You are using an outdated browser. For a faster, safer browsing experience, upgrade for free today.


So you’re the CEO of DoGood Charity (DGC), and you feel good. Why? Well, you are right where you want to be, where everybody knows your name.

Yup, yours is a nationally-known nonprofit. Any place you go, people have heard of DoGood Charity, and they feel so good about the organization that they get all smiley whenever they hear it mentioned. A few people even made donations to it last year. So, what does DoGood Charity do?


That deafening silence you just heard was J.Q. Public’s answer to the question about what DGC does.

The general public, which recognizes the name, doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what DoGood Charity does, and now maybe you’re not feeling quite so good. That phenomenon of people knowing an organization’s name but not knowing what it does is called "empty awareness," according to Dawn Michelle Wilson, vice president of Hershey|Cause in Santa Monica, Calif. Hershey|Cause is a partnership of Hershey Associates, a for-profit design and marketing communications company formed in 1977, and Cause Communications, Hershey’s nonprofit communications practice founded in 1999.

Empty awareness is anything but empty. It is a serious matter.

"It is definitely a problem," Wilson said. "One of the major problem areas is fundraising. If people don’t know what you do, even if they make donations, they don’t know why they contribute to you."

Wilson used as an example a charity near her office. "There is a large organization in Los Angeles that we do consulting for that works with parents, and yet if you ask many parents about it, they have no idea (of what exactly the organization does)," Wilson said. She declined to name the organization, citing confidentiality policies.

For Wilson, a solid knowledge of an organization’s mission helps to establish a feeling of trust, and that helps lead to sustainability. Name recognition alone is not enough, however.

"Although people know of a well-known organization, they have a tendency to think it is doing well and therefore doesn’t need their help," she said. "So they don’t donate. It is the same with bringing in volunteers."

How does an organization go about making sure people are aware of its mission as well as its name? "We tell people that it starts with knowing yourself, understanding your mission, understanding your message," Wilson said.

"Then, an organization needs a message that’s simple and clean, that people can relate to," she said. "Especially in the philanthropic sector, people try to be all things to all people, and that’s not going to work. It’s also a matter of being consistent."

Further, nonprofits must understand the audience that will be receiving the simple message, and then must engage staff in helping to spread the knowledge.

The problems and solutions that Wilson offered could stand as a virtual blueprint for Goodwill of Greater Washington, as explained by Brendan Hurley, vice president of marketing and communication.

Quick, what does Goodwill Industries do? "We had very good name recognition, but very little mission awareness," said Hurley, who gave a presentation on the issue at the AMA Nonprofit Conference in Washington, D.C., this past July. "People knew our stores and thought we are about giving out clothes."

Then Hurley gave the information that probably will surprise everyone who thinks Goodwill is about selling used clothing.

"Our primary mission is providing job training," he said.

More than a minor informational gap, that lack of awareness could be a problem with stakeholders, especially those being prospected.

Hurley said that his organization has spent the past four years improving its mission awareness.

"First, we addressed our internal stakeholders and made sure our employees understand the nature of our mission," Hurley said. "We conducted an internal employee satisfaction survey. We are working very hard at integrating our mission into our orientation process and working it into our business operations."

The organization’s mission is written on in-store shopping bags. Not only are shoppers made aware of the mission, employees are also constantly reminded. Employees also have tag lines on their uniforms, and it is integrated into the newsletter every month.

"We are trying really hard to make sure we engage our employees anywhere they happen to be in our organization, so they hear and understand our mission," Hurley said.

The second part of the awareness campaign is external, making sure that people who are not involved with the organization every day are aware of its mission.

"When we send a thank-you letter, instead of just saying ‘Thank you’ we put in the letter ‘Thank you for donating to Goodwill. Your contribution will help provide job training,’" Hurley said.

Another part of the outreach effort was the addition of an external newsletter that is available in Goodwill stores. Even traditional advertising includes explicit mention of the message.

Hurley said that the results are encouraging. "We’re hearing great anecdotal evidence that the message is resonating with people," he said. For example, a local dry cleaner became interested enough to inform its employees, who are now donors.

"We are also reaching people using nontraditional media," said Hurley. "There is a fashion blog and an online fashion show, and that has engaged a younger, hipper, fashion-conscious audience. That has really taken off for us. And of course our mission statement is on the blog," he said.

"We incorporate the mission, as well. We indirectly engage a new audience about the mission and we’re giving them value through an online product that they find dramatic and compelling."

Knowing the audience continues to be important.

"Our typical retail shopper is a 45-year-old woman with a $35,000 annual income and two kids at home," Hurley said. "She needs to be able to stretch her dollar. That fashion-conscious 23-year-old is someone for whom we have to position ourselves as offering vintage fashions."

Just as important as knowing what the shoppers are seeking is knowing what the donors are thinking. A $10 donor is not the same as a major donor.

"What we did was conduct, with Kintera, research of people in our database who had given money to get them to give substantially more," Hurley said. "So we’re going to start communicating with them a little bit differently. We’re going to engage them more often so that we become their charity of choice."

Hurley said the organization decided to hire an individual gifts officer to implement that strategy of reaching the identified audience. In addition, the Web site is being redesigned to get a more consistent look and feel.

"We want them to think of Goodwill and recognize the mission," Hurley added.

The problem of awareness is similar, if not as acute, for the American Legion. "A lot of people know what we do, but they don’t know all that we do," said John Raughter, communications director of the American Legion.

Raughter said that, although many members of the general public know that the Legion devotes itself to veterans’ causes and issues related to the American flag, there are other less well-known endeavors. These efforts include Boys Nation and Boys State, two civics programs aimed at educating youth about government and civic involvement, and the High School Oratorical contest, in which students deliver a speech about the U.S. Constitution. The finals in April 2008 were held at the Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis Conference Center and Hotel.

The Legion also awards scholarships to children who lost a parent in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or the Iraq war.

"It does make sense that the more people who know about these programs the more money we can raise," Raughter said. "I hate to say it’s a problem because they have been so successful."

So when you’re feeling good because everybody knows your name, understand that you can feel even better if everybody knows what you do. NPT

As we celebrate our 36th year, NPT remains dedicated to supplying breaking news, in-depth reporting, and special issue coverage to help nonprofit executives run their organizations more effectively.