You’re Not Nike — Get Over It
"Our fundraising results have dropped since we put our new brand standards in place, but that's OK because the new brand so brilliantly articulates who we are as an organization."
— Marketing director at a nonprofit
Don't laugh. This is not satire. I've heard statements like this many times. Maybe you have, too.
According to some, communication rules that hurt fundraising effectiveness but make people in the organization feel good are perfectly OK. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd say anything you do with your communication that de-motivates donors from giving should be considered a failure. Silly me.
Once the brand people start positioning their failure as success, your organization is in deep trouble. You are on the top of a very steep and slippery slope that leads to crippling budget cuts — at best.
To be fair, we can be pretty sure the brand folks didn't set out to make your fundraising less effective. They fully expected the new brand to help. They worked hard on a good-faith effort to take your organization to the Promised Land.
The fact that their efforts didn't work is a devastating blow to them. How could their hard-won insights and the brilliant principles of corporate branding not work miracles? Their claim that organizational self-expression matters more than cause-supporting revenue is just a desperate rear-guard action to salvage not only their hard work, but their very sense of reality.
Trouble is, the entire branding exercise was destined to hurt fundraising revenue from the start. And not because they mucked it up: They may or may not have done that, but either way, corporate-style branding always hurts nonprofit fundraising.
That's right: Corporate-style branding backfires for nonprofits. No matter how well you do it. It simply chases away donors. You might as well mandate that every piece you send out has a big red label that says DONORS, GO AWAY!
This problem is built in to the very structure of corporate branding, which is about making (and, one would hope, keeping) compelling promises about products and services. There are two kinds of corporate brands:
● The old kind. Its message is, "Buy our stuff because we are great." This used to work when there were few choices and people were less cynical. When you had two kinds of soup to choose from, of course you bought the one that was made by the company you thought was the better one.
Here's why it doesn't work
With either, the customer ends up having direct experience with the product. He always gets the chance to decide whether it lived up to the promise.
If you pay Apple, you'll get an iPhone. You'll use that iPhone and quickly know whether your money was well-spent or not. When the brand and product are both good and well-aligned, the customer turns into a fan. When the promise isn't kept, the customer typically stops being a customer.
But the whole thing falls apart when you apply that logic to a nonprofit.
Here's why: When you hand your money over to a nonprofit, you get nothing tangible in return. There's no iPhone to play with. You simply have no way of knowing whether the brand kept its promise. Since you have nothing in your hand, you are bound to have a sense that the nonprofit brand didn't keep the promise.
The only proof a nonprofit has to offer is information — stories. Stories are nice. They're critical for building relationships with donors. But when you get right down to it, stories are to direct experience what product reviews are to owning a product. Even the best story fails to help a donor experience a fulfilled brand promise.
When a nonprofit makes a corporate-style brand promise — whether it's "give because we are great" or "give to make yourself great" — it paints itself into a corner. It can't pull it off. The claims are empty. The problem is, its claims are qualitative claims. They can't be proven. The donor is going to be disappointed, or at least underwhelmed, by the lack of tangible proof he gets.
In fact, the more exciting the brand promise you made, the wider the gap your donor will feel between the promise and the experience.
That's why nonprofits that have never been through the branding exercise often have stronger brands than those who have. They aren't making high-flown, abstract statements about who they are — and promises they have no ability to fulfill. They just put out fundraising offers. To fulfill the promises they make, they only have to be grateful for the gifts and share stories of success. That's not glamorous, and it's not going to get written up in Communication Arts. But it works. It keeps the promise, and that's what matters.
There is a better way
I'm not recommending that you just ignore branding altogether. (Though if you have to choose between a corporate-style brand and none at all, you're much better off with none at all.) There's a better way.
An effective nonprofit brand takes a different approach: Instead of a look-at-me brand, it's a look-at-you brand. It recognizes that donors give to make good things happen, not to support an organization. Instead of promising to be the coolest charity on the block, it promises a fulfilling, information-rich experience that will maximize the donor's impact. It says two things:
● You'll have a lot of impact.
● You'll see that impact, clearly and dramatically.
Notice these are both "you" statements, not "we" statements. The smart nonprofit brand communication guidelines are packed with you statements. And thin on we statements. All that stuff about how cool the organization is moves into the background where it belongs.
When a donor gives, you just deliver the information you promised. Deliver it quickly, well and frequently. And overdeliver, while you're at it.
At that point, you're fulfilling a fulfillable, no-BS promise. There's no gap in the donor experience. Fundraising keeps working, and the revenue you need stays on target.
So when someone comes to you wanting to help you build a corporate-style, super-polished, look-at-me brand — you might want to say no thanks. You can't afford the damage it can do to your relationships with donors.
And you'll save your marketing people the embarrassment of making outlandish claims about what –matters most. FS