If ever there were a time to invest in enhancing donor experience, now would be it. As people start to reassemble themselves after the apocalyptic economic crisis, and begin to rebuild trust in institutions (nonprofits included), there is an opportunity to create an experience that yields a refreshed, stronger, more engaged donor base.

The good news is that nonprofits have more tools at their disposal than they probably realize, and I’d like to help them identify a few. In essence, the road to successful donor engagement starts with creating a brand that is honest and comprehensive. This is a bit trickier done than said. Often the truth of your brand is hard to identify and even harder to communicate. But let’s start with the most crucial point: Transparency. This is the first step toward authenticity, and the only characteristic that eventually builds trust. And let’s face it, people only donate to (let alone associate with) organizations that they trust.

I work for a nonprofit branding and design studio called Empax, and if there is one thing I’ve heard consistently since the day I started, it’s that branding must stem from a place of truth. A brand that is not honest might as well be actively sabotaging itself, and it certainly doesn’t stand a chance of passing as genuine to your target audience (a.k.a. donors). Donor experience is a direct bi-product of brand experience, and is a potent tool that can be intentionally engineered to meet your organizations’ goals when executed properly. 

Let’s take a tip from the (eek!) advertising world on how to engage audiences. Advertising as we know it today evolved in roughly three stages. Initially, companies simply listed off the features of whatever product they were trying to sell. For example, this car has a V6 engine, four doors, is painted shiny silver and costs “only” this much. After a while advertisers began promoting the benefits of their products. This car will get you from A to Z faster than any other car, and will draw looks of envy from everyone on the street. Not long after, the market is flooded with ads for shiny silver cars that go fast and create envy, and advertisers were grasping for a way to make their product stand out in the crowd. Enter identity. Instead of selling the product or its benefits, ad companies were selling us new identities we could magically adopt just by buying the products. Nike was no longer about shoes or even about speed. It was about being a winner. Marlboro was about being an independent, authentic American (cancer, what cancer?). This final, and least tangible, approach to advertising sealed the proverbial deal.

Nonprofits seem to be communicating mostly on the first two channels. You hear appeals to donate based on features: “because we have a program that serves this many people” or “because our organization can successfully change the law on this issue”. And you hear appeals that are somewhat more effective, based on benefits: “Help this child get the education she needs, so she can become a productive and empowered adult”. But you hardly ever hear appeals based on identity. That’s due to their abstract and mostly visual nature. Nike never asks you to consider their shoes “because they’ll help you win”. The Marlboro Man never asks you to buy cigarettes “because you’ll be independent like me”. In fact, he never says anything at all. There is no “because” in identity (or lifestyle) marketing. There is only “become.” Be a winner. Be independent. What do your donors want to become by helping you?

What advertisers tapped in to – and what nonprofits have the same ability to do – is the power of designing an environment, a feeling, that is enticing and inviting to your users. In other words, build a brand that your stakeholders can identify with. As the recent article Homer Simpson for Nonprofits brilliantly pointed out, peer pressure still exists. The desire to be part of a club (let’s be optimistic and call it a community) drives a lot of the decisions we make. We all acknowledge that overlap is abundant throughout the nonprofit landscape. But there is a reason that someone supports the Sierra Club, for example, over the NRDC or the Environmental Defense Fund. It’s because of what being Sierra Club members says about them. They feel that they are connected to the mission because it speaks to them in a language they understand, from a culture that they align with and in a voice that’s familiar. They know they will find like-minded people that “belong to” the Sierra Club, and also own it at the same time. It’s not just who they donate to or volunteer for, it’s who they are. And it’s also about who they are not. An NRDC supporter, for example, may care just as much about the planet, but something just won’t fit right.

I will not lie and say that creating an enticing, successful brand is just as easy as being aware that you need one. While it’s true that having a third party help your organization reevaluate its brand, there are things your organization can start examining internally. I recently wrote a post on differentiation, which discusses tactics and trends. I’ve come up with a condensed list to get you started here:

  • Identify your position. A SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) can start you off, and get you thinking about your organization and what you offer. Don’t be afraid to recognize your shortcomings – they probably highlight what your strong points are and why you are different than your competition.
  • Master the art of Storytelling. All organizations have an abundance of stories to tell about their work. The trick is finding a way to tell them creatively, visually and succinctly.
  • Look-and-feel. This goes beyond a logo, color scheme and website design. What do you want your donors to feel when they come into contact with you? Are you trying to be the Sierra Club or the NRDC? Define your character, and own it.
  • Consistency. Through a simple communications audit you can get a sense of how cohesive your organizational image is. Go ahead, pull out all the brochures, reports, mailings, annual reports, e-newsletters, etc. that you’ve produced in the last few years. Do they look like they all came from the same place? Do they tell a unified story, or are they mere anecdotes, related only by name.

If you can gather some of this information, and create a strategy for how to communicate it all, you’re off to a good start. Remember that donors decisions are heavily influenced by the emotional brain (as opposed to the rational one) so don’t hesitate to appeal to this.

When you arrive at a place where your nonprofit is presenting an honest, consistent brand, donors will notice. The authenticity of your communications won’t need explanation, and you will have created an opportunity for donors to interface with your organization in a deep and meaningful way. When they start to feel that they’re a part of your community and you are part of their identity, you will be at the top of their list when they become comfortable writing checks again. And you’ll be the first nonprofit they tell their friends about. So let’s use this opportunity, as a sector, to up the ante, deepen our commitment to donors, and strive to create the most genuine, truthful experiences for everyone involved.

*Veronica Wilson is the VP of External Communications at Empax, a nonprofit branding, design and web studio in New York, where our clients are our causes and we believe that nonprofits deserve access to the same (if not better) communications tools that flood the commercial market.