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Great Fundraising and Brands: Help or Hindrance?

There is a passionate debate in our sector about the extent to which branding either helps or hinders fundraising growth. Some argue that branding is essential so that the whole organization can unite around core messages and project a distinctive personality that amplifies the impact of these messages and speaks to how a charity will pursue and complete its mission. Others feel that brands have become too abstract. In the push to create something acceptable to all, many nonprofits develop brands that speaks only in meaningless generalities that hurt their ability to raise money. Fundraising, they would say, is about making the mission tangible for donors and abstractions kill income.

So who is right? Do brands help or hinder fundraising and under what circumstances might there be a real synergy between the two?

Our report is the first piece of work that has attempted to address these questions in the context of organizations that have massively grown their fundraising income. Through a combination of interviews with key players and a detailed look at the accounts of leading UK charities we are able to offer some insight.

We found that Increasing brand expenditure has only a relatively modest impact on fundraising success while increasing expenditure on fundraising is massively impactful. Fundraising expense alone predicts around 87% of the variation in fundraising income. The addition of brand expenditure increases the predictive power to only 88%.

So can we conclude that branding really doesn’t help with fundraising? Not quite. Increasing brand expenditure for its own sake appears to us unhelpful, but the nature of the brand and the brand strategy adopted can be hugely important.

In the successful organizations we studied we found that brand was frequently positioned as the servant of fundraising. Regardless of where the team were placed in their organisation’s structure, clarity over the nature of the relationship between branding and fundraising seemed to play an immensely significant role. Great fundraising brands were there to drive great fundraising growth.

This is a key finding since there is often a cultural tension between the two functions, fundraising seeking to use the most powerful messages they can to raise funds and brand pushing back on messaging that is inconsistent with their guidelines. If everyone understands the role of the brand is to build fundraising success, those conversations (and any possible disputes) are much easier to have (or resolve).

We also found that brands could play a powerful role in making an organization “fundraisable.” The processes and procedures necessary to create and manage a brand can build whole organization buy in to key
messages. We found this to be particularly powerful where the messaging focused on the “why” of “why” the organization exists. Emotion is key to fundraising and it is often in an organization’s “why” that the strongest emotions can be found. Our outstanding fundraising organizations had been able to use the branding process to harness the passion the whole organization had for the “why” and thus lay the groundwork for everyone to understand why fundraising was so important and to get fully behind it.

In respect of how to better leverage the brand to grow fundraising, we identified that strong fundraising brands were more likely to focus on purpose, proposition, personality, and passion. The inclusion of these dimensions in the development of a brand strategy would therefore seem appropriate. We noted too, how many of these dimensions are consistent with the stimulation of brand love. This was not a term used by our interviewees, although many did speak of the affection or liking that various groups might have. From our perspective, learning from the commercial sector how to develop that brand love could be massively significant. Our work suggests that charity brands are good candidates for the transition to love objects, and there is a weight of evidence that suggests that “lovemarks” would be likely to attract massively more income as they are better placed to meet the higher order needs (wellbeing) of supporters.

We began with an initial review of the literature to ascertain the current state of knowledge. We then conducted a detailed qualitative study to identify how brands are managed in organisations that have achieved outstanding levels of fundraising growth. That study also looked at how and under what circumstances branding could be leveraged to boost fundraising performance. We then concluded our work by conducting a quantitative analysis based on the financial data supplied over a period of ten years by 30 UK charities. The goal of the quantitative study was to look at the impact of branding and other expenditures on fundraising performance. The research was carried out by The Philanthropy Centre team.

The research was commissioned by ACA Philanthropy and Fundraising (formerly Alan Clayton Associates). Alan Clayton said that in their own consulting work they have found that organizations frequently don’t think enough about the role of their brand. Some appear to build it for its own sake and when you ask them to articulate what their brand is for, they really can’t give you a coherent answer. While fundraised income may not be the only reason the organization needs to build a brand, it is frequently given as the sole justification for brand investment. ”

This report focusses on how non-profit brands can achieve one common purpose – it shows how brands can be leveraged to massively grow fundraising income,” he said.

In too many nonprofits the brand is an object of vanity. It attracts hugely more attention from a Board because it’s perceived to be strategic and consequential for the organization’s reputation. Fundraising by contrast lacks the glamour afforded the brand and can be perceived by a board as a purely tactical pursuit; a necessary evil that can be conducted by others.

Our work shows the folly of this approach. Or at least the folly if the goal is to raise massively more income to make an organization’s vision a reality.

About the Contributors:

Professor Adrian Sargeant Adrian Sargeant now serves as the CEO of the Philanthropy Centre. 

Harriet Day is a Research Fellow at The Philanthropy Centre. 

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