Leaves on a cloud paper cut out
Fundraising Published Date, 2022

Getting Real: How Being Authentic Can Improve Your Fundraising

Created By: Brandon Emerson and Lauren Hancock
March 28, 2022

‘Brand authenticity’ has been a marketing trend and buzz phrase in recent years; however, we still see many nonprofits hesitate to be authentic with their donors. This can lead to organizations withholding information when a program underperforms or when external factors create organizational challenges. We saw this happen during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic – some organizations transparently shared how they were being impacted by COVID-19, while others went silent. At best, silence and inauthenticity make your organization an afterthought for donors and volunteers. At worst, your donors will find other organizations doing similar work in which they begin to invest. This is preventable.

Donors give to help solve problems. There will be bumps in the road, and donors have chosen to take that road with you. They likely want to understand the challenges you face, along with the successes you accomplish. You are partners in this work. To foster such a partnership, here we share specific ways to build a consistently authentic brand through 1:1 donor interactions and mass donor communications.

What is brand authenticity?

Let’s start with identifying what brand authenticity looks like. Better than a definition is this description from Forbes of what consumers look for when thinking about authentic brands: “they want to know everything about the service they’re paying for. They want to be sure they can trust you. They want to see if you stand for what they stand for.” Building trust means being open about the good and the bad. One could argue that if brand authenticity is important for consumer brands, it’s probably more important for nonprofits who ask people to simply give away their money, even if we aren’t ready to acknowledge everything that comes along with truly being authentic.

Communicating authentically with donors can mean more work on the communications and donor relations staff, and potentially upsetting people who realize your organization’s values don’t align with theirs. So, why should you care about brand authenticity?

  • A 2019 study revealed that 90% of consumers said that authenticity is important when deciding which brands they like and choose. However,51% of consumers say less than half of brands create content that resonates as authentic.
  • Authenticity impacts trust and trust is a foundational element of relationships. Strong relationships are critical to fundraising success.
  • Our goal as fundraisers is to help meet the revenue needs of the organizations. How can a donor help meet needs if they don’t understand the challenges? If you only share successes, why would they think you still need support?

How can you help build brand authenticity as a fundraiser?

    • Lean into the unknown with your donors. Solicit feedback on new ideas. Involve donors in the ideation process instead of only sharing new ideas, programs, or processes once implemented.
    • Be honest about organizational challenges. We do not mean you should share all internal challenges, dynamics, and drama. What we mean is that if the organization is facing large-scale ongoing challenges, a donor may be able to help by providing resources, solutions, or connections. The idea that everything is perfect, all programs are successful, and ideal outcomes will be achieved is unrealistic, and a donor will recognize that this rosy picture is hiding something.
    • Use an individual’s name as the sender of mass emails instead of the organization’s name to humanize the organization.
    • Share short video clips of staff or Board members to communicate organizational messages. This puts a face to the organization and adds meaning to the message. These can even be iPhone videos, which makes them more approachable and less produced. It’s more about the message than the production quality for quick organizational updates.
    • Communicate even when it’s hard. Among our clients, we noticed that the organizations that communicated with their donors and constituents throughout the pandemic saw those donors continue to give. However, organizations that went silent have struggled to retain or regain donors. If you stop communicating, one of the 1.6 million nonprofits in the U.S. will fill your void.
    • Promote and encourage community-generated content. Have you ever read a Yelp review before dining at a new spot? Do you trust reviewers, or your friends more than you trust the restaurant’s claims that it “has the best pizza in the city”? Having your donors and volunteers promote your organization and vouch for you can help drive donor acquisition and strengthen your reputation.
    • Leverage other communication channels. The numbers are staggering. 97% of text messages are read within 15 minutes, yet only 15% of nonprofits leverage text as a communication method. We certainly shouldn’t discount email as a tool, but with open rates of 18-23% per email on average, nonprofits can reach more people by exploring alternative communication channels.

These strategies will only become more important. Millennials are known as conscious capitalists; they want to understand how their spending impacts every stage of the product journey. Meanwhile, Gen Z-ers are known as shrewd consumers; they’re naturally more skeptical and exploratory before they engage. Both generational traits can be applied to their relationships with the nonprofits they support as well. As the Millennial and Gen Z generations continue their philanthropic journeys and become a larger percentage of donors, the importance of brand authenticity will only grow stronger for nonprofit organizations, especially in regard to donor acquisition and retention.

Related Resources