The Complex Dance of Fundraising

We've been thinking a lot about the intersection of traditional direct mail and brand

We've been thinking a lot about the intersection of traditional direct mail and brand…results clearly show the importance of strong brand in acquisition and long term donor engagement. Direct mail is strong, but it's stronger when the brand resonates.

I am not a poker player, so I am going to show my hand.

I believe in the power of brand.

Fundraising purists, I urge you to read on. I am not a heretic. I remain firmly entrenched in the power of fundraising.

A hundred years ago, I asked the Vice President of Development at World Vision how he would proceed to help a small organization acquire new donors. He thought about it for about 76 seconds, then said: “It can’t be done.”

What can I say to the 85,900 charities in Canada organizing yet another silent auction for their annual gala?

Between 2014 and 2018, Plan International increased their tax receptable income by $10 million. How did that happen? Well, they spent about $22 million on advertising and fundraising, that may have had something to do with it. (Note: Their revenue was in excess of $250,000,000). And, even more important, their brand narrative was clear to Canadians because they took the time and effort to build a credible brand.

As fundraisers, we must refuse to put fundraising, stewardship, and brand into separate mason jars, tightly sealed, to prevent leakage between the silos.

These mason jars are the reason that organizations that have feet on the ground in volatile regions of poverty and natural disasters continue to insist on sending out label packages with pastel blue birds on the outer envelope.

I can assure you that did not come from Plan International. Even World Vision refuses to stoop to the 1975 label package.


Brand is not pretty colours… it’s not even about differentiation.

Brand is the relevant and authentic narrative that inspires donors to get on board. Brand is the heart of the mission of the organization—it is not the desire to build collaborative relationships or lofty program goals written for Global Affairs Canada. Brand is gritty. Brand is emotional. Brand chocked full of personality.

We were doing brand for an organization in Switzerland. The chasm between their program team and their fundraising team was daunting. The program team accused the fundraising team of being too emotional and the fundraising team accused the program team of lack of inspired thought. I confess, I have often thought the same thing about program-centric thinkers. But as we built the brand, we constructed that bridge of understanding.



Well, we started at the centre: the heart of the organization.

The next direct mail campaign or the pressing government report was not at the heart… each member of the team clearly understood that at the very heart of their work was a child left stranded because of a natural disaster, clasping the hand of a parent while they fought for a foothold.

Your organization, whatever the mission, is answering the heartbeat of someone/something that struggles to stand alone. The environment, an endangered species, a father, a mother, a piece of art, the preservation of history…

That is brand.

Build that narrative. The content for a direct mail will be distinctly different than that government report. But the heartbeat will be identical.

When you are talking to donors, you have only one agenda: to make sure they know they are essential in solving the problem. THAT IS STEWARDSHIP.

Stewardship beats in time to the heartbeat. Resist the idea of empty thanks or platitudes of impact.

We worked with an organization that refused to tell their donors there was work to do. The donors loved the communication. BUT they didn’t give.



It’s so simple. The organization had no need of them. Every communication they received told them the job as already done. This is not rocket science. Why should I give if there is no need?

And why do fundraisers think that brand eliminates the urgency?

We need to broaden our scope. The winners in donor engagement are brand-centric organizations with authentic and relevant needs that peak our emotion. Sick Kids “versus” campaign in the first year was perfection. Inspired by the mission, based on authentic stories and executed with powerful emotion. Each story solidly built on the brand.

There are limitless examples of bad brand. Any brand that is not founded on the heartbeat of the organization will fail. Any brand limited to logo, font and colours will fail. In my days as creative director at World Vision, I confess, we purposely broke the brand rules of the brand-new orange triangle/star logo. Why? Because the brand agency had made a small glitch in the heartbeat. They recommended that photos of children be cut out of their surroundings. Seriously? When we stripped the setting out of the image, we stripped the very essence of the story out of the image. Sometimes good brand intentions require slight modifications.

But rejecting the power of brand because of bad examples is a bit like refusing a fresh picked peach because you had an experience with a badly stored shipment in the middle of winter.

Brand is a journey. And fundraisers, especially those of us who have grown up on direct mail and DRTV, have to look on growth over a projected timeline. The fastest growing organizations did not begin their growth in the past 12 months. We often don’t even notice their growth until it is robust. Compassion Canada, a little non-descript organization with little chance of competing with World Vision (both are sponsorship-based organizations), came up from behind. Today they are solid and growing. They know their brand and are unashamed about their marketing/fundraising messages. I don’t want to talk about integration. I want to talk about authentic relationships with Canadians about causes that are relevant. I want donors to be gripped by the need and inspired by the role they play in making a true difference.

So many conversations wind their way back to Charity Water. It’s a great place to end. They have a simple message: when you give someone will drink clean water. And because they drink clean water, they are healthy, go to school, transform their community. And you were a part of it.

Challenge us… Barefoot Creative believes brand and fundraising are partners in a beautiful dance that transforms the gaps. We’d be thrilled to dance with you!

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