Don't Rob Peter to Pay Paul
A few years ago, a school I attended launched a multi-million dollar capital campaign. Because I regularly give to its annual appeal and a few other random appeals each year, the school probably considers me a mid-level donor — reliable for some support but not necessarily worth a lot of face-to-face cultivation.
I probably had received several appeals for this big campaign without realizing they were unusual. It was late in the game when I got a newsletter with a big cover-page story about “why this campaign is different,” and it finally dawned on me that some of those e-mails, newsletters and letters I’d received recently might have been about a special capital campaign I might want to support. Duh.
Since I spend the majority of my professional hours working on fundraising communications of one kind or another, I imagine that I look at what comes in the mail a bit more closely than most. But I also juggle a few other realities: a young family of my own, a large extended family, friends and the fact that, like most Americans, I’m on the receiving end of almost 5,000 marketing messages every day — many of which now come from nonprofits. I fit squarely into a traditional donor profile, and I give regularly to approximately a dozen organizations.
No doubt, you’ve asked yourself how you can get your distracted but desirable donors, perhaps like me, to wake up and smell the campaign coffee. You’ve wondered how your appeals will get and hold attention — particularly when your prospects also are being cultivated, stewarded and solicited by several other organizations simultaneously.
Make it different …
Many organizations worry that their capital, endowment or mixed campaign will “steal” support away from operations. They worry that donors will respond like I did: They’ll miss the distinction between the special campaign and the regular appeal. Worse, they might support the campaign and neglect operations.
If you’re cultivating a major donor through personal contact, there should be ample opportunity to explain the special campaign’s unique features and make the case for continued operations support. But with mid-level and smaller donors, you’ll have to rely on great writing and design to explain the difference when there’s little or no personal contact.
If your special-campaign materials are written and designed just like your regular appeals, they might get lost in the shuffle. That’s where my school went wrong: All the materials for the campaign looked just like its everyday donor communications.
… but make it the same
Before you get excited about using that wacky new typeface or color, there also are risks when you brand that campaign too distinctively. If you go too far, donors won’t recognize that it’s you, and new prospects to your organization won’t be building their recognition and familiarity with your core brand.
“Project Catalyst is our first major-donor capital campaign. We wanted the case statement and other materials to let our existing donors know that this was different — and a big deal,” says Kimberly Galberaith, vice president of Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, a New York City-based nonprofit organization founded by parents of children with Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophy. “At the same time, we wanted new donors to be learning just as much about us as they were Project Catalyst.”
The solution: The Project Catalyst campaign has a unique logo, but it’s in the same color as the organization’s logo. All Project Catalyst materials reflect and support Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy’s existing brand.
Building the brand
A strong brand can create a platform on which all communications about the organization will be built. It can create name recognition, generate income and establish credibility swiftly and elegantly. A poorly developed brand communicates instability, a lack of professionalism and a tendency to be ‘penny-wise, pound-foolish.’ All organizations have a brand, whether they admit it or not, and examining or changing it can be a painful process. It requires time, money, staff and board participation, and lots of patience.
There are two core elements that create a successful nonprofit brand: visuals and messages. Visual elements include not just your logo, but also the colors, type, images and other graphics you use consistently with it. Messages include your mission statement, tag line, key messages, and the standard (or “boilerplate”) copy you use to articulate your work and its value.
“Because we have a very active, grass roots membership, our brand development process included getting input and buy-in from our members and volunteers,” says Ed Goodell, executive director of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a federation dedicated to building and maintaining marked hiking trails and protecting related open space in the bi-state region. “At times, what membership wanted differed from what the board and staff felt. The process, which was frustrating at times, forced us to have some serious conversations about what truly makes us unique and how we can communicate that more specifically. The goal was to differentiate ourselves from other organizations whose work may be related.”
Most successfully branded organizations develop a style guide, which defines the visuals and messages, and how they should be used. Many organizations also train their staffs on how to use the brand.
Please bore me
Once the brand is built, the goal is to use it as extensively as possible. That typically means using the same colors, logo, types of images, mission statement and tag line over and over and over again.
“Some of our staff may occasionally get bored with using the same elements all the time,” says Beth Walsh, communications director at AmeriCares, a nonprofit organization that provides domestic and international disaster and humanitarian relief, aid and assistance around the world, “but we know that’s what works. Our international partners recognize the brand, donors and supporters recognize it; it’s our face in the global community. Whether you visit our Web site, receive our newsletter or read our annual report, you’ll see and read the same messages.”
Consistency also saves time spent rewriting or redesigning each new piece. Do donors get bored of seeing the same visuals and hearing the same messages? Most likely not. They’re receiving so many messages every day that what might feel like repetition to the organization feels like stability and consistency to the typical donor.
Back to the big gift
“Several years ago, the Women’s Funding Network launched a concept brand called ‘fund>>forward.’ It uses strong messages, colors and logos to present the value proposition of investing in women and girls — and it totally changed the way we communicate,” says Chris Grumm, president and CEO of the Women’s Funding Network, an international organization committed to improving the status of women and girls locally, nationally and globally. “We have developed campaigns using the brand and integrated it into all of our materials. Many of our 115 member funds use fund>>forward’s visuals and messages in their materials too.
“By building a consistent language to describe the movement to invest in women and girls, we’ve begun speaking with one voice nationally and internationally, although our member organizations each work locally,” she adds. “Doing so has built a platform that is allowing us to fundraise at both the local and the national level in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before.”
Whether your organization is embarking on a major fundraising campaign or looking to build and sustain operations, a strong brand is good business in today’s increasingly competitive and sophisticated fundraising climate.
Sarah Durham is the principal and founder of Big Duck, a communications firm in New York City that works exclusively with nonprofits.