BWF Services: Strategic Communications and Branding

Whether you are making a charitable gift, buying a new car, choosing a venue for a celebration, volunteering at a local nonprofit, or deciding whether or not to accept a job offer, you are interacting with a brand.

That brand consists of the intangible attributes and qualities that people consistently associate with the organization, regardless of the type of touchpoint. And that identity can bear directly on your success as a fundraiser because the brand influences how donors, stakeholders, influencers, and volunteers perceive your organization, the expectations they have of interacting with it, and how it compares to other brands in the philanthropic landscape.

Definition of a Brand

Scott Bedbury, currently CEO of Brandstream and formerly with both Starbucks and Nike (where he was head of advertising and launched the “Bo Knows” and “Just Do It” campaigns), describes brands this way:

“A brand is not a product. It is the sum total of everything a company does—the good, the bad and even the off strategy—that creates a large context or an identity in the consumer’s [donor’s] mind. … Brands are sponges for content, for images, for fleeting feelings. They become psychological concepts held in the minds of the public [your constituents], where they stay forever.”

When a brand resonates with an individual, it’s because it aligns with the donor’s passion and purpose, which can translate into an enduring relationship. As Howard Schultz, former chairman and CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company, rightly observed, “The most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart—if people believe they share values with a company [organization], they will stay loyal to a brand.”

Understanding a Philanthropic Brand

Fundraisers understand that their nonprofit has an identity, one that competes with other brands for attention and a share of the philanthropic pie. The identity represents what the organization stands for, what it does, and why that matters to the community, the state or region, even the world. An organization’s identity is influenced by its mission and values; strategic priorities; marketing and communication efforts; the head of the organization as well as the staff, alumni, and donors; its bricks and mortar; news coverage; the storytelling; and so much more. Strong philanthropic brands embrace their identity and use it to deliver their mission and engage those supporters passionate about that mission.

When donors strongly identify with a nonprofit’s brand, their engagement with the organization and their motivations for supporting it evolve from the rational to the emotional. The brand becomes part of who they are and what they value. It represents what they care about and is often a testament to their belief that positive change is possible and that they can be part of solving problems and overcoming challenges. Each and every area of a fundraising program touches the brand and either brings it to life and strengthens it or can cause disconnects and diminishes it. While an engaging and memorable event can rally people together and boost the brand identity, a misspelled name, inaccurate gift acknowledgment, or delayed recognition can just as quickly undermine it.

Steps to Maximizing Your Brand’s Impact

Several tried and true steps will ensure that you’re utilizing your nonprofit brand to achieve maximum impact:

  • First, determine your brand attributes and personality (its DNA, if you will). If you’re part of a much larger organization, such as a university or a hospital system, then your philanthropic brand must be in sync with the larger parent brand. The attributes will underpin the decisions you make about interacting with your constituents at every touchpoint and help ensure you stay on brand.
  • Identify your brand distinctions and points of difference, and then use those to differentiate your brand from others in the philanthropic landscape. Elevating your brand through proactive and thoughtful management is how you rise above the fray. David Allen Aaker, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and a specialist in marketing with a focus on brand strategy, says, “Brands that have personality have a significant advantage; they are more likely to stand out from the crowd. Personality is an important dimension of brand equity because, like human personality, it is both differentiating and enduring.”
  • Bring the brand to life through both editorial (messaging) and creative. Remember, everything—messaging, colors, fonts, music, graphics, images, stories—and every touchpoint—proposals, annual giving appeals, campaign collateral, the website, videos, social media posts, events, speeches, impact reports, stewardship, gift officers—represents the brand.
  • Examine every touchpoint and identify any disconnects that detract from the brand and may potentially weaken it. For example, if one of your brand attributes is personal but your direct mail letters are not personalized, that’s a brand disconnect. Or if your brand promise is about bringing groups together to affect meaningful change but your organization hasn’t demonstrated engaging diverse communities, then some constituents might question your authenticity.
  • Champion the brand by adhering to identity guidelines, practicing messaging discipline, and finding ways to bring the brand to life, including through storytelling. Doing so will strengthen the brand and build trust in it.

Understanding your organization’s identity and distinction and clarifying the brand promise is how you establish the brand. Integration, consistency, and frequency (which require focus and intentionality) are vital to building a trusted brand. When you achieve that, you draw new donors and volunteers to your brand, increase support, strengthen renewals, and reach your goals.

To learn more about how BWF can help shape your brand and bring it to life to maximize your efforts and achieve your fundraising goals, please contact