To Sell Themselves to Donors, Nonprofits Are Turning to the Pros

The Colon Cancer Alliance is one of a surging number of nonprofits that are turning to marketing experts for help.

In the past, charities and nonprofit groups relied heavily on savvy fund-raising experts and boldface names to promote their causes. But a number of groups, even those that are well known, are having a tough time competing — or even staying relevant — in the rough-and-tumble digital age, when potential donors are overwhelmed with requests for money on social media, crowdfunding sites and other digital platforms.

These branding and marketing experts are helping nonprofits more clearly explain their purpose in simple but powerful ways that connect emotionally with the public. It’s critical they use storytelling skills, involving personal stories about having the disease or being helped by a nonprofit, to inspire donors to get onboard.

“It’s a different skill set,” said Jim Fosina, founder and chief executive of the Fosina Marketing Group.

Without this storytelling ability — along with the sophisticated use of data to identify donors and maintain a digital connection with them — nonprofits risk losing donations to other organizations that are chasing the same dollars.

“Most companies have bland mission and vision statements that are vague, inflated and indistinguishable from one another,” said Alan Siegel, founder of Siegelvision, a branding and communications consulting firm. The company has worked with such nonprofits as Easterseals, the Lupus Foundation of America, the Urban Institute and Breaking Ground.

Even brands that have been around for decades don’t get a free ride.

When Mr. Siegel started working with Easterseals, surveys showed that many people recognized the name but had no clue what exactly it did — even though it had been around for almost 100 years.

He recommended that the group use the word “disability” in its message to emphasize its focus. Its new tagline — “Taking on disability together” — offers a clearer message, he said.

Some group members were sensitive about using the word “disability,” Mr. Siegel said. “But there’s a certain authenticity to saying, ‘This is who were are, and this is what we do,’” which helped potential donors understand that this is the group that helps people with disabilities become functional members of society, he said.

There was similar confusion about the Lupus Foundation of America.

“They had brochures…

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