[NOTE: I was the Director of New Media at Cone from December 2006 to December 2007 and remain connected to members of the Cone team who worked on this study in various ways. I was aware that this research was being conducted but had no role in the research or analysis, nor was I given access to any information about the study that is not available publicly. In fact, as you will see below, I am quite critical of the study — and I am sure that my friends and colleagues at Cone have a very different perspective on the value of the research that they have delivered. A spirited discussion awaits for sure. I also want to note that I have previously, or am currently working with, several of the organizations that are ranked in the study. I provide strategic guidance around communications, fundraising, education, mobilization, and other work, largely focused around the use of the internet and technology. I acknowledge that the work I do is directly related to the 'brand' of an organization, however, as you will see from my analysis below, I have a different view of what is important and offer guidance to my clients accordingly].
All research is flawed in some way. In this case, the Cone report is not even close to being comprehensive. Cone began with the selection of 100 nonprofits to value and subsequently rank. They write in the FAQ about the study that "because we needed a pre-existing pool of top U.S. nonprofits, we looked to private support- and income-based rankings, such as the "Forbes 200 Largest Nonprofits," the "Nonprofit Times Top 100" and the "Chronicle of Philanthropy Top 100," to identify the largest nonprofits.' They also acknowledged, "in the end that’s a fraction of the 1.5 million total nonprofits in the U.S., so there are bound to be some favorites that aren’t on the list." True. I recognize that it is not possible, or at least not realistic, to consider everything in a study or measure every organization. But, just as a starting point, I would question whether picking the 100 'largest' nonprofit organizations, in terms of revenues, is a good place to start.
The Cone report also tries to assign a value to something - brand - that may not, in fact, be fully quantifiable. Cone, and their research partner, Intangible Business, have done a good job explaining the thought process behind their rankings, writing: "The brand valuation calculation attempts to derive the amount a nonprofit would be willing to pay for its brand, if it did not already own it, by determining how much money the brand contributes to the organization. This approach is called the "relief from royalty methodology" as it calculates how much the brand owner is relieved from paying by virtue of owning the brand." They also listed out the criteria that was used to calculate the ranking:
"The total brand value is driven by three key factors:
1. 2007 revenue: Consolidated, itemized revenue, including but not limited to: direct and indirect public support, government contributions and alternative revenue streams
2. Propensity for future growth: Compound annual growth rates (CAGR), derived from the reported financial data, adjusted to reflect the nonprofit brand’s long-term ability for growth
3. Brand image: The relative strength of each nonprofit brand’s image derived using eight measures (people's familiarity with the organization, the organization’s personal relevance to people, share of voice, geographic reach, support base, direct public support, nonprofit efficiency, and growth).
So here is my issue: brand, as we have always known it, no longer matters — or at least does not matter as much. Put another way, I don't think that determining the value of a brand, and using that as a way to determine whether an organization is successful or worthy of support, is constructive. Let me explain my thinking:
In the past, brand was dictated by the organization. Organizations talked about the importance of their work and the impact of their actions, They showed glossy videos of their volunteers in action and published lists of the celebrities and influentials who had signed on to support their cause. Today, every one of us gets to decide whether an organization has a strong brand. That decision is based on our personal interests, our relationship to a certain issue, and the interaction that we have had with a group — as a donor, a volunteer, or even just a casual observer. Groups can talk about the good work you are doing, and the strength of their mission. They can have celebrities do PSAs and generate oodles of press coverage. But if the work that an organization is doing doesn't interest me, isn't addressing a need that I believe exists in society, nor can be measured as having an impact that I can understand and can appreciate, I simply won't regard that organization very highly, or consider it worthy of my support or attention.
Brand used to be about marketing and positioning. Today its about experience and impact. As I look at the Cone list, I see groups with larger and more sophisticated marketing operations at the top, and high-impact organizations near the bottom (or not on the list at all). Cone readily acknowledges this, writing "Brand value is ultimately a reflection of the amount of revenue a brand contributes to an organization, and is therefore inherently a financial measure. Nonprofits with large revenues will often have well-known brands that contribute a great deal of revenue to their organizations, in turn giving them high brand values." That makes me queasy.
In The New York Times article about the Cone study, Alison DaSilva noted that environmental organizations "have spent a lot of time raising awareness of the issues through things like calls to action — put a brick in your toilet, turn out the lights — but not for their brands," while a group like "Make-A-Wish Foundation enjoys widespread recognition, but its revenues do not reflect that." In short, the level of awareness that an organization creates for its mission is more important, in many ways, than the work that it does. I couldn't disagree more. Isn't it more important to actually (and measurably) reduce our carbon footprint or enrich the lives of children with life-threatening medical conditions — instead of just talking about the fact that we should be doing that work? Isn't it better to be known for actually doing something, than just to be known?
Maybe those two things aren't mutually exclusive, as the research seems to suggest. Perhaps the groups that have the largest marketing budget and strongest brands are also doing the best work. I'm not convinced. The Cone list is littered with groups that I supported in the past, but no longer give time or money to today. I haven't stopped giving my money and time to groups, quite the opposite in fact, but I have found many other organizations who are doing more and better work to address the issues that I believe are important in ways that I know are having a greater impact. And I know I am not the only one.
As consumers, we get the final decision on what issues matter most to us — and how we want those issues to be addressed. We get to control the information we receive and how we spend our time. And thanks to the widespread availability of information, about the challenges that face our society and the work that groups are doing to address it, I can see first hand whether the claims that groups are making about their impact are true and what progress is actually being made towards a solution. This is the reality of a connected society, and a reality that nonprofit organizations (among others) need to recognize changes everything about how we operate, communicate, and engage audiences. Everything has changed - and topping the list is brand.
Cone writes in the explanation of its study that "valuing a nonprofit brand gives organizations a license to demonstrate to companies and other partners that there is an established and justified cost to aligning with nonprofits." I am not so naive as to believe that groups can operate, and solve major problems in our society, without raising money and creating corporate and other partnerships. Raising money is important. But it should be a far smaller part of what you do as an organization than anything else, and certainly not the aspect of your work that you generate the most attention for.
And yet, for some reason, the most attention seems to be paid to the amount of money raised, the creativity of an ad campaign, or the ranking of a brand that a nonprofit receives (as is the case in the Cone study). That could be the fault of the media. Surely the audience is to blame for not demanding more accountability and measurable action from nonprofits shares some responsibility. But mostly, I think that nonprofit organizations find it far easier to talk about the operational aspects of their success, and to use those to power more success. That's fine, if your job as a nonprofit organization is to run a nonprofit organization. Activity is a great measure of, well, activity. But if you got into business to teach kids to read, solve the climate crisis, or whatever your mission, you aren't focusing your energy in the right place. Across the board, far too much time is spend 'serving the cause' instead of 'solving the cause' these days, and the Cone study gives groups license to continue that behavior.
The Cone study/ranking represents an old way of viewing what makes an organization strong and worth of support or recognition. And I fear that by celebrating the organizations on the list, and reinforcing the behavior (marketing, promotion, branding) that earned these groups high marks for brand, we are making it even harder for group to focus on the impact that is needed, or for groups who are being recognized for their impact to find the support they need to scale up.
The rise of the internet and ubiquity of technology have made it easier for audiences to get information and to be involved with the organizations and causes they care about. Those same forces have also created far higher expectations among audiences about what nonprofit organizations must do to engage, educate, and mobilize action around these issues, and the relationships we have with groups. A high ranking on the Cone study does not mean that these groups are doing enough to solve the most critical issues of our time, or that they value and support the relationship that they have with the audience. My personal and professional experience would suggest in many cases that the opposite is true (and that some of the best organizations were left off the list). In fact, groups that received high rankings in the Cone study, I would suggest, better examine the interactions they are having with their audience and make sure that they are delivering the kind of impact and value we want — and quick. Relying on your brand to sustain attention, fundraising success, and everything else still works, to a certain extent, but it won't for long.
I am glad that Cone conducted the study. I just think they studied the wrong thing. Instead, they should have studied, and we should be ranking, organizations based on the quality of the experience they provide to their audience, the impact they have on the issues that they are stated in their mission, and the ability of groups to understand (and demonstrate that understanding) how serious issues are being addressed today. So please, study that.