This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.
Sarah Durham left the world of corporate communications and marketing in 1994 to launch Big Duck, an agency that works exclusively with nonprofit organizations to help them communicate effectively so they can fulfill their missions. She is the author of Brandraising: How Nonprofits Increase Visibility and Raise Money through Smart Communications (Jossey-Bass, 2010). The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of and a frequent contributor to the MKCREATIVE blog.
MKC: First of all, as Chico Marx once asked, “Why a Duck?”
Sarah: I think the true answer is deep and Freudian and subliminal, but the conscious answer is, when I was starting Big Duck, I was leaving Disney Consumer Products, where I had worked on some of the branding issues around Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy and Pluto, and I think I had the mice, the ducks and the dogs in my head. I wanted to come up with something that had the personality I was going for – creative, playful and sort of open-ended and flexible.
MKC: In the 17 years since you began the firm, what kind of changes have you seen in how nonprofits approach marketing?
Sarah: The external shifts are the same things that have affected everybody: the lightning-fast speed of the Internet, social media, fundraising online – all of those external variables have deeply impacted nonprofits. But internally, I think there has been a big shift. In the ‘90s, if I talked about “branding” with a nonprofit, it was as if I was using a dirty word. Nonprofits 15 years ago were much more likely to resist traditional terms and principles that the for-profit industry used. These days it’s par for the course.
MKC: Why did you feel Brandraising needed to be written?
Sarah: I really started writing it because I felt the discipline of putting down on paper what we were doing (and what I thought was the right way to do it) would be good for me and my work. Once it was clear that it was a book, I hoped that the book would be a useful tool for nonprofits that could never afford to hire a firm like Big Duck. I’d like the book to help them not make some basic mistakes by helping them to think a little more strategically about how they communicate.
MKC: Are you finding that nonprofit organizations are embracing the vision you’ve laid out in Brandraising?
Sarah: I do. The book is having its impact, although I hear from some smaller nonprofits that they’re finding it easier to bite off chunks as opposed to doing the whole enchilada. And that makes sense. Actually I tried to write the book so that you could do that. If you just read the three pages about taglines and develop a better tagline, that’s a real step forward.
Most of the organizations that hire my firm, Big Duck, to do brandraising work are pretty committed. They’re spending a lot of money and time to get there.
If a small organization reads the book and says, ‘I can’t do this whole thing but I can understand the concepts of positioning and personality and I can try to be more deliberate in how I communicate’, I see it as progress.
We also developed a free assessment tool called The Brandraising Scorecard as a companion piece to the book. You can find it on the Big Duck website, www.bigducknyc.com. It’s a series of questions you can go through in about 10 minutes, and it generates a report assessing how your organization might be communicating at the organizational, identity and experiential levels. People have told me that when a number of people in their nonprofit take the assessment and then meet about it, it can spark a very productive conversation.
MKC: You mentioned earlier you’ve seen attitudes change about marketing. Have you also seen attitudes change about communication?
Sarah: I think nonprofits are much more attuned to the importance of communications. For better or for worse, an organization can’t get away with having a really lousy website or ignoring social media. Communications has to be right up there in the things you’ve got to focus on. For a lot of executive directors, especially people who’ve been in leadership positions for awhile, it’s a big transition to make.
They may understand the need for it, but they don’t always understand the work that it requires, and they don’t budget or staff for it adequately (especially hard in this economy). It takes time to get organizations accustomed to the idea that all this stuff is really here to stay. You can’t just make a big push around your brand, or website or social media and then ignore it thereafter. It’s got to be woven into the fabric of our daily work.
You can discover more about Sarah, Big Duck, and Brandraising by visiting these additional resources: a recorded Slideshare site.and Sarah’s
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com