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Great Fundraising Brands – Help or Hindrance?

Published by Adrian Sargeant on

Charity brands are quite literally big business. In 2018 Cancer Research UK’s brand was valued at circa £2.3 billion and the British Heart Foundation’s at £1.36 billion. The models that underpin these statistics are typically an amalgam of the history of the brand (and associated investment), brand identity and awareness, organisational income, income growth and projections of the same. Brands therefore accrue value because they are felt to ensure the future performance of an organisation. The healthier the brand, the healthier that future is felt to be.

But whilst many have “argued” an association between brand and fundraising success, in reality, studies of the dynamic between the two are rare. We could find only two and this is surprising given the significance of the issue. Even where studies have been conducted the evidence in favour of a link is weak explaining only a tiny percentage of dependent variables such as giving or revenue growth.

In our own new study of great fundraising brands, we found that the strongest predictor of fundraising income is fundraising expense which alone predicts around 87% of the variation in fundraising income. And yes, we know this is obvious. Of course additional fundraising expenditure should be associated with additional fundraising income. But the interesting facet of our analysis was that with the addition of brand related variables we could predict just an additional 1% of the variation in fundraising income. If brands do indeed help to drive fundraising performance, then our results suggest it is not the amount of the investment in branding that will be the key to delivering that success per se. Our figures are emphatic.  We ran a number of different models and could find little or no relationship between brand expenditure and the absolute level of fundraising income, the percentage growth in revenue either year on year or average growth calculated over an extended period of time.

So what can we conclude?

To be clear, these results do not indicate that branding doesn’t offer value for fundraising. It may be the quality of the brand strategy that is more of an issue than the value of expenditure per se. Put simply, evidence of the branding/fundraising link could be lacking because there is no such link, or it could be lacking because the quality of brand practice is generally so weak it hasn’t yet made the difference that it should.

Of course, there are always stand-out organisations that do excel. And the qualitative phase of our research was deliberately focused on charities of this type. In this phase of our work we deliberately focused on a series of high performing nonprofits that had recently achieved outstanding growth. We were struck in these great fundraising organisations at how frequently brand was positioned as the servant of fundraising. Regardless of where the team were placed in their organisation’s structure, clarity over the nature of the relationship seemed to play an immensely significant role. Great fundraising brands, it seems, were there to drive great fundraising growth.

This clarity is important because many organisations struggle to manage the interface between branding and fundraising. Conflict between the two functions can often be an issue and was seen by our interviewees as almost inevitable. But if brand is viewed as being there to support fundraising growth the potential for any conflict to arise is greater reduced. We also found an interesting sub-set of great fundraising brands that were actively managed as a fundraising proposition. In these organisations branding and fundraising were essentially the same thing, e.g. ‘No Child Born to Die’ and ‘Cruelty to Children Must Stop – Full Stop’, are cases in point. It is easy to see how this kind of integration can take place in cultures where branding exists to aid fundraising and the triangulation of messaging can only be helpful.

It would be facile to suggest that brands designed to be fundraising brands do not have an impact on fundraising performance.

We also found that the processes associated with branding and brand management can be immensely helpful for fundraising. The process of securing buy-in, for example, can be genuinely inspiring for both internal and external stakeholders alike. Simply put, it feels good to be associated with an outstanding and emotional brand and the resultant commitment and energy is infectious. Thus, if the team is inspired the organisation may well become “more fundraisable” as it delivers massively more value for donors. Branding may thus have indirect effects on fundraising not accounted for in our quantitative analysis.

So, does branding really help or hinder fundraising? As we’ve just noted, we find little quantitative evidence in favour of the impact of branding on fundraising performance. But quantitative research is by definition concerned with generalities and if the general level of branding practice is poor, our statistical analysis will reflect that. In reality we believe that the picture is more nuanced and that properly managed brands can offer substantial utility in driving fundraising income.

Our full report explains how this might happen. A free copy of the full report can be downloaded at www.acapf.com.


Adrian Sargeant

Adrian Sargeant

Adrian Sargeant is director of the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy. He is widely considered the world’s foremost fundraising academic, formerly holding the Hartsook Chair in Fundraising at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. He also holds visiting appointments at Avila University and the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies, Queensland University of Technology. Professor Sargeant has published more than 10 books and around 150 peer reviewed academic publications in the domain of individual giving, fundraising and nonprofit marketing.

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