The Most Valuable Non-profit Brand of the World (2/2015)

This post is an excerpt of the article “The Most Valuable Non-profit Brand of the World – United Way and the eight principles of strategic fundraising” in Fundraiser Magazin 2/2015.

At the end of the nineties, the Executive Board of the largest fundraising organization worldwide, United Way of America, realizes that he has a problem: Since the big scandal in 1992, when then-CEO William Aramony was found guilty of fraud and personal enrichment, donations for the organization working for US communities had declined by more than 25 percent. United Way seems to Americans as a bureaucratic monster that collects with the social pressure donations at the workplace that actually nobody wants to give any more. Because nobody knows exactly where they go.

United Way, the “grand old dame of American Fundraising”, collecting since 1887 donations for local non-profit organizations across the United States seems to be finished. Several emergency measures fizzle without effect. This is when the Board grasps at the last straw: reinventing United Way.

Around the millennium United Way launches one of the biggest brand campaigns that have ever been implemented by a non-profit organization. Several agencies determine the most auspicious target groups and develop respective communication strategies. Competitors are identified as benchmarks, and finally the old fundraising organization United Way is re-invented as a “Community Impact” organization.

United Way had learned, in time of greatest need, to think and act market-oriented. To do fundraising strategically. The learning dividend: According to a brand valuation by Forbes magazine in 2010 United Way – in the meantime merged to United Way Worldwide – is, with an estimated brand value of $ 14.3 billion, one of the most valuable brands in the world. Just behind Pepsi and before Nike (!), IKEA and Gucci.

Strategic fundraising, as practiced by United Way since then, is oriented towards the whole donor market. Strategic fundraising means identifying donor target groups that fit to your charity and addressing them in “their language”. It means recognizing where you are better than others – and not to be afraid to communicate it. Seek a position in the donor market, which signals to the donors: This is us. We are unique. And you can belong to us.

Nowadays, several departments at the United Way headquarter are taking care of brand management, market research and benchmarking. With Success: The annual donations have increased by 2013 to $5.2 billion (!).

Strategic fundraising and brand management – even if looking complicated at first glance – are not reserved to large NPOs such as United Way. Small, community-based charities benefit from a strategic approach to fundraising as well. The key point is a market-oriented approach in fundraising, not the use of an array of professional marketing instruments.

There are now United Way chapters in Europe, such as in France and in the United Kingdom. Maybe it’s worth it to stop by there and get some ideas – or do some benchmarking, as United Way would say.