Nonprofit Fundraising vs Nonprofit Brand: The Great Divide

blog_pic_2-15-16_squareMy first boss, a respected if not legendary direct mail fundraiser in the political arena, once told me that it is far easier to raise money against a perceived evil than it is to raise it for a perceived good.

The recognized emotional “drivers” of effective direct response fundraising copy (attributed to Bob Hacker and Axel Andersson) are fear, greed, guilt, exclusivity, anger, salvation, and flattery. Most good copywriters, especially in fundraising, lean heavily on these emotions to drive response, and strive to place the donor at the center of the appeal.

The notion that donor action is more easily triggered against an evil suggests that, of these drivers, fear, guilt, and anger are frequently more useful tools for fundraisers to stoke the emotional fire in their readers’ hearts. Admittedly this sometimes paints a grim but motivating picture of the challenge.

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Nonprofit Brand vs. Nonprofit Fundraising

There is ongoing angst among fundraising professionals about the intrusion of brand constraints into fundraising campaigns. Stories abound of slick, ad agency-produced PSAs that are long on pizzazz but short on donor respect, clear calls-to-action, and a compelling reason to give.

Jeff Brooks, at his excellent Future Fundraising Now blog, regularly and amusingly documents the dubious creations of brand directors run amok in fundraising campaigns.

It shouldn’t be this way. If an organization’s brand promise is strong and unambiguous (think Operation Smile, St Judes Children’s Hospital, Wounded Warrior Project, American Cancer Society), then the brand, by extension, should be a powerful shorthand for all the nuance, emotion and impact of a philanthropic mission.

But there’s a difference between mission and the “product” that we fundraisers sell. Our product is NOT the organizational mission. It’s the warm fuzzy intangible a donor feels when she takes action that changes the world for the better.

In the commercial world, there should be little difference between brand promise and product satisfaction. When the brand over-promises and product under-delivers, consumers immediately speak with their wallets, profits plummet, and brand strategies are instantly revised.

The problem in our world? Too often many nonprofit brand czars conflate a nonprofit’s brand with the tactical messages of fundraising. They misunderstand that the fundraising product (aforementioned warm fuzzy for the donor) is not the organizational mission (improving the world).

Therefore, they rail against the tone and implication of fundraising appeals if they see them diverging from their brand vision of mission. “We sell hope, not hopelessness, we sell healing, not disease, we sell redemption, not despair,” they argue.

My first boss, Richard Viguerie, used to say that it’s much harder to raise money FOR something (hope, healing, redemption) than it is to raise money AGAINST something (hopelessness, disease, despair). Being constrained by brand police from describing the evil that missions address makes it much harder to sell the good they hope to achieve.

The result? Brand-compliant appeals, devoid of focus, emotional drivers, and compelling imagery, which depend on tired techniques (freemiums, involvement devices, quasi-deceptive envelope lures, etc.) to remain effective. The same-old same-old. (see Roger Craver’s thoughts at The Agitator for a discussion of the dangers of “best practice.”)

All is not lost. There are plenty of competent fundraisers and nonprofit brand managers who understand the difference between fundraising product and mission awareness, and recognize that the best brands and fundraising solutions support each other.