Symbols and philanthropy

Yesterday was June 14th and that can only mean one thing — Flag Day — which got me thinking about the importance of “symbols” in philanthropy.

Quite simply, symbols are things that help us quickly and clearly understand for what something stands. For example, the American flag represents the historic formation of our country (e.g. 13 independent colonies) and stands for the values put forth by our Founding Fathers (e.g. freedom, justice, democratic principles, self-determination, etc).

Symbols are powerful communication tools for organizations according to Anat Rafaeli and Momica Worline in their paper titled “Symbols in Organizational Culture“.  The following are a few examples of symbols that I’ve seen non-profits use effectively:

  • Boys & Girls Clubs use a logo of two hands gasping each other. It is commonly known as “The Knuckles”.  It symbolizes hope and opportunity as well as a partnership between kids and those willing to extend a helping hand in partnership.  Donors see the logo and immediately understand in what they are investing.
  • The Boy Scouts integrated the fleur-de-lis into its logo. This symbol has had many meanings throughout human history; however, within a scouting context it is supposed to make donors think of a compass, which symbolizes scouting’s power in a person’s life to always keep them pointed in the right direction.
  • Getting back to Boys & Girls Clubs … this organization effectively uses its alumni assets as “symbols” and a way to effortlessly communicate to donors that the Club is 1) an effective after-school program that yields success stories, 2) all about lifting people up, 3) about forging positive kid-adult mentoring relationships, and 4) lots and lots of fun. Check out this Denzel Washington commercial and see if you can see those messages embodied in their spokesperson.

Many non-profit organizations also develop “signature fundraisers” or publicize “signature programs” that become symbols of their organization. I can specifically think of the United Way’s fundraising thermometer, poppies to support veterans causes, and cookie sales to help the Girl Scouts. Think of how powerful it must be for a donor to instantly understand in what they are investing.

In my opinion, the biggest challenge for your organization is integrating a sense of “mission-focus” into the symbols you construct. This is especially true for those non-profit organization’s pursuing cause-related marketing efforts. Who can ever forget when Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure affiliated their “symbol” (aka brand) with KFC’s brand (greasy, unhealthy food)?

Jump in and comment on other non-profit symbols that you’ve seen used very well or poorly by a non-profit organization in their resource development program. And enjoy this final link to the Chinese symbol for “philanthropy”

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847!/profile.php?id=1021153653

One comment

  1. Currently it appears like Expression Engine is the preferred blogging platform available right now. (from what I’ve read) Is that what you are using on your blog?

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