do and don’t do.

So how can your brand destroy your fundraising results?  Here are the five most common ways…

1. Your language is sanitary.  You go from feeding starving people to nourishing the food insecure.  Or from saving the life of a child who was critically injured to providing care for a child who experienced a traumatic accident.  Whether this is an attempt to be more politically correct, elevate the nature of your communication or any number of other wonderful goals, it will have a negative impact on your results.  Sanitizing the language you use does one thing.  It takes the emotion out of your work.  And donors give because your trigger an emotional response in their heart.  Not their brains.

2. Your photos stop showing need and only show “accomplishment”.  What are accomplishment photos?  They’re photos of happy, smiling kids, healthy people, beautiful, excited animals, etc.  What’s wrong with these, you might wonder?  To the donor, they communicate that you don’t have a need.  Showing need reinforces in your donor’s mind, the impact her gift will make.  If you’ve already fixed the problem, why do you need her check?  Instead, show need.  And if you must, show accomplishment as well.  But make sure you put the donor in between the two points.

3. You don’t say thank you.  There’s no excuse for this, but you’d be shocked at the number of nonprofits that either don’t send a timely thank you receipt, don’t receipt gifts at certain levels, don’t thank people for giving in-kind items – this list could go on and on.  You finally get someone to take an action that you worked so hard to trigger (and probably spent a lot of money on), then you royally screw it up by not showing authentic appreciation for their support.  The impression this leaves on your donor is that you are arrogant, unappreciative, and undeserving of their future support.

4. You don’t listen.  A donor calls and tells you that she received a mailing that was addressed to her and her deceased husband.  He just died seven months ago.  It is too hard for her to even read his name right now without bursting into tears.  She asks you to take his name off of your list for all future correspondence.  But when you receive her gift, you send the thank you receipt to Mr. & Mrs. Smith.  You were busy.  You forgot to tell the database coordinator about the change in time.  Guess what?  This “small mistake” just showed your donor that you don’t really care.  She’s done giving now – or at least to you.  The same thing holds true for donors who ask you to reduce the frequency of mailings/e-mails/phone calls you send them.  If you won’t listen to them, why should they support you?

5. You focus on yourself instead of your donors.  Yes, you need to talk about your organization in order to communicate your vision, values, impact, etc.  But all too often (as in at least once a week) I come across a nonprofit that communicates in a style that is entirely internally focused.  You talk about your needs, your goals, your mission, your desires, your hopes, your expectations, your accomplishments.  So I, as the potential donor am left asking, if you’re so great, why the heck do you need my money?  You can still communicate all the same points and get the same messages across.  But do it in a way that puts the donor at the center of it all.  Let her be the hero.  The star.  The solution.  The only one who can solve the problem.


Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.com

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4 thoughts on “5 Ways Your Brand Can Destroy Your Fundraising Results

  1. Branding is really undergoing a transformation due to social channels. This means the shift towards our audiences — what they want, how they perceive us, etc. — is now overwhelming. We really no longer own/define our own brand. http://clairification.blogspot.com/2011/10/brand-spanking-new-changing-meaning-of.html

    What is required of us is a holistic approach. No more siloing responsibility for the brand in any single department — be it marketing, customer service or development. Our constituents don’t make those distinctions. They have one experience with us, and it better be coherant. With the advent of social media, coherence suddenly became a lot more difficult to manage. Branding has been around since the industrial revolution, but application of branding to the technological revolution is relatively new. We can no longer keep our relations at arms length. Customers are interacting with our brand every minute, even while we sleep. And in their interactions, they are pushing back at whatever we try to impose.

    • Claire, you’ve captured this perfectly. Haven’t checked out your blog post yet, but I’m headed there shortly. However, your point about all of our departments needing to be singing the same tune is absolutely correct. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is a great article. You make a number of good points. My example of “sanitary language” was a children’s hospital that said they were “an acute care pediatric facility”! Wow.

    If you were going to add a sixth item, I would include a point about not communicating enough with donors. I made a $6,000 pledge to an organization that, because I was a significant donor, took me off the regular direct mail list so as to “not bother” me. But then they don’t send special mailings to pledge donors. So the only communication I got last year was a pledge reminder! And that didn’t say what they do with my money!

    I’d like to see you blog on good logos and slogans. For example, Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. used to use this as their slogan:


    It was stacked one word on top of the next. It’s great. Each word works separately, and they all work as a group. I saw that years ago and I still remember it.

    Thanks for posting this article.

    • Hi Katherine,

      Thanks for sharing this. We could probably trade some fun war stories on this topic. I’ve got a few children’s hospital examples that would make you cringe.

      You make a really interesting point about communication frequency. I think that goes under the category of “don’t make assumptions”. Unfortunately, our sector is full of well-meaning people who want to make sure everyone feels valued. However, without knowing, we make assumptions about what we think someone would want, and often we’re wrong. Had the very same thing you describe happen to a social service organization over a period of three years. Anyone who made a gift above an artificial limit was put into a “no mail” category. They were too low to get major donor assignments, but too high to continue in the direct mail program. The majority became lapsed donors. We went back and looked at the segment (which grew to over 10,000 names), and based on some calculated averages, we’re pretty sure the organization lost out on over $2 million in revenue during those years (not to mention future major and planned giving opportunities). That’s a lot of life change that didn’t happen because of some bad assumptions.

      Thanks again for sharing! – Andrew