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Branding: The Blind Helping The Sighted To See A New Future

November 21, 2005

(This is the final article in a series of six addressing the issue of nonprofit branding.)

(Nov. 21, 2005) Guide Dogs for the Blind is one of the most prestigious guide dog schools in the country. Their success in training guide dogs, placing them with blind people and supporting that human/guide dog team for life, is known throughout the world.

Despite the importance of their work, and their international recognition, they were not well understood by the general public, even among many in the blind population. After all, what they do isn't as obvious as a relief or human rights organization. They were more like a unique form of a university.  

That misunderstanding was perhaps best illustrated when a local newspaper ran an article questioning Guide Dogs' economic model.  While the assumptions around which the article was based were wrong, it nevertheless had an impact on fundraising and morale.

Of course, the newspaper eventually corrected its story, but by then - with the help of a post Sept. 11, 2001 , economic slow-down - Guide Dogs for the Blind had lost a significant amount from their investment fund and general operating funds.

Like any organization that relies solely on corporate and individual donations would, Guide Dogs for the Blind decided to launch a public relations campaign to make sure their message was better understood and to bring a new energy back to the organization's fundraising efforts.  
Guide Dog's new CEO Bob Phillips, with the help of a new progressive management team, however, wanted this activity to yield more than just a compelling public relations campaign. They wanted to use this 'wake-up call' to do a 360 degree review of everything.
Guide Dogs for the Blind was about to embark on a journey of self-analysis and reflection from which they could never retreat, all under the name of a 'branding program.'

If it ain't broke, fix it anyway

In a move that is surprisingly (and sadly) unusual for most nonprofits, Phillips brought in a team of people to help walk the organization through a process of deep reflection to form an honest assessment of how well they were doing and what needed to change.  The guide Dogs management team interviewed volunteers, staff, graduates and prospective students, past directors and directors of other blind service organizations.
What they discovered about themselves was frustrating, if not unexpected.
Over time people's perceptions of Guide Dogs for the Blind had 'morphed.' They had become better known as an 'animal-centered' organization, rather than a collection of people deeply devoted to helping the blind live better lives. This was most evident in their fundraising; the vast majority of their donations were coming from 'dog lovers' rather than people who had a sense of what those dogs really meant in the lives of the blind.  

Seeing Beyond Cute Puppies

Spend any time at all speaking to blind people about their guide dogs, and what comes through is very profound - not about a dog or even a person, but a partnership.  One woman described her guide dog as 'my best girlfriend, spouse, child, and guide all wrapped into one.'   
Like we are all apt to do at times, Guide Dogs for the Blind had slowly allowed themselves - through the rigors of service delivery, support, fundraising objectives and all sorts of other things that can lead us astray - to forget the magic of that partnership.  They had developed a sort of factual understanding of themselves, built more around the logistics of what they did and how they worked with the blind, rather than why.
By affording themselves the opportunity to look at the entire issue through the perspective of a blind person, Guide Dogs for the Blind found the inspiration to reset their own perspective of themselves.  They didn't just train dogs for mobility; instead they literally built a partnership between a human and a dog that allowed blind people to live out their own personal destinies.  

The Power of Partnership

That simple shift in perspective led to a renaissance. Guide Dogs for the Blind reevaluated how they served their constituency, how they recruit volunteers, how they reached out to prospective candidates for their program and how they collaborated with other blind service organizations.  
Today, thanks to a creative board, excellent fundraising team and a new 'brand' to guide their thinking, Guide Dogs for the Blind is experiencing unprecedented success in fundraising.  
Joanne Ritter, director of marketing and communications at Guide Dogs for the Blind, understands the importance of that success.
'We knew a re-branding effort could have an impact on fundraising, but it has really affected every dimension of what we do.  We're simply a better organization today and because of that, we're serving the blind better than we ever have.'  

Bill Toliver is executive director of The Matale Line, a company devoted to helping nonprofits with communications and fundraising.  Visit them on the web at , or write Bill directly at

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