Building A Brand That Encourages Generosity

When people buy products or services, they, in part, are buying a brand.  Buying a Mercedes auto?  Sure, you are buying high quality engineering – maybe the best.  But you also are buying the notion that the car makes you feel “unlike any other.”  Buying a iPhone 4s? Sure, you are buying access to your new assistant, Siri.  But you also are buying a feeling of being cool, technologically-advanced, and artsy.

That brands impact marketplace decisions is nothing new.  This is why companies and organizations spend billions of dollars each year attempting to strengthen and better communicate their brands.  Brands are influential.  And they are influential not because of a logo or a tagline or a color palette.  They are influential because they evoke mental images, thoughts, and emotions in people.  They are experienced.  They possess tactility even though we can not touch them.  They animate us even though they aren’t living.  In short, brands make us feel something.

So, what (and how) does your institution’s brand make donors feel?

In many instances, we work hard to ensure that our donors feel special, thanked, and recognized after having made a gift.  We send a letter (hard copy or emailed) from a high-ranking institutional leader and we enclose a nicely-worded gift receipt.  Perhaps we even call as a follow-up to say thanks yet again.  We might even list their name on a plaque.  Or host an event in which they are recognized in front of other generous folk.  Such acts of stewardship are good and important efforts.  Stewardship helps build a brand that communicates responsiveness and gratefulness.  But while these brand attributes are important, they are not enough to encourage future generosity.

So, what are the characteristics of an institution’s brand that encourage generous giving in the future?  I suggest you make your donors and prospective donors feel the following:

  1. You are  Listening Institution – you will recall that Stephen Covey’s, “7 Habits of Highly Successful People,” lists as habit #5, “seek first to understand and then to be understood.”  This habit applies to our institutions as well.  Of course, for major donors and prospects we have advisory councils, boards, and groups that we should be utilizing effectively.  If I have been strategic and first sought your meaningful counsel and perspective, you are more inclined to provide your financial investment later.  But, until recently, our institutions have struggled to “listen” to all of our donors and prospects effectively.  Enter social media.  To date, efforts like the Bucky Challenge at the University of Wisconsin have enjoyed success in getting alumni to ‘like’ or ‘follow’ a Facebook or Twitter account.  But, there remain challenges  with transitioning these acts of electronic followership into real listening and engagement.  I would suggest that the primary challenge is not one of technology or cost (both are relatively low today).  Instead, we must recognize that our work is about listening first and messaging second.
  2. They Are Part of a “Select Group” – letting donors know who else gives to you is a powerful message that signals your institution is worthy of support.  Going further, the need for “belongingness,” is a psychological and physical need that we can trace back to our earliest human ancestors.  While being a part of a tribe in our modern-day, Western world is not needed to ensure our physical safety and food, there remains a psychological need to connect ourselves with others whom we view as our peers.  Communicating regularly about who else supports you encourages others to be supportive.
  3. Your Values are Their Values – higher education institutions regularly report on what they do.  But how often do you really communicate what you believe?  For example, you may communicate placements rates of graduates – and this is helpful data.  But it is even more powerful to communicate that your institution believes every student should have a study abroad experience to expand their understanding of our flattened world (or whatever else your institution might believe!).  If you tell me how good you are, I may be impressed.  But when you tell me what you believe – and I believe similarly – I am encouraged to act.
Brands are powerful because they elicit strong mental images and even stronger feelings.  When you let your donors and prospective donors know that you will listen, that they can join a select group, and that your values are their values, you will strengthen a brand that encourages generosity.



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