05/02/2014 04:25 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

If It's a Contest, Who Wins? Brandraising vs. Fundraising

A non-profit organization's branding and fundraising efforts at first glance might appear to be separate forces. Both kinds of work enable philanthropic groups to share their messages in a manner aimed at prompting people to take notice and take action -- whether through volunteering, making a donation, or other modes of involvement. The pressures of fundraising can sometimes cause a non-profit to alter its core branding message, however, in favor of one that seems more strategic and opportunistic but ultimately is less effective.

The difference between branding and fundraising communications is straightforward: branding typically communicates who at its core an organization is, while fundraising usually reflects what an organization does or what issue it is taking on. Think of branding as the sentence or two at the top of a group's website or brochure; when considering fundraising, imagine a mailer with bullets that list all of the group's specific offerings. These two vital pieces of information are not inherently at odds, but when it comes to fundraising, philanthropic entities often fall into the trap of leaning too much on the what and not enough on the who.

Whether it's branding or fundraising, it is essential to communicate an organization's core mission -- the who in those all-important five "w"s. That is to say that all audiences, including potential donors, will respond more positively to a message that expresses the heart and soul of a non-profit than one that simply ticks off its various specific capabilities.

For example, at the YMCA, we are New York City's leading agency for protecting children. Yes, we provide swim lessons, but it's about keeping kids safe in and around the water. Some parents -- and potential donors -- value swim lessons, and others don't. Nearly all parents, however, are drawn to a broader message about protecting children.

There is also the issue of evolving capabilities. What a non-profit does today might be different from what it did five years ago, but if its core branding message has stayed consistent, then it's more likely to retain its regular supporters. By contrast, if an organization simply touts its specific menu of offerings, and those shift over time, supporters will be confused -- and potentially put out -- by inconsistent, opportunistic-seeming messages.

In both branding and fundraising, it is important to lead your communications with who you are, build as much credibility and trust as possible, and then shift your group's capabilities as appropriate (if at all). If a supporter knows who you are at your core, then he or she will be more inclined to stick with your cause even if it changes in the future.

Specific outcomes are another key piece of information to share with potential supporters and other key stakeholders. For example, a tutoring program might include in its communications the amount of students it has helped to get into college. This is a more effective way of spreading the what -- facts and figures are more tangible and compelling than a simple list of capabilities.

Regardless of content, consistency is key. Non-profits would be wise to build branding and fundraising development plans for a two-year window. They should have a designer create all the promotional pieces they'll need for the next two years at one time, which saves money and time in the approval process, and ensures that the audience is receiving a resonant message. There is no need to use too many resources for these materials -- after a campaign or an event is over, people rarely -- if ever -- say, "the color of the invitation made it a real success."

Within these pieces should be an agreed upon set of common words and phrases that communicate the organization's core identity and its various capabilities. Organizations should certainly describe in detail the resources and services they offer, but these should be presented under the umbrella of what it stands for and hopes to accomplish on a broad level.

By marrying branding and fundraising, non-profits can achieve a strong, consistent and persuasive message, one that provides the "who" and the "what" -- and for supporters, the all-important "why."