To Brand or Not to Brand, That is the Question

By Jeff Muller, Crossroads Insights LLC

Behavioral science makes clear that, by nature, humans seek connection and belonging. This primal need sits at the core of how we should be thinking about engaging both current and prospective donors—and raises the question about how best to frame our relationships with them. This is especially important for those running mid-level programs, which are bridging between the expectations and experiences of low-dollar annual and major giving donors.

I recently sat down with four expert practitioners—Drew Elliott of the National Park Foundation, Stacy Mitchell of Project Hope, Vicky Montanaro of IFAW, and Jason Raby of Mercy Corps—to discuss how they are framing their mid-level programs to create the optimal donor engagement platform for their respective organizations. We talked about whether branding such programs is beneficial for their context and relationship-building model. Below I share some of their thinking and how it relates to leading philanthropy and scientific literature.

When Branding Makes Sense…
Two of the organizations in the conversation—National Park Foundation and Project Hope—have mid-level giving programs that are named and branded. While NPF has had a named program for years, following a recent review they decided to keep a name but rebrand the program. Drew shared how the mid-level program was previously called the Stewardship Circle, but the team didn’t feel that name was sufficiently inspiring. In response, “we went through a process, including focus groups, to find a new name. We finally landed on the Champions Society, which was well received. I think that’s because it has an aspirational value that acknowledges the active role the donor plays in our success.”

At Project Hope, Stacy and her team just recently created their mid-level program. While Stacy’s benchmarking research found that only half of the programs she examined are branded, she elected to follow suit because “I wanted to set our donor experience apart.” In naming the program, Stacy identified that it was important to find one that speaks to their donors’ values and engagement with the organization. “We ended up calling our mid-level society the Hope Circle. While there are a lot of ‘hope societies’ at other organizations, that word is at the core of our identity. Fortunately, we did our homework and discovered the name is sufficiently unique.”

Creating a named platform to nurture a sense of belonging is backed by a wealth of behavioral research, including from Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, who explain that the intrinsic human craving for inclusion and association considerably impacts our actions and decisions. A 2018 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “The Science of What Makes People Care”, demonstrates how this plays out philanthropically. The authors make clear that eliciting emotions and facilitating a community spirit are pivotal in influencing charitable actions.

…and When It Doesn’t
While there are clear benefits to creating a branded giving society, there are instances in which it may not be the right fit for the organization. Such was the thinking at both at Mercy Corps and IFAW, neither of which has a named mid-level giving program—although they each have other named giving societies. At Mercy Corps, Jason shared that “because we work on a continuum of giving with our high impact philanthropy team—whose program is not branded—we elected to do the same. This is especially important because movement between the two is more dependent upon identified capacity rather than a hard-and-fast giving threshold.” This focus on continuity of treatment is supported by a 2022 study by the National Center for Charitable Statistics, which found that donors are less likely to continue giving at the same levels when they feel uncertain or confused by shifts in an organization’s policies or procedures related to their gifts. The study found a 10% average decline in renewed donations among donors who reported a low understanding of administrative changes made by the charities they supported.

Vicky’s experience at IFAW is a little different. They piloted a branded mid-level program several years ago but “the branded program didn’t inspire donors to ‘join’ and giving didn’t increase. Instead, we ended up decreasing our net income based on the additional costs of the branded program, so we abandoned it and went back to simply focusing our messaging on connecting donors to key program investments.”

The Takeaway
The decision about whether to brand your mid-level program is dependent upon several factors, including your organizational context, your fundraising model, and your capacity to deliver on your program. As noted in the Lilly School of Philanthropy report “The Giving Environment: Understanding How Donors Make Giving Decisions,” what matters most is your ability to engage donors in personal ways that will help forge a lasting relationship between the donor and the organization.