5 min Read
May 19, 2010

Reality show takes a page out of “Brandraising”

Big Duck

Guest post from Denise McMahan, founder and publisher of Cause Planet. Read more about Brandraising and other great articles at

It hit me last night when I saw a commercial for American Idol. The cast must have read Sarah Durham’s new book called Brandraising. I knew Durham and her New York agency colleagues at Big Duck were hip, but her guidelines for success have even reached pop culture. The parallels are remarkable, so hear me out. This taxonomy will make you realize just how relevant Brandraising is and why you should be reading on for the benefit of your own organizationand, at the very least, help add credibility to the time you have invested in watching television.

1. Brandraising: The overview

Idol: “Decide what kind of performer you want to be, what genre, and stick with it.”

Durham explains that her model starts with the “organizational level,” which makes up the top seven elements of the brandraising pyramid, because they direct all aspects of the organization’s work. These elements are the vision, mission, values, objectives, audiences, positioning and personality. The “identity level” is what most people think of as where the branding takes place.This is where the visual identity and the messaging platform play out. The third and bottom level of the pyramid is the “experiential level,” which consists of the variety of channels through which nonprofits can communicate with their donors, clients and stakeholders, such as print, online, on air, in person and mobile. (A visual of this overview can be viewed at, using the password professional.)

The judges on the American idol show repeat the same messages every week in hopes that contestants will latch on to their advice and rise to the competition. Advice ranges from “Think about who you are and be consistent from week to week,” to “You’ve got a unique look and sound, which makes you a compelling performer.” These remarks by the judges could pass as organizational and identity level advice in Durham’s model where she addresses vision, values, positioning and personality, as well as visual identity and messaging platform.

2. Brandraising: The long view

Idol: “Are you in it to win it?”

Durham emphasizes the importance of the “long view” and how this position can address common barriers and empower nonprofit leaders to weather challenges and act with planning and agility. Drawbacks of the short view that some nonprofits find themselves taking include working reactively, which obviously requires more budget and time. For example, waiting until a piece needs to be developed for a looming deadline means crisis communication and expenditures. Rather than succumb to the accidental branding activities described in chapter two, savvy nonprofits save money and time by regularly monitoring peer organizations, managing information saturation and reinforcing the big idea.

In American Idol, the judges always ask the contestants “Are you in it to win it?” In other words, your focus on the long view or end goal will help you concentrate on the importance of planning and practicing for each performance.

3. Brandraising: Audience-centric communications

Idol: “You finally connected with the audience tonight.”

According to Durham, many organizations make the mistake of becoming self-absorbed in the process of resolving who they are as an organization when crafting messages to their donors. Durham encourages nonprofits to balance navel contemplation with a focus on “audience-centric communications.” When you plan on sending out a direct mail or email campaign, do you know which your audience prefers? Are you tapping into the personal motivations of why people give to your organization? Durham reminds readers that people generally give because they are moved to do so and they know it’s the right thing to do. She challenges readers to recreate that feeling in a donor.

American Idol contestants who are doing well at this late stage in the game can obviously sing well and have great stage presence, but what contributes to that presence is a genuine connection with the audience and responding to how they vote.

4. Brandraising: Prepare for the mobile future
Idol: “Text a vote for your favorite American Idol”

Durham reminds readers that fundraising by mobile phone is still in its early stages, but it is here to stay. There are enough early success stories by other organizations, as well as examples of people rising up to meet the support needed in the wake of natural disasters, such as the recent one in Haiti. Whether or not your organization is ready to launch a mobile phone campaign, it’s not too early to begin collecting numbers for the future.

According to, on average, 33 million people are voting each week this season on the show. In February 2010, Causecast listed eight different numbers you could text to make donations in support of the Chilean earthquake aftermath. We all know that the American Red Cross has raised more than $32 million via text-to-give, and that mobile has proven very useful for emergency situations. What we didn’t quite know was how it would apply to the rest of the nonprofit world. Communications and strategy agency, Cone, has helped shed a little bit of light on this topic with their two-question online survey. Causecast noticed the following right off of the bat:

  • Text2Give is maturing – 13 percent of respondents donated via text message following the Haiti earthquake, compared to only 6 percent from Cone’s 2009 Consumer New Media Study.
  • 19 percent would rather text a donation to a cause or nonprofit organization than through other means (e.g.,write a check or donate online).
  • 18 percent are now more likely to text a donation to their favorite nonprofit organization if it is an available option.

Thanks for humoring me in this unlikely but useful comparison. If you haven’t read Durham’s Brandraising: How nonprofits raise visibility and money through smart communications, buy the book. It’s terrific. Or, you can read a Page to Practice summary by visiting our store or subscribing to our monthly service, which gives you access to all Page to Practice book summaries.
by Denise McMahan, founder and publisher of