Branding your hospice refines your identity

Put your donors in the right frame of mind

By Dee Vandeventer
Partner, Mathis, Ernest & Vandeventer
Cedar Falls, IA

Imagine this: You’ve dialed the phone and your prospect answers. You introduce yourself and say you are from hospice. The voice on the other end says, "I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with your group."

If you or your volunteers have ever experienced this, you know how frustrating it can be. But other hospice organizations around the country aren’t having these kind of problems — what do they know that you don’t? Many nonprofit organizations are beginning to realize that a visible and recognizable "personality" isn’t just for businesses anymore and are taking steps to build their own identities.

In the for-profit sector, building identity is known as "branding." You may not be familiar with the word, but you understand the concept:

"A product is made in a factory but a brand is made in your head and heart. Products might leave your factory by the thousands a day, but brands are sold one at a time, and they are sold by F-E-E-L-I-N-G-S."1 In other words, a brand is how it makes you feel.

Businesses use branding to pre-sell products or services by developing an idea or concept in consumers’ minds through a variety of marketing approaches.

But most hospice organizations don’t have the funds to spend on marketing. Thus, it becomes even more important to understand how branding can "sell" your organization to potential donors. And when people know you and know what you stand for, they are more likely to give to you.

Take that charity event you lost money on. Imagine you can turn back the clock and do it all over again. What can you do to brand your organization to increase visibility, attendance, and fundraising dollars? Advertise more in the newspaper and on the radio? Enlist more volunteers? Not necessarily. Getting people interested in your charitable event has to begin long before the entertainment is booked and the menu determined.

Let’s look at what one hospice organization did to increase its visibility, familiarity, and ultimately, its contributions.

Joliet Area Community Hospice (JACH) dreamed of building a hospice home — the first of its kind in Illinois. To do so, it needed to raise $3 million. A feasibility study revealed that, while the hospice had a stellar image among those who knew of it, most people knew little about the hospice, its programs, or its services. JACH needed to create a visible image to expand its patient base and attract donors so its campaign goal could be reached.

JACH used a "you-centered" message; an intense public relations campaign, including video, radio, TV, and newspaper; an experienced team of volunteers; and a fundraising plan to identify itself to possible donors.

The hospice home campaign began in April 2001. Since that time, donors have contributed more than $2.5 million. The dream is within reach.

This kind of effectiveness didn’t just magically happen. JACH plugged into the power of branding, and got electrifying results. Whether you’re part of a large hospice organization or a small one, branding has to become an essential part of your operation.

There are now more than 850,000 501(c)(3) organizations in the United States, compared with just over 600,000 in 1995.2 With all those organizations competing for charitable dollars, many nonprofits realize they cannot conduct business as usual. Branding can help you meet the needs of those you serve amid rising competition for charitable dollars in a slowing economy.

Branding is about saying the right thing to the right person at the right time. It’s listening to and understanding what’s in donors’ hearts and minds.

Your organization has to find a way to be first in donors’ minds above all others. And to be first, you have to tell your story in a way that reaches people’s minds and hearts.

Tailor your message to the needs of your donors, not your organization. Also realize that no one message will appeal to or motivate everyone it reaches.

Know your audience. Put yourself in their place. They have to know exactly what your hospice’s mission is before they commit to you.

While you want to focus your time on raising funds, investing in target audience research will pay off in the long run. Use focus groups, e-mails, phone surveys, or direct-mail questionnaires to gather information. Some nonprofit organizations also collect information via their web sites.

Speaking of web sites, they’re a good way to establish brand credibility. Barbara Mulville, CFRE, past chair of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, says nonprofit organizations with web sites gain instant credibility, particularly if they use the site to communicate with donors or constituents regularly.3 Just be sure the information is consistent with the other messages you are sending via traditional channels.

A brand name should evoke both the brand’s promise and its emotional value.1 If you work for a hospice with a name that does both, don’t mess with a good thing. Nothing confuses people more than changing names of organizations to suit the times.

If you’ve already got a powerful logo, great. If your logo doesn’t fit the hospice’s name or purpose, perhaps it’s time to revamp it. Either way, put that logo to use. Every piece of marketing that goes out the door should have your organization’s logo on it. It’s like your calling card; it gets you in the door of current and potential donors.

Integrating the message

Integrating your logo, tagline, colors, and typeface into all print materials, videos, and web information reinforces the message you send your audience. Every time donors see your logo or tagline, it reinforces in their minds who you are.

Don’t forget about media outlets. Ask those people you have the strongest relationships with to donate space or time to support your organization. This will reinforce your brand.

Branding goes beyond creating a name, a logo, and a look. It’s about creating loyalty, which begins with being trustworthy, honest, simple, and relevant. Some final tips to help you open the door for future opportunities with your donors and constituents:

  • Give your donors a positive experience every time they interact with your organization. This includes thoroughly training your volunteers about your organization and mission.
  • Be straightforward with your donors about where their dollars are going. But don’t overload them with too much information.
  • Always thank your donors — seven times. Keep in touch with donors. Send e-mails, newsletters, newspaper articles, birthday cards, and other communications. Don’t assume just because they’ve given once, they’ll give again. Nurture those relationships.
  • Listen to what donors say about your organization. Set up avenues for them to respond, through surveys, direct mail, or e-mail. Then, whenever possible, act on their suggestions and comments.

When you get right down to it, it’s all about relationships. People give to people. But first they have to know you. Successful branding can create and enhance those relationships, aiding you in the donor courtship phase. And once they know you, they’ll get involved. They’ll develop an ownership with your hospice that then leads them to giving. Before you know it, you’ll be on the way to turning donors into lifelong contributors.

[Editor’s note: For more information, contact Dee Vandeventer via e-mail at, or by telephone at (319) 268-9151.]


1. Travis, Daryl. Emotional Branding. Roseville, CA: Prima Venture, 2000.


3. Outstanding nonprofit communications. Advancing Philanthropy 2001; Nov./Dec.