Why Commercial-Style Branding Will Destroy Your Fundraising

Why Commercial-Style Branding Will Destroy Your Fundraising


Commercial-style branding is a clearly defined discipline, developed over the past hundred years or so for the marketing of goods.

The whole notion of commercial branding — that you make a promise and fulfil it with a product — collapses when you apply it to charitable giving.

Think about what happens when you give money to a charity: If the nonprofit is well run, your donation triggers a prompt, thorough, and specific acknowledgment. If they’re really on their game, you’ll also get subsequent reports about the impact of your gift. That’s nice — and important — but it isn’t a firsthand experience.

It’s as if you paid for an iPhone and they sent you an envelope full of glowing iPhone product reviews.

You’d be annoyed if Apple did that. But it’s not a problem in the world of charitable giving. That’s because unlike the experience of buying something, most of the pleasure you derive from charitable giving happens before you give and while you’re giving. It’s the well-documented warm glow of altruism. It comes from within the donor, not from a direct experience with a product.

This is what evades practitioners of commercial-style branding when they go to work on a nonprofit.

In charitable giving, the payment itself is the moment of exchanged value. Paying is not something donors consent to in order to get what they really want. “Paying” is what donors want in the first place.

Commercial branding is not designed to work within this basic reality of charitable giving. That’s why it falls so flat when applied to nonprofits.

Related blog: How to Write Like a Nonprofit Genius

To see how and where they go astray when they enter the nonprofit world, let’s look into the minds of Brand Experts when they’re doing their best work.

Nike is a brilliant commercial brand. It has managed to make shoes, the most pedestrian of consumer commodities, stand for human aspiration. Footwear designers at Nike might dispute me on this, but let’s face it: a shoe is a shoe. Describing the features of a shoe is not effective marketing.

To raise their shoes higher in our minds than pieces of leather you tie to your feet, the Nike branders looked upstream to the meaning of the shoe purchase. They asked, “Why do people wear these shoes?” Answer: To help in the pursuit of athletic activities.

Then they went farther upstream and asked, “Why do people do these activities?” Answer: Because in one way or another, they’re striving for achievement. It could be anything from losing weight to beating a cross-town rival — or a world record. They 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. It’s a triumph of the discipline. But the same thinking takes you down a different path when you try to apply it to a nonprofit brand. Let’s give it a try….

Brand Experts, using the commercial logic they know, assume a donation is just like a purchase. In their world, the purchase is not where the psychological action is. So they pay no attention to the purchase and instead look “upstream” to discover what’s really going on.

They ask a series of questions that are 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 ideal, the deeper meaning. The “Just Do It.”

The problem is that the ideal is invariably a lovely abstraction.

Instead of 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. It’s almost as if Cap’n Crunch cereal, Ford Motors, and Tiffany Jewelry each independently arrived at Just Do It as their brand position.

On the surface, Hope looks a lot like Just Do It. But it’s not even close. It doesn’t take a donor anywhere because it doesn’t motivate action. Abstraction isn’t action.

This is the moment when commercial-style branding fails for nonprofits.

The problem compounds and spreads as it seeks ways of expressing itself: It usually finds visual expression in images of proud, happy people. Not people in need, not people donors feel compassion for. Copy has to be vague — not about the realities and concrete actions that change the world, but the high-flown ideals that are supposedly behind the urge to change the world. The brand they build might be stirring and beautiful, but it won’t and can’t reveal that the charity exists to meet needs, right wrongs, and save the world. This form of branding shows the world as if the desired change had already happened.

Related Blog: Does it Really Matter if I DON’T Donate?

When you show donors a world where the problem has been solved, you might make them feel good, but you’ve told them, with absolute clarity, “We don’t need you.”

Stating abstract ideals is not fundraising. No matter how elevated those ideals are. Donors give to make specific things happen, not to identify with platonic ideals.

Our job as fundraisers is not to ennoble a boring old shoe with a glowing nimbus of the 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.

Related blog: The Power of Witnessing

Commercial-style branding is structurally at odds with that reality.

Nonprofits that have never been through a formal branding process often have stronger brands than those that have.

That’s because they haven’t wandered into the wilderness of abstract statements about their greatness. Instead, they’re presenting their donors with specific actions those donors care about and are willing to pay for.

Even when they aren’t savvy or experienced fundraisers, “underbranded” organizations quickly learn by trial and error to be specific and action oriented.

They have little choice but to focus on the real world. They don’t have brand guidelines telling them they must rise above that. So they just put out clear, specific fundraising offers that allow donors to do things they want to do. That’s how you raise funds. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not going to win awards or get written up in Communication Arts.

But it will raise money.

If you want to learn all the techniques that have enabled Jeff Brooks to raise millions of dollars for good causes – check out his Masterclass; Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits. It’s available for all members of The Fundraisingology Lab.

(This post is an excerpt from the book The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand Motivating Donors to Give, Give Happily, and Keep on Giving by Jeff Brooks.)

Please share your experience with branding by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.

P.S. Are you facing a re-branding? Schedule a free 25-minute coaching session with Jeff! He’ll help you navigate the waters ahead: Click here to schedule.


  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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6 Comments. Leave new

  • I saw an ‘animal’ agency tie themselves up for years in looking at their branding and a name-change. Spent millions directly, and millions in lost time. The result? A name and brand that looked lovely, but was utterly meaningless to donors. You can guess the impact on income. A big part of the problem was the exercise was driven by project people, who had high-minded ideals, but no idea of the damage to the cause they were doing through their idealism. I can point to similar examples in both the disability and overseas aid fields.

  • Hope is a slippery sentiment – I think it has failed our modern (post-religious) world like all the grand themes of yesteryear (i.e. world peace). Attempting to sell it feels like pissing in the wind. Instead, I like offering small opportunities for people to take a moment – to carve time out of their complex, neoliberally-ruined existence, to train a fricking puppy… or give a kid a glasses etc – and feel good about things for a second.

    Maybe we’ve never been selling hope, but simply a small, tangible reprieve from hopelessness. Like a 5pm glass of red after the school run.

    [grins wickedly.]

    • Oh man, now I really need that wine! I agree with you, but I’m not sure things are as bleak as you say! I hope not, anyway!

      • Well, I am about to turn mid-life-crisis-39 in a country where smashed avocado is preventing home ownership (sigh). Call me for the wine.

  • Good post.


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