Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash
June 1, 2020

Strengthen the connection between branding and fundraising

Brooke Richie-Babbage

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How can staff become great ambassadors? Is the general public a viable audience? Sarah Durham and Brooke Richie-Babbage discuss these questions and more in this conversation about brandraising.


Brooke Richie-Babbage: Welcome to the Fundraising Growth Strategies Online Summit. I am thrilled to be talking with Sarah Durham today, CEO at Big Duck and Advomatic and author of multiple books which I would love to spend days talking about, including Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money through Smart Communications. And that’s what we’re actually gonna be diving into today. Welcome, Sarah.

Sarah Durham: Hi, Brooke. I’m delighted to be here and looking forward to talking to you about brandraising.

Brooke: Oh, yes, absolutely. And so that I don’t forget, I want everyone watching and listening to know. I’m going to share a link both to some great brandraising resources on the big duck Web site and a link to where you can get the book on the summit software. And I know we’ll be talking about some tips and things that are part of those things, but I want people to know the full resources will be available. So why don’t we dive in?

So I was really excited to talk to you. I am really excited to talk to you because I personally loved your book, Brandraising. I think it’s both just a great practical read and it answers real questions that organizational leaders have about the link between two of the big scary word brand and fundraising. And I know when I was running my organization, people always said, oh, you know, raise your visibility and raise your brand. And that helps with fundraising. But I didn’t actually understand the connection. And I know particularly new, small and mid-size organizations struggle with both how to get on the radar of donors and funders if they’re small and how to raise their brand. And then also how to connect that in some concrete way to fundraising.

So I would love to talk first about this word brand. When we think about brand, we often think corporate like Nike, Amazon. And it makes a number of organizations think that you have to have this huge budget in order to have a brand. Is that right?

Sarah: That is not right. No, I’m happy to say that’s not right.

It is definitely a common misperception. I think that there are a lot of organizations that feel that unless they are spending a lot of money and doing a lot of marketing, their branding is something that’s irrelevant for them or their not-for-profit. But actually, what a brand is, is really just about perceptions. Your brand is how you are perceived and it’s how you use your voice as an organization to communicate. So you can kind of forget about that word in some ways if it makes you uncomfortable. And one of the reasons we coined the word brandraising is that really it is about raising money, raising visibility. And branding is just a kind of a framework that helps you do those things. And that’s relevant for any for-profit nonprofit, even government organization.

Brooke: So what exactly is brandraising and how is it different, more tactical than branding?

Sarah: Yeah. I think to answer your question, Brooke, what I’m gonna do is I’m going to share my screen and I’m going to show a little graphic that I think will help. And one of the reasons brandraising is different than branding is that it’s custom made for nonprofits. And I think it kind of goes down to the root of why nonprofits exist.

So what I’m showing on screen here is on the Big Duck website, if you want to take a closer look at this, you can just go to and click on “Services”. And this is the model that’s outlined in my book. So what I can do here is give you a little cheat sheet to the book and spare you buying it on Amazon. Give you that overview.

So, you know, in any healthy nonprofit, the vision and the mission drives what you do. And most organizations these days, every three years or five years, go through some sort of strategic planning process where they look at their vision and their mission and their objectives, the values, all the things that you see up at the top here. Those drive everything that happens in a healthy organization. Brandraising is it about taking those ideas and translating them into concrete communications tools so that your external audiences like your clients, your members, your donors, maybe the people who are activists who support your cause, that they understand those things and they understand why they should take action on your behalf that helps move your mission forward. So all the things at the very top of this triangle — vision, mission, values, objectives, audiences — this is the stuff that impacts your everyday life in a nonprofit. Positioning, personality or marketing concepts, those are how you kind of translate those things into communications. Visual identity is not just the logo, but it’s the colors. You use pictures… Use all the visual stuff. There is the messaging, and then there’s how those visuals and messaging get communicated and experienced online in print, on air, and in person. So brandraising is just sort of a shorthand way that we at Big Duck use to describe this interconnectivity that emerges from your strategic plan and trickles through everything you do and in particular into day to day communications.

Brooke: I mean, what’s really great about the visual and just about what you’re describing is I think a lot of organizations struggle to turn their mission, vision values, into living, breathing tools that all of their stakeholders cannot just understand but use. How do you help board members become real ambassadors out in the world for your organization, give them what they need to help people get who you are and what you do? And it isn’t just about your mission statement, as your visual shows. It’s all of those things that feed into how you show who you are and what people think about when they come to your website; Those become the real tools. So that’s really concrete. How does that help with fundraising?

Sarah: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I want to go back to the first thing you talked about, which is about having concrete tools, because where a lot of organizations go wrong with the branding, and this is what becomes the challenge with fundraising, is that they don’t have the right tools. They don’t have the right assets. So I’m sure like you, I would be much wealthier if I had a dollar for every time I heard a board member say, well, “I’d love to ask people for money on behalf of the organization but I just don’t know how to talk about it.” Or every time a staff person said, you know, “I’m delighted to go out there and toot the horn of the organization, but I don’t know how to talk about the organization. I only know how to talk about my program, you know?”.

So a brandraising exercise is about making sure you have those tools; Making sure you have those assets, and that everybody in your organization and your staff and your board knows how to use them. Making sure that they know how to communicate in clear, compelling, powerful ways, whether that’s your executive director giving a speech, whether that’s somebody on your development team applying for a grant. How do you talk about the organization and not just in that kind of a jargony organization-centric way, but really talk about the organization in a way that connects with people’s hearts and minds and inspires them to take action, because that’s why people write checks. They don’t write checks because you’re doing great workforce development work. They write checks because they’re moved, that you are helping people get jobs and stay employed. And that’s what we as fundraisers have to do.

Brooke: So what are some of those tools other than, say, a website?

Sarah: Well, you know, certainly the website is critical because the website for many organizations is the public face. But I would argue that for more organizations these days, the big hole, the big challenge that impacts fundraising is messaging. Very few organizations have codified messages that anybody who works in the organization can use to write and to speak in a way that is clear about the organization and compelling. I mean, again, you know, a lot of times people individually are great at talking about their program or talking about their niche. But unless everybody in the organization really understands how to talk about it, oftentimes communications gets kind of siloed and that makes it harder for for for you to get the most out of the opportunities that present themselves.

Brooke: So one of the interesting things about this idea of messaging — and this is just sort of me wearing my “I’m not a great person with the strategic communications” hat, and speaking on behalf of all of those of us who want to be better at that — going back to a point you made that there are lots of different stakeholders in an organization’s ecosystem. And you can hear, as the leader, from a board member or from a staff person, from a donor who wants to get other people interested, that they need their own version of your messaging. So how do you balance tailoring the messaging to the different communities and networks that you’re reaching out to while also being consistent with a brand?

Sarah: Yeah, it’s a great question. And it’s a really smart question, because what you’re talking about. I mean, in the marketing and communications world, we call it segmentation. You know, how do you segment your messages to be really tailored to the audience you’re trying to reach?

And we know from a lot of, you know, famous case studies and marketing examples, implementation is more effective when you speak to somebody in a way that feels personalized for them, it’s more effective. Although what we often advise organizations is, if you’ve never had any organizational messaging or consistency before you start segmenting, it can be good to build a muscle of telling one consistent story. So one of the things I encourage organizations that are smaller or mid-sized to experiment with is trying to design a kind of an arc, a narrative arc for how you tell the story. You know, what is the journey that somebody needs to go on to understand your organization in a kind of a more of a generic way. But in a less segmented way, what’s the big overarching narrative for many organizations?

The narrative or the arc is: problem – solution – action. Here’s the problem we exist to face. Here’s our solution to that problem. And here’s the action we want you to take. You have an overarching narrative arc. You can adapt it sometimes to a specific audience. You can say, OK, if I’m in an organization that deals with a particular, let’s say, disease or medical disorder, the way I talk to a doctor about the disease is going to be very different. I’m not going to have to tell them the same thing about what the problem is. The same way I might have to tell somebody who’s never heard of this disease or disorder. So, you know, if you can start with an overarching framework and also be clear what the big messages are about your organization, often that gives you a platform to start to segment or to make messages more personal without beginning with segmentation.

Brooke: What do you think gets in the way of organizations doing this? I mean, as you’re describing it, it sounds really clear. If you know your mission, then you do know the stories… you do have a sort of internal sense of the narrative arc. And yet so many small and mid-sized organizations really struggle with this. Why do you think that is?

Sarah: They do struggle with it. And I actually just released a new book in January, which is called The Nonprofit Communications Engine, also on Amazon, which is a book about communications and how to manage communications for executive directors. And I think one of the reasons organizations do struggle with this is that most organizations, when they are young, are led by a founder who is usually a great communicator just organically. They know how to talk about the work. They’re passionate about the work. They do a great job. But then that founder starts to hire people and other people come in. And in the early phases of that organization, maybe there are two or three people sitting next to the founder and they hear that person talking and they become good communicators because they kind of drink the water that the founder is drinking, too.

But as the organization grows and as communications becomes a little bit decentralized or moves into the fundraising team or other things, it gets harder and harder to be clearer how to communicate as an organization. Doing so often takes a moment of reflection or a kind of a pausing to step back and to acknowledge that, actually, we’re not communicating in a clear and cohesive and compelling way anymore.

In my experience and actually in some research we’ve done, we’ve seen that the best time to kind of press pause and to reflect on your communication is either right after strategic planning or right after you have a new executive director, because those are two critical inflection points in your organization’s life. And when a new ED comes in or there’s a new strategic plan, there are often conversations happening about who are we and why do we exist and what’s the mission? What are we trying to do? And that’s the perfect moment to say, OK, and how should we communicate that? Communications is an outgrowth of all those things that are essential to your mission.

So I think the short answer, after a long answer, to your question is that it’s really about taking a moment to reflect on communications and being deliberate about communicating as opposed to letting communications kind of happen accidentally along the way.

Brooke: So to build on that a little bit, for new organizations, I think you’re right. This can be a particular struggle or challenge to navigate for founders as they bring staff, people on board, etc… I think another challenge around communications that strictly new organizations have is that they know what they do, but they don’t know what their brand is. And those are not the same thing. And I get a lot of questions for the organizations that I work with about “how do we help people understand what we do?” Right? “We have to get in the door with funders, with donors, and we’re new. We don’t have a footprint. So how do we use our brand to get noticed?” I think this is a unique challenge for small organizations. Have you seen that to be true? And are there particular strategies that new organizations can try to build a brand and get on the radar of supporters?

Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s harder as a younger organization when you don’t have a 50-year track record of success and a lot of outcomes and reports about the impact of your work. You still hopefully do have the power of a great story. And that is a universally, I think, applicable tool. I think almost anybody can tell a good story about why your organization exists or why it should exist, why it needs to exist because of a particular problem. So so definitely I think starting with storytelling is a really critical piece. The other piece that I think about a lot and I advise organizations to think about is that when you are an expert in a particular space, let’s say you’ve been a program person in a particular field and you start a new organization or you spin-off your program independently. Sometimes you’re so close to the thing that you do that you talk about it like an expert and you talk about it in ways where sometimes the people you’re talking to aren’t even really clear what we’re talking about or why it’s a problem in the first place.

So sometimes I find it helpful to remember that communications in some ways is a Venn diagram, where there’s this one circle that is what you want to communicate, what you’re trying to get across. And then there’s this other circle, which is what your audiences understand. And your job as a communicator is to find the overlap. So I’ve interviewed a couple of people for my podcast or for blogs in the past who have this title, Chief Experience Officer. And what’s really interesting about a Chief Experience Officer is that their job is to stop thinking about what the organization is trying to communicate and think only entirely about who the audience is and what their experiences are and how we as an organization can facilitate the best experience for them. And that really the opportunity is to stop talking about you or stop trying to, you know, persuade the person and focus on who they are and why they should care and bring them on that journey through your storytelling.

Brooke: What’s really powerful about that is it’s not necessarily that different from what an organization might do with its constituents or clients or the communities that it works with or that it serves. As a founder of a new organization, one of the first things you do is you go out into your community, you ask people, what do you need? How do I meet you where you are? I have a theory of change. I see patterns that my organization is responding to, but how do you need to receive my help? In this work we’re comfortable having that conversation with the communities that we’re in. And if we can think about a similar conversation with our other stakeholders, then perhaps it won’t feel quite as foreign.

So now, you have this really solid messaging. Is that just the same thing as effective fundraising? Or are there steps that organizations need to take to use the messaging to enhance or improve their fundraising?

Sarah: There are definitely steps you need to take. I think one of the reasons that a branding process or a brandraising process is just a part of the equation is that just because you’ve got great messaging doesn’t mean you’re getting your messaging out there, right? So somebody on my team said something once like, you know, when you go through a branding process or a messaging process where you create these new assets, it’s kind of like the on-ramp. But the day-to-day marketing and communications is the highway. And communications is a practice that is about building and maintaining mindshare and engagement. So every day you’ve got to be keeping the volume turned up high and looking for new ways to reach and engage people. And you’re using the assets of your brand to do that. But just because you’ve got it, you know, as they said in Field of Dreams, you know, if we build that, they will come. They won’t come just because you build it. So I think you have to really see it as an integrated whole. And that’s another reason why it’s hard, is it takes a lot of ongoing work. It really is a practice, just like sleeping well and exercising is practice. You know?

Brooke: So that’s the perfect segue way into my wrap-up question, which is highly tactical. So this is a practice. This is a sort of muscle that organizations have to build and exercise in order to grow their brand and link their brand in real ways and meaningful ways to fundraising. What are three to five specific things that organizational leaders should think about or should do to improve their brandraising?

Sarah: So the first thing I always encourage organizations to do in any kind of communications practice and this is true for fundraising communications, is true for programmatic communications… To think of the audiences you are trying to reach as being on a ladder of engagement. And so at the bottom of the ladder of engagement are people who have never heard of you. They’re unaware of your work and maybe they should be aware of you, and maybe they have some connection to your mission, and maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe they’re outside of your scope. But there are a lot of people out there who are unaware. And our job as communicators and as fundraisers is to help them get to the next step on the ladder, which is knowing who you are and hopefully piquing their interest. Getting them to take some sort of action, like visit your website and poke around.

And then the next step on the ladder of engagement is getting those people to actually raise their hand and engage. In marketing world, we call that converting. So maybe I convert by making a donation. Maybe I convert by signing up for your newsletter, or maybe I convert by showing up at an event. But the minute I actually take an action, communications moves from being something where you’re out there looking for me, towards me raising my hand and saying, I’m right here. And once you know who I am and you have my email address, you have the ability to help move me even further up that ladder of engagement to become a regular supporter or a regular donor or somebody who shows up for things, somebody who’s deeply engaged, maybe even somebody who cares about your organization as a top philanthropic priority.

So think of communications as a ladder of engagement, where the actions that you want people to take might vary based on their relationship to your organization on that ladder of engagement and where you might use different tactics and tools based on where people are. So, for instance, social media is more useful, I would say, at the bottom of the ladder of engagement. It’s a great way to get people to start to think about your voice in a conversation or get people maybe to visit your website, but you wouldn’t necessarily use social media to reach and engage a major donor that had been making six-figure gifts to your organization for a long time. So that’s my first tip.

My second tip is don’t assume that the person on the street is your target audience. They almost never are. And in my new book, there is a visual that I could share with you, but it’s concentric circles. Think of your audience as a bull’s eye and ask yourself who should be in the middle of that bull’s eye? [Who are the people that you must reach in order to be effective from a programmatic point of view? Who are the people who are most likely to be affected from a fundraising point of view? Who are the people who are most likely to support your work and invest your time and money reaching the most people in the middle of your bull’s eye first before you try to reach the shoulds or the maybes? Who are the outer tiers? Those people are great, and if you have the resources to communicate well with the shoulds and the maybes, more power to you. But most organizations I’ve worked with do not have the means to do that. So keep your audiences really, really tight and really focused.

My last tip is that with communications and marketing and fundraising, sometimes less is more. Sometimes it’s smarter to not be in every channel or tool, not try to do everything. This is particularly true in social media I think but pick the things that you believe give you the greatest bang for the buck, and that are most likely to reach and engage your target audiences because you’ve got some anecdotal or quantitative evidence that they’re actually there.

So just because you’re a board member calls you up and says all the kids are using TickTock does not mean your organization should be using Tick-Tock. If you’re an organization trying to reach and engage teenagers and you have something like, you know, a physical fitness program or a dance program, Tick-Tock could be a great medium for you. But for many organizations, it’s not going to be. So don’t try to be all things to all people and in all channels and tools, just stay focused.

So ladders of engagement be clear about your target audiences and less is more. Use the channels and tools that you feel most confident are going to help you reach and engage those people.

Brooke: Those are wonderful tips. Thank you so much. And thank you for this great conversation. Very practical. I think people are going to find it really, really helpful. Before we go, I would love if you could give us the name one more time of your two books, maybe show them on the screen. And then after that, I will wrap up by letting people know where they can get more information.

Sarah: Great. Well, thanks, Brooke. This has been fun. So the first book, which we talked about a lot today is Brandraising. And you can find both books on Amazon. So Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money Through Smart Communications. The second book, which is also on Amazon, is called The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A Leaders Guide to Managing Mission-Driven Marketing and Communications. Again, they’re both on Amazon and you can find me at or

Brooke: Wonderful. So I will include links to both of those books and to some of the really great brandraising resources that you have at Big Duck on the summit web site. Again, thank you so much for this conversation. Today was really, really fun.

Sarah: Thank you very much. Happy fundraising.

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