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Branding: Are Your Fundraising Strategies Damaging Your Hopes For Long-Term Success?

August 8, 2005

(Respondents to AFP's State of Fundraising 2004 survey indicated that branding and increased competition for the charitable dollar were two of their biggest concerns. This is the third in a series of six articles addressing the issue of nonprofit branding.)

(Aug.8, 2005) Oprah Winfrey plugs your organization and the phone begins to ring off the hook. A new Supreme Court nominee brings both sides of the choice debate back to the forefront of the national dialogue. A massive Tsunami blankets the coast of Asia and humanitarian groups can barely keep up with the numbers of new donations. Live8 captures the attention of the media outlets, and poverty in Africa is back in the headlines (for awhile, at least).

Until the next scandal, crisis, election or 'cure' pushes you back out of the public eye.

Human beings have short attention spans. We've all been helped and victimized by that fact. It's almost a guarantee that if you're hot today, you'll be cold tomorrow.

As fundraisers, we've been trained to play to those attention spans, react quickly to current realities and leverage them as best we can. It's why animal rights organizations emphasized the devastation amongst their constituents when the Southeast Asia tsunami hit. Why U.S.-based HIV/AIDS organizations are retooling their messaging now that there's the perception of a 'cure.' Every one of us has our own example of the need to re-establish our relevance because of a change in political climate, public perception or the headlines.

On one hand, it's easy to justify a slight tweak to our central message in an effort to appeal to the zeitgeist of public opinion. After all, the fundraising engine must not stop. Those of us responsible for the lifeblood of our organizations cannot be stymied by headlines or the state of the culture wars or anything else, for that matter. We have an obligation to ensure the quality and availability of our services no matter what.

On the other hand, those minor tweaks can begin to add up - sometimes with very subtle but grave consequences to our long-term success.

Some of today's fundraising campaigns seem to have given up on the notion of long-term commitment to our respective causes. We accept as fate that things change and the cycle is uncontrollable.

But is it? Are we doomed to constantly reframe our relevance to the world every few years? Or is there a way to break that cycle, and start shaping events for ourselves - even when the headlines don't favor our cause, and even though we may have comparatively limited resources?

It depends.

Touching Beliefs, Not Emotions

To the extent we only define ourselves by the services we provide or the unique constituencies we serve, we almost guarantee that our relevance is tied to just how well the service or constituency is 'in vogue.'

Likewise, if we continue to rely on traditional direct marketing 'rules of thumb' we'll always feel compelled to dumb down our messages so they play to the lowest common denominator of human emotion.

Outrage, affection, guilt, excitement, sorrow, frustration and even fear are just a few of the emotional motivators many of us have used at one time or another to call people to act. But while these emotions are powerful, they are not particularly profound.

According to Webster, emotions are 'sensations' ¬ they are, by definition, transient. Emotions do not reflect the central principles, beliefs or values by which human beings frame our sense of ourselves. Because of that, they are not the basis for creating a lasting relationship between our organization and a loyal community of followers. In fact, to the extent our communications try to 'out emotion' the next guy, we are helping to promote the very same fickle behavior that is costing us committed donors.

To truly break the cycle of changing public perceptions and build a following that rises above everyday realities, we must create a deeper connection with our constituency.

We have an opportunity not to abandon emotion in our communications, but to transcend it. To not just touch peoples' hearts, but their spinal cords. To connect with people in a way that is timelessly relevant, because we are appealing to their values, beliefs and world-view, rather than their more immediate and less reliable, emotional state.

Creating Deeper Connections

To do so, we have to start with a different set of questions than, 'What is the emotional appeal of our message this time?' Here are a few questions that might begin to offer a more dependable path to lasting success for your next campaign:

  • What is the single net impression we're hoping people will get from this campaign? Is it a reflection of not just what we do, or who we serve, but why we do it?
  • Would someone have to have had a personal experience with our cause in order to offer support or does this message appeal to something even deeper?
  • Are we defining our mission in terms of a fundamental human value or belief or merely taking advantage of an emotion?
  • Finally, are we seeking to appeal to a sense of hope or possibility or are we playing upon feelings of guilt, fear or shame?

With a slight change in approach you'll not only compel more people to join your cause, you'll compel them for the right reasons. Which means you'll be able to rely on them forever - regardless of what may be in the headlines today.

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 www.mataleline.com,, or write Bill directly at bill.toliver@mataleline.com.

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