Advancement and Fundraising Brand Higher Education

Fundraising and Branding: Friends or Foes?

By Peter Toran \ April 12, 2021

Why advancement and marketing have to get along 


On the face of it, it seems pretty simple. Your nonprofit’s fundraising and branding operations work together hand in glove. 

Except when they don’t.

How else to explain the tweets that Roger Craver shared in DonorVoice’s The Agitator:

  • “Our marketing and comms team won’t let us do (this super brilliant idea which has been proven to raise boatloads of cash) because it’s off brand.”
  • “Or that great idea that you developed has to be redone because the new brand says no!”
  • “Look, everyone: square wheels are our brand. We don’t care if it rolls. Square wheels are our brand. Got it, numbkins?” 
  • “LITERALLY talking about this not five minutes ago. I had a small rant that included, “What @%$#!-ing brand wizard dreamt up grey Helvetica in block format for body copy?!!! I am 100% against this.””


Wait, there’s more. In an Agents of Good blog, John Lepp takes it a step further:

Fire your branding expert, your marketing grad, your advertising creative from the commercial world. Save your organization’s money.

If you must SPEND, spend time and energy on connecting with other humans over the values you share with them, through whatever channel you choose, with real emotions. Care about their needs. Not yours.

Why can’t we all just get along?

To level-set: People who work in the nonprofit world are — by definition and by paycheck — not driven by ego. They get up every morning with the genuine intention to do good in the world, which is not something everyone can say. And that holds true whether they work in advancement or in marketing and communications.

So what’s the problem?

If an organization is large enough, the issue can be structural: different departments, different people in charge, separate budgets. As challenging as that scenario can be, it isn’t the sole reason for the angry fundraiser tweets. That anger speaks to a disconnect between fundraising and brand that goes well beyond an organizational chart. 

The problem is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what brand is. And let it be noted that the heartful complaints cited above come from only the advancement part of the equation. Chances are, the marketing and communications team isn’t as evil or as clueless as those tweets make them out to be, and they likely harbor a few grudges of their own: “What nimrod thought fuschia was part of our color palette?” “The comic sans was a joke, right? Right?!?” 

To bridge the divide, we first need a common understanding of what brand is. And before you say, “Please, no, not another brand definition!” — unfortunately, as the arguments above show, it’s still necessary. 

What Brand Is

Brand is.

That’s how we describe it in our latest book, “Nobody Cares About Your University… Yet” (2020). Our definition may sound a bit too Zen-masterish at first, but we go on to explain:

“It’s as simple as that. Your institution’s brand exists whether or not anyone’s taken any active steps to create it. If you have an institution, you have a brand. 

If you still use “brand” as a stand-in for your logo or if you talk about branding as a design exercise, you’re still clinging to the idea that brand and logo are related, if not synonymous. And if you think that, you probably also think that controlling your institution’s brand begins and ends by adhering strictly to a set of guidelines and keeping a close watch on how various … units use (some say “butcher,” but we think that’s harsh) your institution’s logo, color palette, and in some cases, tagline.”

So, twitter storms about fonts and logos amount to nothing more than sandbox battles. Your brand is everything that goes into making a human being feel a certain way about your organization. That includes your logo, but it may also include that great idea that the advancement team came up with that (they believe) will bring in tons of cash.

So, if it’s true that every touchpoint your audiences have with your organization helps create your brand, is it too much to suggest that branding and fundraising are one and the same?

Actually, that’s exactly what the most recent research suggests. 

Branding = Fundraising = Branding  

In a first-of-its-kind study, The Philanthropy Centre’s Adrian Sargeant and Harriet Day set out to understand the relationship between branding and fundraising. Their study, “Great Fundraising and Brands: Help or Hindrance,” looked at the dynamic between nonprofit branding and fundraising to try and answer the question, “What is it about brands that facilitates excellence in fundraising, and how do organisations manage the dynamic to ensure that their brands are indeed leveraged to deliver massive fundraising growth?”

Here’s some of what they concluded:

  • Spending on branding doesn’t lead to fundraising success. The authors are emphatic about this: “We could find only a weak link with either average or year-on-year growth in fundraising income.” They found that any impact that brand has on fundraising is related to strategy, not spending.
  • Branding serves fundraising, not the other way around. Regardless of administrative structure, the most successful fundraising organizations had clarity in the need for branding to support fundraising; that clarity was found to reduce the conflict that inevitably arises between departments.
  • Success is optimized when the fundraising proposition is the brand. This is easiest to see with charity brands. Think of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Yes, they’ve got the financial wherewithal to get their message out at a level that few nonprofit organizations do. But can you separate their brand from their fundraising message? When you hear the name, do you see the logo (the way you might with a commercial brand such as Apple), or do you think — and more importantly, feel — something about what they do, who they do it for, and why it matters?

Erasing the line between brand and fundraising not only aligns your organization’s messaging, it also reduces conflict. Sargeant and Day found that, in organizations where the purpose and function of brand was clearly understood, “we were struck by the genuine warmth that was expressed by peers in other functions, by both Directors of Communication and Directors of Fundraising.” 

Maybe we can get along after all.

And remember, it’s not about you.

As we struggle to align brand and fundraising — especially in complex organizations such as research universities, where it’s not easy to achieve that focused, emotional appeal that charitable organizations may be able to — it helps to remember what good branding and successful fundraising have in common: they know that it’s not about them. 

What matters most to your donors? What do your prospective students value? Do you know? Does it match what you’re asking them to support, or enroll in, or sign up for?

Asking and answering those questions in a collaborative environment will help turn sandbox battles into sandcastles. And in the process, maybe you can reconsider those square wheels and the comic sans font. 


Peter Toran
Lead Strategist
Peter Toran
Lead Strategist

Peter is unequivocally the coolest person in the office. Having served in university leadership and on executive boards, Peter has a lot of experience in a lot of areas. And he helps gain our clients’ trust and support from Day One. Peter is also an expert on enrollment and content strategy and institutional branding and communications. There’s nothing this guy can’t do, but he’s exceptionally good at bringing us artisanal bread on Friday’s paired with well-baked puns.