Back in 2012, Phipps CDC, a 40-year-old human services organization in the South Bronx, was struggling to communicate clearly, consistently and effectively. Target audiences, particularly potential clients and supporters, did not always understand the focus of the organization, and Phipps CDC suspected this was getting in the way of growth. With a newly hired communications staff and a strategic plan in place, they were ready to change their communications, so they embarked on a rebranding process.
The rebranding of Phipps CDC was comprehensive, and included setting a brand strategy and changing their logo, tagline and name (they are now Phipps Neighborhoods). Key messages, boilerplate content and an elevator pitch were also created. Other elements were rewritten to be more engaging and the entire staff was trained to use this new suite of tools.
Today, Phipps Neighborhoods staffers say the rebranding was instrumental in helping them raise more private support. “It’s not necessarily direct; people don’t give because of the name or logo, but the brand elements help us to talk about the work more effectively,” said Nancy Riedl, Phipps Neighborhoods’ director of development and communications. “The new brand, the work we do, and the fundraising that supports it are all a system now.”
Branding is all about perception—how your nonprofit is perceived in the hearts and minds of the people who matter most. In today’s increasingly noisy world, nonprofits consider rebranding as a strategy to reach and engage clients and supporters more effectively. But does it really work like that for most nonprofits?
I decided to find out. My communications firm, Big Duck, worked collaboratively with the FDR Group, a research firm, to develop an unbiased study comparing the outcomes of organizations that had rebranded with those that had made less dramatic communications changes in recent years. Rebranding was defined as changing or developing at least four of the following elements: brand strategy, name, tagline, logo, key messages and/or elevator pitch.
Our research revealed that organizations undertaking branding activities experienced many positive outcomes, including improved fundraising, donor retention and recruitment—just as Phipps Neighborhoods had. These organizations also did a better job engaging more activists, increasing program registration, recruiting better board members and garnering media attention.
About 1 in 4 survey participants said their organization’s ability to raise funds improved since implementing branding and communications changes. Virtually the same number said it was too soon to tell. For 36 percent, things had “stayed about the same,” while 6 percent said their organization’s ability to fundraise had gotten harder.
“(It’s) easier to tell the story … but still a difficult challenge raising money in a down economy,” one survey respondent said. Fundraising is “not easier, just more effective.”
Another respondent noted, “(Our) entire budget has been cut by 50 percent, including the fundraising budget. Direct mail campaigns, which were the backbone of our fundraising, are all but impossible now.”
Beyond this study, Big Duck has informally tracked the results of a number of nonprofits we have worked with over the past 20 years. The effects of getting smarter, faster and more confident as communicators seem to radiate outward, shifting an organization’s culture as staff members become more confident communicators and brand ambassadors.
Often, it begins with staff members producing materials or writing appeals or speeches faster and better than before, frequently without freelancers or the outside support they used to rely on. Next, donors who had previously made smaller gifts are making larger gifts and saying that they perceive the organization has “gone to the next level.” For example, The Marfan Foundation, a national nonprofit headquartered in Long Island that Big Duck rebranded in 2013, saw a 50 percent increase in overall support in their first year-end season using their new brand.
Rebranding a nonprofit is a lot like renovating your home: It’s messy, complicated, expensive and more time-consuming than you’d expect. But afterward, you feel more confident inviting people in. That’s where the fun begins—and the fundraising.
Sarah Durham is the CEO and founder of Big Duck, a New York City-based communications firm that works exclusively with nonprofits. The Rebrand Effect e-book, which highlights the findings from the study mentioned above, can be downloaded for free at www.bigducknyc.com. The findings are based on the responses to a survey completed between Feb. 5-Feb. 28, 2014, by 351 nonprofit decision-makers from across the country. Durham is also the author of “Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money Through Smart Communications. (Jossey-Bass 2010). You can reach her at email@example.com.