According to a new survey by Harris Interactive aimed at measuring Americans' trust of “beltway” groups, the “loser” is ACLU.

Or is it?

The survey presented respondents with a list of fourteen nonprofits (all well-known within the Washington beltway), ranging from service groups like the Red Cross (the awareness champ at 96%, edging #2 AARP by eight points), through true advocacy organizations like the NRA and the Sierra Club, to advocacy think tanks like Brookings and Heritage.

Not surprisingly the think tanks bring up the rear in terms of public awareness. Leading the true cause groups were NRA, Greenpeace and ACLU, with 87%, 77% and 76% awareness, respectively. Sierra Club had 54% awareness, with Common Cause last among causes with 18% awareness.

Regular Agitator readers will recall that we nominated Greenpeace and ACLU as mythic brands” in our recent post. As the Harris survey underscores, brands that present very defined, differentiated profiles will be the ones that cut through the clutter and win public awareness. As marketing consultants say in chorus: “Differentiate or die!”

Of course, it helps if current events catapult your issue agenda into the public eye. Certainly Greenpeace and ACLU have seen their issues enjoy massive recent media attention. But that doesn't explain it all.

Common Cause was built on the issue of public official corruption. Clearly a driving issue in the recent elections … top of mind for most voters. But CC gets a paltry 18% awareness rating. To what can this be attributed, it pains us to ask (as CC veterans), other than lame leadership and/or communications efforts? [CC, we're happy to hear from you.]

On the other hand, how effectively has Greenpeace capitalized upon its awareness dominance among enviro nonprofits? Certainly not by leading the pack in either fundraising effectiveness or policy impact. If Greenpeace enjoys 50% more awareness than the Sierra Club, should one expect that its fundraising would do 50% better? We think some relationship should be evident, but that's not what we hear through the grapevine. [Happy for Greenpeace to set us straight.]

As for impact, looking at impact on arguably the paramount enviro issue of our times, we'd put our money on Environmental Defense, NRDC, or National Wildlife … groups that Harris didn't even float in its survey.

So what about ACLU, the only group distrusted by a majority of those surveyed (only respondents who indicated they were familiar with a given group were asked the follow-on trust question)?

Clearly ACLU stands for something. And even as it is racked by leadership turmoil reminiscent of Athenian democracy, it is rewarded with high awareness … and terrific fundraising dividends. The ACLU draws a line in the sand on inherently controversial issues, often taking the decidedly minority position, and defends its side with vigor (and without the “clutter” of a large family of similar organizations vying for attention … the bane of the enviro movement). So, folks who are aware tend to “love 'em or hate 'em.”

Not surprisingly then, the ACLU is trusted by only 49% of respondents who are aware of them, compared to, say, 77% for the Chamber of Commerce or 65% for Sierra Club. Also, it's no surprise, given its stance on terrorism-related civil liberties and human rights matters, that ACLU is trusted most by Democrats (70%) and least by Republicans, with Independents scratching their heads (49%).

At The Agitator, we'd take the ACLU's position in the polls anyday. High awareness plus sharp definition. But still a monumental marketing challenge because, unfortunately, ACLU must often swim against the tide of public opinion on the policies it champions … in contrast to, say, the enviros, who get to ride the wave (yes, we understand public support is greater for recycling cans than it is for something serious, like a gas tax).

In the coming year, you're likely to find The Agitator becoming more and more mouthy about “who's getting it right” in the nonprofit arena. Undoubtedly you'll disagree with us from time to time. Maybe most of the time.

When you do, we hope you'll speak up, because we're certainly willing to share the Agitator platform. The more focus and debate there is on “who's getting it right,” the higher and better the standard will be — and the clearer the path — for all nonprofits.

That's the goal.

PS: Don't forget to take our “Transparency vs. Privacy” survey. Just go to the Survey box at top right of blog, or click here. Just takes 3 minutes!

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