Time to rethink your fundraising strategy? Think about your ‘brand’

Laurie Dodge
Laurie Dodge

Special to Philanthropy Journal
By Laurie Dodge

What can a 112-year-old, volunteer-driven organization teach other nonprofits about marketing and development in a tough fundraising environment?

A lot.

Over the last 11 decades, The Junior League has gone through a wide range of fundraising cycles – as well as wars, economic depressions and great social change. The lessons we have learned, both at the national level through The Association of Junior Leagues International Inc. and through working with the 293 independent Leagues we support, demonstrate the importance of staying true to your organization’s mission.

At the same time, however, our experience also shows that reliance on tried-and-true development tools alone may not be enough. And new tools, such as social media, are great additions to the fundraising toolkit.

The key to it all, however, is understanding what your organization’s brand is – how it is perceived by important audiences, including members, community partners and funding sources, and what is the impact on your brand of the ways you conduct fundraising.

While usually thought of as a marketing tool for big consumer products companies like Coca-Cola, I would argue that branding is increasingly a critical component of how we, as nonprofit organizations, communicate our mission. Looking at branding that way, it isn’t really a tool so much as an ongoing summary of who you are as an organization, how you live your mission, and what you accomplish through programs (and who benefits from them).

But less understood is the role of your branding in terms of fundraising and development. Simply put, if a potential funding source – whether a corporate donor or a foundation – doesn’t “get” your brand, the ask is going to be that much more difficult.

Looking at it from that perspective, here are five ways to understand the role of branding in nonprofit fundraising:

  • Diversify your funding sources without negatively impacting your brand. At AJLI, we have had sponsorship relationships in the past with companies as varied as BMW and Talbot’s. Both companies valued the strength of our brand, particularly in terms of our commitment to develop the next generation of female nonprofit leaders and support women and children’s issues. At the same time, their corporate brands – both in terms of their industry leadership and brand citizenship – reflected well on AJLI.
  • Understand how corporate brand positioning can signal funding opportunities. Fundraising, or fund development, is no longer about asking for money; instead it’s about positioning your organization as a logical partner to potential donors, whether they are foundations or corporations. A great example of that came as a result of the successful implementation across more than 200 Leagues of AJLI’s 7-year-old campaign to address childhood obesity – Junior Leagues’ Kids in the Kitchen – which led last year to funding from Kashi to promote its own commitment to healthy eating and lifestyles. Social media was utilized as an important tool in the collaboration by Kashi and AJLI, involving our members and community partners in determining the level of the funding. And that fact that the Junior Leagues’ Kids in the Kitchen program was recently featured on the back of 1.8 million Kashi Cinnamon Harvest cereal boxes in was certainly a nice boost for our brand!
  • Tap into foundation funding by leveraging the value of your brand in the communities you serve. The Junior League has long been known for its deep commitment to, and programs addressing, women’s and children’s issues at the community level. In 2000, for example, the Mary Kay Foundation funded the development and the implementation of AJLI’s Resource Guide for Ending Domestic Violence. It was a great program, and one that fit squarely with the Mary Kay Foundation’s own mission (and brand).
  • Maximize the value of your organization’s access to community leaders and partners who also support the funding source’s mission and mandate. It’s really just common sense. Both corporate and foundation funding sources want lasting, mutually beneficial partnerships that help them advance their own missions – but never doubt that they are looking for as many touch points as possible. As a nonprofit, whether a national human services organization or a local group, you have credibility within the communities you serve. So use it!
  • Utilize the power of your volunteers in implementing funded programs and maximizing the exposure of the initiatives in their communities. Our 293 independent Leagues are viewed as important constituents of their local nonprofit communities, but their members are themselves active and influential community members in their own right. So it’s no surprise that retailers ranging from Neiman Marcus and Whole Foods to Wegmans have reached out directly to our Leagues for sponsorship and partnership opportunities that help members carry out their mission at the local level.

This is not to say that AJLI is the last word in fundraising prowess. But we are focused on finding ways to match our needs, and brand, with those of corporate and foundation funding sources.

One word of advice, however: If you are not developing credible programs with real staying power, getting to your fundraising goals is inevitably going to be more difficult. What sponsors are looking for – particularly now as many operate with tighter budgets – is access to strong partners that get things done.

It’s all about branding!

Laurie Dodge is Director of Marketing & Development of The Association of Junior Leagues International Inc., which represents 293 independent Leagues in four countries. Dodge has held senior management positions at IconMedialab, an international IT services firm, and Interbrand, the nation’s leading branding consultancy, where she oversaw the design and execution of each firm’s communications strategies in North America. Earlier, at Christie’s, Dodge developed and executed public relations and marketing initiatives for the auction house’s top-grossing Impressionist and Modern Art department. 

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