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Tagline Takedown: Deconstructing Nonprofits (When Pink Turns to Red)

Tell me who you are, what you do, and make me feel good about being a part of your solution. Do not confuse, hard-sell, or scare me.
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For charitable organizations, the month of October is like the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, and the Kentucky Derby rolled into one. Thanks to the marketing machine that is Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one cannot view a sporting event, enter a mall, or pass through a transit hub without being inundated by pink. In fact, one could argue pink has become our nation's fourth color.

Yes, Virginia, charity has become big business. According to the National Philanthropic Trust (NPT), some 1,083,130 charities raised $293.8 billion in 2011. More than 88 percent of U.S. households donate an average of $2,213 annually. Komen alone raised $342,373,526 in FYE 2012. But that pales in comparison to the $934,314,059 raised by The American Cancer Society in the very same year.

Even then, these are not the best of times for charities. Since the seismic 2008 market downturn, many charities have seen fundraising numbers drop like autumn leaves. Others have disappeared completely: The NPT reports there are 15 percent fewer charities now than in 2010.

All of which means crisp, clear, and consistent messaging is more important than ever. And taglines, which need to convey an immediate and obvious call to action, are no longer just nice-to-have--they’re the lifeblood of effective fundraising.

In an effort to help charities help us to help them, I thought I’d provide a quick sampling of those taglines that do well and those that are, frankly, in need of help.

How to get to the top of the heap.

The Damon Runyan Cancer Research Foundation does it right. Their tagline, "Discovering the talent to discover the cure," tells me they need money to help find, and fund, the researchers who will hopefully find the cure for cancer. The Runyan website contains three short but inspiring case studies and information on an upcoming event--and explains why I should care. They also tell me that 100 percent of their funds go to research. Ms. Komen: are you paying attention?

The Nature Conservancy's tagline is "Protecting nature. Preserving life." Those four concise, memorable words tell me where my money will go, and why I should reach into my wallet in the first place. The organization’s site is also well organized, contains some terrific stories, and points to the group's many accomplishments. These guys are making a difference, and their marketing communicates that fact in a respectful way.

Don't fundraise by fear-mongering.

Too many charities play the fear card in their marketing. Take St. Jude's Hospital. Their tagline is "Finding cures. Saving Children." That’s a noble task, to be sure. But the photographs of sick and dying children are simply too overwhelming. I want to help, but please show me the upside of my giving. Don't guilt me into writing a check. It may work once. But it's not a sustainable strategy.

The American Heart Association (AHA) also employs the Grim Reaper in its messaging. Their tagline is benign enough: "Learn and live." But an uplifting message is followed by one gut-wrenching visual after another. Learn and live could be a very effective rallying cry for the AHA if it was supported by feel-good messages, testimonials, and positive end results. Don't bully me into giving with graphic scenes. Americans don’t like being forced to do anything.

By the way, the life insurance category has done a superb job of figuring out how to sell death. Led by Geico, one can now find every major life insurance carrier employing humor and outright comedy to differentiate their product and service while still, in effect, selling death. Look at Allstate's "Mayhem" and Progressive's "Flo" for two cases-in-point.

I'm not suggesting death and dying is anything to laugh about, but death is a part of life. And while it's certainly not appropriate in every circumstance, some charities could learn a marketing lesson, or two, from insurers.

Always. Be. Closing.

Glengarry Glen Ross is, in my opinion, the single best play ever written about business (with all due respect to Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"). A sad, somber tale about down-on-their-luck real estate salesmen, Glengarry's signature phrase is: "ABC: Always Be Closing." It was an admonition to the salesmen to never ever lose an opportunity to close a deal.

Some charities seem to have taken playwright David Mamet's words far too literally. But none can match Komen for non-stop 24x7 selling. Their tagline, "Ending breast cancer forever," is laudable. But their website reminds me of the insurance salesman you meet at a cocktail reception who simply cannot take no for answer.

Komen pushes t-shirts, runs, walks, shoes. You name it. They've got it. It's the eCommerce Capital of Charity. Instead of give, give, give, Komen’s rallying cry should be buy, buy, buy. And the organization’s logo should be a cash register.

Tell us where the cash is going.

Last, but not least, are those charities who simply don't tell you what they're trying to do with the money they're asking you to donate.

Take the (now Lance Armstrong-free) Livestrong Foundation. Their tagline is "Get informed. Find Support. Take Control." Oh. So, do they want me to learn more about prostate cancer before I donate? Or would they like me, as a prostate cancer patient, to find someone who will pay for my care? Or am I supposed to take control if I'm a donor, patient, neither, or both?

Livestrong's tagline is about as clear as Lance's admission of guilt to Oprah. 

And then we have the hallowed YWCA. Their tagline is "Eliminating racism, empowering women." Those are laudable goals, but isn't that like simultaneously trying to end war and poverty? I'm happy to help end racism and empower more women, but color me skeptical that my dollars will put much of a dent in either.

"Birds of a feather" isn't good enough.

Many charities occupy the same space and strive to achieve the same goal, but do a truly mediocre job of differentiating themselves.

There are scores of charities trying to help returning veterans of war. Two in particular look so alike that you'd you think they're one and the same.

The Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) and Hope for the Warriors are the charities in question. The former's tagline is: "The greatest casualty is being forgotten." The latter's is: "Restoring Self. Family. Hope."

Full disclosure. My firm tried to counsel Hope for the Warriors a few years ago. We strongly suggested they select a different name, tagline, and logo. They refused. As a result, neither group can raise the maximum amount of money needed. Oh, and by the way, the WWP exists to help wounded vets. Hope for the Warriors' goal is to provide support for families of veterans.

They’re both worthy organizations with two distinct missions, but nearly identical names, visuals, and taglines. In the end, the veteran is the real loser.

The best-managed charities understand the nuances of marketing, messaging and taglines. Tell me who you are, what you do, and make me feel good about being a part of your solution.

Do not confuse, hard sell me or scare me. Americans will be charitable. But they can also be uncharitable to those organizations that mismanage the messaging. Pink can very easily turn to red.

 

Last updated: Sep 23, 2013

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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