Brandjacking is a radical restructuring of your public face, based on the logic of commercial branding.

It can destroy your fundraising program.

It’s hard to tell the difference between legitimate marketing help and brandjacking. But these warning signs can help you detect a brandjacking before things go too far.

1. The new brand is not aimed at your donors

Brandjackers aim their work squarely at nonprofit staff. That creates happiness throughout your organization. They can make you feel, perhaps for the first time, that an outside consultant gets you.

Brandjackers avoid measurable financial impact. That’s how they aim the brand at you and make you happy. They don’t have to reach out to those pesky donors.

It’s not a plot to defraud you. Few Brand Experts have any idea they’re doing it. Most of them never quite grasp the troublesome fact that you and your donors are not the same people.

Effective fundraising always makes you at least slightly uncomfortable. It’s a bit like seeing your parents making out. You know it’s a good thing, but it’s not something you care to dwell on. You’re the wrong audience.

Many people at nonprofits live in that mom-and-dad-making-out state of discomfort with their fundraising. But they don’t realize the discomfort is normal. They think their discomfort means there’s something wrong with their fundraising. Actually, it’s a sign there’s something right with it.

If brand work makes you and other insiders happy, it’s likely a brandjacking. It’s designed to tickle your fancy. But it’s liable to sink your fundraising.

2. The new brand requires you to abandon your donors

Even if your brand is a mess, it has probably been influenced by your donors. They’ve shaped the message through their responses in measurable direct-response channels. If you clean up the “mess,” you may leave your donors behind.

Some nonprofit staffs are so hungry for an all-new, more-pleasing brand, they’re willing to adapt a wild proposal from the Brandjackers: Get rid of your donors — those tiresome people who stubbornly respond to the marketing we dislike. Replace those donors with different donors, they say. Better donors who will get it.

There’s a diabolic cleverness to the all-new-donors ploy. It feels so right. In theory, it could work. But the chance of success is microscopic, and the consequence of failure is devastating.

3. The work is not grounded in donor behavior

One of the great blessings of fundraising is that we’re forced to use direct-response marketing in order to gather donations. When we get it right, more donors give, give more, or give more often. When we get it wrong, those numbers drop.

There’s no way we can fake it with relativistic advertising metrics like “awareness” or “impressions.” We live or die by numbers you can take to the bank. This makes us hypersensitive to donors — who they are, what motivates them. Not what we wish. Not what research subjects claim when asked.

There’s one way to know if your new idea is going to work: test your ideas in direct-response media. This would have saved many organizations from the financial tailspin that ill-conceived branding inflicted on them. If your Brand Experts propose direct-response testing, that’s an indication their work is not a brandjacking.

Otherwise, stop the presses the moment they pooh-pooh testing.

4. The new brand describes your cause in a symbolic way

Most Brandjackers rely on symbolism. When helping the poor is abandoned as a description of the cause and replaced with something like sharing hope, you probably have a brandjacking in progress.

I bring up hope because it often shows up during a brandjacking. Think about it: Feeding the hungry generates hope. So does curing a disease. Any time you solve a problem, make people’s lives better, or in any way make the world better — you can be said to increase hope.

Hope may be the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings, but it’s not a platform for fundraising. It’s too abstract to make donors’ hearts swell with compassion.

Donors give to accomplish specific actions, not to solve mental puzzles. Brandjackers will usually tell you otherwise as they create their inspiring mental abstractions.

5. The new brand requires absolute consistency

Consistency is good. But it’s not always the right thing for fundraising. In fact, variety is one of the most dependable fundraising “techniques” at your disposal.

Good fundraising is a relationship. It responds to events. That means sometimes you need to shout or cry, to laugh or mourn. When you adhere to an unchanging standard, you can’t effectively do that.

Devotion to consistency is a sign that the brand is about itself, not about your donors and their relationship with your cause. Consistency doesn’t stir donors to action. And it’s a strong sign of a brandjacking.

6. The new brand is design — and little else

Of all the elements that make up a brand, design is the most visible, but the least important. In a brandjacking, you’ll find that the bulk — maybe even all — of the work is a new design framework.

Of all the levers you might use in search of improvement, design is the shortest. Worse yet, when design sits at the center of communications, you are often forced to twist your messages into crazy pretzel shapes that can’t reach donors.

If your Brand Experts deliver a design-centered brand like that, they are boxing you in to a consistent look — and sometimes incoherent messaging.

Good branding is more concerned about communication than design. There will be emphasis on copy, and the approach to design will be more about the imagery that motivates donors than abstract design elements like color and fonts.

Brand Experts who tell you otherwise are likely to be brandjackers.

This post is an excerpt from Jeff Brook’s new book The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand, now available at:

Read more: