Motivating Donors to Give — and Give Happily
I have scary news for you: Brand Experts are looking for you. These slick professionals from the commercial world see your organization the way a hungry lion sees an overweight, three-legged zebra. They’re salivating at the prospect of creating a new brand for you.
When they find you and offer to build a commercial-style, super-polished, look-at-me brand — just don’t do it!
If you do, you face a crippling loss of revenue and a large-scale exodus of donors that could take years to recover from. Anyone who’s been in our business for a while can tell you the horror stories.
Let’s look into the minds of Brand Experts when they’re doing their best work. Nike is a brilliant commercial brand that has made shoes stand for human aspiration.
Let’s face it: A shoe is a shoe. A great shoe is only slightly better than an OK shoe. Describing the features of a shoe only emphasizes how boring and undifferentiated shoes really are. It’s not effective marketing.
To raise its shoes higher in our minds than pieces of leather you tie to your feet, Nike looked upstream to the meaning of the purchase. They asked, “Why do people wear these shoes?” Answer: To help in the pursuit of athletic activities.
Then the Nike folks went farther upstream and asked, “Why do people do these activities?” Answer: Because in one way or another, they’re striving for achievement.
The branders connected that striving with the striving of famous athletes. Suddenly, a pair of shoes was a glorious thing: Just Do It.
That’s a well-built commercial brand. But the same thinking takes you down a different path when you try to apply it to a nonprofit brand.
Brand Experts assume a donation is just like a purchase. In their world, the purchase is not where the action is. So they pay no attention to the purchase and instead look upstream.
They ask a series of questions a lot like the Nike shoe questions. Why do people give? To help the poor. Why do they help the poor? To make the world a better place. Within three or four questions, they arrive at what they think is the true purpose of the organization in the deepest sense. Which they assume is also the donor’s purpose: the deeper meaning. The “Just Do It.”
That ideal is invariably an abstraction.
Instead of a concrete action like providing meals for hungry people, it is a value that’s inspiring but vague: Hope. An aspiration, not an action. (You might be shocked by how often Brand Experts arrive at Hope.)
On the surface, Hope looks like Just Do It. But it’s not even close. It doesn’t take a donor anywhere because it doesn’t motivate action. This is the moment when commercial-style branding fails for nonprofits.
Stating abstract ideals is not fundraising. No matter how elevated those ideals are. Donors give to make specific things happen, not to identify with ideals. Our job as fundraisers is not to ennoble a boring old shoe with a glowing ideal. Our job is almost the opposite of that: We connect a donor’s ideals with a gritty and specific reality, so she can change the world.
Branding doesn’t always kill fundraising. It can even do some good for organizations that follow these disciplines:
- They have the calls to action that both donors understand — and that can’t be obliterated by a fog of abstraction.
- They can make what they do clear and obvious visually and emotionally because they’ve learned what motivates donors to action.
- They connect with donors. Real donors whose preferences they know from real-life behavior.
So keep your eyes open when the Brand Experts show up. Their expertise could turn you into a defective version of a company selling a product that doesn’t quite exist.
(This is an excerpt from Jeff Brooks’ latest book,”The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand: Motivating Donors to Give, Give Happily, and Keep on Giving.” For information, click here.)