Don’t let your fundraising suffer from “brandjacking”

Are you familiar with the game show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” Sometimes I feel like I’m living that game show every day with my own fifth-grade son. He’s currently reading a book called Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know about Fast Food and shared a fact I didn’t know: Our world’s population more readily recognizes McDonald’s Golden Arches than it does a cross. In spite of the numerous global religions our societies celebrate and defend, the Golden Arches is a more familiar symbol. Wow. Talk about a powerful brand.

Nonprofit brands connect the donor with action

Can you imagine fundraising in an environment where everyone knows what your organization is and what it does? What a luxury, right? Our latest addition to the CausePlanet summary library focuses on this exact idea. Jeff Brooks, author of The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand, argues that a nonprofit brand must genuinely cultivate donor action.

Nonprofit leaders who follow the corporate sector’s lead on how to build a brand should follow no more. “Simply applying the principles of commercial branding to nonprofit fundraising is exactly the wrong thing to do. It’s the cause of most branding accidents,” says Brooks. He argues with an abundance of experience that a brand should inspire donors to give rather than convey abstract ideas or visuals that leave donors feeling as if they’re not needed. Brooks also guides you on how to avoid the most common pitfalls associated with branding efforts and to maintain the donor-focused approach that will ensure long-term fundraising success.

Why commercial branding doesn’t work

Namely, commercial branding focuses on abstract ideals of products or services. A nonprofit brand needs to show donors a problem in a realistic way and give them a way to combat it. It needs to show clear, emotional images to motivate and connect with its donors. It needs to know its donors and their preferences.

Don’t get “brandjacked”

According to Brooks, nonprofits must avoid “brandjacking” (“when ‘Brand Experts’ remake a nonprofit brand and render it ineffective for fundraising”). The warning signs include:

1) The new brand is not aimed at your donors.

2) The new brand requires you to abandon your donors to seek new, possibly fictitious ones, instead of expanding your base.

3) The work is not grounded in donor behavior (what donors do instead of what they say about your organization or understand in focus groups).

4) The new brand describes your cause in a symbolic way, instead of in a clear, realistic fashion to move donors to act.

5) The new brand requires absolute consistency, not leaving room for creativity or varying the messages for changing circumstances or relationships with donors.

6) The new brand is design—and little else.

We asked Jeff Brooks about “brandjacking” and his book in our author interview contained in the Page to Practice™ book summary. Here’s an excerpt:

CausePlanet: What is the most common form of “brandjacking” you observe in your client work today?

Brooks: Most common: a nonprofit hires someone from the corporate world and gives him/her carte blanche to transform the organization. That person has little or no understanding of the charity economy, and that lack of understanding plays out in branding and marketing activities that drive away donors. It typically takes two years or more for the organization to realize the size of its mistake, and by that time the marketing expert is ready to move on anyway. Then a bunch of staff gets fired or laid off, assuring there will be no organizational memory of how the brandjacking happened.

CausePlanet: What do you hope readers do with their brands after completing this book?

Brooks: I hope they’ll feel confident and equipped to build a donor-focused organization that loves and respects donors. I hope they’ll create amazing calls to action that empower donors to change the world. I hope they’ll start marketing to donors instead of organizational insiders. I regularly see organizations go through this kind of transformation, and not only does fundraising revenue skyrocket, but people in the organization start to love their work a lot more.

A widely known brand is a very tempting goal for nonprofit organizations, yet Jeff Brooks would caution you not to let slick corporate examples lead you away from a brand that genuinely connects donors to a call to action.  “The mistake many nonprofits make in fundraising is to think when it comes to talking about the cause, ‘bigger is better.’ They believe the philosophical underpinnings of the cause are more important than its specific activities,” adds Brooks. Think less about the Golden Arches and more about how your donor can help.

See more:

The Brand IDEA

Breakthrough Nonprofit Branding

Image credits:,,,,

2 responses to “Don’t let your fundraising suffer from “brandjacking””

  1. Leslie Allen says:

    Thanks so much, Denise, for this great post and for your wonderful conversation with Jeff Brooks! I think Warning Sign #1 (The brand is not aimed at your donors) is so important and I would expand it just a bit. The best branding is when you bring donors into the process. I actually learned this the hard way early in my career when I launched a program without donor input. It was a learning experience I will never forget!

  2. Great input, Leslie! I love that you mentioned this. Jeff agrees with you–he says, “Do not choose photos your staff likes; instead, test them with your donors.” He cautions readers not to use focus groups or qualitative research because these tools will tell you what donors think but not how they will actually respond. Instead, he recommends direct-response testing.

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