Can Looking Good Actually Cost Your Nonprofit Donations?

For-profit companies and startups have an obsession with perception that has led to the idea of branding as a luxury that nonprofits can’t afford, but does looking too “put-together” actually help or hinder a nonprofit’s donations?

Graphic with light blue background with two hands pulling a string. There are two people sitting on each hand. The image represents the push and pull between wants and needs. Nonprofit brands must cover the fundamentals of branding first, before moving on to the bells and whistles.

There’s this interesting tension that exists between nonprofit missions and how nonprofits are perceived. Dan Pallota first presented the idea of ‘the overhead myth’ back in his 2013 TED Talk, The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong. But most recently, another alarming theme has crept onto my radar: the misconception that if you look “too put-together” then people won’t give to your organization. 

Sure, responsible spending is always a concern – for both nonprofits and their supportive donors. At HeartSpark, we don’t believe that branding your nonprofit should break the bank or be the largest investment you make in your organization. But effective branding shouldn’t be slighted by short-term vision either. What are the actual risks and rewards of a nonprofit looking really, really good?

This dichotomy is very interesting, and I have a hunch that it also plays into the lack of focus and investment many nonprofits place on marketing as well. There are a few interesting points at play here, and I want to sink my teeth into each one, maybe selfishly to indulge my curiosity around this budding myth. 

Before we begin, it’s important to note that I am a branding expert who spent over 10 years in advertising, a notoriously vain industry that moves millions of dollars to change the way brands are perceived. The whole impetus for HeartSpark is based around the idea of bringing the strength and value of branding to the nonprofit sector – helping these ‘mighty underdogs’ stand out and get the attention they deserve. Although I’m trained in the art of brand strategy and visual identity design, I do feel this deep conviction to be able to articulate the importance of branding, especially to nonprofit groups who usually have to relay the value to their executive team and/or board of directors.

My sincere hope is that you find this article helpful and informative in talking to your team about the importance of branding and help me lift the morale of our sector by embracing the pride of branding. 

What if we thought about marketing (and branding, by extension) as an essential part of building trust instead of the icky, vanity-obsessed industry that we see in action every day?

So how do we get people to care about our missions? We have to connect with their hearts, not just their wallets, and branding could be the key to making your message stick with their psyche. Here are 3 thoughts (with supporting statistics) to demonstrate how the perception of a brand can actually be the single most important tool to build trust with your supporters.

Branding Helps More People “Get It” 

At its core, branding is an exercise in aligning your values and missions with visuals and storytelling to build a reputation with the public. By building a consistent experience, you’ll build credibility and trust with people. In fact, a consistent presentation of a brand has seen to increase revenue by 33 percent (Lucidpress, 2019) and 48% of people claim that the first interaction is the best time to earn their loyalty. Top drivers of trust are public figure endorsements, communicating clear organizational missions, and demonstrating results.

For the most part, we’re social and visual beings. We associate with people, places, and brands that make us look desirable to our social circle or increase our self-confidence. We are hard-wired to judge a person, place or brand by its viability – to decide in a millisecond if it’s attractive and worth associating with. This “gut reaction” lets us instinctively weigh out success from weakness. 

In fact, most of the nonprofit organizations we work with on rebranding actually notice a huge boost in their internal morale and start hearing from supporters who have sat on the sidelines. People associate with brands that look “put together” more than those that look messy or inconsistent. 

Branding = Consistency = Credibility

Public trust is the currency of the nonprofit sector. The public’s belief that nonprofits will “do the right thing” is one of the central reasons the sector exists, yet we are in a trust crisis. As of November 2022, only 56% of Americans say they trust nonprofits, down a statistically significant 3-points from 2020 (59%). Philanthropy trust edged down from 36% to 34% (same period). 

Strategic branding – yes, good looks – can help re-establish trust with your supporters. They key is to be relentless in your focus, clearly communicating your mission, and showing people your excellence through visuals. This dynamic marketing trio delivered consistently over time will help build credibility. Back that investment with targeted advertising efforts and your dollars can stretch way further than they ever have before, leading to people starting to recognize and remember your nonprofit.

Branding Opens Hearts, then Wallets

Without a “put together” brand, many fundraisers are left to rely solely on their mission and individual connections to bring in donations, which can be a tough sell if the donor has no connection to your organization. Branding unlocks a deeper connection and awareness around your nonprofit so funders clearly understand your mission and care before you ever ask them for money.

Imagine meeting with a major donor and they’ve already heard about your nonprofit, know that they’re aligned with your mission, and are ready to give. All you have to do is present the funding opportunities to them – or in some cases maybe they just give without needing to meet in the first place. That’s a much different situation than most fundraisers face everyday right now, and the current situation of meeting and asking individuals doesn’t scale very well to the larger public.

Who has time to meet with every single Facebook fundraiser or monthly donor? There has to be a better way to reach, connect, and cultivate our communities. 

Giving by individuals increased by 4.9% from 2020 to 2021, totaling $326.87 Billion dollars according to Giving USA’s 2022 report. Also, 1 in 10 donors who converted to a major donor in 3 years started with a donation of $100 or less. I find it interesting that for many donors these transactions are happening online – meaning that the donors are gathering all of their information about organizations online and they’re comfortable with that level of interaction with the organization. 

I believe it is possible for nonprofits to leverage the power of branding for their organizations – no matter their size. There’s an interesting tension between charity and looking “too good” that I think we should embrace. By investing in a few key areas of your nonprofit’s brand, you can get all the benefits of a multi-million dollar company without the expensive investment (some upwards of $500K for a brand redesign…what?!) These companies are paying millions of dollars to manufacture care about their products, whereas nonprofits already have the core mission – they just have to clearly communicate their important work.


So, can looking “too put-together” actually hinder donations?

It may raise an eyebrow here or there, but the overwhelming benefit of having a strategic, good-looking brand far outweighs the skeptics. Branding is a consistent connection that helps people to “get it” with a compelling storytelling that can be represented visually and can motivate them to give, but donations alone shouldn’t be our main goal. Running an impactful organization requires us to play the long game, and developing a deep belief in your mission will result in more long-term support. 

Do you want to get into branding? Check 9 must-haves for nonprofit branding.

Picture of Lauren Atherton
Lauren Atherton
With over 15 years in the creative industry, Lauren uses her award-winning design experience with agencies, startups, and Fortune 200’s to help nonprofit organizations attract support through branding and design.