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Fundraising and Communications: How Not to Be the Cats and Dogs of the Nonprofit World

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Cats and dogs: We expect them to be lifelong enemies, always in conflict.

That’s how it is much of the time. But in some cases, they peacefully co-exist. Sometimes, they really love each other.

In the fundraising world, we have a similar situation. But it’s human beings, not animals, who are expected to be in a constant state of conflict. It’s fundraising people and marketing/communications people at nonprofits. They aren’t always in conflict, but they so often are that conflict seems to be the default.

Recently in our members-only Facebook community, The Fundraisingology Lab, a member posted a question about this rivalry that stirred up a lot of passion:

Why is there such a divide on the role of brand / marketing and fundraising the community?

I come from a brand / advertising background and moved to nonprofits for purpose – but I have to often hide that from some hard-core fundraising folks.

I want to show you some of the responses to that question. Keep in mind that the large majority of Fundraisingology Lab members are fundraising professionals, so this is pretty much the equivalent of a Facebook discussion group of cats complaining about dogs. Here are some of what they had to say:

  • So many of the things we do in fundraising that help us connect our causes to donors’ hearts go against typical corporate brand guidelines. Communications people are the protectors of “the brand.” Without fundraising training, they will look at a fundraising piece and say it is too emotional, too corny, too informal, too repetitive, too plain, too long, too simple, too off-tone, too specific, and too urgent. The problem is that this approach is less effective in bringing in, stewarding, and maintaining donors … thus raising less money.
  • I think I spend more time over debates with marketing/ comms people who don’t understand fundraising than I do on writing stuff. It has to do with differing goals and audiences and success measures. Fundraisers are measured on funds raised, retention and lifetime value of donors while marketers are measuring things like brand awareness.
  • I spent most of yesterday explaining to our new communications person why the edits they’d made (for brand design reasons) to our eNewsletter weren’t appropriate for our donor audience. It took hours. There’s not enough time in a month of Sundays to do that for every piece we send!
  • Marketing a brand and marketing to raise funds are very different beasts. I love working with our marketing team because they have phenomenal ideas … I just need to rough them up a bit so they don’t look super polished, because my experience is that super polished doesn’t get you big funds raised.

That’s not the whole discussion, but you get the picture.

You might even be living the picture.

The all-too-common experience at nonprofits is that “We are rebranding” often means one to three years of painfully weak fundraising that will result in a number of people at the organization laid off or fired.

That’s not hyperbole. Almost anyone with experience in the nonprofit sector will confirm that this is the ugly course rebranding so often follows.

That’s why many of us in the fundraising profession have come to the conclusion that “branding” is dangerous — that you can have brand, or fundraising, but you can’t have both. And that communications people tend to lead us astray.

That’s my gut reaction. It might be yours.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It isn’t always that way.

I’ve worked on teams where fundraising and marketing people do amazing work. The marketing people really get it. Both groups work together to bring marketing and branding into organizations in ways that add lasting value. They boost fundraising revenue and tighten the bond with donors.

I’d like to suggest that fundraising and communications can and should work together – like those cats and dogs that get along. If they can do it right, the result will be better results for their organizations.

Here’s how that can happen:

Fundraising and marketing people should be on the same team.

The most common reason the two groups are in conflict is they are pursuing unrelated goals: Fundraising people are focused on donor retention, campaign results, leading to revenue. The goal of marketing is usually farther from the bottom line: recognition, awareness, impressions – things that don’t directly bring in donors or revenue …

It can come together when the two groups should have the same goals and the same budget. Not two different sets of goals and fighting over one zero-sum budget.

Those “soft” measurements like awareness can lead to revenue … if they’re done right and coordinated. This means both groups should focus on the same (or at least adjacent) audiences. It also means spending time and money on projects that cross the sometimes fuzzy line between marketing and direct response and having the same orientation to measurable outcomes.

We really can all get along and have better outcomes by working with our marketing and communications colleagues. It takes good leadership and strong focus.

Navigate the complex world of fundraising and marketing with the best help available. Join The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You’ll get the tools, the information, and the supporting community that will take you to new places in your fundraising career. Join the waiting list now and you’ll be the first to hear when the doors open again!

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  • 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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