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June 30, 2021

How can you leverage your brand to connect with your community?

Your brand is how your organization expresses its voice. Knowing whose voices are being centered in your brand strategy and assets is a key element to developing or shifting your brand, and making sure the process is inclusive is essential. Listen in as Sarah Durham, CEO, and Farra Trompeter, partner and chief growth officer, share insights on how to use your brand to connect with donors and your community.


Farra Trompeter Hello everyone. Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter. I am Big Duck’s chief growth officer and a partner here and I have the honor of talking with Sarah Durham. Your usual host, Sarah, as you know, is the CEO of Big Duck as well as the CEO of Advomatic. And today, Sarah and I are going to talk about how you can leverage your organization’s brands to connect with donors and your community. Sarah, thanks for joining us.

Sarah Durham: Hey, Farra. So fun to be your guest today. Thank you for having me.

Farra Trompeter: Ten years ago, or so you wrote a book called Brandraising, How nonprofits raise visibility and money through smart communications. And let’s just start with that. When you came up with this book, with this term Brandraising, what did you mean by Brandraising?

Sarah Durham: Well, back in 2010, when the book came out, branding was just emerging as something that nonprofits were really talking about. And there was a lot of confusion then just as there is still a lot of confusion about what that term means. But I think the simplest way to sum it up is that the brand is, for most organizations, a way of expressing their voice. How do you as an institution, as an organization, as a nonprofit speak and write and express yourself in a cohesive holistic way so that it’s not just each program getting known on its own, but the organization as a whole has a recognizable identity and a way of communicating?

Farra Trompeter: Great. And for folks who might be interested in learning more about Brandraising or digging into our approach on branding, we do have a great page about it, where you can learn about the book and about the model at Big We will be sure to link to that in the transcript.

Farra Trompeter: So one of the things that I love about the Brandraising model is how it starts at the organizational level, really honing in on the idea of brand strategy and reminding us before we get into things like either creating or changing an organization’s name or logo to really be rooted in some strategic elements. So can you talk about what the organizational level is and particularly what we identify as brand strategy?

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I think one of the big places where organizations struggle with branding is that they tend to jump right into things like messaging, or visual identity, or other expressions of the brand or brand asset creation without starting with that brand strategy piece. And the brand strategy piece grows directly out of your organization’s vision and mission. If you’ve been through any kind of formal strategic planning, that really is the backbone and starting point. But there almost needs to be a bridge between the strategic plan or the vision and mission and those assets that logo and those other pieces and the bridge that we talk about at Big Duck and that we help our clients develop when we develop brand strategies, hinges on two core elements, there are lots of models for branding, but we have found that there are two that are most helpful for nonprofits.

Sarah Durham: The first is positioning. Positioning is the single idea or central idea your organization wants to be associated with or known for. So sometimes if you think of those big for-profit brands, like when I say Staples, people think office supplies. When I say Google people think search. And even though those companies do a whole bunch of other things, we have established in our minds this big idea about them, that’s positioning. The other thing that we think is essential to an effective brand strategy is personality, and personality is really the fun stuff. It’s the tone and style that you use to communicate. And most organizations really do have a tone and style for their communications. They just haven’t really codified it and articulated it and expressed it consistently. So one example of this from one of Big Duck’s clients, and there’s a case study about this on the Big Duck website if you go to and search for the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. Their positioning is the Shriver Center on Poverty Law works with, and for people living in poverty to power advocacy strategies that advance racial and economic justice.

Sarah Durham: So now that’s a mouthful. That’s not something that they necessarily use a tagline or express publicly. It’s what we would call a backstage strategy. It’s a tool that they use backstage to say, when we write, when we speak, when we communicate on behalf of the Shriver Center, are we advancing this big idea? And are people gonna know us as the people who are powering advocacy strategies that advance racial and economic justice. The Shriver Center’s personality is unwavering, collaborative, experienced, responsive, and community-centered. And if you look at their website or their print materials, or you hear their executive director speak, you will see that at every point of contact, those adjectives really inform and shape the language they use, then the tone and style they use. So brand strategy becomes this kind of communications tool or expression of the strategic plan. That brings things to life in a way that makes it a lot easier to actually engage in communications.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. And in fact, I just had the pleasure of doing a webinar about the power of a good tagline with Ambar from the Shriver Center and Chandra from the Center for Constitutional Rights. And one of the things we talked about is how that positioning came to life in their tagline, “For racial and economic justice,” which really is kind of a distillation of that positioning and a chance to reinforce what they want people to think of them as. So I think, you know, really being clear about your positioning and personality as the cornerstone of making those choices is really helpful. And we’ve got a whole ebook about brand strategy. If that’s something you want to dig into, again, we will link to it in our show notes and you can get it on our website at

Sarah Durham: And then tagline webinar too.

Farra Trompeter: That’s right. We’ll link to that. And you can see that in that video and the transcript.

Sarah Durham: Read the book, watch the webinar, read the ebook so much to do.

Farra Trompeter: So many goodies I have for you. Let’s say an organization has a strong brand strategy and they’ve used it to update their visuals and their messaging, and they’re ready to go. How can they then use these tools to help staff and board and other folks represent them and become brand ambassadors?

Sarah Durham: Well, the visuals and the messaging that your organization is going to create when it goes through some sort of rebranding process are assets. And assets are only as good as they are used. And so the number one thing that we always encourage organizations to do when they’ve got some new things to work with is to train your team and you train your team in a lot of different ways, you can create guides where you articulate all those details.

Sarah Durham: We call them Brandraising guides when we do it here at Big Duck, but it can just be a messaging guide. It can be a style guide if it’s just your visuals. And definitely, you’re going to want to walk your team through how to use them, answer questions. We are big fans of doing those trainings on Zoom and recording those trainings so that you have something that becomes an archive. And those trainings can be repeated regularly and updated, but they also are great to integrate into your onboarding and HR practices. You know, what often happens is when an organization goes through a rebranding, all the people who were there get trained, they learn, they use it, and they’re terrific at using it. But that person who got hired six months later doesn’t always have the guidance they need. So I would also encourage folks to just bake in those assets, into their onboarding and HR practices for future hiring and training purposes.

Farra Trompeter: One of the things that I think comes up a lot as part of that organizational level, going back to Brandraising, we like to really be clear on goals and audiences and really helping organizations think about what to prioritize in a branding process. So I’d love it if you could talk about how you clarify goals and audiences, and in particular, we often get a lot of questions about where do donors and funders fit in? And how much of a priority is that maybe as compared to other members of our community?

Sarah Durham: Yeah. You know, when you’re going through a branding process, I think one of the real challenges for many organizations is that most organizations have very varied constituents. You’ve got, you know, the people that may be engaged with your programs, you have your development or donor audiences. You have maybe advocacy or community-based audiences. And it can be really hard to get clear on who you’re trying to reach and what you’re trying to achieve. So here’s another resource for you and my most recent book, which is called The Nonprofit Communications Engine. There’s a model that basically looks like a bullseye, it’s concentric circles. And it’s a way of starting to map out your audiences. And the idea is that you start in the center with the people who are most essential to reach. When your organization communicates or emails, or speaks, or updates its website, who are the people who are most important to hear what you’re talking about? Is it the people who are essential to your mission? I served for a while on the board of the National Brain Tumor Society, and people who are affected by brain tumors are right in the center of that circle because if that organization isn’t reaching and helping and engaging those people, they can’t move the mission forward. But as you start to move to the outer rings of that, bulls-eye, you might get into secondary audiences or tertiary audiences.

Sarah Durham: And oftentimes as you go through a branding exercise, it’s also really important to go through an audience clarification exercise, because until you really start to get clear and specific about who you’re trying to reach, it can be hard to make sure you’re creating assets that actually resonate for the people you want to communicate with.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. I think one of the things that often comes up as we talk about audiences, is the organization in a moment where they’ve recognized they’re the best-kept secret, only the few people who know them love them, but I don’t know if people know who they are. Or they’re in a situation where there’s an increased demand for their work–people are knocking down their doors, their virtual doors, their in-person doors to get to them. And in fact, what they need is more support or they need to expand.

Farra Trompeter: So I think thinking about context and the moment you’re in and the moment you’re heading toward for the next few years is really critical as we think about mapping those audiences. So I’m going to come back to fundraising because again, it’s often what many organizations come to us with as a goal. And I’m curious, Sarah, how do you think nonprofits can use their brand to attract donors and other audiences?

Sarah Durham: I think there is no doubt that the brand that you create has to resonate for your donors, just like it has to resonate for other people. Although I think if you’ve been paying attention to our podcast or you’ve been following a lot of the exciting stuff that’s happening in the fundraising world, you might know that we’re not fans of making everything donor-centric. That the donors are one of many audiences and they are not necessarily the primary audience. They are often, I think, given a little too much centrality in the communications we do or other people do. I do think that it is really a challenge sometimes for organizations to think about how they understand their audiences. Do they know their audiences well enough intuitively because they reflect their audiences, or have they already done research that is useful to understand their audiences to bring to the table? Or do they need to bake that into the process? And there’s a real tension in a branding process between spending a lot of time and energy upfront to bring people’s voices into the process. The more voices you bring into the process, the more you can really make sure that you’re grounding the work authentically in the things that are going to resonate for the people you want to reach. It also can slow the process down and it can add some time and some money.

Sarah Durham: So I think it’s really important for you, as an organization, if you’re going to go through a reframing or a rebranding process, to be really candid about that. Whose voices need to be centered in the process? Who are the audiences you’re trying to reach? How are you representing the people that are central to your mission in the rebranding to make sure that it is authentic and that it’s going to resonate for them? You can also in a branding process, do less research and more testing downstream. You can arrive at a few possible executions and then get feedback from the communities that you want to reach with them too. So there’s a lot of ways to do this. And donors are one of many audiences that can be really central to that process. But again, don’t hinge it all on the donor. If they’re not the end all be all of what you’re up to.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. I’m thinking about two recent episodes, one a conversation you had with Seema Shah about research and engaging the community and another with Michelle Shireen Muri, one of the co-founders of Community Centric Fundraising, really, again, talking about the role of community and who we’re centering. In this conversation around donor-centrism and community-centrism, you can’t think about them as completely polar opposite. There is some world in which we have to live in the overlap of thinking about what we need to do to engage our donors, but not making it all about them, not making it like they are the savior, they are the hero, they are the only ones we exist for, but really making sure we’re rooted in what our community needs and elevating that community. Whether that’s our program participants, our advocates, our staff, and giving them just as much weight. But one of the things I wanted to talk about Sarah, there is a really great framework that I know you developed when we were thinking about communicating with major donors. That’s in our Capital campaign communications ebook also at But I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that framework because that framework was used in thinking about how we communicate with donors when we’re doing things like capital campaigns or any big major donor push. But I actually think the ideas of it can be helpful to think about in all donor communications, including the brand.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, well with a capital campaign or any major donor communications, you know, when you think about what your job as an organization is communicating to donors, I think it sort of does boil down to three basic elements. The first is that before somebody pulls out a checkbook, if they still have a checkbook, and they write a big check, they need to be inspired. People do not write checks, especially big checks, but maybe even small checks for organizations or for issues that don’t feel personally resonant and inspiring for them. So inspiration is number one, how are you inspiring people to want to support your organization? And there’s a terrific blog that our senior copywriter Lila Tublin just wrote about communicating in plain language. And I think that plain language is actually one of the great ways to do it. If we’re sending emails to people with tons of jargon, and we’re talking all about us and not about them and talking about what we’re going to do, but not talking about the outcomes or the impact of that work, then it’s not that inspiring for a donor. So number one, inspire. Number two, many donors, particularly major donors, want to be informed. They want to get some details. And the question I think for you as a fundraiser or as a communicator is how much detail? What’s the right amount of detail that helps them understand really what they’re supporting without getting into the weeds in unnecessary ways?

Sarah Durham: And then the third, is that donors, and this is I think where we sometimes get into trouble with donor-centricity, but I think donors, major donors, want to be reassured that you’re spending their money well. And in this, there are really probably honestly a lot of like trust issues and maybe systemic challenges around how donors do or do not trust organizations, I think for better or worse, maybe for worse, we, the nonprofit sector, have been trained over the years to feel like we have to keep reporting back to donors. We have to keep justifying where and how the money is being invested or spent. I would say that many donors are going to want some reassurance and I would encourage you to challenge that and investigate it and not over inform your donors, but where appropriate, maybe understand what the donor is looking for and how the donor is going to feel confident that the check they’ve written has been put to good use because we want them to do that again.

Sarah Durham: So inspire, inform, reassure.

Farra Trompeter: Right. And before we go deeper into donor communications, I just want to pause and connect to other conversations we’ve been having around integrating racial equity practices into the brand and communications. And I recently wrote a blog which kind of summarized a report and some findings from The Communications Network. And in that blog post, we really distilled some questions you can ask if you really want to center equity in your brand and communications that I just wanted to share as folks were thinking about this topic. First, does our brand, our messaging authentically represent the voice and experience of the people with whom we work? Next, do we refer to our org as a savior, a partner, or a bridge? How are we positioning ourselves? Next, whose voices are we centering in our decision as it relates to our brand and communications? Who’s sitting around the table, when we decide we’re going to need a new logo worth, that new logo is? Where are we spending our time?

Farra Trompeter: You know, I had conversations with folks recently about their comms team. All they do are putting out press releases because they think that getting that press attention is really all they need to do so that their donors see them. We should not just be focusing on one communications outlet. So where are we spending our time and why are we spending our time there? What language are we using to communicate when we speak? And finally, how are we continuing to reflect one of the elements in The Nonprofit Communications Engine, right? What are we doing to keep learning and listening from our community and how do we make brand and ongoing practice and not just something we do once every 5, 10, 15 years? So I wanted to spiel on that for a second, Sarah, thanks for letting me go. Let’s go back to brand assets, which are really kind of the foundational tools of the brands.

Farra Trompeter: You mentioned Lila Tublin, one of our senior copywriters. And she wrote a blog a little while ago, really looking at the difference between organizational messaging and donor messaging. And we do look at those things separately when we do brand and work typically. But I’m wondering if you could speak to the difference of those things are and how maybe an organization might need both?

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Well, when we talk about organizational messaging, I actually often quote you, Farra, because you said something that I think is really useful to think about organizational messaging, and I’ll probably get this wrong, you can correct me. But my memory is that you said something once to an organization like “organizational messaging is if there was a like a book written about your organization, the structure of your organizational messaging might be sort of the chapters that exist. And I thought that was really helpful because I think organizational messaging has to be a little bit big picture.

Sarah Durham: And it’s kind of like it’s structural. It’s kind of like the architecture of how you answer the question. What is your organization do or tell me about your organization? Organizational messaging also is broad. It’s gotta be something that can be used to write or to speak to a wide number of people. And it’s a little bit big picture, cause it’s got to describe the whole organization, not just one part of it. The other kind of messaging that we typically develop for clients who are targeting donors specifically with messaging, we call persuasive messaging. And the reason we call it persuasive messaging is that it’s messaging that is designed to get somebody to take an action. In this case, we want donors to make a gift. We want to inspire donors to give. So when you’re developing messaging that is specifically for donors or really specifically for any audience, I think you have to start by asking the question, what is the action that at the end of this, we want them to take, is it to sign a pledge? Is it to write a check? Is it to come out and take some sort of action? And then the messaging that you develop has to speak uniquely to their perspective in some way that moves them towards that action. So again, it’s a bit general, not all donors are going to be the same. Not all advocates are going to be the same, but oftentimes with donor messaging, we have to start by doing some research into what does inspire them to give? What are the barriers to giving? And the messaging may have to address proactively some of those things that are unique to how they view your organization.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. So the metaphor I have used is it’s almost like the organizational messages are like the table of contents in that coffee table book about your organization and maybe donor messaging, or activist messaging, where we’re trying to persuade that audience to take an action is a chapter. And that chapter comes maybe after those first overview chapters, or maybe it’s the sequel book. So that’s just another way to think about it.

Sarah Durham: It’s a big literary metaphor you’re developing now.

Farra Trompeter: Exactly. I better stop before I take myself in a direction I won’t be able to get out of. Well, let’s wrap things up, Sarah. As folks are thinking about how they can improve their communications via their brand or ongoing, and in an everyday way, communicating with donors, what are some things they can do?

Sarah Durham: Boy, there are so many things you can do. And actually, as I think about that question, Farra, I’m remembering an interview I did on this podcast with Steven Shattuck, who wrote a really helpful book called Robots Make Bad Fundraisers, in that book, and in that interview, Steven highlights a lot of things you can do to communicate more effectively with donors. One of the things he talks about that I particularly appreciated was he talks about how oftentimes when somebody makes a gift to an organization, we just drop them into a stream of communication that kind of presumes they’ve been around for a while. They start getting newsletters and they get emails. And all of it is literally like being thrown into the middle of a busy pool in which people have been swimming around you for a long time, that’s kind of a lousy metaphor, but you get my point. Part of what Steven talks about is how do you onboard those donors into the communication stream and get them oriented? How do you maybe make sure you’re tailoring the communications that they get so that it doesn’t feel so one size fits all it’s maybe a little bit more adapted to their unique relationship to your organization.? If you have the capacity to do it, the overarching message he talks about, and a lot of what we advocate for at Big Duck too, is personalization, really understanding as much as you are able to, what is the perspective? What is the context? What is relevant for this person and how can you write design and speak to them in a way that feels appropriate to their relationship to the organization.?

Sarah Durham: Now, when we’re talking about major donors or we’re talking about a category of people who we tend to invest more one-on-one time with, we tend to call major donors and thank them, or invite them to events or invite them to come to open houses. We don’t typically do that with lower-level donors, but that doesn’t mean with lower-level donors, people who might be making a $10 gift or a $20 gift, you still can’t personalize. You can think about why they gave? What’s inspired them to give in their life, or maybe in the ask you’ve made? And you can perhaps craft email drips using marketing automation, software, or other things that will help them feel like you’re still speaking to them in more personal terms. What would you add to that though? I’m curious.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. What I would add to your talking about that too is, are there things that we’re doing for our major donors that we could do for everyone? I know organizations who will send up a handwritten postcard to anyone who makes a dollar gift. Are there ways that we can reach out to folks and build those bridges with donors and community members of all shapes and sizes? I mean, coming back to branding, the other thing I would say is most people when they call us and are talking to us about branding it’s because they have a hard time explaining what they do. Everyone in the organization describes them in different ways, describes them from their program base or from their perspective. And they lack that universal explanation or understanding of who they are. And I think once you clarify that, you update your about us page on your website, you’re a little bio on social media and your profiles, the more you can make it easy for folks to understand what you do, the easier it will be for you to build relationships with them and ultimately achieve your mission.

Farra Trompeter: So I would say, take a fresh look at your “About us” page. If you haven’t in a while, is it working for you? Is it working for others? Right. Don’t just ask yourself, try to get in conversations with people outside of your organization, through one-on-ones, through surveys, really figure out if how you’re explaining yourself is reflective of who you are now and where you’re going and not just who you’ve been. And if it really is said in a way like to that point about plain language, where people actually get it. That’d be my hot tip.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I have one thing I want to add that your comment at the beginning reminded me of, cause I think you’re really right. Why can’t we treat more donors like we treat major donors? And one example of that, that I thought was really awesome. Years ago, I had a conversation with an organization that raises a huge amount of money, tens of millions of dollars a year from smaller donors, from donors who are making gifts, I think of under $50. And one of the reasons they were so effective at fundraising at scale with these smaller donor amounts was that oftentimes in major donor contexts, people have portfolios where a major gifts officer has like a hundred or 50 donors that they are responsible for. This organization had created portfolio managers for all their donors. So any donor who gave any amount essentially was assigned to a person and they had a staff of people who had portfolios of all of their donors. And they actually literally tracked where their donors lived. They would do things like send an email or call when there was a hurricane in a donor’s community just to say, are you okay? Which when you’ve got, you know, a CRM system, like Salesforce is actually pretty easy to set up and do, but so many organizations just haven’t sat down and really thought creatively about how can we treat every donor like we treat those major donors? So I love that point. I think that would be a cool podcast to do too, Farra, like a roundup of ways to do that. Let’s do it.

Farra Trompeter: Yes, we’ll do it. We’ll do it soon. And even making it broader, how do we treat everybody? Again, questioning why donors are put on this pedestal. Our brand, our communication should be clear and connect to folks of all shapes, sizes, abilities, and I think really looking to do that is a step forward. So thank you, Sarah. I really enjoyed this conversation.

Sarah Durham: Thank you, Farra.

Farra Trompeter: And if you’d like to dig into more of what we’ve got to say or think on these topics, feel free to read all of our insights at Have a great day.