On the morning of the 60th D-Day anniversary, two representatives of the Royal British Legion planted 1,520 “thank-you” flags on Sword Beach in Normandy, France. Each flag represented a British serviceman who died during the Allied invasion of Normandy. Nearby, another 90,000 flags bore heartfelt messages from British residents who had made a donation to the Royal British Legion—a charity that supports ex-service people— to commemorate the event. As the day wore on, the tide washed the flags out to sea.

“It was a very emotional appeal, and something only the Royal British Legion could do,” says Adrian Sargeant, the Robert F. Hartsook Professor of Fundraising at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The fundraiser was also quite lucrative, raising a total of £1.93 million ($3.53 million) for the legion and recruiting some 70,000 new donors, reports the Journal of Direct, Data and Digital Marketing Practice (vol. 9, no. 2).

Linking an organization to an emotion is one way that nonprofits can differentiate themselves from their competitors, find Sargeant and his colleagues in a recent study. “What drives giving is the extent to which your brand is distinctive,” he explains. “Having characteristics that will stimulate emotion—getting potential donors angry, say, or making them laugh—is one way to make your brand different.”

Sargeant points to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as an especially effective nonprofit brand. “The name says it all. They’re angry and in your face and they convey that in all their communications.” The United Kingdom-based Dogs Trust is another emotionally unique charity. Its “deliberately schmaltzy approach to fundraising” includes birthday cards in which rescued dogs send “little kisses and paw prints and news about their chums and whatnot,” he says.

In their study of nonprofit brand personalities, Sargeant and his coauthors first asked people to rate how well each of 61 traits described a charity to which they had donated money. The charities in question were three animal welfare organizations, three child-oriented charities, and three nonprofits serving visually impaired people. The researchers then tracked how donors’ descriptions of the charities predicted the size of their last gift and their total number of gifts.

“Most organizations don’t understand the importance of a unique brand,” says Sargeant. “They see themselves as distinctive because they are caring, sympathetic, trustworthy, and all that other nonprofit goo.” But most other nonprofits share these traits as well, his research finds. “Cuddly, warm nonprofit mush is not what’s going to make you different in the minds of your stakeholders.”

Adrian Sargeant, John B. Ford, and Jane Hudson, “Charity Brand Personality: The Relationship with Giving Behavior,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 37, September 2008.

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