Actress Mariska Hargitay’s serious face from the television series, Law & Order: SVU, appeared on bus stops around New York City between March and May last year to warn people about child abuse. The image helped the victim services agency Safe Horizon in branding and marketing.
The nonprofit has been in the midst of revamping those strategies to broaden its funding base. Hargitay’s image drove people to the Horizon site, which was launched with no cost to the program from corporate partners.
These issues face many nonprofits. Yet when a face lift or redesign, or change in message occurs, what are the right steps? How does management diagnose the conditions when a change is needed?
“Earlier strategic plans didn’t address our need to reach out to as many individuals as we wanted,” said Gordon J. Campbell, chief executive officer of Safe Horizon. He explained that the former name of victim services failed to attract people who didn’t want to be seen as victims.
The new name, Safe Horizon, was used in 2000, but the name change was not enough. “The name change was not really a branding initiative,” said Maile M. Zambuto, the chief development officer. “That did not help with our message.”
Horizon is considered a major social service agency since the September 11 terror attack in New York City, with 70 programs and 80 locations. One message had been that the agency was a source of help beyond being a court, police, intervention or counseling program.
“We’re part of the system, but we’re not the police officer, although the police would tell people about us when a crime victim needed a new lock,” she said.
When Horizon was founded from the city government in 1978, only about 6 cents of every revenue dollar was from private sources. Today, that number is approximately 20 cents. “We’ve been doing well with foundations and corporate support,” Campbell said. “But, we needed individual support.”
The current drive is part of a seven-year process to revise its image. Part of the results could be called a success. Horizon’s revenue growth has soared from $26 million to $50 million between 1998 and 2005.
In 25 years of work, Horizon learned that a more unified service delivery system was necessary. Horizon’s client populations changed and the agency recognized the need to serve different cultural and linguistic populations.
Two strategic goals emerged at the start of the process. “We wanted to diversify our funding base,” Zambuto said. “We also wanted to raise the profile of our organization because we got good at telling the story to our clients, but needed to tailor it for the public and donors.”
Horizon’s tagline, Moving Victims of Violence From Crisis to Competence, is part of the branding change. “The branding came first, then direct marketing,” Zambuto said. “The real shift was to really talk about healing and hope.”
Making changes often means hiring consultants. To determine program awareness, Horizon hired New York and Los Angeles-based Siegel + Gale for a research study that focused on people who already knew of the nonprofit. The consultant served as a brand agency to help develop the brand promise and the nonprofit’s personality. This was based on information from donors who were deemed as the first audience.
Then Horizon hired the Atlanta-based Grizzard to test mail two packages. One package displayed a colorful outer envelope with the logo that featured photos of prominent celebrity New Yorkers, such as Joe Torre, manager of the Yankees, and Hargitay. The second package opened with a sheet of newsprint with the headline, “Nationally renowned victims assistance organization aims to expand its program to protect children.” The approach relied on the person’s curiosity to read further.
Initial results show the direct marketing worked with the public awareness campaign to move traffic to Horizon’s Web site. “We increased our online file by 8 percent in the first month of the campaign,” Zambuto said. “Our file went up to 14 percent shortly after.”
The example of Safe Horizon is instructive, according to a spokesman for Grizzard. “They recognized that direct response fundraising is a key component of their brand delivery and strategy,” according to the spokesman.
However, branding and its place in the strategic plan is still one of the most misunderstood elements, he added. Donors are the first audience. Donors are the key stakeholders, without whom there is no funding to accomplish the organization’s mission.
Think of the brand strategy as a promise and personality, experts said. Yet this has to be distinctive and better targeted than other mail pieces the audience might receive. The promise should meet the donor’s needs for identification to get involved with the nonprofit.
Consider branding the mission’s direction, explained Tom Gaffny, executive vice president of fundraising for Epsilon in Wakefield, Mass. “The consultants shouldn’t define what the mission is, but they can highlight certain aspects of the part that would be more interesting to the general public,” he said.
Start with the history of the organization. Look for the results of the latest mailings. “People vote with their pocket books,” he said. “An organization can see which piece of mail attracts more attention to get a greater response, and that can determine the approach for the message.”
A common major error is trying to talk too much to explain everything the institution does, according to Gaffny. Rather, focus on one or two lead items that hook the interest of an issue. “It’s not what the organization sees as important, but what donors think is important,” he said.
The Salvation Army (SA) in Alexandria, Va., used that approach to solve a problem when the general public responded that they didn’t know what the nonprofit did. “We knew we had to change,” said Maj. George Hood, the national community relations secretary for the organization.
A combination of focus groups and one-on-one conversations revealed that people loved the organization, but didn’t know the functions. The new branding promise, doing the most good, evolved through an in-house and outside consultant process. The TSA had to diagnose two issues.
“We are a very large organization with 9,000 local affiliates that create separate advertisements and public relations strategies,” Hood said. “The locals were competing with each other, sending out fragmented messages to the public.”
Yet the bigger issue existed that the donor base from the World War I era was disappearing. “We needed to connect with new people and knew we had to make a common message with each affiliate,” he said.
The process started with the local Dallas unit discovering from donors who thought the nonprofit lost touch with them. That happened while the national office wanted a set focus for all chapters. “We wanted to come up with a common message and discovered that local units were doing the same thing,” Hood said.
A board member with an advertising agency volunteered to help create the branding strategy in Dallas. The focus group people and opinion poll research came up with a spherical branding strategy that resembled a round ball, according to Hood. The branding image had to appear clearly from each spot on the ball.
“The brand must be a promise to the public, without being a slogan,” Hood said. “The promise is the essence of the mission with the delivery.”
Realizing that the public respected the Salvation Army for “getting more bang for the buck than other organizations,” the tagline evolved into, Doing the Most Good, he explained.
“We could never afford to explain all our services with 400 different programs,” Hood said. “So, a consistency of message is an organizational promise.”
Print ads now show some difference in the types of services around the country, but each is rounded off with the same tagline message. “All messages have to be fully integrated,” he said. “You can’t have communication in a vacuum.”
During the process, the SA used a public relations strategy when the hurricane season hit Florida. The nonprofit’s public relations teams chased media trucks throughout the state to appear in the public’s mind to guarantee a higher level of exposure.
The results built to a Hurricane Katrina crescendo when $350 million arrived from only public service announcements. “We were aggressive in being in front of the media when the situation arose,” he said. “But you have to tell the story every day so the brand unifies the message.”
The idea that communication comes after branding is shared by Paul Tobin, deputy executive director for the New York City-based United Spinal Association.
United Spinal changed its name, audience and scope, starting in 2002 when the name was the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. Then, the organization existed just in the Northeast with around 2,000 members. Now the nonprofit has members in all 50 states along with hundreds of members younger than age 18.
“Our demographics have changed from primarily a male to a female audience,” he said. “We had to change the way we provide services from what was once traditionally bedside services to serving from a distance with the Web.”
What were the symptoms that changes were needed? “We knew we wouldn’t be the same in 20 years,” Tobin said. “Our membership and direct mail donors contained high numbers of people being around 70, and the attrition rate of 4 percent (annually) would eventually catch up to us.”
The strategic plan aimed to expand to a larger audience. The changing of the brand had to acknowledge that the organization could represent a larger group beyond veterans.
“The first step is to communicate to the board and staff, then the donors so they don’t think you’re abandoning them,” he said. “Show you’re interested in the future.” United knew higher attrition rates would strike. People would not understand exactly where the nonprofit was going. “It’s difficult for them to read direct mail to understand a directional shift,” he said.
United planned to change outreach. United set eyes on collaborations with professional affiliates like nurses, psychologists, and social workers to gain entry to clinical institutions.
The challenge was, how to develop the message to be consistent. “We wanted to show our legacy continued, and that we were going to move to a nationwide basis,” Tobin said. “Putting that in direct mail meant testing different packages.”
United did lose donors initially, to the tune of one-third. Yet the donor base has grown as the nonprofit expanded beyond the Northeast and the response rates have encouraged the officers.
“For many years, we were restricted to helping veterans,” Tobin said. “While the dollar amount is lower than two years ago, we’re starting to see a turnaround.” NPT